Review & Commentary
Summer 2000


George Wallace: 

an interview with David Amram

Three decades since his death - and nearly a half century since he emerged with incredible force somewhere distinctly off center stage in this nation's culture - author Jack Kerouac's place as a touchstone to the American consciousness is secure.

Communities form Kerouac hometown Lowell, Ma. to Orlando, Fla, Ozone Park, NY and Northport, LI (among the places where he lived) celebrate the man's life and times in their midst. Scholars and historians, from New York to New Orleans to Colorado and beyond, explore his continuing influence on literature and popular philosophy. Jazz musicians celebrate Kerouac in song. Poets celebrate Kerouac in verse. Small independent filmmakers celebrate Kerouac in documentaries.

There's even a group in Florida that has opened up a Writers in Residence project in a house where Kerouac lived.

Perhaps most significantly, members of yet another generation of young Americans seem to have taken Jack Kerouac to heart. No less a figure than historian Douglas Brinkley, who is writing Kerouac's authorized biography, maintains that each generation rediscovers Jack Kerouac "on its own terms."

Want evidence? It is no further away than a survey of member profiles online - and the surprising number of young people who identify themselves with references to Kerouac and the Beats.

It might be said that the internet generation has stuck a fresh copy of On The Road in their back pockets and headed out on the virtual highway. Or as at least one commentator has put it, the "Byte Generation" has met the "Beat Generation."

Yet to composer David Amram - colleague and contemporary to Kerouac - there is still important work to be done in shaping the reputation of the author. Why? In Amram's view, the negative aspects of the Beatnik "myth" still need to be overcome for a full understanding and appreciation of the accomplishments of the man from Lowell Ma.

"I'm referring to the whole picture of the Beatniks, the stereotype," says Amram, somewhat in the face of those who would glorify the Beatniks. "There are people who think he just got drunk out there. The idea of the Beatnik as a stoned out sociopathic self-loathing ignoramus was an effective way of dismissing a whole generation of painters, composers, authors, poets and actors in the 1950s. Nothing could further removed from that."

You hear and read the stories of Kerouac writing on rolls of wallpaper, or stuffing sheets of notepaper in his knapsack as he traveled the byways of America. Or of a hard-drinking fellow who was a magnet for those embracing a counter-cultural point of view.

To Amram, Kerouac was much more than that - and in his view confining Kerouac's importance to the Beat movement or emphasizing more flamboyant aspects of his personal behavior is a disservice to the author of important literary works. Rather than being merely a "Bop Angel" or an increasingly dissipated drunk, Amram paints a portrait of Kerouac as "above all" a diligent classicist with an impressive work ethic - a man with an "enormous knowledge" or European literature, art and classical music and the beauties of indigenous French Canadian, Latin American and traditional folk music, as well as jazz from the United States.

"Jack had an extraordinary knowledge of comparative religions," adds Amram. "He was reared in and practiced Catholicism his whole life, but he had an exensive knowledge of Buddhism and Judaism."

But wasn't Kerouac King of the Beats, the highway rambler, the hard-drinking free-wheeling fellow immortalized in On The Road? Wasn't Jack Kerouac the epitome of a Beatnik? Not just, according to Amram. "People claimed him to be the leader of that movement, a so-called movement of which he was never a part," says Amram. "He never wanted to be a leader of any movement - Jack was just so big hearted and compassionate that he never excluded anybody, and included those who claimed to be "Beat" once the success of On The Road made this term popular."

"The Beat label was an albatross around Jack's neck," he continues. "And is still a collective albatross around a lot of people's necks today - Larry Rivers, Ferlinghetti, me, Dennis Hopper, Joyce Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Alfred Lesley, Diane DiPrima."

