The following interview was published in Beatdom #22, which can be purchased on Amazon.
Brian Hassett is the author of numerous books, including a “Beat Trilogy” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac (2015), How The Beats Begat The Pranksters & Other Adventure Tales (2017), and On the Road with Cassadys and Furthur Visions (2018). He also contributed to The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats (1999) and Kerouac On Record: A Literary Soundtrack (2018).
I have known Brian for several years, having helped him with the layout of his recent books, and given his passion for all things Kerouac and his own Kerouacian approach to life and art, I decided to sit down with him for a Zoom conversation. We discussed his writing process, publishing history, and his litany of Beat and countercultural friends.
David S. Wills
Why don’t we start off with your Beat Trilogy. How did that come about?
It all started in one of those Facebook groups. Somebody posted that picture of Allen and company on his front porch in Boulder in ’82, and people were agog – “Oh my God! Look at all those people in one place at one time!” And I thought, geez – what’s everybody so excited about? That’s just a picture of my summer vacation.
I mentioned that I was there, and people were like, “No way! Tell us about it!” So I started to write a response. I figured it would just take a couple’a minutes. I had a bunch of things to do that day, but the description just kept going on. So I went and ran the errands, came back, and figured I’d finish it up in a few minutes that night. “I don’t want this taking a whole day!” But I just kept writing. Then I went and pulled some files outta the filing cabinet, and continued on it the next day, and thought, “Well, I gotta finish this thing today. I don’t want this taking two whole days.” And then I just kept thinking of more things. Then I remembered some audio cassettes I’d recorded on the trip.
Pretty soon I realized this wasn’t a comment on a Facebook post! At that point I was going to make it a page on my website, BrianHassett.com. And I kept writing more. And then I was like – this is getting to be more than just a post on my site. Then I started to realize, “I think this might be a book” – which then gave me a timeframe. I was so proud of writing my first book [The Temp Survival Guide (1996)] in six days that I was like, well, “If this is a book, I want to make sure I write it in less than a week.” So I kept at it.
How many hours a day were you writing for?
When I write, I don’t do anything else, so I don’t know how many hours per se. I did keep track of the daily word counts, but I just write until I get exhausted, then go to sleep, then get up and go right back at it. My driving motivation was – “I want to get this done in a week.” And then the seventh day came and I wasn’t ready to rest, so I thought, “I wanna be able to say I wrote this book in ten days.” Then it got to that deadline and I didn’t quite have it done, but I did finish it in eleven. And then he rested.
So, I wrote the whole arc of that book in eleven days – and the arc is really important – the beginning, middle, and end. Think of how many books are started but never finished. For me, it’s like, don’t stop once you start doing it. So many people labor over one paragraph or the first chapter or something. No. Write it through to the end. Then you can start adding and subtracting and massaging and all that kind of stuff. But you’ve got to get to the end. Then you’ve got a book. Then you won’t abandon it – because it’s done.
I really got into memory. I’ve been studying it for the last few years and discovered that everything is stored on our organic hard drive – it’s just a matter of retrieval. As I was writing this book, maybe I’d come across a photograph of something, and – “Oh, yeah, that!” – and it would prompt a whole other detail or story of something that happened.
So that’s how I was able to keep growing it from the middle out after I had the basic draft. Then I finally had the whole book [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac]. I have a literary agent in New York, and I contacted her, and then I had to do the proposal and all that kind of stuff. Then she was shopping it for about a year. And I actually ended up having a meeting with Sterling Lord in the process, which was really cool. Kerouac and Kesey’s agent.
You’ve got a blurb from him at the beginning of your books…
Oh, yeah! “You’re a great stylist!” Anyway, she was ultimately unable to sell it, which I found is pretty common nowadays. Ken Babbs, who was Kesey’s right hand man in the Merry Pranksters, who finally wrote his big memoir opus about the Acid Tests and being with the Pranksters and the Dead — and he couldn’t get a book deal. And he’s a semi famous guy writing about very famous people. He ended up getting this bookstore in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, [Tsunami Books] to publish it. But that’s how bad the publishing industry is. What publishers said was, I don’t have a platform. Like, if I was on a TV show or something that would be a platform to sell from, or if I had a Twitter account with a million followers or something. But failing that, no publisher was going to take it.
The funny thing was that then I started to look into self-publishing, and I found CreateSpace. They offered all these services for editing and all this other stuff. And I was like, well, “How much does it cost if I don’t use your editing services?” And they went, “Oh, well, then it’s free.” And I was like, “What?! I’d pay to not have somebody mess with this!”
