DRIVING TO AMERICA

DRIVING TO AMERICA

GO WEST

Nearly two decades ago, I read Barry Miles’ just-published The Beat Hotel. The book depicts an on-&-off six-year period spent by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso & William Burroughs in a run-down little hotel in the back streets of Paris.  Behind the accounts of their day-to-day lives – Burroughs’ constant quest for exotic drugs, Corso’s womanising & trips into Europe, Ginsberg’s attempts to interest publishers in France, Britain & America in the work the three of them were producing – is a delightful picture of the Europeanising of those three American pilgrims.  There seems little doubt that the breadth, depth & character of the writing that emerged from all three during the late ’50s & early ‘60s owed much to their apprehension of a larger, more cosmopolitan world, experienced within that most cosmopolitan of cities.

For me, middle class & English, the preoccupation with America began in early childhood in the ‘50s – an easy obsession in a Britain still under the post-war spell of American culture.  With enormous reluctance, my grandmother took me to see a garish Western in a dark & smoky South London cinema.  While I fell in love with James Stewart in a sheepskin jacket, she counted the minutes. 

But from that brief encounter on, I was entranced.  The scrappy back garden of my grandparents’ apartment, the local bombsites, Balham Common all became part of a dreamscape of high bluffs & roaring rivers. Wearing my grandfather’s panama hat & a bright orange cowboy shirt with white piping around collar & cuffs, & packing a golden Lone Star six-shooter, I roamed the range. And then, when pocket money started – in pence first, then shillings – I began the huge collection of Western novels, biographies & histories that still fill shelf space in my bottom-of-the-garden library. 

Later, the sense of a mighty landmass on which those early settlers made so little initial impression was augmented by a powerful awareness of its urban culture. The hurricane impact of rock-&-roll came first to this pre-teenager & then shortly afterwards the glorious brass-&-woodwind of New Orleans jazz. I was a porky little boy with a side parting & sensible shoes, transfixed by the barely contained hysteria of Presley’s rockabilly & the thick, glossy shufflebeat of Fats Domino. I wept at Buddy Holly’s death; I rejoiced at the arrival of the 45 rpm disc; I learned E, A & B7 on a Spanish guitar.

The arrival of adolescence & the discovery of the Beats occurred simultaneously.  As if timed to accommodate that first testosteronal rush, a fat little paperback appeared in the station bookstall: Protest – The Beat Generation & The Angry Young Men. I couldn’t identify with the latter – all those disaffected British working class youths who’d just missed the War & were pissed off with absolutely everything in a beer-&-fags sort of way.  But the Beats seduced me instantly.  Where once I had been John Wesley Hardin, hands clawed over my low-slung guns, or Gene Vincent, pop-eyed & skew-legged at a microphone the size of a small icebox, now I was Dean Moriarty & Sal Paradise digging Charlie Parker in Birdland.  I filled school exercise books with infatuated pastiches of Kerouac’s laconic, Corso’s manic & Ferlinghetti’s epic verse.  I wore a huge black jumper & tight black jeans. (I drew the line at sandals: my dad wore them all the time, with thick grey socks). By the time that The Beatles arrived & were swiftly superseded by The Rolling Stones & Bob Dylan as icons of cool to die for I was way ahead of the game.

The world turned & turned again.  With bewildering speed we stumbled out of the 20th century, mass-communicating & multi-tasking like professionals so that even the enemy – the old, &, more deadly still, the middle-aged – knew the meaning of zeitgeist. 

But from within this postmodernist intersection of merging & synthesising Anglo-American influences I look back sometimes with a nostalgic frisson to the innocence of my own Wild West, my own jump-jive rockabilly parties, my own Greenwich Village coffee house poetry readings.  Purity & unadulterated essence are what we all seek to restore, I guess.  And that dreamtime America provided both landscape & soundtrack to my childhood & youth.

Well, the overwhelming message is that dreams are dreams & the real world of school, work, tears & laughter, ill health & death is where we should spend our days.  But the weirdest of codas to my own dreamtime USA was provided when I visited the States for the first time in the early ‘90s.  As I stood by the Pacific on the North Oregon coast, or watched the trucks barrelling down through Seattle, I realised that in some strange, prescient way I had anticipated what I now perceived & that dreamtime & realtime America were very close &, without having noticed, I had stepped across the dividing line because it wasn’t really there.

Sitting in a pickup truck, waiting for my companions to emerge heavily-laden from a Kroger store, I started to write this poem. I intended a gentle, affectionate parody of the Beat chroniclers whose narratives had illuminated my teenage years. And yet as it proceeded down the page, it began to speak more and more to my sense of a charged and passionate childhood vision of ‘old weird America’ whose substance was in no way mitigated by my presence here and now in that very land.

jazz-collage

DRIVING TO AMERICA

From that very first bright prairie morning
at the frontier of my days
      I have been
      driving to America.

From the flock and horsehair saddle
of a South London cinema seat –
Jimmy Stewart shrugging on
a sheepskin coat in Where The River Bends
      I have been
      driving to America.

Through the canyons
and the arroyos
and the sagebrush trails
of a suburban garden,
lost in the folds of
of a bright red cowboy shirt
(man-size, a prairie of cotton)
and squinting from beneath
the brim of Grandpa’s panama,
      I have been
      driving to America.

Through the longing
for that golden Lone Star pistol,
hinged like for real before
the trigger-guard, with a cylinder
that actually revolved
and a hammer you could cock
(the double click:
warning and prelude)
in a tasselled yellow holster
with a silver horseshoe buckle,
hanging low,
      I have been
      driving to America.