There are a number of contemporary comments by Kerouac which corroborate this point of view - including a Playboy article, in June 1959, in which he distinguished the "wild eager" hipsters' "crazy, talkative, shining eyed (often innocent and openhearted)" he admired and associated with from the later, "cool" beatnik stereotypical figure "whose speech is low and unfriendly, whose girls say nothing and wear black." By 1964 Kerouac was calling Beatniks "just plain phonies, phonies walking around...talking to painters and writers. They say they're painters and writers too, but they're not!" (recorded interview, Northport Public Library).
Whether Kerouac was a Beat spokesperson or no, there are plenty who agree with Amram's uplifting view of the author's talents, manner and seriousness of purpose. An upcoming exhibition at the Northport Historical Society Museum, set for a big opening on July 9, 2000, includes comments by "regular residents" of the small seaside Long Island village who recall Kerouac's gentlemanly ways and intellectual vitality.

"He talked to us, not down to us," said Carol Watson, who was a teenager when Kerouac was in Northport in the late fifties and early sixties. She lived in an apartment downstairs from the Orlovskys back then, and Jack would visit from time to time. Watson recalls how Kerouac could be found sitting in her mother's kitchen ("My mother used to bake, and everyone would come by for some cookies"); in deep dissertation with large groups of young people. "He was probably the first philosophy teacher I had," she says. "He made us think about basic precepts of philosophy, who we were, where we came from, where we were going. He made me a thinking person, opened my eyes."

Northport architect Larry Smith, one of those who played baseball with Jack most Sundays, openly says he preferred the "intellectual Kerouac" to the one who attracted attention because of his more public boisterous behavior. "There were times when I would say to myself I don't care if I see this SOB again," said Smith, who fortuitously recorded on tape and film one of Kerouac's last nights in the village. "But then again there was the charming, winsome, creative, appealing Jack...He was sincere, very respectful around women, gentlemanly. And he could call up things in an amazing way, quote from Shakespeare, the Bible, from literature. Jack was very well educated, self-educated. Was he a classicist? I would say so."

What about the tales of hard drinking, then? "Hemingway was a big drinker, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, thousands of other people in the arts then, most of them drank a lot," says Amram. It was a whiskey and nicotine fueled culture, and Jack was from a working class town where the social clubs for men were frequently the local bars. "Now in the new millennium if someone is getting drunk a lot, an army of friends will come along and get him or her into a 12 step program!"
To illustrate the gulf he says existed between Kerouac and the Beatniks, David Amram likes to recall the day in 1959 that he and Jack, dressed in ordinary working men's clothes, went to a coffee house where they used to have impromptu poetry performances before On The Road was published. "Everyone was sitting there with their bongos, with the price tags still on them, and wearing berets," he remembers. "Jack said to me - Dave, this is like being in Catholic schoool - everybody's in uniform!" According to Amram, the patrons of the coffee house gave he and Kerouac "funny looks, because we looked like outsiders intruding on a Beat scene. There were pictures of us on the wall, but no one knew who we were."

So if he isn't to be considered simply a Beat figure, who is the real Kerouac? The answer to that question, says Amram, lies in the author's writings. "The extraordinary thing about Jack Kerouac in the year 2000 is that the power of his writing has transcended forty-three years of misinformation and confusion which he was never personally or artistically responsible for," he says. "Everything you want to know about Jack Kerouac you can find out by reading his books - the beauty of his spirit and his humor, his talents, his lyricism, his originality, his capabilities as an improvisational scat singer, are built into the pages of everything he ever wrote."

This is the Jack Kerouac Amram hopes more people will get to know. One of the foundation 1950s era artists - abstract expressionist painters, method actors, avante garde writers, pioneers of world music like himself - who helped define the terms of discussion regarding artistic expression for decades after they emerged on the cultural scene.

" It turns out in retrospect we set the standards - and continue in the new millennium to set a standard - that inspiration and discipline, combined with spontanaeity and hard work and humanism, have more value than ever in an increasingly technological society," says David Amram. "We were in fact on to something back then that was not just for six months. These were artistic principles of enduring value."


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