So that’s how I got to that point. I’m good at writing and editing and photo editing and all that – but I’m not good at graphic arts, like Photoshop. So I contacted Dave Moore [moderator of the Jack Kerouac and Beat Generation Facebook groups] who’s really into book covers, and he said, “You know who has really good covers is Beatdom. You should contact them and see who does theirs.” So that was what led me to you. And you said, “Well, actually, I do the covers.” And I was like, “No way!” So that was how you and I got connected. So now I had somebody who could do the cover – and I knew how to do the inside. I’d finally learned that I could do the book myself after a year of my agent trying to sell it. This was on a Friday afternoon. Then, on Sunday, an indie publisher out of L.A. I’d contacted, Punk Hostage Press, accepted it!
With my newfound knowledge about how I could retain control at CreateSpace, I asked them, “If you do it, can I keep control over the manuscript?” They said, “No. If we buy it, we get the manuscript, and then you can proof what we do.” It was such amazing timing that I had just learned on the Friday that I could indeed do it myself and keep complete control. And then it was accepted, and I figured, “Well, if I can’t keep control of the file, no thanks, I’ll just do it myself.”
So that was how that whole thing went down. And then the book was a big success. It’s still selling well. It was just quoted today on the anniversary of the Human Be-in – I have a great detailed description.
Then I started touring around and ended up connecting with George Walker, one of the original Pranksters who I’d met in ‘82 at the Kerouac conference. And he and I started doing a Jack and Neal show, and it was kind of a hit. So then we got booked on an east coast tour. And we were going to play…
You played Kerouac, right? You were acting.
Yeah. We were performing texts from mostly On the Road. He would become Neal Cassady. He probably spent more time with the guy than anyone alive today except his kids. We would find these passages with lots of Neal quotes, and I would read everything that wasn’t Neal and then George would become Cassady. I was Jack – he was Neal. And so we got booked on this east coast tour playing Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, The Bitter End, a big Acid Test in Pennsylvania, The Mothership in Woodstock, The Music Hall in Toronto, and a bunch of other gigs.
George was preparing to come out – this was so freakin’ amazing – I came up with this idea about How the Beats Begat the Pranksters because he and I had been talking about it, as well as with a bunch of the other original Pranksters.
Anyway, I was writing this thing. [Brian holds up a scroll of papers taped together.] I thought it was just going to be on my website, but it had grown into something that was way more than that. As I was going to sleep one night, I scribbled in the dark on the ever-present pad next to my pillow – “This is a book. Do it as such.” As soon as I got up the next day, I contacted you when you were teaching in China. And it just happened to be the week when all the students were going on their military training – so you had the week off. If I had contacted you at any other time and you were like, “Well, I’m teaching this week, maybe I could squeeze in a few hours here and there,” that book never would have happened. But you said, “As a matter of fact, I’m off for the next ten days.” And I was like, “Oh … my … God.” George and I were leaving in two weeks on this tour. So I had to get the book out in two weeks. And that’s what you and I did, which ties to the idea of me being inspired by Jack writing On the Road in three weeks.
Also, I’d read other stories about things like that. Neil Young wrote the song “Ohio” after looking at a Life magazine with pictures of the Kent State massacre. He walked out into the woods behind the house, wrote the song, came back an hour later, played it for Crosby, and David was like, “I can’t believe this!” He called Nash and said, “We got to get into the studio. And I mean, now!” And they ran into the Record Plant in L.A., recorded “Ohio,” and had it on the radio the next week.
It’s capturing the immediate energy, the enthusiasm, and the brilliance of a singular idea.
Yeah. And another connection – we went to the same high school in Winnipeg. Another story like that I love is when John Lennon did the same thing when he wrote “Instant Karma” in the morning, then went into Abbey Road that afternoon and recorded it. And because they had Apple Records, it was pressed and out as a single in a week. Those two stories always stuck with me. And I thought, “Wow – I’d love to do something like that some time in my life.” But being a guy who writes books I figured, “There’s no way you’re ever going to live a story like that.” Well, Boom! Thanks to scheduling and karma and a great layout guy in China, I was able to put it together. That first note to myself to make it a book was written on September 13th, and the finished book was published and on sale by September 26th – thirteen days later.
