Where the beat stops
Sacramento’s annual tribute to Jack Kerouac, October in the Railroad Earth, celebrates 25 years and its final performance this weekend
Over a tinkling cocktail-bar piano, played by Steve Allen—yes, that Steve Allen—a male voice rambles in an accent that’s somewhere between Jack Webb’s Joe Friday and some Boston dialect. The prose is weirdly anachronistic: “And I have insane conversations with Negroes in second-story windows, above,” he intones. “And everything is pouring in—the switching moves of boxcars in that little alley, which is so much like the alleys of Lowell, and I hear far off in the sense of coming night that engine calling our mountains …” The voice trails off, and Allen’s ivories clink like ice, and then the voice continues, waxing euphoric about clouds. “Puffs, floating by from Oakland … or the gate of Mare-in to the north, or San Jose, south. The clarity of Cal. Break your heart …”
The seven-minute recording, made in 1958 by Jack Kerouac and pianist Allen, a comedian who would become the first host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, was released the following year as the opening track of a Hanover Records album titled Poetry for the Beat Generation; it would have come out before that, but the record label that commissioned the album, Dot—home to Pat Boone and Lawrence Welk—decided it was in “bad taste,” it was “off-color,” and it was “not family entertainment.”
Kerouac had written the opening track, “October in the Railroad Earth,” in 1953; it first was published in 1957 in the Evergreen Review, the same year his novel, On the Road, was published.
Years later, in September 1980, as summer began to fade into what passes for fall in the Sacramento Valley, two local poets—B.L. Kennedy and Patrick Grizzell—stood on a sidewalk in front of Kennedy’s T Street apartment house. Another long season had passed, without a flowering of words.
Kennedy remembered telling Grizzell that they should do something to shake things up. “Well, why not have a special poetry reading, like maybe something dedicated to Kerouac or someone?” Kennedy asked. Grizzell agreed that it might be a good idea, and Kennedy proposed they call it “October in the Railroad Earth.”
“Then Grizzell asked, ‘Why October?’” Kennedy remembered. “And I replied, ‘Well, October was Kerouac’s favorite month, and he did write that great short story titled “October in the Railroad Earth,” which is in the book Lonesome Traveler. And he did at one time record the story, with Steve Allen on piano.”
And so October in the Railroad Earth—according to Kennedy, the longest-running tribute to Kerouac—was born.
The original performance was held at the Poet Tree, a venue in the Sierra II center, on Friday, October 12, 1980. It featured Kennedy, Grizzell, Mike Herron and Theresa Vinciguerra reading from Kerouac’s works, and 80 people attended. “It was meant as a one-night stand,” Kennedy said. “We didn’t even consider doing a follow-up reading, let alone an annual reading. No one would have guessed that the damn thing would continue for 25 years.”
But it did, and over the years it developed into one of those sometimes honored but mostly unheralded events that happen under the radar in Sacramento, the kind of thing that makes this place worth living in for people who aren’t wholly satisfied by corporate pop-culture offerings.
One of the people in that first-year audience, D.R. Wagner, liked what he saw so much that he insisted on being a part of the action the next year. Two years later, Todd Walton—whose writing appeared often in SN&R in this paper’s early years—signed on with Team Railroad Earth. The performance took place in a number of venues, including the old Metro Bar beneath what’s now the Esquire Grill, Melarkey’s club on Broadway and Luna’s Café.
By 1989, October in the Railroad Earth had become an annual event, the largest poetry-related happening in town. At one year’s reading, at Melarkey’s, 450 people showed up. “It got so weird that we had to take all the chairs from the front bar,” Kennedy recalled, “stools and everything. Then we had to go in the back where they kept the broken chairs, and start repairing those.”
However, Kennedy and others decided that October in the Railroad Earth pretty much had run its course, and for the final Railroad, held at Melarkey’s, they would open the performance to other poets and writers. Two things happened: The audience let them know that ending a 10-year tradition would be a bad idea, and also that they should stick with a mostly Kerouac format, although other beat-movement-associated writers were also kosher. “It was OK if we at times added a new reader,” Kennedy explained, “but to end it was out of the question!”
Of course, not everyone is enamored with Kerouac and the beats. One poet, glancing at a flier for “October in the Railroad Earth,” scrunched up her nose but didn’t say anything.
