An Evening for Jack Kerouac

Monday 17 September 2007

18.30 – 20.00
British Library Conference Centre


I was outside the British Library Conference Centre (which is over to the right of the main Library entrance) when Carolyn Cassady walked by.  Carolyn was moving slowly with two very young girls apparently perched on her shoulder.  In actual fact they were processing quietly with her one holding a microphone on a short pole, the other a largish movie camera.  This sombre, almost Poe-like procession floated slowly round the British Library courtyard and I realised that Carolyn was being filmed and interviewed for posterity. Carolyn was decked in expensive light clothing, she’s small as you know, the two girls were even smaller, both dressed in black.

I missed the screening of Pull my Daisy at 5-30pm (which Carolyn and the ravens floated in for) ‘cos I was doing other things outside.  I didn’t mind ‘cos good though it is I’d seen ‘Pull’ at a couple of other Kerouac events, and I’ve got it on DVD, so didn’t mind missing it this time.

The guys at the main reception desk where I’d enquired earlier in the afternoon didn’t know about the ‘Pull’ screening and apparently neither did many of the prospective audience, ‘cos I only witnessed about 30 people go in at 5-30pm.

Whereas at 7-00pm people started centring in across the square for the main event in steady number.  I was late getting to my seat at the back of the theatre, but enjoyed a good view from a sloping auditorium.  I perceived that David Amram was on stage playing cool jazz on a keyboard with a bassist and drummer accompanying.

The furnishings were comfortable the lighting was soft, I was pleased with Dave Amram who seemed a modest personable guy like a musical Harold Wilson.  David introduced Mike McShane and American actor who replaced John Ventimiglia from The Sopranos who was picking up an award in LA. McShane read well, cuttings from Kerouac, starting with the “The only ones for me….” quote.  I liked the way he said “Awwww…” at the end really restrained, very professional (if that means ‘real’).  Wish I’d wooped but we all clapped enthusiastically instead. The David Amram trio was accompanying Mike fittingly with jazz embellishment on these outings.


David Amram then introduced Carolyn Cassady to be interviewed by Englishman Steve Turner (author of Jack Kerouac – Angelheaded Hipster) Carolyn looked fine in (I think) a light cream coloured suit, she didn’t look her 70 – odd years, but found it hard hearing all the questions asked her, though here Steve offered clarification.  Steve’s a tall debonair smart looking chap, and Carolyn’s voice purred with a nice American accent. They relaxed on stage and got down to the interview.  The bits that stuck with me were as follows:

Steve introduced Carolyn thanking her for helping him with his book – Published 1996 – and allowing him access to her photographs.

She said she never guessed at the time that Kerouac/Beat appreciation would get this big.

She said Jack was very shy and that the very outgoing Neal possessed qualities that he would like to have had himself.

However she said that Jack ’embellished’ a lot in his books.  For instance she said that Neal never came to the door naked, he just wouldn’t.  She said that she had had a strict upbringing and wouldn’t have gone out with Neal if she had thought he was a tear-away.  He struck her as a perfect gentleman – honest, charming, intelligent, thoughtful, considerate.

She said that Jack recorded in On the Road that Neal picked her up in a bar. She said that in those days she never went into bars.

She said modern fans forget the times that they were living in. The ‘thirties and ‘forties were strict, conventional times. They were a conventional group.

Steve Turner picked her up here, saying: “Sleeping with your husband’s best friend is hardly conventional, Carolyn.”

‘Well, no……..’  (laughter from the audience)

Why did she think that Jack didn’t record their (his and Carolyn’s) relationship in On the Road? Carolyn said ‘ because of the conventions of the time, the publishers wouldn’t have entertained it.’

She said that she didn’t think that there was a Beat Generation, in her experience they were a group of artist in various fields (writers, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors) who happened to know one another, and for the most part dig what each other did.

She said that Neal was a great writer in letters to his friends but never had the application to sit down and write a book. He would get wound up for hours over which word to use, etc.

Questions were thrown open to the audience and they were naturally reticent, to get the ball rolling I stuck my hand up, as did another brave soul. She got the first question:

Why did Carolyn chose to live in England: Carolyn said her grandparents were English, and she loved it here.  In earlier life she’d worked in the theatre and for any theatre lover London was a honeypot.  She loved the culture and  the history of England.

The mike was thrust into my hand:

“Carolyn, to many of us fans Kerouac was the most honest of writers.  He didn’t make up detective stories, no, he wrote about his experiences and many of the facts can be checked and are generally found to be true.  But you say he invented situations?”

‘Sure, if he found a book was getting a little staid he’d put something in to enliven it.’

She said she puts the record straight in her book Off the Road.  ‘But nobody bothers to read it.’

She said she enjoyed reading the original On the Road which she found fresh and bright, but wasn’t so keen on the un-censored scroll version.  She said that generally she doesn’t read the Beats.

She said that she and Neal done a lot of spiritual searching, looking for ‘it’, the ‘reason why we’re all here’ reading through Edgar Cayce and others.  I got the impression that they (She and Neal) leaned towards the idea of reincarnation in their beliefs. And she said that that was what Neal and Jack were searching for On the Road – they weren’t just out there for kicks.

It was suggested that Neal was busted for possessing Marijuana because as a Beat Icon the police wanted to make an example of him and get him out of the way, but, said Carolyn, that is ridiculous, he and Jack were unknown at the time, nobody knew who they were, least of all the police.

As an example of how staid the times were Carolyn said that when her mother learned that Neal had been put into prison, she suggested that having brought such disgrace on the family, he should kill his children.

Unlike Jack, Neal never drunk much, strong spirits upset him.

Steve Turner pointed out that Neal was very un-conventional at the end when he joined Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Taking drugs and such.

‘Yes, but by then I’d lost him, he was trying to destroy himself, he and Jack had a death wish’.

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David S. Wills

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David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, or on Tumblr.

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