It seems that when you get an idea in your head, you want to capture that enthusiasm, so you keep going with a sort of religious zeal. But it wasn’t just writing all day, every day for ten days… you did five books in five years.
There’s definitely a lot of parallels between you and Kerouac in that regard. The compulsion to write, for one thing.
Well, I have this great analogy – that writing a book is like building a house. The first draft is when you lay the foundation and put up the wooden structure of the whole house – the framework. And then the next draft, you go through and fill in the walls. And then the next time you go through it, you’re putting in the windows. And then on later read-throughs, you’re doing the detail work like painting the windowsills. The whole thing is like a house being built – first you put up the frame. Lots of people make the mistake in writing of obsessing over making the first room perfect without even a roof over their head. This applies to writing anything, short or long. In fact, in the new Beatles: Get Back documentary George Harrison mentions following John’s advice about songwriting – “As soon as you start ‘em, finish ‘em.”
How do photographs come into this? You mentioned earlier that they inspire you in terms of memory, and it seems like, having worked with you on these books, you take a lot of photographs and you’re in a lot of photographs, and they become part of the book as well. I mean, your books aren’t just a solid block of text. There are a lot of images in there.
When I’m creating a book, I want to make one that I would like to read. For one thing, I like short chapters. As a reader, you feel like you’re accomplishing something, like in five or nine pages or whatever. When chapters are 75 pages long, as a reader, there’s no short-term achievement reward.
Also, I don’t like books where they put all the photos in the middle on glossy paper. You get to the middle, and all of a sudden there’s a picture of what happened in chapter one, and then there’s a picture of something that’s gonna happen in chapter thirty-six, and it’s like, “Oh, this is supposed to be over here.” So I really like to put the photograph in with the text where it belongs, and then it’s way more fun when you’re reading. Like, there’s suddenly an image. I’m very visual. But I don’t want readers to thumb through the book and spoil the surprises. I don’t want the reader to know what’s coming. It’s way better if you have no idea. Then you turn the page and Boom! – there’s a picture of the very thing the author’s talking about.
Your books also play with font size and font type and line spacing and so forth, so each chapter has its own feel as well. I don’t think I’ve encountered another author who’s done that, so your books have this unique quality. They serve as almost multidisciplinary texts.
Yeah – that’s part of what makes books fun to me. And it was also why initially I couldn’t get them out as ebooks because they didn’t have the technology five or six years ago to deal with pictures and font changes every few pages. But now they’ve worked that out and can exactly reproduce the books. But, yeah, you want a movie that’s got twists and turns. I liked when the Grateful Dead would play shows. They’d play a rock number then a blues standard then a country tune then a Beatles song. It kept you guessing. It kept changing every few minutes. I really like that. And I want to read books that are like that.
It takes a lot of skill to do that and maintain an overall cohesion.
Yeah. Well, again, if you create the big arc first, if you start with a solid framework in place, then you have the cohesion, and then you can go – “What if we put, like, a little Dali painting right here? And what if we hang a Picasso over there?” Because the big arc is held together by having written it in one shot, and you’ve got the cohesion that way – then you can slip in these little surprises all over the place.
While we’re talking about photos, I really love the one that’s on the cover of How the Beats Begat the Pranksters.
Yeah! Thanks! That was at Boulder ‘82 – right as Kesey and company were leaving. They’d held this little send-off ceremony in the park. So that’s actually a photograph from the events of my first book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac. I’d gotten to be close with Kesey and Babbs and George Walker. Keez was more of a draw for me in ‘82 when I was twenty-one years old than were Allen or the Beats. But I was like “Kesey and the Dead and Kerouac and Ginsberg at the same event! Are you kidding me?!” While I was there, I got kind of close with Kesey, and they did a thing in Chautauqua Park on the final Sunday – giving out funny Prankster awards. He had that big green convertible. In the photo, Allen is hanging with Ken, saying goodbye. The real beauty of the picture is how the fingers of their hands are intertwined. How could you get a better image of the interweaving of the Beats and the Pranksters?
That’s why I love the photo so much. That’s a really beautiful photo that captures the connection between generations, I think.
And it’s such a fitting photo for the cover of that particular book. It kind of says the title in picture form.
Yeah! I’m so lucky that I’ve got that picture. Oh, dude, this is the camera that picture was taken with! [Brian holds up an old Instamatic X-15.] I’ve still got it. This is not a replica – this is the very camera I carried with me in ‘82. Isn’t that crazy?!
