Finally transcribed this to share, in honor of a new Natalie Merchant album & tour.
I had just turned 20-years-old, was about to drop out of college & end my brief stint at Antioch.
I had just started writing under the name Sunfrog for a fledgling fanzine.
Hey Jack Kerouac
Originally published in Babyfish (lost its momma) #1, late 1987
October 1987 - Yellow Springs, Ohio and Bloomington, Indiana
I had just seen 10,000 Maniacs the Saturday before. They opened for R.E.M. in Columbus. I was in the balcony, and Natalie and her music were just too far away. The set was much too short. I asked Natalie about their tour plans on their own. When would they be playing Detroit. They wouldn’t be. That had a gig on Wednesday in Bloomington, Indiana, on their own.
I asked around campus for the next few days, hoping to find someone who wanted to drive to the show. I could find no one. At about four or five in the afternoon on that Wednesday, I had some friends drop me off at Interstate 70. My sign said “Indiana Please” in red paint. Bloomington was 200 miles away.
My first ride was with a trucker. His polyester print shirt was all full of energy and stories. He had a neat silver case full of cigarettes. His metal handcrafted work of art watchband was made by an Apache Indian. It got dark as we drove down the highway. I had about three dollars in my pocket and my mind on the Maniacs show.
This last album touched spiritual and artistic levels of folk-rock poetry. Full of calls to social and political awareness as well as many different images of America. And then that great song about Beat Generation life and poetry and Jack Kerouac. IN MY TRIBE was easily one of my favorite albums of the year.
As this trucker Dave and I sat in a Truckstops of America stop, he ate chicken, noodles, and gravy. He shared is life of trucker folklore. A life of CB radio jargon. Of the women who wandered truckstops. Of sleeping when he needed to and never driving too far. I drank water. I wanted to hear Natalie sing her melodies and words of the tribe. I was stuck in this temple of the trucker life. We window shopped for trucking accessories. Back on the road, back on the CB radio, my life slipped into darkness. He left me off at Highway 37, the road south to Bloomington.
I got several short rides, each time afraid that another would not come. One ride was with a man pulling a racehorse in his trailer. Finally, I was in Bloomington, standing in a phonebooth looking for the address of a place called Jake’s. I asked directions at a gas station and ended up walking the entire 2 or 3 miles through this strange hilly town. Near midnight on a Wednesday, the city slept with an almost ghost-like presence. Finally, I was walking through downtown Bloomington and found my way to Jake’s.
I walked into the club and tools the man at the door that I was on the guest list. I was not. Had Natalie forgotten that I was coming to the show? He said he’d take my ID and give me three minutes to go inside and find someone from the band who knew who I was. I gave him my driver’s license, and he told me there was no way I could go inside. “You are not 21. This club is 21 and over.”
From the other room, I could hear the band kick into “Hey Jack Kerouac.” I walked outside, and the tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted to cry like a baby.
I had hitch-hiked for six hours and 200 miles just to hear Natalie sing and have time to spend talking with her. She had forgotten to put my name on the list, and I was not old enough to see the show. I was standing outside in cold, dark Bloomington. This can’t be true! I walked dejected to the side-stage door and found two guys from the opening band, North Carolina’s Connells. I told these dudes my story. They were extremely sympathetic and impressed with my “rock and roll dedication.” To let me stay outside would be an injustice. They took me into their van and started giving me shots of liquor. When this kind brother felt moved enough by the spirits, he went inside to battle the bar politics. The bar people were unfriendly and cold. He came back out and drank some more. He then went back inside.
I stood by the side door and listened. The show I had ached for was going on inside, and I stood out in the cold. Songs went by, and I remained outside. I recognized the wild Robert Buck screeching guitars of “Planned Obsolescence,” a blessed B-side from the past
Suddenly, the side door opened, and I was inside. It was warm, and the college children danced and smiled. I immediately drifted toward the stage. Natalie, dressed in black, moved in her own wild way and sang about the weather. My spirits had been lifted from lowly concrete cold chills into the majestic melodies of 10,000 Maniacs.
I caught the entire second half of the set. My heart surged with joy. I don’t remember the exact setlist of the songs they played the rest of the night. I remember how Natalie came to the side of the stage to welcome me, touch my head, and apologize for not remembering. She smiled and later asked me to sing the Michael Stipe part on “Campfire Song.” I declined but was pleased for sure with the invitation. Natalie sang with such verve and confidence, and she moved with her splendid magic.
I felt as though I was lost in my first Maniacs show in an Ann Arbor basement, feeling like some European poets’ hideout. A bar is transformed into an art gallery. A cathedral of sound, I see flowers and pillars. My body can feel the shaking rails of the “Peace Train.” Come take this country home again. We are running with young children through the tall grass of a field in upstate New York.
Flashing back, I was ill in bed this past summer with a fever, and when I woke, I found Natalie riding a river boat on my TV screen. With dancing children, she was talking about that peace train. I felt healed.
Swarms of ecstasy filled my soul at the notion that human beings can love. And sing. “Verdi Cries.” An angel sings. To transform the rock n roll bar into a cabaret at summer camp, a coffeehouse with candles or a gentle worship to the dancing gods. I would ride in that truck a thousand times again. I love the road. I love these songs.
Poet, dancer, folksinger, social critic, and friend. Natalie rides the van to mecca. I get muddied with love, just trying to write this. I find it hard to put and commit it to paper, such admiration and love. It can be embarrassing to say it: The world is clearly a better place because 10,000 Maniacs make music in it. But the world is clearly a better place because 10,000 Maniacs make music.
I was taken care of that night. I am yelping again, disgustingly alive, a howling madman. The world will never be cruel as long as she sings. I was reading ON THE ROAD by Kerouac at school. I’ve lived in Detroit with those children depicted in “What’s the Matter Here?” And I’ve stolen from my guts, the need to get out on the road with crazy tastes for the passion of America. We are a communal people, creating harmonious relationships with each other and the earth. We are fed by the buckets of rain on the road. The green grass looks sweet by the side of the highway.
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