My parents raised me for fourteen years. No more, no less. That may seem like an odd thing to say but it’s true. Some kids don’t get that much time. All you have to do is go to the grocery store or a fast food place to find out what I mean. Shifty eyes, mumbled grunts, manners in retreat, unclean hands, inability to count change. I’m grateful for the fourteen good years of proper parenting I had. Then Jack Kerouac took over. He was a lousy parent. As suburban shamans go, you couldn’t do better. Jack Kerouac, writer and former football star, was a game-changer.
Sometime in my 14th year, home and family became a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. They ranged from a deep connection of mind and heart to a smell of dissatisfaction so strong it filled every room in the house. All of us contributed to it but my little sister Terri. She was born of good cheer and has kept her course even today.
Most of my young life was good and right, filled with the signs and wonders that make adults remember parents and childhood with gratitude and fondness. Still, darkness is never without effect. In childhood, on those days when the light was snuffed, when good and right took leave, I learned to leave the room. I still leave rooms today. It’s what I do, and unfortunately, most of the time for far less powerful reasons.
David Parker was a music student of my dad’s at Marysville High School. He was three years older, played the trumpet and the electric guitar. People emphasized the electric guitar back then as if Thomas Edison had just brought it out of the workshop. David was smart, quiet, and abnormally red-faced with a stark shadow. I liked him. David, Phil Barbaccia, Craig Kearney, James Hafner, and I would occasionally play music together, even though they were from Marysville High and I was from the rival Yuba City High. I was a Honker. They were Indians, a vicious student body, lacking in manners and good sportsmanship. As a grammar-schooler I would ride the band bus to games with my dad. I still remember the bloodthirsty chants of the Indians: “I’m a rain drop, I’m a rain drop, I’m rain drop from the sky. But I’d rather be a raindrop than a drip from Yuba High!” Warmongers. It didn’t matter. My dad, a former Honker and then an Indian (for reasons of sustenance) bound us all together in good will and purpose. He kindly allowed our little rock group to practice in the concert band room. The only thing remotely rock about our quintet was the overdrive of David’s Fender amp.
I started reading Rolling Stone magazine in the eighth grade. I bought my first copy in Monterey, California. Living in a peach orchard suburb in the farm country of Northern California didn’t allow for much contact with the outside world. Rolling Stone and KPFA in Berkeley were as close to the counter-culture as I was going to get. I must have said something to David Parker about a “far-out” article in Rolling Stone. Something triggered his generosity. He knew a cosmic secret, one known by him, the Dharma tribe, and the principalities and powers of the air. David let go his grip and the secret became mine. First he said, “Read On The Road, a novel by Jack Kerouac. Next, read The Dharma Bums, a novel by Jack Kerouac.” And that’s how Jack Kerouac ultimately raised me the rest of the way from age fourteen to adult — in word and in deed with speed (literally), a nasty drug by all accounts, known to me in the day as whites or crank; available at the loading dock to the W.T. Grants stockroom where I was first employed; truck drivers kept us in supply.
Jack Kerouac and the characters that traveled through his novels were my teachers. They deconstructed social obligation and blind obedience, replacing them with individualism and a robust distrust of all institutions and authority. They had the mad vision to suggest that if you didn’t want to do something, then don’t do it — a notion I loved as much as I’ve ever loved anything. My individual insight, regardless of my young age, was valued in this new world of beat literature. Heightened by an opening and freeing of the mind, even a teenager could have world-changing awareness. As the 1970 Funkadelic song says, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”
Freedom was loosely defined as a freedom to reject traditional, suburban ideas about education, marriage, work, sexuality, material possessions, and identity in general. Kerouac made it clear that the white-washed world of predictable, rote behavior was a death trap void of the necessary and far better ecstatic life. I couldn’t have agreed more. A new breed of imaginative, creative people were changing the world and having a whole lot of fun doing it. I wanted to be in that number, a son of laughter, a beatific Zen saint humanist in search of transcendence. Kerouac put language to the non-conformist gestating inside my teenage self. But that wasn’t all. Kerouac revealed a God-hauntedness that far exceeded my own.
Kerouac’s novel On The Road is a book of adventures, the travelogue of one Sal Paradise, a writer, as he traverses the United States and Mexico. The book is also one man’s fascination with another man. Sal, a thinly disguised Jack Kerouac, is enthralled with the enigmatic Dean Moriarty, the author’s version of the real life Neal Cassady (also memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Sal’s travels take him to NYC, New Orleans, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, and Mexico City. The frantic Dean Moriarty is the embodiment of jazz and all that is beat. Kerouac (I mean Sal) is his prize pupil. Other august beat literary characters poke in and out of the text: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and John Cellon Holmes — each with his own fictionalized name.
