Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary
The following missives decribe Kerouac’s reaction to the magic mushroom extract, taken the day President Kennedy was inaugurated. The first, a postcard, is in the form of a brief poem, and there then followed a letter more descriptive of the experience.
Dear Leery By God you were Right Why did Donlin send you Or was it Newman? Joy the 23rd Loves you I guess I mean if He knew you Not that He is spellt with Capital Letters Like in Blake But bless you (later) Jack Kerouac
|“Dear Tim (coach)
I wrote yo stupid drunken letter, I mean postcard, addressed to Harvard Psychology Dept. which you may get. But Allen reminds me you want notes on my reaction to Sacred Mushroomsextract. Why not I make it in the form of a letter, here and now, without planning, and you can extract what you need for your article and researches. (Allen also suggested I send you my notes on Mescaline but I only have one copy now, will type it later for you, but in any case Mescaline is not the same as mushrooms, as you know)You say that Montezuma was high on sacred mushrooms andtherefore did not resist Cortez but I don’t think that wasthe whole story, because under mushrooms I felt myself more in the mood for self-defense than I am usually (because of a vow of kindness in the spirit of Buddhism made soberly years ago,and also old teachings of sacred young brother who died in 1926). No, in fact on mushrooms I feltqutie strong, quite angry in fact at the atheists for fighting Christianity (communism so-called vs. capitalism so-called, it says in the paper, but it’s really atheism vs. gnosticism.) (right?)Mainly I felt like a floating Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice. But that is the element of hallucination in this acid called mushrooms (Amanita?) The bad physical side-effects involved (for me) stiffening of elbow and knee joints, a swelling of the eyelid, shortness of breath or rather anxiety about breathing itself. No heart palpitations like in mescaline, however. I felt that Donlin was asking for too many ‘fives’ all the time (in the trade they’d say he has an oil-burning habit, or is a “hog”)—But under the sympathetic influence of the drug or whatever it is called I kept agreeing with all his demands. In that sense there’s a lot of brainwash implicit in SM’s. So I do think we took too much. Yet there were no evil side effects.In fact I came home and had the first serious long talk with my mother, for 3 days and 3 nights (not consecutive) but we sat talking about everything yet went about the routine of washing, sleeping, eating, cleaning up the yard and house, and returning to long talk chairs at proper time. That was great. I learned I loved her more than I thought. The mushroom high carried on for exactly till wednesday Jan. 18th (and remember I first chewed the first pills Friday night the 13th). I kept it alive by drinking Christian Brothers port on the rocks. Suddenly on Friday the 20th (day of Inauguration) it started all up again, on port, but very mushroomy, and that was a swinging day, yakking in bars, bookstores, homes around northport (which I never do).
My report is endless, exactly. But here, remember what we were saying? “What? What did you say?” (to have a mumble repeated, the mumble being of excruciating importance.) And “Who are you?” “Are you sure?” “I’m not here.” — “What are we doing here?”— “Where are we?”—- “What’s going on?”—“Am I going to die?” — “No” — “I can’t see you, you’re a ghost” — “You’re the Holy Ghost” — “walking on water wasn’t built in a day” — “We’re just laying around here doing nothin” — “Even if I knew how to break your leg (utilizing Zen koan about Baso (T’ang master d. 788)) “even if I knew how to break your leg I wouldn’t do it?— besides you haven’t got a leg. Who said you had a leg? You? Who are you? I can’t see you? You’re not there! I don’t see nuttin! I hate you! Why? Because I love you!” “I love you anyway.”
We were at the extremest point of goofing on clouds watching the movie of existence. remember?)
Owing to the residue of Sacred Mushroom hallucination I woke up briefly the other quiet morning (Thursday 19th) feeling that everybody in my neighborhood was sleeping trustfully around me because they knew I was the Master of Trust in Heaven (for instance).
Everybody seemed innocent. Ladcadio became St. Innocent the Patriarch of Holy Russia. Donlin became the Paraclete, whom you waved over my head by an astounding show of physical strength (remember?) It was a defninite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums). When I yelled out the window at the three Porto Rican teenage boys walking in the snow “Avante Con Dios!” I had no idea where the word “avante” came from, Allen said it meant “forward with.” Clairvoyance there. I saw you, Leary, as a Jesuit Father. Donlin called you Doctor Leary. I saw Allen as Sariputra (the Indian saint). My old idea of St. Peter (about Peter Orlovsky) was strengthened. I saw Peter’s sister Marie as Ste. Catherine. Bob Kaufman as a Michoacan Indian chief. I saw Communists all around us (especially that Ben Rosenbluth, and others). Pearl became a Lotus of indescribable beauty sitting there in the form of a Buddha woman Bhikkushini. When someone mentioned people being electricity I said “Consolidated Coils.” Divine run-outs in my head, like when I went to pee I said to the toilet “It’s all your fault!” and could never leave the group without feeling that they were still with me (in the toilet.) Finally told my mother “C’est la Sainte Esprit” and she agreed. My old conviction that nothing ever happened was strengthened (ow). I felt like a silly agnel (angel) but now I know I’m only a mutterer in old paths, as before. I kept saying, however, to all kinds of people “What an interesting person you are!” and it was true. Finally I said “I think I’ll take a shit out the window” in desperation, it was impossible to go on in such ecstasy and excitement. Jokes were the Sacred Jokes of Heaven. The low dog of Dublin, Bob Donlin, was there by design, I’d say, to keep the good old Irish jokes going, otherwise we would all have been too serious, I say.
