They met for the first time the night before the sessions began. Even after they started, Jay Farrar remembered, "We didn't really know what we'd wind up with."
To top it off, the Son Volt front man said, "Our working relationship was forged by the almost absurd circumstance of having cameras rolling on us by Day 2."
It was against quite a few odds, then, that Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard transformed a request to write "a couple songs" for a Jack Kerouac documentary into an entire album based on the Beat-Gen writer's crisis-filled midlife novel Big Sur.
Titled One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, the disc was issued to wide accolades in October and was the impetus for a short Farrar/Gibbard tour. The songs were written mostly by Farrar using Kerouac's words, but Gibbard sings and adds his own melodic touch throughout.
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"It was our mutual admiration for Kerouac that brought us together in the first place, and I think that's really what made it work as well as it did," Farrar said.
"Plus we had a lot of personal commonalities."
Those shared traits, Farrar said, included that both song writers could recite an obscure John Wayne speech ("where he told cadets during the Vietnam War, 'If you guys don't start acting like men, we're going to wind up with a lousy country'"). More important, each saw the project as a welcome creative diversion.
"We both realized this was kind of a deconstruction of the way we both worked," he said. "There was a liberating aspect in doing that. With our respective bands, normally we have to plan things out. With this, it was done on the fly, and I think there's a degree of spontaneity reflected in the recordings."
And anyone who knows Kerouac's work knows that's exactly the way his prose often sounded.
Published in 1962, five years after On the Road made Kerouac a cultural hero, Big Sur uses faintly veiled fictitious characters to chronicle his retreat to a cabin on the coastline south of San Francisco — partly to escape the limelight and partly to sober up. It's a gritty, maniacal novel that foreshadowed the writer's alcohol-hastened death at age 47 in 1969.
A Kerouac fan ever since he read On the Road as a teenager, Farrar said he did not read Big Sur until he was 40 — which was perfect timing.
"The age when I read the book was pretty close to the age Jack was when he was writing and experiencing the book, and I'm sure it resonated with me in a way it would not have when I was younger," he said.
"Probably the most remarkable thing about the book for me is that Kerouac is aware he's sick and suffering from alcoholism. He's still going out there and trying to live, but he's fully aware that he's slowly dying at the same time, and he's really questioning his ethos at that point. I think anybody who does drink has asked themselves at some point, 'Do I drink too much?'"