Yesterday, March 12, 2013 would have marked the 91st birthday of the celebrated "Beat" poet and novelist Jack Kerouac. Born Jean-Louis Kérouac (pron.: /ˈkɛruːæk/ or /ˈkɛrɵæk) on March 12, 1922, Kerouac was a literary giant who, along with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, built the very foundation upon which "The Beat Generation" was formed.
Widely lauded for his spontaneous and evocative writing, which covered topics as diverse as travel, promiscuity, poverty, drug abuse, spirituality and jazz, Kerouac's star seemed to rise almost overnight as an "underground" icon and, with other "beats", he is today widely recognized as a progenitor of the "hippie movement"...despite Kerouac's disdain for it's more radical political elements.
Sadly, Kerouac died in 1969 from internal bleeding-due to long-term abuse of alcohol-at the mere age of only 47. Since his demise, several of Kerouac's previously unseen literary works have now gone into publication, and he holds the honor of being among the few American authors whose entire works remain in print today. Among them: On the Road; The Subterraneans; The Dharma Bums; Desolation Angels and my personal favorite: The Sea is My Brother.
David Amram (born November 17, 1930) is an American composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist, a pioneer of world music and one of the very first conductors to successfully bring together both jazz and classical music. With author Jack Kerouac as his partner, they created what came to be known as "Jazz Poetry" in 1957.
Yesterday, on the 91st anniversary of Jack Kerouac's birth, David Amram graciously took some time off from his busy schedule of touring, in order to share his memoirs of Jack Kerouac with Examiner readers. This is what he would like you to know about his beloved friend and former collaborator, Jack Kerouac:
David, rather than risk 'hemming you in" with a lot of set questions, I'd prefer to allow you to freely take this conversation in whichever direction that you wish to take it; sharing with our readers what you want them to know about Jack.
Well, I just got back from Jack's hometown: Lowell, Massachusetts. They had a very nice, pre-ninety-first birthday party in his hometown. I did some readings there from my book: "Offbeat-Collaborating With Kerouac." His legacy wasn't just some freako occurrence of a bunch of stoned out losers who decided to form their own "boy's club"...or some kind of weird trilateral commission or something.
When I celebrated my 75th birthday, of the many places in this country I was fortunate enough to go to The Purple Onion in North Beach, Ca.. One of the joys of being in that magical part of the country was to remember not only what it meant for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and Ginsberg and the great poets who are still living, but also for all the people in the world who remember North Beach and San Francisco as a special "energy center."
When I first came there in the Summer of 1948-to work as a carpenter's helper in Los Gatos- I went to North Beach and didn't realize that Jack had been out there during that same era. I was seventeen years old, but I was aware of the same energy and sense of community among the artists that I did meet-artists of all genres-and the larger sense of community among everyday people. This is a tremendously important thing in our culture in the year 2013, tremendously important when we celebrate Jack Kerouac now:on his 91st birthday.
One of the reasons why his work has endured and one of the reasons why San Francisco was so important to him is the same reason why Lowell Massachusetts was, is and always will be just as important to Jack as Denver, Colorado...and not only New York City. The reason why I mention this is because Jack loved New York as a kid from a "mill town" in Lowell, Massachusetts just as much as I still love New York-and I'm now 82-as a kid from a farming community in Feasterville, Pennsylvania.
Every small town person always falls in love with New York City. But we all know-those of us who are blessed to travel-that whether hitch-hiking as Jack first did and I first did that Summer in 1948, or traveling...as I still do now as a musician, classical composer, guest conductor, speaker...those of us realize that every small town and every community in the country and in the world is precious, and that every person that crosses our path has a heritage, a culture, a story, a song and something unique to share. This was something that Jack way back had sensed was slowly disappearing as the first priority in our lives.
I was recently at the British Museum's library in London, England, where Jack's original manuscript for On The Road ("The Scroll") was on exhibition. I had previously been in San Francisco to perform and to say a few words at the wonderful event where that original manuscript was first on exhibit-before it was auctioned off at Christie's-and I felt that Jack and The Scroll were somehow there and at home in a place that he loved so much. It was 1995...a few weeks before The Scroll was sold.
At that same time, I made a recording one afternoon in Zoetrope Studios with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, based on his first book Pictures of the Gone World. Lawrence and I were talking about how Jack would have felt seeing the tenth version of his book, which he had done in 1951 and it laid there for about for six years until Viking bought it and Malcolm Cowley edited it a little bit. How would Jack have felt to see it all those years later come to be considered a work of such importance that a huge auction house was gonna sell it off, and no one dreamed he would get 2.4 million dollars for it! Jack died in 1969 with maybe $83.00 in the bank, and now here we were all these years later. More important than money was the fact that his work had survived, and that's what he thought he was put here to do. I thought about that, the evening I was talking to Lawrence (Ferlinghetti).
When I was in London in October, 2012, a full 16 years after I'd been in San Francisco, there was that same scroll being exhibited a few hundred feet from the original manuscripts of Shakespeare, Beowulf, Chaucer, Thackeray, Emily Brontë, and Charles Dickins: all of them among Jack's favorite authors in the English language!
I was asked to come and speak a little about my work and knowing him (Kerouac) and what it was like to have been his musical accompanist. Someone asked me how he would have felt to have his scroll displayed in that place. I said: "Can you imagine it: someone born in Lowell, Massachusetts-a mill town-and not speaking English until he was seven years old; learning English as a second language. Falling in love with the English language. Falling in love with the English-speaking parts of the world, and combined with his Quebecquoi heritage-which is what he called it but today it would be called Franco-American-coming from that background what it would have meant to him to have his original manuscript in the same place as the giants of English letters, whose work he not only admired and read but also many of which he could quote from memory!"
He used to quote Beowulf and Chaucer to me on those 2am-4 am strolls around Manhattan that we took after spending the whole night doing jazz poetry readings or going to a party or hanging out and having fun with our friends after we'd spent all day working. I had no idea of course what he was saying, because I didn't understand Old English, but he not only could memorize those things, he could speak them and he could quote from them all! He had a phenomenal memory and a deep appreciation of those past masters, as well as just about anyone else whose work he read. Any of the poets who are surviving and who knew him-and there are a handful of those folks who are still with us-can attest to that fact.
Jack was a friend with just about everyone who wrote anything...including people who never had anything published. He would listen to what they were doing and encourage them, and even be able to memorize something they said, and say some of their material back to them the next time they met! He was that kind of gracious, wonderful, generous as well as brilliant person.
His works reflect that generosity and warmth and appreciation of others. That's one of the reasons why he has survived in an age of narcissism and egomania, vulgarity, confusion and insecurity: his work shines in its purity of spirit, as well as excellence and brilliance of execution!
Jack Kerouac's birthday at 91 makes us realize that, while he left us at the age of only 47 in 1969, through his beautiful writings he remains-to quote the title of that classic Bob Dylan song-"Forever Young."