Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Finding Kerouac

I first heard about Jack Kerouac in Tom Wolfe’s classic tale of the Merry Pranksters "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test". I was ravenously consuming any and all information about the 1960s and the Beatles. Both the Beatles and Kerouac make cameo appearances in "Acid Test". I wondered about this writer with such a strange French-Canadian name and why he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about hippies. The more I read about The Psychedelic Generation of the "turbulent sixties" (it must be some sort of federal guideline for documentarians to use this phrase when describing that decade of evolution) the more mentions of Kerouac I noticed. How he paved the way for the hippies by being the leader of the Beat Generation. I found my first Kerouac at the kidney foundation thrift shop in Tampa Florida. It was the second mass market paperback printing of "Desolation Angels" published by Bantam books in May 1971. The cover photo shows a bunch of naked longhairs sitting in a cave, much like the cover of a Grand Funk Railroad album called "Survivor" (I found a copy of that at a Salvation Army last year with some 70s ditchweed still lodged into the crease of the gatefold, again conforming to federal guidelines pertaining to poor-selling Grand Funk albums). I had spent some time as a bookseller in my college days and a co-worker said I should read "On the Road". I read it but didn’t get it. I was used to reading spy novels with intricate plots…I wasn’t ready for the truestory novel style of "Road". But finding "Desolation Angels" was a key event in my reading life, due to the helpful introduction by Seymour Krim, which was basically a mini biography of Kerouac and the Beats. That intro and the history of Beat life revealed in "Angels" enlightened me. And when I read in a Beatles book that Lennon read Kerouac, I had to read everything I could get my hands on. Not an easy task in those pre-internet days of the 1980s. Most of Kerouac’s books were out of print, so digging through thriftshop bookstacks was not the hip way to find his books, it was the ONLY way. As my collection grew over the years, I became fascinated with the way Kerouac’s books were marketed. The first paperback printing of "Angels" was published in 1966, around the same time the Beatles went psychedelic with "Revolver" and the hip world followed suit. The cover for that first printing showed a cool urban scene, the arch of Washington Square, urbane hipsters in the act of undressing. In the 1971 version---printed two years after Kerouac’s death---the hipsters literally have gone underground. They are totally naked, in a cavern, full blown hippies. The cover text was also aimed to appeal to the hippies, saying Kerouac’s work "immortalized the wild hopes and dreams, the fantastic excesses of a generation but also provided a floor plan for generations to come…clawing into life through drugs, perversion, literature and promiscuous sex".
The brief bios in the back of my Kerouac paperbacks always stated that he died in St. Petersburg in 1969. When I found out more about these later years, in the comprehensive biography "Memory Babe" by Gerald Nicosia, I began to see Kerouac as a human being, not the "Hippie Homer of the turned-on generation" or "the man who launched the hippie world, the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation". Those descriptions were a load of crap designed to sell books. Jack was bumming rides into Tampa so he could party with college students and professors in dive bars. "Memory Babe" included the addresses of these long-gone dive bars and of his last house in St. Pete. I was astonished to learn that the Wild Boar Tavern was about a mile from my apartment, so I rode my bike to that address and had an epiphany. Jack Kerouac was a guy who wrote books and got famous and it didn’t make him happy. He would have been better off toiling in obscurity---read by a handful of admirers in the underground scene---than being misunderstood by millions and misrepresented by a few corporate publishers who sought massive sales and cared not a bit for this singular artist. I made a pilgrimage to St. Pete to look at the house where it was said his last meal was a can of tuna. I went to all the thriftshops and used bookshops in St. Pete (the best of which, Haslam’s had a great limited edition of "Visions of Cody" in a class case that I coveted for months. At $100 it was out of my price range but it was still cool to gaze at its cover, whose title had been written in crayon by the man himself). A bookseller at Haslam’s told me Kerouac would come into the store wearing a hardhat for disguise and look to see if they were stocking his books and most people thought he was a bum. Not a Dharma Bum, just plain old crazy hardhat wearing bum. I traveled all over the south and the Midwest in the 80s and the 90s and no matter where I went, I always had to stop in every thriftshop and used bookstore I could locate. The best finds were in the grungiest places. For $5 I found a hardcover first edition of "Desolation Angels" in a shop in Tarpon Springs. And the owners of used book stores in America are almost always eccentric, fascinating people so there were plenty of bizarre behaviors and conversations to relate to friends upon returning home.
Now in the 21st century, most of what Kerouac wrote is in print (40 plus books of poetry and prose published so far and more in preparation) and readily available at your local super bookstore. I still, to this day, continue to seek out the secondhand shops when traveling because there’s always one rarity I need ("Pull My Daisy"---anyone have an extra copy?). But vintage Kerouac books are harder to find and if they do have them, they are all displayed in glass cases. And it’s not the same to "win them" on ebay. That feels like cheating to me and its certainly not as much fun as scanning the spines of row upon row of Harlequin romance novels and blockbuster suspense thrillers just to find that one rough nugget in book form of a human tale by a man with that weird name told instantly and interestingly with a singular and spontaneous voice: Kerouac.

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