All hail the Kerouac cult

Every October, local beat fans gather in Sacramento to celebrate the genius of their favorite Roman candle of a writer

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac was the lone American beating the forlorn highways of the Promised Land—smoking, joking, drinking and carrying on like a lighthouse keeper standing on the beach all alone with nothing but 56 seconds of darkness to cover his naked body.

Kerouac died on October 21, 1969, in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 47 years old. Kerouac, a first-generation French-Canadian, became a prematurely aged and bitter man who spent most of his later years drunk, in front of the television, while cursing at the hippies who embraced his books. He lived with his mother, supported the war in Vietnam and became friendly with William F. Buckley. It was a sad end for one of the most innovative American writers.

When Kerouac was young, he was excited about life and what he saw. He soaked it all up and put it onto paper. For his primary work, On the Road, he put it onto a roll of butcher paper, which he fed through his typewriter and then delivered to his publisher.

“In this world of post-9/11,” said B.L. Kennedy, a longtime area poet and provocateur, “do you know of any writer out there who is literally speaking to the young of our nation, of our world? Kerouac gives them hope, a sense of freedom and inspiration in a world that is way out of control. In the end, Kerouac’s writing provides identity for those who open up to the beauty and love that the world has to offer.”

Kennedy, along with former Sacramento publisher and author Pat Grizzell, founded a tribute to Kerouac named October in the Railroad Earth, which first opened in Sacramento in 1980. It cost them all of $20. Since that time, there have been 20 other tribute readings of “October,” some of which have taken place in Eureka—as well as Ashland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo.—as an alternative to Sacramento.

“We never expected it to last as long as it has,” Kennedy said. “It’s the longest-running tribute to Jack Kerouac in the world.”

After attending the first performance, Sacramento artist D.R. Wagner called Kennedy “Sacramento’s idiot savant” for putting it together. So, the next year, Wagner was reading and helping in the production of “October.”

B.L. Kennedy

Photo by Larry Dalton

“We’ve done this all over the place, mostly in Sacramento,” Wagner said. “It’s a wonderful chance for anybody that’s interested in what that sound was like. This year, they are all older guys and girls that know what they are talking about, and they know that feeling of bebop that Kerouac managed to get into his own writing. The sound of a wild dance session—wail, wop! Or the feel of early in the morning in Oregon,” Wagner said, laughing. “He knew how to tag on to these things and patch them together.”

Kerouac,s genius was that he had a flair for capturing the essence of the postwar era. World War II had ended; fascism was stopped in its tracks. It was a bittersweet time in America. Men who spent the best years of their lives facing death, sometimes on an hourly basis, had returned to a country that had changed while they were gone. The war had advanced technology and had made some trades obsolete. Women and minorities found more opportunities and freedoms. Kerouac encapsulated the exuberance, frustration and freedom of the era. Over the years, that era has turned into a metaphor for a personal period in everyone’s life—that time when you stay out until daylight, drunk with songs and friends, and you feel like you’ll live forever.

“Jack Kerouac is an inspirational spirit,” Kennedy said. “He opens doors for the young writer to explore the beauty, love and wisdom of one’s life.”

Kerouac did the things that we all wished we could do. He hit the road for an aimless journey when cars were cheap and gas was cheaper, hung out in San Francisco before it got too expensive and developed, worked in a fire watchtower in the Cascade Mountains and lived in Sausalito when it was a village full of artists. He was present at the beginning of the bebop rebellion. He was part of a movement that was so new, different and alternative that Mr. and Mrs. America weren’t even aware of it. The beats broke the rules in a naïve but sincere manner, and Kerouac was there writing about it.

“He really thought of himself as a horn,” Wagner said. “He thought he was a jazz musician, much to the castigation of many of the jazz musicians that he worked with. They didn’t feel the same thing.”

During the last 22 years, October in the Railroad Earth has pulled in between 75 attendees (at the first performance) and 425 attendees at its peak.

“The Kerouac reading has a very interesting history,” Kennedy said. “Mostly, it has to do with the crowds that have attended. We’ve had people come in from as far away as Iowa to make sure that Kerouac was being represented correctly. We had people come in from Alaska; we’ve had people drive up from L.A. just to see the reading. We have one guy who comes up every year—drives from L.A. People know about the Kerouac reading all over the freaking world now.”

One reason for the great attendance is the quality of the readers. Todd Walton, Victor Wong, Allen Ginsberg, Jose Montoya and many more have stood on stages, tables and chairs in various states of sobriety or inebriation at October in the Railroad Earth.

Dharma bums: Chris Hall, Charlene Ungstad, B.L. Kennedy, D.R. Wagner and Mike Farrell.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“It’s basically the same core of people,” Wagner said, “and we’re still generating the same energy about this as we did when we started.”

As with any movement that achieves recognition, the beat scene started to accumulate poseurs, knockoffs and hucksters. The beret-wearing, bongo drum-banging, Johnny-come-lately types who attached themselves to the scene for their own personal gain diluted the purity of the beats. Some of the original beats coasted on their initial fame for the rest of their lives, like a guest on a television game show, while others took the academic route. Kerouac stuck to his guns and wrote. He couldn’t stand hippies and removed himself from their movement. He often got drunk and made a fool of himself at public events. This, of course, is another reason he’s still relevant.

“Jack got really surly after he became successful,” Wagner said. “He lived with his mother most of his entire life. He drank himself to death because I don’t think that he could take society. He didn’t like the attention after the first flush of attention. He didn’t know what to do with it. He was glad that his books were being published. He was like those bands that don’t like to tour. He drank himself to death out of despair.”

More than 25 biographies on Kerouac exist. His books have been translated into many languages, and scores of young people still discover Kerouac every day.

“He is probably one of the keenest observers of the American scene that we’ve ever had,” Wagner said. “It’s a sense of American speech patterns, observation and a huge nostalgia for that time when he grew up in the ’30s and ’40s. He said it like the hipsters would talk in the ’50s.”

Author Ted Finn will host the tribute reading at Luna’s Café on October 25, the 22nd such tribute for Jack Kerouac and the poetry of the beats. In addition to Kennedy and Wagner, this year’s guest readers include Neeli Cherkovski, Charlene Ungstad, Barbara Noble, Frank Andrick and Todd Cirillo, all of whom are active in the local poetry scene. The event also will feature music by the Jean Seberg Group and Forever Goldrush’s Damon Wyckoff. Along with the reading of Kerouac’s essential work, the guests will cover Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” which include his rules for writing: “Don’t get drunk outside your own house,” and “You’re a genius all the time.” Afterward, guests will read works by beat writers who have influenced their own work in that same spirit.

“Another thing that we do at these readings,” Wagner said, “is that we make up lies about Kerouac, where we talk about meetings that we had or things that he did that he really didn’t do. But we preface them as lies, and they are usually entertaining.”

In 2,000 years, will teachers instruct their students about how Elvis, Kerouac and Cobain lifted the 20th century out of its primitiveness and into an age of enlightenment?

“In essence,” Kennedy explained, “there aren’t any writers out there today that have reached so deeply into themselves as did Kerouac in his search for purpose. His writing speaks to the young people of today, due to its spontaneous nature. It is, in essence, the very language of poetry that is at work here, and that gives hope to those who are still in search of a voice. I know that this was very true of my own experience upon first reading Kerouac. Up until that point, I thought all writing to be fictional. Kerouac taught me that a writer’s job was to examine and report the truth of their lives.”