Monday, December 10, 2007
ON THE ROAD READING
Saturday night’s reading—by poet Simon Pettet (top) and yours truly—from the two published versions of ON THE ROAD (the original 1957 famous text, and the newly released unedited so-called “scroll” version) was—as Louis Armstrong and Hubert Selby Jr. used to say all the time—“a gasser.”
There were typical publicity, technical, and coordination glitches between us, the readers, and the Open Center where the reading occurred. But once the audience was settled in and Simon and I found our pacing and tone, it started cooking.
Maybe some folks there didn’t dig it, or aspects of it, but those who stuck around made clear they were engrossed and even enlightened about aspects of Kerouac’s craft they’d been unaware of, or connections between their own lives and Keroauc and his cronies they had missed when they first read the book as adolescents.
We opened with some Charlie Parker recordings from the years when Kerouac was having his adventures with Neal Cassidy that eventually became the story of ON THE ROAD. After waiting a few minutes for latecomers, our host, Jonathan Bricklin gave a short rap about The Open Center and then our presentation began.
Simon and I had decided to start with a short recording of Kerouac reading his own work, to get a taste of his voice and his presence into the room and the evening. Simon had suggested Kerouac’s very short riff on THE BEAT GENERATION, from the great Rhino collection of Kerouac’s more professional recordings, including the ones to jazz.
But I’m the one who has that collection and I inadvertently left the disc that selection is on back in my CD player in Jersey. So we quickly decided on another from OCTOBER IN THIS RAILROAD EARTH but the wonderful technical assistant, Maya, miscued the disc, or the Open Center sound system messed up, and the wrong selection came on—a short riff of Kerouac’s on Charlie Parker, which, we quickly decided, wasn’t entirely inappropriate.
Then Simon and I riffed a bit ourselves on Kerouac, Simon addressing his craftsmanship as a writer and me the influence of his Catholic mysticism and study of Buddhism (before most “Americans” were even aware of Buddhism, let alone Zen) on his writing and the themes that reoccur in it.
It wasn’t as stodgy as that sounds, since Simon, with his English accent via many decades on the Lower Eastside (living in the same building as Allen Ginsberg all that time, who Simon was very close to) and me and my Jersey one, weren’t being professorial, but rather professing our faith in the greatness of this author who had a wider impact on prose writing than almost any other author of the 20th Century besides a handful, including Joyce and Proust, who influenced him.
Then Simon read some riffs Kerouac had done in an essay and in his famous list of “essentials of spontaneous prose” —explaining his theories of the craft of writing, and I read some excerpts from THE SCRIPTURE OF THE GOLDEN ETERNITY, Kerouac’s little collection of short prose hits expressing his take on Buddhist doctrine (and one of my all time favorite spiritual books).
Then we got into the reason for the reading—presenting excerpts from the two texts of ON THE ROAD, Simon reading first, from the 1957 version most of us are familiar with, and me jumping right in behind him with the same sentence or longer section from the unedited “scroll” version just published this year. (As Kerouac’s best biographer, Gerald Nicosia, author of MEMORY BABE, points out, Kerouac never referred to it as a “scroll” but as a “roll.”)
It took a few back-and-forths to get our rhythm, and for me to feel comfortable reading aloud with an ear infection that made my voice so muffled in my head, I sounded to myself like I was reading underwater.
A few people walked out, either because they suddenly remembered something they had to do that was more important, or were distracted by their own personal lives that suddenly demanded attention, or they were planning on leaving early anyway because they had things to do that couldn’t wait, or, hmmm, maybe because they weren’t digging either Kerouac or the way we were presenting him.
But the bulk of the audience stuck around, and after a while were responding with laughs or teary eyes or nods of understanding and perhaps identification and appreciation.
The most obvious differences between the texts is the elimination of any direct and graphic description of sex and/or drug taking, as well as the changing of the names of the real people the characters were based on and the names they ended up with that are now so familiar, like Neal Cassidy becoming Dean Moriarity and Allen Ginsberg becoming Carlo Marx (!).
