Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar channel Kerouac at Varsity

Categories: Concert Review
Photo by Nikki Miller

So Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar have written an album in dedication to Jack Kerouac. If you'll indulge me for just a moment, I'd like to share with you a poem I wrote in appreciation of the same writer. It's called "Highway to Freedom." Ahem.

Driving down your highway to freedom
A hopeful voyager, starving for truth
Living at a pace that kills.
Fiery abandon burns like hot asphalt beneath the speeding car
That steers you to deliverance.
As you burn, burn, burn, like your fabulous yellow roman candles
When you explode all the people will go
But will they really understand you?
Oh, most holy vagabond
Passionate traveler
Lonely wayfarer
I hope it's all apple pies and ice cream along the way.
I hope you find your Mexican sweetheart.
I hope your America was beautiful.

- Nikki Miller, AP English, 1999.

So I forgot about this shitty homage I wrote to Jack Kerouac, myself at the time an "artsy, creative" high school student living in Bumfuck, South Dakota. Until tonight, when I saw two grown men, Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar, four and 14 years my senior respectively, paying homage to Kerouac at the Varsity Theater Sunday night. Gibbard, of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service, and Farrar, of Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo, came together initially to write music for the Kerouac documentary One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, whereupon they discovered their shared love for the ubiquitous Beat writer and decided to record an entire album in his honor under the same name.

Photo by Nikki Miller

Their sold-out show, which also featured Nick Harmer of Death Cab, Mark Spencer of Son Volt and Jon Wurster of Superchunk, was clearly well-received by the audience, packed with Gibbard and Farrar fans alike (many of whom I heard gushing that Gibbard had lost weight and looked great!). The performance was at its peak when Farrar and Gibbard adeptly harmonized on shared vocal duties, particularly when Farrar took the lead, and when the pedal steel was made predominant, fully accomplishing the Big Sur-era Kerouac wastoid and alt-country vibe they seemed to be going for (noting that I associate Kerouac more with bebop than with country but I'll not get into that detail here...).

Photo by Nikki Miller

As much as I appreciate Son Volt, I should perhaps disclose that when it comes to the notorious Farrar/Jeff Tweedy feud, I'm firmly in camp Wilco. Noting this, I couldn't help but liken this project to Wilco's collaboration with Billy Bragg (arguably a more "credible," read: "cooler" collaborator than Gibbard) on the Woody Guthrie (compare to Kerouac, see high school poem above) tributes Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. I've obviously liked Kerouac's writing since I was an angst-ridden Midwestern teen, but I have to admit, it seems a little trite to as an adult write an album in his dedication, a sentiment that while it pains me to come right out and say becomes evident upon hearing the Kerouac-inspired lyrics of this project. More importantly, this project most definitely lacks the verve and innovation of the Wilco/Bragg Guthrie tribute.

Photo by Nikki Miller

In any case, my mother, whom I texted at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night in hopes of finding my crappy high school Kerouac poem (and she did, in under 10 minutes!) is now going through a box of my old stuff and crying, sentimentality having overtaken her. Thanks, Ben Gibbard, for moving my mother to tears.

Photo by Nikki Miller

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