Saturday, March 12, 2005

Happy Birthday, Jack

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The closest I ever got to Jack Kerouac in spirit was to place flowers on his grave in Lowell, Massachusetts. The closest I ever got to him in life was to be with his dearest friends at a gathering in his honor back in 1982, during the 25th anniversary celebration of the publication of On the Road. It was a week-long celebration at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Naropa has a Writing and Poetics Department called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (begun by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974), so a gathering of this sort was absolutely essential to the curriculum. I had just moved to Boulder and was looking to do something before I started classes at CU, so I volunteered to be the volunteer coordinator for this event. For months many of us joyously labored to gather all the old beat authors and bring them together to do readings, hold workshops, teach classes, and celebrate the life of Jack Kerouac. Quite a gathering it was-- Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey, Gregory Corso, Abbie Hoffman, Tim Leary, even the obscure characters from Kerouac's books like Herbert Huncke, Carl Solomon (to whom Ginsberg's Howl is dedicated) came. Jan Kerouac, Jack's daughter, was there, as well as Neal Cassady's widow, Carolyn. What an occasion. Kerouac was truly honored by those who knew and loved him. They read his words, they sang his praises, and we raised our glasses in his honor.

Wikipedia has this to say about Kerouac:

Most of his life was spent in the vast landscapes of America and with the people that live among them. Faced with a fast-changing America, Kerouac sought to find his place in this climate and tried to effect a change, bringing him to reject the values of the fifties that celebrated growing consumerism and the new suburban lifestyle, among many other things. His writings actually often reflect a profound desire to break free from society's mold and to try to find a deeper meaning to life, which eventually led him to start experimenting with different drugs (he once tried psilocybin with Timothy Leary), to study spiritual teachings such as those offered by Buddhism, and to embark on numerous trips throughout the world. His books are also sometimes credited as having contributed in sparking the counterculture of the 1960s.

Many people revere and remember Kerouac for this from On the Road:

"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 say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop..."

I am personally drawn to this quote from the Dharma Bums:

“Desolation, desolation, I owe so much to desolation.”

Jack Kerouac would have been 83 years old today, if he hadn't burned that candle out at 47.


  1. Yes, oh yes. I carried a worn copy of "On The Road" around in my pocket back in the late 1950's and talked about how I was going to San Francisco to find the Beats. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, I didn't get out of North Dakota for many years after that. Jack was a sad person in his final, alcoholic years but I still remember the thrill he gave this boy from the prairies way back when.

    1. Catalyst-- Jack was such a broken person by the time the 60s arrived.

      It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetry though that woke me to the Beats when I was young in the early 60s. Back in the late 1990s or early 2000s I was working as the Assistant Director of Student Media at UC Santa Cruz. I advised the campus newspapers, poetry journals, and radio station students. One day when I was walking from the library back to my office I saw a familiar old man walking up the steps of the library. I walked past him, stopped and ran back and said.
      "Aren't you Lawrence Ferlinghetti?"
      He said, "Yes, I am."
      I said, "Hey, I was the volunteer co-ordinator at the Kerouac Conference in 1982."
      He looked at me and replied, "Oh that was a time. That was quite a time."

      Have you ever seen this video of Kerouac on the Steve Allen show? It's fantastic.