David Amram Remembers Jack Kerouac

[David Amram and Allen Ginsberg with Jack Kerouac and Larry Rivers at a diner –  during the making of Pull My Daisy, 1959 – Photograph by John Cohen]

Continuing our celebration of his 87th birthday

David Amram Remembers Jack Kerouac

This initial piece was originally written in 1969 for Evergreen Review, and published early in 1970 at the request of publisher Barney Rosset as an obituary for Kerouac

I used  to see Jack often at the old Five Spot in the beginning of 1957, when I was working there. I knew he was a writer, and all musicians knew that he loved music. You could tell by the way he sat and listened. He never tried to seem hip. He was too interested in life around him to ever think of how he appeared. Musicians understood this and were always glad to see him, because we knew that meant at least one person would be I listening. Jack was on the same wave-length as we were, so it was never necessary to talk.

A few months later, poets Howard Hart and Philip Lamantia came by my place with Jack. They had decided to read their poetry with music, and Jack said he would join in, reading, improvising, rapping with the audience and singing along. Our first performance was in December of 1957 at the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. It was the first jazz-poetry reading in New York. There was no advertising and it was raining, but the place was packed. Jack had become the most important figure of the time. His name was magic. In spite of the carping, whining put-downs by the furious critics, and the jealousy of some of his contemporaries for his overnight success (he had written ten books in addition to On The Road with almost no recognition), Jack hadn’t changed. But people’s reaction to him was sometimes frightening.

He was suddenly being billed as the ‘King of The Beatniks‘, and manufactured against his will, as some kind of public guru for a movement that never existed. Jack was a private person, extremely shy, and dedicated to writing. When he drank, he became much more expansive, and this was the only part of his personality that became publicized. The people who came to the Brata Gallery weren’t taste makers; they were friends.

A few months later, we began some readings at the Circle In The Square. Everyone improvised, including the light man, who had his first chance to wail on the lighting board. The audience joined in, heckling, requesting Jack to read parts of On The Road, and asking him to expound on anything that came into his head. He also would sing while I was playing the horn, sometimes making up verses. He had a phenomenal ear. It was like playing duets with a great musician.

Jack was proud of his knowledge of music and of the musicians of his time. He used to come by and play the piano by ear for hours. He had some wonderful ideas for combining the spoken word with music. A few weeks later, jazz-poetry became ‘Official Entertainment’, and a few months later was discarded as another bit of refuse, added to the huge mound of our junk culture. It was harder to dispose of Jack. The same journalist and radio and TV personalities who had heralded him were now ripping him to shreds. Fortunately, they couldn’t rip up his manuscripts. His work was being published, more widely read, and translated.

In early 1958, all of us went to Brooklyn College, where Jack, Phillip and Howard read. Jack spent most of the time answering the student’s questions with questions of his own. He was the down-home Zen master, and the students finally realized he wasn’t putting them on. He was showing them himself. If they wanted to meet the Author Jack Kerouac, they would have to read his books.

His public appearances were never to promote his books. They were to share a state of mind and a way of being. The only journalist who picked up on this was Al Aronowitz. He saw Jack as an artist.

In the spring of 1959, the film Pull My Daisy was made. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers and myself – the Third Avenue All-Stars as one wit described us – appeared in it. Alfred Leslie directed it and Robert Frank filmed it. Jack had written the scenario, and after the film had been edited, Jack saw it. Because it was a silent movie, Jack was to narrate it, and I was to write the music afterwards. He, Allen, and Neal Cassady also wrote the lyrics for the title song Pull My Daisy, for which I wrote the music and was sung in the film by Anita Ellis. Jack put on earphones and asked me to play, so that he could improvise the narration to music, the way we had done at our readings. He watched the film, and made up the narration on the spot. He did it two times through spontaneously, and that was it. He refused to do it again. He believed in spontaneity, and the narration turned out to be the very best thing about the film. We recorded it at Jerry Newman‘s studio. Jerry was an old friend of Jack’s from the early forties and afterwards we had a party-jam session that lasted all night. Jack played the piano, sang, and improvised for hours.