And right before that, actually, we were all standing around the car there. And I hadn’t really been using the camera much because, you know, back in those days, you had to buy the film, and take the picture, and pay to have it developed and printed, and you never knew how a picture was going to come out. It was sort of an expensive proposition. When Kesey was leaving, I wanted to get at least one shot of him and I together, and the only people at the car were Kesey, Babbs, George, Allen, and me. I gave that camera to Allen and he took that photograph of me and Kesey together. Speaking of generations – that was one more – Ginsberg, Kesey and Hassett.
We’ve talked about your Beat Trilogy, but those weren’t the first books that you wrote. You were actually in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, which is quite funny because that’s the first book that I ever read about the Beats. I’d read Kerouac and Burroughs and Ginsberg, and I was interested enough that I went to my university library, and they had that on the shelf, and I read it. So I would have read something you wrote a long time before we ever met.
How did you get involved in that?
That’s Holly George-Warren who put that together in New York. Her and I and her husband Robert, and my girlfriend at the time, Dawn – who was an editor at the Village Voice – were all friends. Holly occasionally wrote what were called “shorts” for the Voice – little mini reviews or previews about what was happening next week in New York. And Robert and I were both on the East Village poetry/music club circuit. Holly was really into Jack and the Beats, so we had that in common and were always talking our heads off together.
Holly was the Director of Rolling Stone Press at the time, and she came up with the idea for the book, and found a couple of Beat fans at Hyperion who wanted to publish it. Holly knew of my knowledge of the subject and that I was up to my eyeballs in that world because this was coming right on the heels of those two NYU conferences. The funny story about that was – I was at Boulder ‘82, which was the big daddy of them all. Nothing was ever going to top that, including because between ‘82 and ‘94, a bunch of the key people had died – Holmes, Abbie, Edie Kerouac, Ted Berrigan. So this thing was coming up at NYU, and to be completely confessional about a person’s misguided arrogance, I was like, “Well, I don’t need to go to this stupid thing. I was at the big one. I don’t need no second cousin.”
But I just happened to be down in the Village on the Wednesday of the opening night event, and it was at NYU where I’d been the concert booker for three years. This was my old stomping ground and I knew every inch of that building – the Loeb Student Center. So I went and snuck into the building because I knew my way around and how to get past the guards and all that.
There was a big outdoor terrace on the second floor outside the main Eisner & Lubin Auditorium. I was out there just kind of reflecting on my college years and checking out the views when I looked down over the railing and saw this Jeep with a Farm Aid logo on the side and some guy loading conga drums out the back. Sure enough, it was David Amram. He was hosting the opening night – and he invites everybody and their uncle on stage with him. It was such a joyous way to kick off that NYU conference.
So I went down and helped him load in stuff and just started talking and hanging and meeting everybody involved and all that, then I stayed for the event. Sitting right in front of me was Michael McClure and Amy. And sitting nearby, I spotted Teri McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s daughter. I had been her publicist in the ‘80s and we became quite good friends. I hadn’t seen her for years. And she was there with John Cohen the photographer who took that famous picture of Larry Rivers, Jack, Amram, Corso and Ginsberg at the diner during the Pull My Daisy days, and a million other historic photographs. So I was seeing all these people that I hadn’t seen in a long time – my old extended Beat family.
And then I fell in with Helen Kelly and Ed Adler, who were the two primary organizers of it. I told them how I used to run the concerts there ten years earlier, so we were sort of NYU event coordinator colleagues. Helen gave me an all-access pass to that whole first conference. So that’s how that all got started.
And then there was the second conference the next year – the same year as that big Beat show at the Whitney, which is still to this day the biggest exhibit on the Beats ever done by a major museum. There was that little window over the course of a year or so when there were all these major events. Jack’s first Selected Letters book came out and the dam started to break on all the unpublished material. It was one of those big beautiful blooming seasons in Beatlandia when all of a sudden all this major stuff was happening, and I’d fallen back in with everybody.
Oh, and then David Amram had been struggling to write his memoir and couldn’t really get it off the ground. And Teri McLuhan knew I was a heck of a good writer, so at the end of the final night, they had a big special dinner, and I took Teri as my date. We all went out afterwards, and she knew about Amram not being able to get his book finished. So she talked to him all night about how I was the guy who could help him write it. And she just kept going on about it until he and I agreed we would talk tomorrow. She supervised us exchanging phone numbers. She didn’t want this to just be some bar talk. She made sure she’d sealed the deal before she split at the end of the night that I was going to write Amram’s book. And because I was coming so highly recommended by no less than Teri McLuhan, who’s a brilliant writer and scholar and researcher and human being, Dave went along with it. So that began a process of several years of Dave and I being very close. I was writing his biography, or co-writing his memoir, or however we were gonna manifest it.