In sum, also, there is temporary addiction but no withdrawl symptoms whatever. The faculty of remembering names and what one has learned, is heightened so fantastically that we could develop the greatest scholars and scientists in the world with this stuff. (By the way, does Wm. Lederer the stuttering genius at Harvard, take it?) (He stutters with a method, most eerie). There’s no harm in Sacred Mushrooms if taken in moderation as a rule and much good will come of it. (For instance, I remembered historical details I’d completely forgotten before the mushrooms, and names names millions of names and categories and data.
mother and Jack Kerouac
Reading their love letters from before I was born is an eerie experience.
My mother met Jack Kerouac on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg. It was January 1957. Kerouac at the time was penniless, 34 years old, burned out from frantic world wandering. My mother, Joyce Johnson, then 21, worked in book publishing as she slowly wrote and revised her first novel. Years later, in his novel “Desolation Angels,” Kerouac called her “an interesting young person, a Jewess, elegant, middleclass sad and looking for something.” He also wrote, “I still love her tonight.”
The correspondence between them, collected in the new book “Door Wide Open,” starts a few months after that first meeting, when Kerouac characteristically splits for Africa, then San Francisco, Mexico City and Florida. As he speeds from place to place, he sometimes asks my mother to join him, then abruptly changes his mind. “I admit I’m flipping and am bugged everywhere I go,” he writes from Berkeley, Calif., distraught as each new place offers no refuge, no vibration, no new vision.
My mother’s letters radiate precocious self-awareness and tenderness. She seeks to lure Kerouac closer without frightening him away with any hint of commitment, and she also tries to dissuade him from his “desperate, gluttonous drinking,” his bitterness and the other demons that threaten to destroy him. “I remember the first party we went to last Fall,” she writes. “You said, ‘Protect me,’ and I wanted to with all my heart, but didn’t do a very good job, having all my old shynesses and especially my strange shyness of you.”
I feel a kind of shyness approaching these documents. My mother’s relationship with Kerouac ended six years before she met my father, painter Peter Pinchbeck, and eight years before my birth. There is something eerie about reading a parent’s early love letters; it gives you a vertiginous glimpse into the accidental processes that led to your own creation. Covering a span of less than two years, the letters not only suggest huge worlds of possibility that my mother could have lived, they also make me aware of the various ways these distant events shaped my own consciousness.
Photographs & Text by John Suiter
Pawtucket Falls from the White Bridge, Pawtucketville, Lowell, Massachusetts, March 1992 © John Suiter
From 1918 to ‘20, Kerouac’s parents, Leo and Gabrielle, with their first two children, Gerard and Caroline, lived on the first floor of the building at right—No. 9 Lupine Road, in Lowell’s Centralville section. In 1921 they moved to the second floor, and it was there that Jack was born—Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac—at five p.m. on Sunday, March 12, 1922.
…..Conjuring his birth many years later in Doctor Sax, Kerouac recalled the afternoon in reds—the red river, red rocks, red rooftops, a red suppertime—and liked to say that one of the first sounds that he heard was the river ice cracking a mile away at the Pawtucket Dam.
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‘The Haunted Life: The Lost Novella’, by Jack Kerouac
The Haunted Life: The Lost Novella, by Jack Kerouac, Penguin Classics, RRP£20, 208 pages
Jack Kerouac, an author who was barely patient enough to punctuate his sentences, never mind sit still in one place, always claimed that he had lost the manuscript to his early novella The Haunted Life in the back seat of a yellow taxi cab. The truth is less dramatic: he probably forgot it in the closet of a Columbia University dorm room that had belonged to his fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg.
It resurfaced in a Sotheby’s auction 12 years ago, selling to an unnamed bidder for $95,600. The previous year, Kerouac’s most renowned manuscript, the famous On The Road scroll, had also sold at auction for a whopping $2.4m, which explains the sudden appearance of the earlier work.
Those relative values strike me as well-judged. The Haunted Life, now published for the first time and generously annotated and edited by Kerouac scholar Todd Tietchen, is a minor addition to the author’s corpus but not without interest. Kerouac wrote it at the age of 22, in the turbulent year of 1944, during which he was jailed as an accessory to murder, married his first wife Edie Parker to secure bail, and was then released.
