FIFTY-FIVE YEARS AGO IN THE INDUSTRIAL TOWN OF LOWELL in Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac published On The Road, a mesmerising account of the eventful journeys and road trips he and his friends took in the search for kicks, freedom and spiritual purpose and direction. This book and its writer became the touchstone for beat sensibility – not that we had actually read it, of course, but we regarded with awe and interest those who had, or who carried a copy in their jacket pocket. By a kind of osmosis, the spirit of the American road trip entered the psyche of our tribe, and with a bit of trepidation and more excitement, we entered the world of hitchhiking.
We started small, thumbing lifts to parties in Kingston and Wimbledon and Earls Court. We’d be in groups of two or three as most cars in those days couldn’t have taken more passengers. All sorts of drivers stopped: those our kind of age, who would often crash the party with us, couples, single men, and once a coachload of labourers being driven home from their site, who with one voice gave a falsetto accompaniment to Jackie Trent singing “Where Are You Now My Love” on the radio. We never felt awkward or in danger. People were kind and they wanted to talk, they’d ask about our opinions and what we were studying, stuff like that.
But it was when we progressed to bigger roads and motorways, hitching to see friends at universities or relatives who we would never have dreamed of visiting by more conventional means, that we felt we really touched Jack’s world. He may have had San Francisco and New York and the wide open spaces in between, but man we had the M1and the A1 and the A11…We learnt the jargon and the lingo, the legends and the etiquette. “Stuck on Staples Corner” wasn’t quite the same as being busted flat in Baton Rouge, to quote Kris Kristofferson’s classic song from a few years further down the line, and our tame excursions were far, far removed from the plangency of Gordon Lightfoot’s hitchhiker standing on the roadside with a sign that just said mother, but we could talk knowingly about “London to Brighton in three”, could list the worst places to get dropped off and knew the best places to stand to get picked up quickly.
In the 1967 film “Two For The Road” characters played by Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn have to hitchhike together in the south of France. They plead with drivers to stop and swear that they will never ever refuse to pick up someone in need of a lift. Cut to years ahead. Travelling the same route in a white Mercedes, they speed past a hitchhiker without a second glance, an early indication of the way people and social attitudes were to change.
On The Road: Jack Kerouac
Hey Jack Kerouac: 10,000 Maniacs
Jack and Neal: Tom Waits
Me and Bobby McGee: Kris Kristofferson
10 Degrees And Getting Colder: Gordon Lightfoot
Living Doll: Mary Rizza