But Amram had a classical music career composing symphonies and conducting orchestras, and he had a whole jazz career, and then he had all of these Beat stories. I said to him, “These are three separate books.” There was one about the Beats, one about classical music, and one about jazz. “The Kerouac people are not going to want to read about Bartók and Leonard Bernstein; and the classical people aren’t going to want to read about Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso; and the jazz people are just gonna want the jazz stuff. You need to do a classical book, a jazz book, and a Beat book.” And he kind of poo-pooed the idea because he wanted everything in one book. Then years later, he ended up writing just the Kerouac book, which is what I was suggesting he do back at that time. Anyway, I’m telling you all of this because the ‘94 NYU, ‘95 NYU, and the Whitney exhibit really kicked off this huge kind of Beat frenzy, and all these events were in Manhattan where I was living, and they were a real catalyst for this Beat resurgence.
Suddenly the whole Beat world was aflutter again and I was in the middle of it. So when Rolling Stone decided to do The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, and I was really close with Holly, she knew that I was up to my eyeballs in this world, so she was like, “Let me get Brian in here and help me get the lay of the land.”
You knew a hell of a lot of people in the Beat world. It sounds like you’ve mentioned almost everyone there.
Yeah, I really did. I wasn’t as close with Corso and Ginsberg and such as some people were, but I certainly knew who they all were and had a lot of their phone numbers. I was able to kind of give her an overview in the sense of – “This person is really smart and articulate … this person’s pretty flaky … you definitely wanna get this person on this subject” – that kinda thing.
So out of all those famous names you’ve mentioned, we seem to be missing the Cassadys. You knew Carolyn and you know John Allen. How did you get to know them?
Yeah, that’s the third book of the Beat Trilogy – On the Road with Cassadys. Actually, I wrote about this part of it in the first book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac. Carolyn was fifty-nine at the time of that ‘82 conference. And the thing was, she was just drop-dead gorgeous, even at that age. There are some women like that – Jane Fonda, Sophia Loren, Dolly Parton – who look stunning for decades.
I saw her in ‘82, and I was twenty-one and she was fifty-nine, and she was just intimidatingly beautiful, and so poised and confident and always kinda the center of everyone’s attention. How do you even talk to a woman like that?! I had no problem talking to Allen or Holmes or Kesey and the gang, but I was intimidated because she was so freakin’ pretty. That was in ‘82.
Then when ‘94 happened and she came back and was part of the NYU conference, I was like, “Well, I’m not blowing it this time. I’m gonna talk to that woman!” And so that was where it first started, and we just kind of hit it off. And again – it’s one of those things about having been around a lot of famous people – don’t ask them for anything, like favors, just talk to them like you and I are talking, like friends. So anyway, we just kind of became friends, and we liked each other’s sense of humor. For whatever reason, we could really make each other laugh.
She was still good looking – and she was freakin’ Carolyn Cassady, the love of Jack’s life, the love of Neal’s life – so people were kind of intimidated by her. But I was like, “I’m going to correct that mistake I made when I was twenty-one, and I’m going to talk to this woman and hang out with her.” So, that was the beginning.
Then one of those nights after a long day at the conference, somebody from Lowell had a suite at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown, and we were all up there in this multi-room suite having a party. And after a few more drinks, she was ready to go to bed, and since we’d bonded, she asked if I’d walk her to her room.
Suddenly there I was walking down the hall with her, and we locked arms like that famous early picture of her and Neal where their arms are locked at the elbow as they’re walking down the street. Suddenly I’m walking down this hallway, like in a courtship portrait – the same exact position where she had her arm around Neal’s – her on my right side and the man on the left. Here I was, walking Carolyn Cassady to her hotel room, arm-in-arm. I couldn’t believe it. I tell the story in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. We got to her hotel room door. And what do you do in that moment? Thank God inspiration struck, and I took her hand and kissed it in that almost Royal British respectful way. And she just loved that because as much as she hung out with these Bohemian ne’er-do-wells, she was really a proper girl, a proper woman.
