"On the Road" to Lowell to remember Jack Kerouac
Pilgrims have worn bare the grass around Jack Kerouac's grave.
Offering tokens of remembrance, they've placed a road map of Rte. 66, an empty wine bottle and the butt of a marijauna joint around the flat stone bearing the inscription "He honored life."
They've left notes for "Jack" stuck to the earth with pens around the grave he shares with Stella Sampas, his third wife who buried him in Edson Cemetery in October 1969.
Since Kerouac's death at age 47, fans, scholars and seekers have come to pay homage at the grave of the Lowell-born author of "On The Road," the 1957 novel that became like sacred scripture for the Beat Generation.
A slight breeze has sent a typewritten letter drifting past rows of headstones and elm trees.
Dated Aug. 23, 2007, it reads as if written to a living person: "Dear Jack, It's been a while, my friend. I must admit though ... I've been out and about and it's hard to stop. Then again, I don't need to explain. You know the seductive call of true wandering better than any of us."
In neighboring Woodlawn Cemetery, groundskeeper Dennis Galvin remembers when Kerouac wandered into his life around 1963 at Nicky's Cafe in Pawtucketville.
"I was just 6 or 7 when my dad brought me in. We weren't there long when Jack Kerouac came in wearing a checkered shirt and carrying a backpack. He looked good with his black hair. He said to my old man, 'How ya doing, Jim.' I watched him write something on a napkin and give it to my father. My father handed it back to him and told the bartender, 'Give Jack a beer.' I never found out what was on the napkin."
Now 51, Galvin is a tall, beefy white-haired man wearing sunglasses.
He can't remember reading any of Kerouac's novels but "heard a lot about him." "Jack traveled around. He liked to party. What's wrong with that when you're on the road," Galvin observed. "I heard he partied with Timothy Leary.
"I wish my dad would've kept that napkin. That was something I never forgot."
Others can't forget the sensitive, sorrowful man who roared through their lives leaving behind a whirlwind of memories.
John Sampas presides over the legacy and literary estate of his sister's only husband and best friend of his brother Sebastian who died during World War II.
On their first date, Joyce Johnson bought a road-weary Kerouac franks and beans in a Greenwich Village Howard Johnson's. They were living together when "On The Road" was published and she watched him flounder in the toxic vortex of celebrity.
David Amram used to blow his French horn in Soho jazz joints as Kerouac read poetry that set the nights aflame.
As if glimpsed through the windshield of a racing car, Kerouac still lives for them as a football star who never stopped running, an author so obsessed with words he never stopped writing and a wounded man-boy whose whoops of joy hid a troubled heart.
Sampas still lives in the Stevens Street house where his brother Sebastian - called "Sammy" by friends - brought home a football hero nicknamed "Zagg" Kerouac for his broken-field running.
"I have memories," said Sampas, a retired stock market analyst who serves as executor of Kerouac's literary estate. "That was the living room. Over there was a telephone table with a radio and portable record player. Sammy, Jack and Stella would listen to Billie Holiday on 78 rpm records."
The house holds a treasure trove of Kerouac's novels, unpublished notebooks, letters and even Jack's "love list" enumerating his sexual conquests in exhaustive detail.
Sampas brings down Kerouac's painter's kit stuffed with spattered rags and crumbled tubes of pigment. After rummaging through folders, Sampas takes out a never-before-exhibited photo of "Terry," a young Mexican woman Kerouac briefly wooed in California while they picked grapes together.
Both born in 1922, Sammy Sampas and Kerouac were best friends who formed a group called Young Prometheans that discussed music, books and politics with adolescent passion. The last survivor of his family of seven brothers and three sisters, John Sampas believes Sammy was the first of several surrogate brother figures Kerouac embraced to fill a void left after the death of his beloved brother Gerard, who died of rheumatic fever at 9 when Kerouac was 4 years old.
Kerouac became an unexpected fixture in the Sampas family.
After dropping out of Columbia University following a dispute with his football coach, Kerouac served in the Merchant Marine and set out to teach himself writing. Serving as an Army medic, Sammy Sampas was mortally wounded at Anzio beach in 1944. When Kerouac published his first novel, "The Town & the City," he portrayed Sammy as Peter Panos, a sensitive but resolute idealist.
Like other Lowell residents, Sampas followed Kerouac's literary and personal life with fascination and concern.
The once-studious teenager spent years crisscrossing the country with a frenetic Denver hipster named Neal Cassady. Surrounded by an exotic coterie of poets, druggies, liberated women and mystics, Kerouac became the reluctant spokesman for the Beat Generation, which rejected the drab conformity of the Eisenhower era.
Following years of impoverished obscurity, Kerouac skyrocketed to national fame with the 1957 publication of "On The Road" and shortly began a precipitous descent into alcoholism. Seeking stability, he married Stella in 1966 and lived with her until his death from alcohol-related problems.
After Stella died in 1990, John Sampas nurtured Kerouac's literary fortunes back from near insolvency. Last year "On The Road" sold more than 100,000 copies in 18 languages.
Since 1992 he's ushered into print more than a dozen titles including "Some of the Dharma," two volumes of letters, and "Windblown World," Kerouac's journals that show the craft and thought that went into "On the Road."
Starting several years ago, Sampas set in motion his grandest coup: publication of the legendary 120-foot-long scroll manuscript on which Kerouac typed his masterpiece in a three-week, caffeine-fueled frenzy. Released a month before the 50th anniversary next Wednesday, "On The Road: The Original Scroll" contains insightful essays by four editors who place it among America's literary masterpieces.