But the subtle differences, which we made clear as best we could, were often much more revealing about the times, the 1950s and the uptight world of publishing that was only beginning to get cracks in it that would eventually lead to the wider freedoms of the 1960s and the world as we know it today, as well as of Kerouac’s original intentions and attitudes.
I won’t get into all that here, but suffice it to say that several members of the audience shared later how much more respect they had for Kerouac as a craftsman after hearing this reading, or how much more insight they had into him as a writer and man and incredible innovator. Mission accomplished.
After we finished with close to an hour of Kerouac, we asked for comments and questions from the audience and got some great sharing, for instance by my friend Bill Lannigan of his identification with the search for kicks and nonstop moving and traveling that is at the heart of so much of our culture and was first articulated in a way that seemed to speak for many of us never represented before ON THE ROAD.
The exchange with the audience was followed by a dimming of the lights and listening to a recording of Simon’s, not in the Rhino collection, of an interview with an obviously high Kerouac on a Lowell (Mass., Kerouac’s hometown) radio show on the occasion of the publication of Kerouac’s BIG SUR.
It’s a very silly interview, the interviewers sounding like they’re unaware they’re imitating Groucho Marx pretending to be serious and knowledgeable about some arcane subject, and Kerouac goofing on them and with them. It was a lot to ask for people to sit still in the dark for even more language pouring into their ears and so much of it sounding just silly and extraneous to the point of the evening.
But for those who hung in, I think they were rewarded. Not only does Kerouac make clear his original intention to produce for mid-20th Century “America” the kind of documents Proust did for turn-of-the-century France, but as Kerouac put it in the interview, to do it “faster.”
He also makes several references to his spiritual perspective and demonstrates his enormous humility (despite his legitimate belief in the importance of his writing, which is merely reality) by saying at one point something like “There’re a thousand guys in this town who know more about heaven than I do.”
There were other goodies in the interview as well. And when it was over and the lights came up, those who were left hung around for quite a while expressing their appreciation for Kerouac and the evening, with several people saying they felt inspired, or in the case of a few Europeans, felt they had a deeper understanding of “America” and others just wanting to continue the discussion about Kerouac and his influence and related matters.
(There were many friends in the audience, including ones I hadn’t seen in decades, like the artist Paul Harryn (who took the nonflash photos here of Simon and me reading, and whose blog I list to the right and highly recommend) who drove in from Pennsylvania just for the reading, and budding actor Jesse Wilson, (the accomplished son of one of my oldest friends, Tom, whose blog “Coolbirth” I also list to the right and highly recommend).)
So a dozen of us adjourned to a nearby bar and grill that looked like it was built yesterday (as too much in downtown Manhattan looks now) with a d.j. blasting music too loud for conversation in a joint that was mostly empty anyway on a Saturday night at 10PM with no dance floor so what exactly was the point of that.
After several males in our crowd had no success at quieting him down, one of the females approached him and whaddaya know, volume reduced to conversation-allowable level. This particular female, a novelist and lifelong fan of Kerouac’s, as well as an old friend of Ginsberg’s who when she was a teenager used to sleep over at his pad and hang out there when he was out of town, sleeping in his bed, where she said she had extraordinary dreams, was the kind of dark-haired beauty Kerouac would have fallen instantly in love with (and then abandoned when domestic life ended up interfering with his writing).
When they closed the place at midnight, asking us to leave, we wandered through the “East Village” passing by where CBGB’s had only recently stood among crumbling century- (and –ies) old buildings that have only in recent months been replaced by brand new towering condominiums etdamncetera, and the milling crowds of young hipsters spilling out of the trendy new bars and eateries, eteffingcetera, until we stumbled into a basement bar on a side street less crowded and found a couple of tables to fit us all and continue our deep conversations on everything evoked by Kerouac’s words.
I didn’t get home until after 3AM, (it would have been even later if I hadn’t gotten a ride from Jersey friend, Lisa Duggan, who attended the evening and was a bright asset to the conversations that followed) and went to bed extremely contented. Chalk another one up for Jack, and the capacity for people to dig deeper than our current culture seems willing to go.