She didn’t like people swearing. She liked good manners. And I was raised a very polite Western Canadian boy and went to a private British boy’s school for years, and I guess I had good manners. I didn’t know any of this background stuff about her at the time, or that she moved to England because, in part, she didn’t like the crassness of America. She really liked the kind of refined, almost upper classy-type fine china and well-behaved people and everything that English culture was. And me coming from Canada, perhaps I had a little of that. So anyway, that was that moment where I walked her to her room and kissed her hand good night. And from then on, we were kind of besties. We started corresponding by email and snail mail and phone. That was how the whole Carolyn thing started.
And then John and I had been corresponding. He’d been online a little bit, and we exchanged some emails. We’d made a connection, and because I was friendly with his mom, that sort of made things easy with him. I knew he played guitar and was a rock n roll guy, which I was. And so then he finally came to New York in the late ‘90s. Levi Asher from LitKicks put on this big five-year anniversary of LitKicks event. I had been producing all these different shows in downtown Manhattan during those years, often with a Beat theme, and they’d be these all-star affairs with Lee Ranaldo and Paul Krassner and Al Aronowitz and Bob Holman and Dave Amram and all these different people would perform, and I’d produce them single-handedly. So when Levi wanted to do this big fifth anniversary celebration for his LitKicks site – the first Beat website on the Internet – he asked me to produce it.
I knew Paul Rizzo, the owner of The Bitter End, and I was able to get that historic club on Bleecker Street to let us do it. They gave us the whole room for the whole night, which they never did for anybody, but I was able to talk them into it. And it was this huge success. It was a nine-hour show! It started at 7 and ended at 4 in the morning. The original owner, Paul Colby, wrote about it in his autobiography. Levi had John came in for it. So that was how I first got to know John in person. We just bonded. I write the story about how he and I started hanging in the On the Road with Cassadys book. Levi put John up at the Chelsea Hotel. We had a pre-event party there. All these people were in this big room and they were all talking and stuff, and John and I found ourselves sitting against the wall on either side of this little table watching the chaos and the people laughing and drinking and partying, and we were making comic asides to each other and such. And I remember I said to him, “Cassady, pass me the lighter.” And I thought, “Wow! I never thought I would ever say that in my life!”
He passed me the lighter and I don’t know why but in that moment I realized I was becoming friends with the next generation Neal Cassady. Anyway, John and I then went on to sort of bond. It was kind of like his mother and I had.
The thing was with his mom, she had this great laugh – it was kind of a giggle – and it was just music to my ears. If I could get Carolyn to laugh, I’d get the reward of hearing that cute little girl’s giggle. So, it was in my best interest to make her laugh so I’d get to hear it again. And she loved it of course because I was always cracking her up. Well, it was a little bit like that with John. He has this really dry sense of humor, man. He delivers these lines, and unless you know he’s joking – he doesn’t give you any clue – they’re just these dry, really funny lines, and he just puts them out there and waits to see if anybody gets them. And I got them.
So he was cracking me up, and I was cracking him up. And then we ended up having a whole bunch of adventures. We were in Amsterdam when Jack and Neal were inducted into the Counterculture Hall of Fame over there. I was inducting Jack, and John and Carolyn were inducting Neal.
Oh, yeah, this is a good one. Speaking of producing shows and everything. This is a great story – I also tell this in On the Road with Cassadys – but I was working at MTV. It was around 2000, and I saw something in an article about some upcoming event that was celebrating a 50th anniversary – because, you know, 50th anniversaries are the big ones. It was the 50th anniversary of something that happened in 1950 – and suddenly the light bulb went on – “Oh my God – we’re about to start to go through the 50th anniversary of everything that happened in the ‘50s!” So I thought, “What was the first cool thing that happened?” And I came up with Jack writing On the Road in April 1951. He started it on April 2nd and finished it on April 22nd.
So, after work that day, I went to where he wrote it at 454 West 20th Street in Chelsea, then walked to the nearest corner at 10th Avenue and started looking for the closest possible venue to his house. The only thing that was nearby was a restaurant called the Chelsea Commons. I went in and said, “Hey, the 50th anniversary of Kerouac writing On the Road is coming up. He wrote it right around the corner. I’d like to put on a show here.” And the owner was like, “We’re a restaurant. We don’t do shows.” But I talked him into it! And put on this mindblowingly great event. Again, it was about seven hours long! It was the best one I ever produced – on the 50th anniversary of Jack starting On The Road – April 2nd, 2001.
