Jack Kerouac at 100: How a heady cocktail of trauma, faith and rotgut wine made a literary legend

·10 min read
Jack Kerouac at 100: Remembering a literary legend (Tom Palumbo)
Jack Kerouac at 100: Remembering a literary legend (Tom Palumbo)

David Amram started collaborating with Jack Kerouac before he even knew his name. The celebrated composer first met the novelist in 1956 at an artist’s party in Manhattan. “This guy came up to me in a red and black chequered shirt, looking like a French-Canadian lumberjack,” remembers Amram, now 91, from his New York home, which is littered with souvenirs of an illustrious career spent making music with everyone from Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie to Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. “He said: ‘I’m gonna read, you play.’” Amram took out his French horn and penny whistle and set about accompanying the stranger’s performance. “I just closed my eyes and listened to him,” he recalls. “I had no idea what he was going to do, and it was magical. I’m hesitant to use the phrase ‘ESP’, but not hesitant enough not to use it! That’s the best way to describe what it was like to get the feeling you’d known somebody your whole life, and that they were talking right to you and making sense.”

Afterwards, Amram still didn’t get an introduction. “He ran off to go dance with some fine young woman,” he says with a chuckle. “We were all out there flirting and drinking and having a good time.” It was only when they bumped into each other again at another party a couple of weeks later that Amram learnt Kerouac’s name, and that he was an author whose first major work, the 1950 novel The Town and the City had been published to a chorus of widespread indifference. That all changed in 1957 with the publication of his second book: On The Road.

A poetic and profound account of his years traversing America, often in the company of his irrepressible friend and inspiration Neal Cassady, On The Road made Kerouac a celebrity overnight. Its runaway success helped him to publish another dozen novels before he drank himself to death in 1969, at the age of 47, but he never enjoyed his sudden fame. “Most of the time, he was very quiet and very shy,” says Amram. “That’s one reason he used to drink, so that he could anaesthetise himself enough to be comfortable with people.”

As the centennial anniversary of Kerouac’s birth approaches, Amram remembers his friend best for his “sweetness and purity of intent”. This remained intact even after he’d been declared the voice of his generation. “Someone came up to me at a party [after meeting Jack] and said: ‘If that guy’s so great, why was he talking to me so long?’” laughs Amram. “Jack never saw any differentiation between a ‘nobody’ and a ‘somebody’. He never considered any human being to be a nobody.”

Kerouac’s natural shyness, and his love of humanity, is captured in the most famous passage from On The Road, the one that continues to connect with new generations of fans online. In it, he describes how he felt stumbling along a New York sidewalk behind his more gregarious friends Cassady and the poet Allen Ginsberg. “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me,” he wrote, “because 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 and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

Kerouac was born on 12 March 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. The child of French-Canadian immigrants, he spoke no English before he started school at the age of six. As a teenager he won a football scholarship that took him to Columbia University in New York, and after dropping out he enrolled in the Merchant Marines in 1942 to serve in the Second World War. “He was very patriotic,” says Amram. “He’d shipped out on the SS Dorchester and was due to go out on it again but he got bombed out partying up a storm and missed the boat.” The partying likely saved his life. “The SS Dorchester got blown up and over 600 people were killed,” explains Amram. “He always felt that could have been him.” Many people Kerouac knew, including his childhood best friend Sebastian Sampas, were killed in the war. “He never recovered completely, and always thought about that,” says Amram.

In 1943, he enrolled in the navy reserves but got a psychological discharge after just eight days because, as Amram puts it, “he couldn’t handle that disciplinarian stuff”. After that, Kerouac set out to see America. He criss-crossed the country several times over the course of seven years, often hitch-hiking, and then, according to legend, wrote up his experiences in a Benzedrine-fuelled three-week blitz in April 1951, typing on a 120ft scroll of paper. It took him another six years to get On The Road published, when it became an immediate sensation. The New York Times called its publication “a historic occasion”, although it was sheer chance that led to that glowing review. Kerouac fan Gilbert Millstein was only assigned to write it because the main Times critic Orville Prescott had gone to Europe to try and halt his daughter’s wedding. “When he came back he trashed Jack’s book, but by that time it was too late because it had already gotten that phenomenal review,” explains Amram.

When he read the initial Times review, Kerouac wondered why he wasn’t happier about it and went to bed. “Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life,” wrote his then-girlfriend Joyce Johnson in her 1983 memoir Minor Characters. “The ringing phone woke him next morning and he was famous.” Along with fame came disparaging reviews and insulting parodies. Kerouac had coined the phrase “The Beat Generation” in 1948 to describe anti-conformist youth, but when he planned to use that title for a short film in 1959 it had already been trademarked by somebody else. “[Producer Albert] Zugsmith made one of the world’s worst movies, called The Beat Generation, and he owned the title,” Amram explains, adding with a laugh that Kerouac wasn’t too upset, having grown wary of being branded by his own idiom. “Jack said: ‘Well, they deserve one another.’”