“I should now have material for a fine book . . . love, murder, diabolical conversations, all,” he wrote mischievously, but none of these promising themes finds its way into A Haunted Life. Instead we get a rehearsal for the semi-autobiographical exploration that would form the basis of Kerouac’s first major published work, The Town and the City.
Tietchen, in his introduction to the novella, believes that this early and methodical exposition of the author’s literary intentions is a significant rebuttal of the “public perception of Kerouac as a spontaneous word-slinger whose authorial approach merely complemented his Dionysian approach to life”. He casts the hedonistic writer as an improbable respecter of process, honing his ideas in this brisk workout.
In A Haunted Life, Kerouac’s concerns are refracted through Peter Martin, heading into his sophomore year at Boston College along with his friends Garabed Tourian and Dick Sheffield, based on the author’s real-life buddies Sebastian Sampas and Billy Chandler, both of whom had died in the war by the time Kerouac wrote the novella.
The three young men’s conversations skirt around some of the issues that preoccupied American intellectual life in the 1930s and 1940s: the end of the Great Depression, the US’s entry into the war, the exploitation of the working classes, and the possibility of romantic escape from all of those needling dilemmas.
Garabed and Dick respectively represent the leftist and liberationist ideals that animated those debates. In contrast, Peter’s frosty exchanges with his father Joe – clearly based on Kerouac’s own father Leo – see the young man wrestling with the bigotry of the preceding generation. In the novella’s very first pages, Peter drowns out the beginnings of one of his father’s rants by turning up Benny Goodman on the record player, an early reflection of Kerouac’s belief that jazz music’s freedom of form was the nemesis of sclerotic social views.
This opening feels stagey, as do the opening remarks between Peter and Garabed, clunky in their philosophical intent: “Poor Garabed,” says Peter. “Dostoevsky terrifies you with his Slavic portraits that remind you too much of yourself. You fear ugliness, you chase beauty and embrace it.”
As we focus on Peter’s interior life, touches of the freewheeling Kerouac begin to emerge in passages of existential celebration: “The morning sun, the swift clean smell in the air had called him back to life, called him back for more of the same – which at times held so much wonder that Peter deplored his physical limits. On a morning like this! – to be everywhere, be everyone at the same time, doing everything!”
Kerouac always intended The Haunted Life to become a multi-volume saga on the war, told through the story of the Martin family. “[It] will be a very sad book,” he explains in a note included here. “It can’t be otherwise: youth is shocked by maturity, but war adds to this shock enough to kill youth forever.”
But it is not for this melancholy tone that Kerouac would become best known, and it is clear from his musings that he was already looking ahead at a new America. In an outline for The Town and the City, he emphasises that the book’s ending will treat its characters well. “I write with gravity and gleefulness because I do not feel sceptical and clever about these things, and I believe that this is an American feeling. (No Joyce, no Auden, no Kafka has anything to say to a true American.)”
With that slap at the Old World, Kerouac launched himself to become one of the most exuberant adventurers of a new cultural landscape, whose heroes would include James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, characters who were infused with a sense of the limitless. Here, in this small book, are the tentative beginnings of a journey that was always going to lead to the open road.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
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from left to right: Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac,
David Amram, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso (with back to camera)
DAVID AMRAM REMEMBERS
(Originally written for Evergreen Review in 1969, published early 1970 at the request of publisher Barney Rossett as an obituary for Kerouac)
I used to see Jack often at the old Five Spot in the beginning of 1957, when I was working there. I knew he was a writer, and all musicians knew that he loved music. You could tell by the way he sat and listened. He never tried to seem hip. He was too interested in life around him to ever think of how he appeared. Musicians understood this and were always glad to see him, because we knew that meant at least one person would be I listening. Jack was on the same wave-length as we were, so it was never necessary to talk.
A few months later, poets Howard Hart and Philip Lamantia came by my place with Jack. They had decided to read their poetry with music, and Jack said he would join in, reading, improvising, rapping with the audience and singing along. Our first performance was in December of 1957 at the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. It was the first jazz-poetry reading in New York. There was no advertising and it was raining, but the place was packed. Jack had become the most important figure of the time. His name was magic. In spite of the carping, whining put-downs by the furious critics, and the jealousy of some of his contemporaries for his overnight success (he had written ten books in addition to On The Road with almost no recognition), Jack hadn’t changed. But people’s reaction to him was sometimes frightening.
He was suddenly being billed as the ‘King of The Beatniks’, and manufactured against his will, as some kind of public Guru for a movement that never existed. Jack was a private person, extremely shy, and dedicated to writing. When he drank, he became much more expansive, and this was the only part of his personality that became publicized. The people who came to the Brata Gallery weren’t taste makers; they were friends.