Then, MTV was flying me out to L.A. to be part of the Kids’ Choice Awards which was going to be right around April 22nd, when Jack finished the book. So I thought, “Why don’t I do a show in New York on the day he started it, and a show in L.A. on the day he finished it? Wouldn’t that be cool?!” So I got all that rolling and worked with S.A. Griffin, who was the main Beat guy in L.A., and we put on that event. And I knew it was near enough for John to come down from where he lived just south of S.F. He stayed with me at that fancy Shutters hotel in Santa Monica that MTV was paying for. And we had a rental car and everything, and one of the best adventures we ever had – we did a lot of adventuring – but we woke up one morning and it was a beautiful blue sky day in L.A., which is really rare, and you could see for miles. And I was like, I always wanted to go up to the Hollywood sign, so we jumped in the car, bought a bunch of beers, and drove up there. This whole story is also in the On the Road with Cassadys book.
This was pre-9/11. They’ve now got more cameras and take it a lot more seriously, but this was in the Before Times, and all they had was this huge sign that said “No Hiking to the Hollywood Sign – pursuant to Los Angeles Bylaw blah-blah-blah, and violators are subject to this and that.” And we’re looking at this big sign and John’s going, “Oh, well, we got this close. This is pretty good,” and he’s snapping pictures of it. And I’m like, “You think that’s stopping us?” I said, “Johnny, why don’t we just walk up the hill a little bit and see what it’s like?” – which got us to the other side of the sign. And now we weren’t looking at that ominous wording anymore. It’s like that great Woody Guthrie lyric about the No Trespassing sign and getting on the other side of it – “this side was made for you and me.” Once I got Johnny on the back side of the Do Not Enter sign, I had him. And we walked all the way up and spent hours hanging out up at the Hollywood sign.
We had a lot of really fun adventures in our life.
So, you celebrated the 50th anniversary of the writing On the Road, and now here we are, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kerouac. Have you got any plans for that?
Well, gosh, didn’t we all until this dreaded C-word came along. They have me booked for two shows at the big Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival in October. I’m doing the usual “Brian Hassett’s Roadshow.” But then I also came up with… oh, this is such a great idea! S.A. Griffin and I – my L.A. Beat brother I did that On the Road show with – he and I were jamming on the phone and got talking about the portrayals of Jack on film, because S.A. is a professional actor. He’s got nearly a hundred credits on IMDb, he’s taught at the American Film Institute, he’s a total film scholar and practitioner. We got riffing on Jack’s portrayals, and I came up with – “What if we did a show where we focused on ‘Jack on Film’ and go through each of them?” He’s been portrayed on the big screen eleven times, I think. So we’re gonna talk about each one, from Pull My Daisy where Jack’s basically played by Gregory Corso. The next one was The Subterraneans with George Peppard. We’ll talk about Route 66 because that was such an obvious rip-off of On the Road. And then Heart Beat and The Last Time I Committed Suicide and On the Road and Kill Your Darlings and Big Sur.
We’re going to do it as a two-person panel on Sunday night at the end of everybody celebrating for three days – so the festival will end with a movie night. We’ll show clips from each film and talk about the performances and casting and script and such. That’s at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac in October, which is the big one. They have something in March, but it’s smaller, and also it’s cold in Lowell in March. And with this Covid thing, holding outdoor events isn’t going to work.
Then I hatched an idea with my Beat brother in Germany, Thomas Kauertz. He’s the dean of an architecture school over there, and he’s a big Kerouac guy. We were all gonna go for the 100th birthday in March, but everybody I know who was planning on it has bailed because of Covid. So then we got the idea of going in the summer because Lowell’s gonna have all these exhibits in the museums all year long. The On the Road scroll is going to be there for a month or so. And they’re specially making banners with a bunch of quotes from his work that are going to hang from the lampposts around town. And there’s going to be a lot of neat, one-time-only stuff in Lowell. So me and Thomas hatched this idea to go in June or July. He’ll fly from Germany, and I’ll come from Toronto, and as soon as we get the date, we’ll put it out there to other people because, well, Hassett’s coming from Canada and Tom’s coming from Germany.
Well, we’re all changing our plans because of Covid, so you’ve got to be spontaneous.
Yeah. It sucks. But “spontaneous” is what Jack and ol’ first-thought-best-thought Allen taught us. If you haven’t mastered that at this point you haven’t been paying attention.
Brian’s books are available on Amazon and you can read more about him at his website, BrianHassett.com.