Kerouac renamed the film Pull My Daisy, after an innuendo-laden poem he’d written with Cassady and Ginsberg in the Forties. The silent film, which Kerouac later ad-libbed narration for along with Amram’s score, was based on a real-life incident in which Cassady’s wife Carolyn, hoping to embrace a more strait-laced lifestyle, had invited a bishop and his wife and daughter to dinner. Her dreams of respectability went up in smoke when their bohemian friends crashed in and caused chaos. In the film, Ginsberg and fellow poet Gregory Corso play the bohemians, along with Amram as “Mezz McGillicuddy, a deranged French hornist”.

Clockwise from bottom: poet Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers, Kerouac, composer David Amram and poet Allen Ginsberg in 1959 (John Cohen/New York Public Library/Lincoln Center Branch/David Amram Archive)
Clockwise from bottom: poet Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers, Kerouac, composer David Amram and poet Allen Ginsberg in 1959 (John Cohen/New York Public Library/Lincoln Center Branch/David Amram Archive)

The film was co-directed by the ground-breaking photographer Robert Frank and the artist Alfred Leslie, and filming conditions in Leslie’s studio were suitably exuberant. “It was just a continual, stoned-out, crazy party for two or three weeks,” remembers Amram. “We all would come barging in, drinking and smoking reefer and yelling and having a good time. Alfred was like a hostage negotiator getting people to please do whatever the scene was supposed to be about. He would say: ‘Allen, please don’t drop your pants during this scene, this is supposed to be Fellini-esque’ and everybody would go wild.”

The spontaneous, improvised film is now considered a significant cultural artefact, preserved in the Library of Congress, and has proved highly influential. “Larry David from Seinfeld was interviewed in the Nineties and asked: ‘How could you make a bunch of people hanging out into the most successful series on television?’” says Amram. “He said: ‘Our model was Pull My Daisy. We made a television show about nothing, and Pull My Daisy was a film about nothing.’ Of course, it was about everything, because it was just showing a document of people hanging out.”

Kerouac was initially disappointed that his script hadn’t been followed more closely, but Amram watched in amazement as the writer came up with new narration on the spot. “We bought him a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, rather than the customary Thunderbird wine, which was the worst rotgut we often imbibed, being in the economy level of life,” says Amram. “He drank the whole pot, glug, glug, glug, and then he said: ‘Je suis prêt’, ‘I am ready’.”

Amram, Ginsberg and Kerouac at a gallery opening in March 1959 (John Cohen/New York Public Library/Lincoln Center Branch/David Amram Archive)
Amram, Ginsberg and Kerouac at a gallery opening in March 1959 (John Cohen/New York Public Library/Lincoln Center Branch/David Amram Archive)

While critics of Kerouac, then and since, have often focused on his perceived licentiousness, notably his depictions of drug use and uninhibited sexual relationships, at heart his work is concerned with a spiritual quest for meaning. In Pull My Daisy, the bohemians harangue the bishop with a series of questions about what is “holy”. “Is baseball holy?” they ask. “Is everything holy? Is alligators holy, Bishop? Is the world holy? Is basketball holy? Is the organ of man holy?” Likewise, in On The Road, Kerouac is perpetually searching for God in the American landscape. “As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border,” he wrote, “I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, ‘Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.’”

Just as Kerouac believed that no human being was a nobody, so he was able to find the divine in everything, elevating the everyday into the profound. “Being a devout Catholic, he really believed in the teachings of St Francis,” says Amram. “When he became better known and he spoke about generosity and loving and sharing, people thought he was putting them on. The amazing thing about him was that he was someone who was spiritually connected to the church. He wasn’t doing it out of guilt, or out of ritual, or because his neighbours would think he was a finer person because he went to church. It really meant something to him, and no one could believe that of this so-called ‘wild man’.”

Amram believes that even a fascination with Buddhism which Kerouac explored in several books, including 1958’s The Dharma Bums, was motivated by his Christian faith. “He was very compassionate,” he says. “I think he felt that Buddhism was the most Christ-like way to behave in the modern world.” During a 1959 Kerouac appearance on Steve Allen’s variety show, the host asked him how he’d define the word: “Beat”. “Sympathetic,” replied Kerouac.

For all the success of On The Road, when Kerouac died on 21 October 1969 he had just $91 to his name. Now, a century after his birth, he has been vindicated by posterity. His work continues to be read – which is all he ever really cared about. Amram recalls evening walks around New York during which Kerouac would “mellow out” by repeating the Bible verse: “By their fruits ye shall know them”. He cared about that far more than the celebrity he knew would be fleeting. “He wasn’t prepared to become that worldwide figure overnight, and then to be thrown off that mountain he never wanted to be on in the first place,” says Amram. “He would always say, with that Lowell accent: ‘Davey, I’m an author. I want people to read my books.’ Today, people are reading his books all over the world and it is so gratifying to see that.”