A few months later, we began some readings at the Circle In The Square. Everyone improvised, including the light man, who had his first chance to wail on the lighting board. The audience joined in, heckling, requesting Jack to read parts of On The Road, and asking him to expound on anything that came into his head. He also would sing while I was playing the horn, sometimes making up verses. He had a phenomenal ear. It was like playing duets with a great musician.
Jack was proud of his knowledge of music and of the musicians of his time. He used to come by and play the piano by ear for hours. He had some wonderful ideas for combining the spoken word with music. A few weeks later, jazz-poetry became ‘Official Entertainment’, and a few months later was discarded as another bit of refuse, added to the huge mound of our junk culture. It was harder to dispose of Jack. The same journalist and radio and TV personalities who had heralded him were now ripping him to shreds. Fortunately, they couldn’t rip up his manuscripts. His work was being published, more widely read, and translated.
In early 1958, all of us went to Brooklyn College, where Jack, Phillip and Howard read. Jack spent most of the time answering the student’s questions with questions of his own. He was the down-home Zen master, and the students finally realized he wasn’t putting them on. He was showing them himself. If they wanted to meet the Author Jack Kerouac, they would have to read his books.
His public appearances were never to promote his books. They were to share a state of mind and a way of being. The only journalist who picked up on this was Al Aronowitz. He saw Jack as an artist.
In the spring of 1959, the film Pull My Daisy was made. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers and myself – the Third Avenue All-Stars as one wit described us – appeared in it. Alfred Leslie directed it and Robert Frank filmed it. Jack had written the scenario, and after the film had been edited, Jack saw it. Because it was a silent movie, Jack was to narrate it, and I was to write the music afterwards. He, Allen, and Neal Cassady also wrote the lyrics for the title song Pull My Daisy, for which I wrote the music and was sung in the film by Anita Ellis. Jack put on earphones and asked me to play, so that he could improvise the narration to music, the way we had done at our readings. He watched the film, and made up the narration on the spot. He did it two times through spontaneously, and that was it. He refused to do it again. He believed in spontaneity, and the narration turned out to be the very best thing about the film. We recorded it at Jerry Newman’s studio. Jerry was an old friend of Jack’s from the early forties and afterwards we had a party-jam session that lasted all night. Jack played the piano, sang, and improvised for hours.
In the early sixties I used to see Jack when he would come in from Northport to visit town. Once, he called up at one in the morning and told me I had to come over so that he could tell me a story. I brought over some music to copy, and Jack spoke non-stop until 8:30 a.m., describing a trip he had made through North Africa and Europe. It was like hearing a whole book of his being read aloud, and Jack was the best reader of his own work, with the exception of Dylan Thomas, that I ever heard.
“That’s a fantastic story.” I told him. “It sounds just like your books.”
“I try to make my writing sound just the way I talk.” he said. His ideal was not to display his literary skill, but to have a conversation with the reader.
I told Jack about an idea I had for a cantata about the four seasons in America, using the works of American authors. He launched into a travelogue of his voyages around the country, and referred to writers I might look into. I took notes, and ended up reading nearly fifty books, to find the texts. I included a passage from his book Lonesome Traveler. The concert was at Town Hall [in New York City], and Jack wrote that he couldn’t come. It was the Spring of 1965, and he didn’t like being in New York.
Sometimes he would call from different parts of the country just to talk, and we continued to write to each other. In one letter he said “Ug-g-h. Fame is such a drag.” He wanted time to work, but found that success robbed him of his freedom. At the same time, he felt that he was forgotten. I told him that all the young people I met when I toured colleges loved his books. To many, he was their favorite writer. But writer meant something different now. It was what was being said, not how it was said. It was content that counted, not style. Jacks’ message was a whole way of being, and he was becoming more an influence than ever.
Truman Capote dismissed Jack’s work as “typing.” I never heard Jack put down another writer. He went out of his way to encourage young writers. His work reflects this spirit of generosity, kindness and love. This is why his “typing” is so meaningful to young people today. Jack was ahead of his time spiritually. Like Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, his work is constantly being rediscovered.
Through knowing Jack, I wrote some of my best music. Without knowing him, I never would have written my book. More important, young people all over the world are reading and rereading his work. His death only means the beginning of a new life for everyone who shares in the joy of knowing him through his books.
David Amram, October 24th. 1969
I Have Nothing to Offer Anybody
Jean-Louis “Jack” Lebris de Kerouac (play /ˈkɛruːæk/ or /ˈkɛrɵæk/; March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. His writings have inspired other writers, including Ken Kesey, Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, Lester Bangs, Tom Robbins and Will Clarke. Kerouac became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the Hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward it. In 1969, at age 47, Kerouac died from internal bleeding due to long-standing abuse of alcohol. Since his death Kerouac’s literary prestige has grown and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, among them: On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody and Big Sur.
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