“What, you don’t like Jack Kerouac?”
Her opinion: an excuse for a bunch of old, straight white guys to get together, get drunk and listen to bad poetry.
And Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of Kerouac’s novel On the Road—“That’s not writing; that’s typing”—is hardly a ringing endorsement, either.
But what some people don’t seem to get, others do. “It was the language more than anything else,” Kennedy remembered of his light-bulb moment while reading Kerouac, at age 17. And not On the Road, which according to Kennedy was edited with a too-heavy hand by Matthew Cowley from Kerouac’s original, typed onto a roll of teletype paper fed into a typewriter so the author would not have to pause to change paper. “The first thing I read of his that touched me was the first 70 pages of Desolation Angels,” Kennedy said. “It’s all about him up in the watchtower over there by Mount Hozomeen. And he’s talking about his loneliness for 70 pages; he talked about what was going on in his head. And I remember reading that—my friend Michael Dyson gave me the book—and I sat down on my Army cot in my basement bedroom. And I started crying. Because, up until then, I thought that writers just made everything up. I didn’t know that a writer can write from their life.”
Even if Kennedy found illumination in Kerouac’s words, he doubts they would have connected in other ways. “In real life, I probably never would have even gotten along with Jack Kerouac,” Kennedy admitted. “I think I might have been a little too liberal for him. I think he was pretty much a staunch conservative. … Well, maybe in my drinking days.”
True. There is an old clip of Kerouac, drunk to the max, sloshing his way through an interview with William F. Buckley on the PBS show Firing Line. And according to National Review Online Editor at Large Jonah Goldberg, Kerouac died with a cocktail in his hand, sitting next to a stack of National Review magazines.
But even if Kerouac did flame out early, at age 47 from a hemorrhage brought on by excessive boozing, he left a body of work that hasn’t quite penetrated popular culture to the extent that On the Road and The Dharma Bums—Kerouac’s autobiographical account, based on his exploration of Buddhism with Nevada County poet Gary Snyder—have. In 1980, according to Kennedy, those two books were the only Kerouac titles you could find at local stores. Now there is much more.
“Kerouac’s best work, I think, has yet to be really explored—stuff like Doctor Sex and his best book, I think, Big Sur, about his nervous breakdown from drinking,” Kennedy said.
Over the years, the October in the Railroad Earth reading has been performed in Arcata and Willits in California, along with Ashland, Ore., and Denver, when Kennedy studied with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at the Naropa Institute in nearby Boulder, Colo.
And over the years, a number of people have participated in October in the Railroad Earth. Kennedy, Grizzell, Wagner and Walton have been joined by Waldman, Ginsberg, Anselm Hollo, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Ed Sanders, Andrew Schelling, Robin Rule, Steve Taylor, Jimmy Self, Vince Montoya, Mike Farrell, Paul Basye, Steve Vanoni, Gene Avery, Chris Hall, Eric Crownover, Tim Randles, Paul Setich, Rick Martin, Neeli Cherkovski, A.D. Winans, Anne Menebroker, Charlene Ungstad, Todd Cirillo, Daniel Essman, Andy Clausen, Joanne Kyger, Sharon Doubiago, Melanie Anne McRae, Linda Thorell, Arthur Butler, Kent Taylor, Frank Andrick, Art Beck, Viola Weinberg, Danka Dinsmore, Becca Costello and Mike Crane. Some of them are poets, some are readers, and others have provided musical accompaniment.
And now, according to Kennedy, it’s time to bring a quarter-century of October in the Railroad Earth to a close. “It’s 25 years of my life,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s going to be a really sad thing to see it go, but I just can’t do it anymore.”
This year’s event will take place on Saturday, October 30, at the Art Foundry Gallery, at 1021 R Street next to the Fox & Goose. Kennedy and others wanted to do it at the Crest Theatre or the Masonic Temple, as last year’s event at Luna’s got to be quite packed, but they couldn’t work the details out. “It got so crowded that Art Luna shouted, ‘Stop the door! Stop the door!’” Kennedy recalled.
But the Sacramento Valley’s fascination with the beats may not be ending so soon. Two weeks after October in the Railroad Earth is history, the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis will be hosting its third annual Beat Generation and Beyond, a confluence of art, film, poetry and music, on Saturday, November 13.
As Sonny Bono might put it, the beat goes on.