WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, we all wanted to be little Sal Paradises and Dean Moriartys. Coming of age between the tattered pages of On the Road is an American rite of passage, one that places the wayward soul of Jack Kerouac into our consciousness for an eternity. But as we grow older and no longer want to flee Ozone Park for adventures beyond the horizon, we gravitate to another work from Kerouac—Big Sur.
If On the Road was a poetic glimpse of a man's glorious ascent to greatness, Big Sur is his smoldering decline. The burned-out beatnik wincing from the spotlight's lonely glow, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin cloaked in fog, and the isolation and madness that swallow Kerouac whole; Big Sur has always been the sort of literary work that demanded musical accompaniment.
Enter Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar. No artist has better personified rock music over the last decade than Gibbard, who has compiled multiple gold records, a celebrity marriage(to Zooey Deschanel), and a staggering amount of success with casual and genuine ease. His partner, the stoic Farrar, stood at the forefront of alt-country with Uncle Tupelo, survived a messy split with former bandmate Jeff Tweedy, and has aged as gracefully as any musician could hope. The two converged in San Francisco (naturally) when the producers of One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, a documentary based on the novel, booked studio time for their film's soundtrack.
"I met Jay at a bar in San Francisco the night before we were supposed to go into the studio, having never met him before," explains Gibbard. "I asked, 'Who else is coming down here?' He said, "Just me and you.'" Despite the unfamiliar surroundings and the intent gaze of a film crew dispatched to document the recording, Farrar and Gibbard hit it off. That initial meeting laid the groundwork for a soundtrack that took a few years and four studios to slowly assemble. But the wait was worth it. It's a loving homage to select Kerouac passages, delivered by a pair of voices that respectfully honor this difficult stretch of the author's storied existence.
Given the source material, there is no shortage of sadness on this recording, although it opens with a burst of soft optimism as Gibbard's voice narrates Kerouac's transcontinental train ride west on the California Zephyr. Gibbard's earnest voice balances out the soulful heft of Farrar's delivery, the latter of which permeates closing number "San Francisco," lingering like the final dying embers of a lit cigarette while a harmonica moans in the distance. The boozy title track is carried by Gibbard, who woefully delivers lines like "From the bottle to the tumbler/is the only journey left I know" with a level of stark acceptance.
"He was still living in this suspended adolescence," Gibbard explains when discussing the state Kerouac was in during his Big Sur days. "He's going back to all the same places he used to go, but now when he goes to those places he sees all these people there who are there to see him. And they not only take him out of the moment—of being anonymous and living this life that he can no longer go back to—but in their eyes he can see the disappointment they have of seeing him now: middle-aged, fat, balding, drunk."
While writing Death Cab for Cutie's Narrow Stairs, Gibbard actually spent a difficult stretch of time in the very same Bixby Canyon cabin that Kerouac escaped to, an experience that still lingers with him to this day. "Just driving down that hill into the canyon gave me the heebie-jeebies. It's not really the kind of place I want to make a point of revisiting."