Kerouac’s extemporaneous, intellectual writing style, with its drug-induced, spiritual riffing, was the perfect language for hitchhiking across America; having sex with women strangely predisposed to having sex with you; making mad dashes in the night with a car full of furniture; doing railroad labor; listening to be-bop jazz; and partaking of reefer, booze, and bennies. On The Road reads like a mess, and is an original classic all at the same time. I don’t know what it’s capable of anymore, what its power is. But in my time, the book could set the heart of a hungry soul ablaze. Especially a young heart unimpressed with the American dream. By the time I read On The Road, I was an easy mark. I’d been sucking up the ethos of anti-materialism. I was listening for clues, hoping to find the path to an adventurous, spontaneous human destiny — implicitly, explicitly, I heard, I saw, and was changed. Almost overnight I became one kind of person in the world and not another.
Like Kerouac, I came at Zen through the lens of Christianity, which is something like coming at water through oil. It was Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums that drummed my soul the most. If On The Road set me free willy-nilly, The Dharma Bums gave my new freedom its first true shapes: risk, adventure, a storied life, spiritual transcendence, and the role of religion in the grooming of a dynamic and imaginative global citizen. All of this describes the Dharma bum himself, the mountaineer, Zen poet, Gary Snyder – or as Kerouac named him in his novel, Japhy Ryder. Kerouac introduced me to my new role model and I was off and running.
What Gary Snyder represented to me was a person integrated with the land, in search of enlightenment, who was artistic and loved words. He seemed to have found a way to bridge post WWII ideas about authentic manhood with a new mindset of openness and generosity to people and place. In short, I imagined him good with an axe and a dream.
Like Kerouac and Snyder, John Coltrane had a measurable influence on the direction of my life. His most popular recording, A Love Supreme, is Coltrane bringing the full weight of his spiritual quest into the public square – an idea that still fascinates me today. It’s remarkable that Coltrane had his greatest commercial success with his most explicitly spiritual recording. In the liner notes Coltrane announces, “Dear Listener: ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE.” The upper case lettering was all Coltrane. This was something he was very serious about. He closed the letter with, “Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. Let us sing all songs to God.”
Coltrane was a syncretist. The only way he could see to make peace with all the differing views about the nature of reality, religion, and God was to create his own fusion of them all. He wanted all paths to lead to the same God. Though deeply influenced by Coltrane’s artistry and spiritual seeking, I would take a narrower path.
If Jack Kerouac wiped my slate clean and bent me in the shape of a God-haunted non-conformist, then Gary Snyder filled me up again with a vision for the integrated life of planet, people, and spirituality. Coltrane nuanced the art side even more by modeling the pursuit of musical innovation and spirituality. He was a committed trailblazer/follower. Had I sought after musical innovation only, Miles Davis would have remained my inspiration. But Miles showed no interest in God, transcendence, or enlightenment, and that was deal-breaker for me. In his last decade on earth, every time Coltrane picked up his instrument he was praying to and seeking God. He wanted to know and be known. So did I.
By definition the knowledge I sought was: How did we get here on this spinning ball of land and ocean? Is there a Creator God or is evolution the only explanation for the origin of life? If God does exist, what does he want for the sum of His creativity, specifically people; even more specifically, me? Are we supposed to be in relationship with God? If so, how? Why do some behaviors shame me and others make me feel more human and eager for life? These questions and more held me in their grip.
After a decade or more as a disciple of Coltrane-style syncretism, it all came screeching to an unexpected halt. I found myself believing in the reality of human sin. Like Kerouac early on, this new belief was a huge game-changer, too.
In general, most people don’t like the concept of sin. It offends us. We especially don’t like anyone calling us a sinner, as in one who sins. Consequently sin gets ignored, overlooked. It is relegated to that dark box in the corner labeled religious. That’s where I used to keep it. Then I knew better.
At twenty-five years old all my best efforts at life had failed. I was exhausted and in turmoil. I had deconstructed all obligations to God, people, and planet – and certainly institutions. I had used everyone in my life for personal pleasure and gain. I had declared myself free and found myself in bondage. What went wrong?
