Had Jack Kerouac lived, he would have been 74 on March 12. That would have been wrong. Kerouac, the prototypal hipster, the man who epitomized the Beat Generation, probably lived too long as it was. Beat Generation chronicler Steven Watson reports that, right before Kerouac had the Johnny Walker Red-induced hemorrhage that killed him on Oct. 21, 1969, the 47-year-old writer had been watching “The Galloping Gourmet” on TV. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a recipe for a crumpet.
Monday night, there will be a birthday tribute to Kerouac and his fellow hipsters at Brian Sheehan’s Eclectic Cafe in North Hollywood. “It’s not limited to Kerouac,” says Brad Hills, co-director of the Valley’s Road Theatre Company, which put together the project with the help of a grant from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. “It’s a tribute to the whole Beat Generation.”
As a result, there will be readings not only from Jack’s work, but from the work of other Beat icons, such as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. But, let’s face it, nobody embodied the concept of hip the way Kerouac did, despite his blue-collar, French Canadian Catholic roots and his ignominious end, not long after a drunken denunciation of Jews on conservative commentator William F. Buckley’s TV show, “Firing Line.”
Things not to think about: Although such Kerouac novels as “On the Road” (1957) galvanized a generation, in his last years he was only published in skin magazines, including Nugget and Escapade. As Watson reports, Kerouac never made more than $15,000 in his life, for the movie rights to the “The Subterraneans.” After Kerouac’s death, director Francis Ford Coppola paid more to Kerouac’s estate for the rights to “On the Road” than the writer made for all his books combined.
Sounds bad enough, right? It’s not the half of it. As Watson writes, “Jack Kerouac had always desired recognition of his literary stature alongside Melville and Shakespeare; in its stead he got a niche in the pantheon of American pop culture alongside James Dean and Maynard G. Krebs.” Krebs, in case you are not old enough to have grandchildren, was the beatnik character on TV’s “Dobie Gillis,” played by Bob Denver of “Gilligan’s Island” fame. Kerouac hated beatniks (no word on how he felt about “Gilligan’s Island”).
On the other hand, Kerouac was one of those writers--F. Scott Fitzgerald was another--who seemed to speak for an entire generation. Today, the voice may seem dated, but it can be argued that such utterly contemporary figures as filmmaker Quentin Tarantino could never have existed if Kerouac had not decided to hit the road with bisexual heartthrob Neal Cassady and write an utterly fresh, episodic book about it. However briefly, Kerouac seemed to find an answer to the eternal question of who we Americans are. Or, as Kerouac himself put it in “On the Road”: “I mean, man, whither goest thou? Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
Theodore Stevens, a member of the Road Theatre Company, will direct the Beat program. A former musician, he came to the material through his love of jazz, including the work of Beat idol Charlie Parker. Stevens enlisted the help of some 20 actor friends, most of them from the theater company, to interpret poetry and prose by Gregory Corso, Frank O’Hara, Bob Dylan and others who were attracted to Kerouac’s white-hot flame.
“The program was basically my insanity,” says Stevens. “I wanted it to sound as much like verbal jazz as I could.”
What can patrons expect? They’ll hear such groundbreaking works as Ginsberg’s sexually explicit, peyote-fueled epic, “Howl.” Last week, Stevens couldn’t find anybody willing to read the long, demanding work until he offered it to actor Scott Smith. “He’s a steely-eyed missile man,” the director says of Smith. “He’s a brave guy.”
The program will be done in the low-tech, spontaneous fashion that characterized readings at The Cellar in San Francisco’s North Beach and other Beat Generation hangouts. Stevens hopes to have a jazz trio--jazz guitar, bass and drums. Patrons don’t have to dress all in black and wear sandals, but, then again, it wouldn’t hurt.
Brian Sheehan, whose Eclectic Cafe regularly hosts readings and other literary events, will provide the buffet. The Beats are noted for what they drank, smoked and injected, not for what they ate, so expect pastas, pizzas and the Eclectic Cafe’s usual California cuisine. Sheehan has a special affection for Kerouac. The actor-restaurateur once played him in a PBS special.
People who love Kerouac, and they are still legion, cite his many strengths: his energy, his modernity, his rejection of the conventional, his celebration of ordinary people and ordinary things. As Stevens says of Kerouac and his fellow Beats, “They are America. Just read the last page and a half of ‘On the Road.’ ”
* WHAT: “The Beat Goes On,” a tribute to Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation at Brian Sheehan’s Eclectic Cafe.
* WHERE: 5156 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday.
* HOW MUCH: $15.
* CALL: (818) 761-8838.