Through the pages
of the yellow paperbacks
that ranged along my windowsill
(Triggernometry: a Gallery of Gunfighters,
Desperate Men: the James Gang
and Butch Cassidy, Wyatt Earp:
Frontier Marshall),
through the pages of their dusty streets
and through the batwing doors
of their saloons
and in the cool and sunstreaked dark
of their livery stables,
the bright noon heat of their desert days,
and in the cordite reek
of their gun battles (the OK Corral,
the Lincoln County Cattle Wars,
Jack McCall shooting Hickock in the back
in Deadwood, South Dakota),
      I have been
      driving to America.

Then through the skidpan hiss
of blue and purple-labelled 45s
(London American and Capitol),
the jump-jive scamper of Gene Vincent’s Bluecaps,
or the thick fat gumbo beat of New Orleans –
Let the Four Winds Blow, I’m Walking, Blueberry Hill,
or the Macon, Georgia scream of Little Richard,
calling out the flat-top cats and dungaree dolls,
or the hound dog longing of One Night (With You)
Presley’s eyes sleepy with lust,
the lip flickering into a sneer…

Later, later (though now harking back)
the windpipe wheeze and clatter
of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings,
the wistful lemon twist of Beiderbeck
in a melancholy mist;
through the rattling snares
and sneezing cymbals in the blare
of Ory’s blue trombone, the white-heat
whiplash of Armstrong’s cornet…

And then the crosstown traffic clamour
of Gillespie, Parker, Monk;
Chet Baker, his breath whispering heartbreak
into the leadpipe;
the high water, muddy river surge
of Mingus, Jimmy Knepper, Roland Kirk,
nosing in the eddies round the roots…

To the basement pulse of Howling Wolf
and Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy,
under the Clarkdale and Chicago stars;
B.B., Albert, Freddie King, rocking with eyes tight shut
in front of a herd of nodding saxes;
through the tumbleweed, alfalfa, cottonfield
and city cellar intersection chaos of its music,
      I have been
      driving to America.

On the flatbed back
of a farmboy’s truck, heading south
from Iowa to Denver, Colorado,
Montana Slim, Sal Paradise
beside me on the dream-freeway
to Anywhere, USA;
through mirror shades, the smoke
from a chewed cigar, blue diesel
haze, the silver powder of a starry night
or the yellow flare of what might be
a prairie moon,
      I have been
      driving to America…

And now, anonymous, unshadowed,
hidden in the lee of a southbound truck,
I wait at the border.
Five black Canada geese
yank themselves across the sky,
quitting the mudbanks
of the Fraser River
for the deep-rift gorges
of the long Columbia.
A high sun straddles the 49th
and through its dancing tarmac mist
we roll like dusty conquerors who have crossed
immeasurable distances and now awaken
from a thundercloud of dreams
in clear light on the real highway,
      driving to America.

About Dick Jones

I'm a post-retirement Drama teacher, currently working part-time. I have a grown-up son and daughter, three grandchildren and three young children from my second marriage. I write - principally poetry but prose too, both fitfully published. My poetry collection Ancient Lights is published by Phoenicia Publishing (www.phoeniciapublishing.com) and my translation of Blaise Cendrars' 'Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France' (illustrated by my friend, the artist, writer and long-time blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff) is published by Old Stile Press (www.oldstilepress.com). I play bass guitar & bouzouki in the song-based acoustic/electric trio Moorby Jones, playing entirely original material (https://www.facebook.com/moorbyjones?ref=aymt_homepage_panel + http://www.moorbyjones.net/). I have a dormant blog with posts going back to 2004 at Dick Jones' Patteran Pages - http://patteran.typepad.com - and I'm a radio ham. My callsign is G0 EUV.
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6 Responses to DRIVING TO AMERICA

  1. Anna Scott says:

    Anna Scott says:
    August 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

    You went West, I went East and South; I share many of those feelings of excitement in the vast experience of America. I particularly like the sound you made with
    ‘the wistful lemon twist of Beiderbeck
    in a melancholy mist; ‘
    Enjoyed reading the introductory piece too.

  2. Dick Jones says:

    Thank you, Anna, much appreciated. I’ve had the poem knocking around for years and it’s always meant a lot to me because of its encapsulation of my early associations with American culture. But I’d never really thought in terms of trying to shift it into a more public mode until very recently. So it’s gratifying that it resonates with you and your own early experiences of that ‘American Dream’.

    PS After a sleepless night, I lost the whole of this post plus your comment in a simple edit. This is a complete rebuild – plus your comment!

  3. Natalie says:

    This is entirely wonderful, Dick, both in prose and poetry. You’ve caught both the personal, self-mocking, awestruck young voice and the spirit of that time when ‘America’ was myth, magic, cinematic adventure, ‘freedom to be me’. Bravo!

  4. Dick Jones says:

    Many thanks for this, Natalie! So pleased that what was for so long just a sort of portfolio of memories has crossed over.

  5. Dave Bonta says:

    Evocative post and poem, Dick. I am ashamed to admit that I have yet to take that proper cross-country road trip myself, despite sharing many of those same dreams. Then again, I have been to Clarksdale, Austin, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago… but not the way I’d like. Someday perhaps when Rachel is retired…

  6. Dick says:

    Thanks, Dave. For me the trans-am dream remains as potent as ever. I got a step or two closer recently with a couple of friends over weekly coffees. Two Triumph Bonnevilles down the California coastline with me in a pickup truck as tender. Sadly, all I have to show for it now is a Spotify playlist called ‘Uneasy Riders’!

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