In the early sixties I used to see Jack when he would come in from Northport to visit town. Once, he called up at one in the morning and told me I had to come over so that he could tell me a story. I brought over some music to copy, and Jack spoke non-stop until 8:30 a.m., describing a trip he had made through North Africa and Europe. It was like hearing a whole book of his being read aloud, and Jack was the best reader of his own work, with the exception of Dylan Thomas, that I ever heard.

“That’s a fantastic story.” I told him. “It sounds just like your books.”

“I try to make my writing sound just the way I talk.” he said. His ideal was not to display his literary skill, but to have a conversation with the reader.

I told Jack about an idea I had for a cantata about the four seasons in America, using the works of American authors. He launched into a travelogue of his voyages around the country, and referred to writers I might look into. I took notes, and ended up reading nearly fifty books, to find the texts. I included a passage from his book Lonesome Traveler. The concert was at Town Hall [in New York City], and Jack wrote that he couldn’t come. It was the Spring of 1965, and he didn’t like being in New York.

Sometimes he would call from different parts of the country just to talk, and we continued to write to each other. In one letter he said “Ug-g-h. Fame is such a drag.” He wanted time to work, but found that success robbed him of his freedom. At the same time, he felt that he was forgotten. I told him that all the young people I met when I toured colleges loved his books. To many, he was their favorite writer. But writer meant something different now. It was what was being said, not how it was said. It was content that counted, not style. Jacks’ message was a whole way of being, and he was becoming more an influence than ever.

Truman Capote dismissed Jack’s work as “typing.” I never heard Jack put down another writer. He went out of his way to encourage young writers. His work reflects this spirit of generosity, kindness and love. This is why his “typing” is so meaningful to young people today. Jack was ahead of his time spiritually. Like Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, his work is constantly being rediscovered.

Through knowing Jack, I wrote some of my best music. Without knowing him, I never would have written my book. More important, young people all over the world are reading and rereading his work. His death only means the beginning of a new life for everyone who shares in the joy of knowing him through his books.

In 1994, in the magazine Dharma Beat, at the request of co-editor Attila Gyenis, and on the occasion of that year’s Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, David added an afterword:

Twenty five years after I wrote this, I was at Jack’s memorial site in Lowell, for the first time. David Orr, a life long friend of Jack’s family, and someone who reminded me of Jack in spirit and being, took me on a voyage to the Stations of the Cross, Jack’s grave, and the Kerouac Memorial, where I ran into Attila Gyenis, co-editor of Dharma Beat.

I liked the magazine Dharma Beat because it felt to me to be connected to the feelings of what Jack was about, and contained the broad, yea-saying, multifaceted, unsnobbish, communicative styles that he would have enjoyed reading himself

After a beautiful few days in Lowell, I learned a whole new lesson about Jack and his life. Sitting in the living room of John Sampas and his gifted nephew, singer-songwriter Jim, both of whom are devoting endless hours to organizing and preserving Jack’s work, I met many people who had also grown up with Jack in Lowell. All of these people are helping to paint the picture of where Jack came from, and where his heart always was – in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.

It was the completion of a long journey. Being with others who truly loved Jack and created the festival Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! was like going to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for me. I felt I had finally come home to a place I had always dreamed about, and longed for.

I could finally understand that Jack’s physical passing on was another continuing chapter in the Duluoz Legend, not the final one. The night our group played our concert in his honor, and the program we did for kids were all surrounded by his spirit.

The final Sunday afternoon of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! was climaxed by a reading at a coffee house, where I backed up twenty three terrific area poets, just as I had backed up Jack in the 1 950’s. I went home and dug up the tribute to Jack I had written for the Evergreen Review twenty five years before. Everything in it turned out to be true.It made me happy that a quarter of a century later, the joy and inspiration Jack gave to those of us lucky enough to be with him, was now being shared all over the world by young people. Through his books, his unique and soulful journey has been immortalized.

All the pain and sorrow, the Beatnik myth, the jealous and embittered detractors are part of the past. Jack through his glorious writings, is a shining light to all of us in 1995, and gives us all energy and inspiration.

Merci Jack!

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