To “Burn, Burn, Burn” According to Kerouac and Bryan
// Photo courtesy of Zach Bryan
Zach Bryan’s “Burn, Burn Burn” is a beautiful poem about a man’s yearning for a simpler life away from a deafening, conformist society. When he surprisingly released it on September 8, Bryan captioned his accompanying Instagram post, “To my favorite Kerouac line.” Bryan’s admiration of beatnik author Jack Keroauc has been well documented on his social media platforms, with posts and pictures remembering the late author who gave voice to a generation of counterculture poets. The “burn, burn, burn” quote comes from Kerouac's second semi-autobiographical novel On the Road, where narrator Sal Paradise details his travels hitchhiking and driving across the nation, in search of adventure, God, and his eccentric friend Dean Moriarty. In the first few pages of this time-capsule novel, Paradise delivers this beautiful line:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or a saw a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
Zach Bryan’s song “Burn, Burn, Burn” was written in response to this quote, and it is through this lens that his profound lyrics should be analyzed.
Kerouac’s early admission that his soulmates are the ones who “burn, burn, burn” is supported by the adventures in the resulting novel. Jack Kerouac was the center of the beatnik generation of the 1950s, a post-war reaction to the materialism and conformity of the “golden era” mainstream culture. Living off GI checks, Keroauc and his character Sal Paradise traveled between San Francisco and New York, two centers of this cultural renaissance, searching for their Gods in the American frontier. Most characters in the novel are based on Keroauc’s real-life friends, a time capsule of a generation of poets and truly independent thinkers. Friends like Dean Mortiary, based on Neal Cassady, exemplify what it means to “burn, burn, burn”: always searching for more experiences, new truths, delirious with visions and epiphanies in a manner edging on madness. These characters never settle down, yearning for new women, friends, and never-ending nights in strange lands. These are the people who are “mad to live, mad to tak, mad to be saved,” who are so spontaneous they can never be counted on to stay in the same city for more than a month. Ultimately, these endearingly mad people explode like fireworks (those “fabulous yellow roman candles”), spreading their light across the sky as they plummet to the ground.
It is easy to see why Zach Bryan was drawn to this quote, and indeed it is one of Kerouac’s most famous lines. This stream-of-consciousness sentence is representative of the writing style that made On the Road such a literary masterpiece. Kerouac wrote in the rambling, never-ending style of a jazz solo, with long sentences filled with profound statements, so when spoken, the characters deliver their lines with vibrant enthusiasm for minutes on end, never pausing to take a breath and piling words atop each other as if they will lose their ability to speak afterwards. Kerouac’s characters vomit words and ideas with the hope that together, a profound truth will emerge. And they often do. This style of speaking and writing is exemplary of the people who “burn, burn, burn,” forgoing arbitrary stopping points like commas, periods, and grammatical conventions, instead letting unfiltered words form their own sentences as they escape their lips.
If one thought that Zach Bryan’s song “Burn, Burn, Burn” would reflect this ethos, they would be disappointed. Rather than explore the quote and the people that Keroauc yearn for, Bryan wrote his piece as a response to his vision. The thoughts, themes, and ideas in Bryan’s lyrics represent the life and people he yearns for, and how those people “burn, burn, burn” in their own ways.
Like Keroauc, Bryan writes about feeling out of place conforming to mainstream culture. In his first verse, he laments: We get dressed up just to go downtown / In some ego-filled late night crowd / It seems to be where I feel most alone.”
The following verses delve further into Bryan’s search for truth and raw emotion away from society, alone and connecting to the spirit of the earth. It is an almost transcendentalist embrace of nature: He longs to lie in fields underneath the stars, still yearning for a home he hasn’t found despite his spiritual connection to God. Continuing the themes of escaping and running that were first present in his earlier songs like “Traveling Man,” Bryan delivers this Kerouac-esque line that references one of Sal Paradise’s whims to travel to Europe and live like the Lost Generation of writers: “Heading to Paris on a late-night flight / Find a bar and get in a fight / Write a few poems on a sunny balcony.”
The verses of this epic poem culminate in Bryan admitting he yearns for a simple life filled only with true emotions and “human touch.” The line “I’m tired now, so I'm bringin’ my ass home” flows into three repeating verses, where Bryan ultimately delivers the final lines: “So let me go down the line / We all burn, burn, burn, and then die.” This “burning” is the use of life force: Bryan is praying to live his life, to spend his life force, so that he can feel all the profound emotions of the human experience. Burning is to live, to follow your destiny, age, and feel all the joys of growing within this world. It is a simple life, and a simple burning, one that is achieved by being conscious of the magic in everything.
This is not the same meaning of “burn, burn burn,” that Keroauc used when describing the eccentric characters he trails across the country. Those like Dean Mortiary burn like a rotting piece of wood that sporadically explodes into sparks. They consume all the oxygen in their vicinity, lighting their surroundings with a flickering, jumping flame. These people burn like fireworks, quickly consuming their fuse until they reach the shell and burst “like yellow roman candles,” exploding in twinkling light across the horizon. This is an eager, fervent, almost desperate burning. Bryan’s burning is almost low and slow, a patient fuse burning as he ambles “down the line.” The tone of his poem and his vision for his future argue for a simple, slow, beautiful life filled with constant emotion and constant warmth. These people who “burn, burn, burn,” do so in a steady and reliable manner.
Bryan’s interpretation of Keroac’s “burn, burn, burn” echoes themes of simplicity and calm established in songs on his album American Heartbreak. In “The Outskirts,” “This Road I Know” and “The Good I’ll Do,” Bryan outlines the mundane and pure emotion in his visions: the house on the hill with a lovely woman inside it, exuding warmth and joy. For him, to “burn, burn, burn” is to achieve this life and glow constantly within it. For Kerouac, to “burn, burn, burn”' is to consume everything in proximity, gasping for air, to dash across the country and back and live every night as if the mysterious cover of darkness lasts for eternity. Kerouac is a breathless writer and Paradise a breathless character, and the burning must happen with urgency. While Bryan has also expressed this ethos in songs like “Younger Years” and “Revival,” those tendencies are left to the past; his vision for the future is to live life constantly and consciously, aware of the simple things.
// Carly Brail ’26 is a DJ and staff writer for The Blues Hangover and Hillbilly at Harvard.