Eventually I met some people — mostly drunks, heroin, and cocaine addicts — who gave me a life-saving tip. They said, “Get yourself a big notebook and write down everything you ever did or said that was wrong or shameful. It could be breaking a law or a cruel word to an undeserving friend. If you can remember it and it stuck with you, write it down. Anything that hurt someone or something and made you wish you hadn’t done it, write it down. Whatever you can recall, from the half-truth to the deplorable, put it all in there, from childhood till now. Take as long as it takes.”
I knew exactly what they were talking about. By twenty-five I had said and done a lot of things I wish I hadn’t. I’d left just as many things unsaid and undone. This failure hurt people and planet just as much. These weren’t just regrets. These were choices I knew were wrong. Yet I did them anyway. I wanted to do them. Why? Why believe that living a truthful life is a better way to live, and then turn around and lie to someone you profess to love? None of my behavior made any sense. Or maybe it did. I had a Kris Kristofferson album when I was still a teenager living at home. Kris wrote about a man who was a walking contradiction. In retrospect it feels like he was prophesying my life.
He's a poet, he's a picker, he's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home
I wrote it all down, just like they said to. Everything I remembered, I put in the book. The whole exercise surprised me. I discovered the reason for my pain. Me. Mostly me. Sure I had been perpetrated against on occasion. But I was the star of the show. I had killed, lied, hated, stolen, cheated, disrespected, dishonored, squandered, blame-shifted, and made a general mess of most everything and everyone I touched. Alcohol and drugs didn’t help my behavior, but nobody forced me to abuse them either.
I was going in the opposite direction of good. I was guilty of being far less than a human being ought to be. I was guilty of 100,000 missed opportunities to love and to put people and planet above myself. Even if I disregarded federal, state and local laws, or overlooked religious or moral laws, I had still somehow managed to violate laws written on my heart.
I read my entire notebook to my recovery group sponsor in the parking lot of a restaurant. Every word spoke back to me with authority and clarity. I didn’t need any preacher-caricature to call me a sinner. I was a sinner, as in one who sins. As in one who actually chooses to do and say the wrong thing when they know what’s right. As in one who knows the right thing to do and refuses to do it. That’s who I was. Some part of me was that man.
So I learned that despite my aversion to the word, sin was real for me, and in me. I didn’t have to run from the word anymore. It was simply a descriptor for my condition. Sin and its effects are everything that is anti-God, anti-people, and anti-planet. Sin is the way things shouldn’t be. It’s the will at work moving in the opposite direction of life and rightness, and all the great human potential of being a lover of God, people, and planet.
This enlightenment was not the one I had my sights on. It wasn’t Donovan and The Beatles with the Maharishi in 1967. It wasn’t even satori at home sitting cross-legged before a teak table with a little Buddha statuette burning Nag Champa. It did have the ring of truth though, and I’d always said that the truth was what I was after. I had never encountered anything in my spiritual search that made me feel as if I was known — even if what was known, was everything I didn’t want anyone to know. This nasty little word sin described something about my reality better than all the others. I had to admit it. But it wasn’t the whole story by any stretch.
I could admit I had a sin problem and still embrace many things I learned from Kerouac.
Not all social obligations are healthy. Some become obligatory out of misplaced trust and loyalty, idolatry, and people-pleasing. Blind obedience should never be an option for those with eyes to see. The development of a unique personality in the world is a good thing. And while a blanket distrust of all institutions and authority is probably not in order, caution and wisdom are.
I am free to reject traditional, suburban ideas about education, marriage, work, sex, consumerism, and identity in general. These big pieces of the human puzzle always need wisdom brought to bear on them. I can and ought to name the white washed world of predictable, rote behavior as a death trap. I should desire a place among the imaginative, creative people changing the world and having a whole lot of fun doing it.
I could admit I had a sin problem and still aim for the storied life of the Dharma bum – risky, adventurous, and spiritual. I could love words and rivers, trout and mountains. I could become an imaginative global citizen. I could be that free.
I could see Coltrane as a standard of musical artistry – skill, ability, discipline, but in a constant state of curiosity reaching for the stars. I, too, could acknowledge God in my music in the public square.
I could hold to all these things and still believe I had a sin problem. I didn’t know all this important information yet with any specificity or nuance. But I would. Help was on its way. More enlightenment would come. As my truth-telling fellow alcoholics/addicts told me: More will be revealed.
Stay tuned to a future issue of this blog for part two . . .
Charlie is a record producer, Sr. VP of A&R for Twenty Ten Music, and Co-Founder of Art House America.