"I am ecstatic. I am ecstatic. This has absolutely blossomed," said Sampas holding the new book. "I spent the last 15 years putting out a book a year and finally it seems to me the whole thing has turned around."
At the same time the actual scroll, purchased at auction for $2.4 million by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, is on display in Lowell's Boott Mill museum, in the midst of a national tour.
Along with the new book and scroll tour, an insightful study by New York Times reporter John Leland, "Why Kerouac Matters," is prompting a re-evaluation of Kerouac as an innovative craftsman who blasted outworn literary conventions to write about male friendship, the American landscape and the search for spiritual meaning in a revolutionary style.
"Jack Kerouac is greatly admired now, looked up to and respected not only as a literary giant but as an American icon," said Sampas. "He did celebrate America in his books. That was his intent."
For Johnson, the coming anniversary evokes bittersweet memories of a time when Kerouac's greatest triumph set in motion his doleful end.
A child actress with an independent streak, she met Kerouac on a blind date set up in 1957 by Allen Ginsberg, who'd enthralled and outraged America the year before with his ecstatic poem "Howl." Before meeting him, she'd heard stories about the vagabond who'd written reams of unpublished tales about riding boxcars, "digging" jazz and smoking "tea."
Kerouac had just spent nine solitary weeks as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington when he showed up for their first date totally broke, exhausted and anxious about the coming publication of "On The Road."
"Jack was a strikingly handsome man with jet black hair and very vivid coloring," Johnson recalled. "He was so eloquent. It was wonderful to hear him speak in that beautiful, musical voice. He projected a quality of openness and vulnerability."
Johnson later wrote "Minor Characters," a memoir that provides an intimate portrait of Kerouac as a devoted artist and gentle but vacillating lover. Subtitled "A Young Woman's Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac," it brings alive the excitement of a movement that glorified sex, sensation and the power of literature to change lives.
Of the many academic studies about Kerouac's circle of zany friends, Johnson's book provides a frank, multifaceted look into women's roles in Beat life and the cost of loving unconventional men.
In a recent interview, Johnson flatly rejected depictions of Kerouac as a misogynist. She attributed his withdrawal into alcohol after becoming the public face of the Beat Generation to his inability to cope with relentless criticism of his life and writing.
And she believes the six-year gap between the completion of "On The Road" and the time it took to find a publisher left him "emotionally drained."
"Jack was more fragile than I realized. The years between the writing and publication were very lean, hard times for him, yet they were astonishingly productive. He blasted out book after book," Johnson recalled. "For many writers, their work has a stabilizing influence. ... For Jack, the time between books was really terrible and filled with ennui."
Like Sampas, she feels Kerouac was genetically inclined toward the alcoholism that later consumed him.
Kerouac was staying in Johnson's apartment when "On The Road" was published on Sept. 5, 1957. She remembers buying the New York Times that night with him and reading a landmark review that called it an "authentic work of art" that captured the nation's mood as Ernest Hemingway had done in "The Sun Also Rises."
"It wasn't a celebratory moment," Johnson remembered. "He felt his book had been damaged by the editing. It was a strange, mixed moment for him."
While some critics have dismissed Kerouac and the Beats as chauvinists, Johnson described him as "tremendously encouraging" when she was writing her first novel. In 1957, Kerouac was 35 and Johnson was just 22. She remembers him as "warmly affectionate" but came to realize he was too restless to settle down at a time he was trying to fulfill a death-bed promise to his father to care for his aging, often domineering mother.
"If he'd asked me to marry him, I would have but don't think we would've had much of a future," Johnson said. "I don't think a romantic relationship would have saved him."
Road Without End
Amram was playing jazz gigs with Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot when he noticed a dark-haired audience member who seemed "electrified" by the music. "He was one of those people whose presence you could feel," he said from his home in Putnam Valley, N.Y. "He exuded a quiet magnetism."
Not long afterward, Amram was attending a "bring-your-own-bottle" party in a Soho loft when the same man "wearing a red-and-black-checkered lumberjack shirt" asked him to accompany him on the French horn as he read his jazz-inspired poems.
He recalled, "Right away I got this feeling this is a beautiful person I'll remember my whole life."
Despite entirely different backgrounds, Amram, a Jewish musician from Pennsylvania, and Kerouac, a French-Canadian Catholic writer from Lowell, became fast friends. Shortly after "On The Road" was published, they began collaborating at jazz-poetry performances at the Brata Art Galley on East 110th Street and other sites.
While reciting, Kerouac lost himself in the music, instinctively matching his poetry to the improvised beat like a jazz man riding a riff.
In 1959 they appeared together with Ginsberg and poet Gregory Corso in "Pull My Daisy," a cult film that captured the spontaneous whimsy of Beat creativity. In the years that followed, Amram wrote scores for "Splendor in the Grass," "The Manchurian Candidate" and 100 orchestral and chamber pieces including two operas.
Amram believes Kerouac was emotionally unprepared to cope with the critical backlash that attacked "On The Road" for promoting drug use, juvenile delinquency and sexual excess. He believes critics willfully misconstrued Kerouac's claim the word "beat" actually derived from "beatific" to suggest the possibility of grace and spiritual redemption.
"In the highly charged artsy scene of the 1950s, people mistook Jack's kindness for weakness. He wanted to be appreciated as a writer. But the media built him up and then reviled him. He drank to kill that pain," he said.
Now 76, Amram has become a popular fixture at the annual "Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!" festivals performing instrumental medleys inspired by his old friend's memory.
"Jack was very shy, very spiritual. Never pretentious. He felt every person, every place was holy," said Amram. "Jack Kerouac embraced the world and all it had to offer. He followed his own road and sometimes that hurt him more than he could bear."