Sunday, October 21, 2012

Interview with John Wight: Beat Hero #2

A while back we began a series wherein we identify a Beat Hero; that is, someone whose actions exemplify living "beat." Our first Beat Hero was Travis Tribble, who I posted about here and interviewed here.

John Wight (L) with Rick Dale at Cappy's Copper Kettle in Lowell, MA

Beat Hero #2 is John Wight, who I met on-line and then spent some time with at the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac/Jack Kerouac Literary Festival last week in Lowell, Massachusetts. John agreed to answer a set of interview questions via e-mail, and I've presented them below. We can all learn a lot about living beat from John, and I appreciate his willingness to share his thoughts with The Daily Beat.


The Daily Beat: Before we get into Kerouac-related things, tell us a little bit about yourself.

John Wight: It’s hard for me to tell you just a little bit about myself. When I write an answer to that question, it tends to turn in to a book. But I won’t write a book here. I grew up in a family of very modest means, we lived a simple life, a Christian life, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, part of what made me who I am today, large family, I’m the oldest of 6 kids, now ranging from about ages 37 to 49, parents still around, we get together at least annually, it wasn’t always that way, us kids became typical young adults wanting to do our own thing, we continue to do our own thing, but now with much love and forgiveness. Childhood interests included photography, videography, electronics, media production and science. As an adult, I found myself doing office work and I worked as a caregiver, both in nursing facilities and at private homes, for many years. By then, my interest in electronics evolved to computers, and I received an ATA degree in computer repair from Skagit Valley College in Mt. Vernon, WA. I’ve always written, my mom kept some of my earliest writing, I always exchanged letters with friends and family, I thought everyone did that, then e-mail came and I found myself typing on and on to anyone who would listen, I continued to write letters to those not yet using e-mail, next thing I knew, I often received compliments for my writing, so I figured it was time to consider myself a writer.

TBD: What experiences in your life led you to becoming a Jack Kerouac fan?

JW: For me, I don’t know if fan is the word. Kindred spirit seems more like it. When I was a little kid, my mom’s nickname for me was hobo, that memory tucked away, not forgotten, more recently I asked my mom why she gave me that nickname, she said it was because I was always ready, even dressed, ready to go somewhere, we went everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, camping, hiking, to Grandmas’ houses in Spokane and Mullan, ID. I have a memory of playing in some ash from a fire darkened stump at home, no bath in the bathtub, but rather it was a bath in the river, my parents insisted, I was probably 5 years old at the time. As soon as I was old enough to read, I was reading highway signs and tracing maps, for example, US Highway 10/Interstate 90 all the way to the East Coast. But I would not travel out of the Pacific Northwest until just out of high school, could never convince my parents to take us across that imaginary boundary surrounding the Pacific Northwest. (Ironically, my parents are now retired to Oceanside, CA, with much experience road tripping in Mexico, yes, I’ve done that, too.) Then 30 years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the Grateful Dead, and I found myself in a bit of a tour that spring, a life changing time I will never forget. But at that time I had no idea there was a Jack Kerouac connection. Years later, in my 40’s, I found myself tired of office work and caregiving, so thought about what I really wanted to do with my life. That involved travel, writing, videography and photography and eventually lead to my reading of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Jack’s stories reminded me so much of my Grateful Dead hitchhiking touring life, so much of my life with my friends over the years. Then a couple years ago or so, I found myself struggling with my own writing as many writers do, where to find courage and openness in my writing, in telling my life’s traveling story, great times with friends and what they mean to me, and that type of thing. I knew from reading On the Road that perhaps Jack Kerouac had some lessons in that for me. So I started a deeper study of all that is Jack Keraouc. The first biography I read was Subterranean Kerouac by Ellis Amburn. From that, I learned that there were many other similarities between Jack and me. Like Jack, I’m an autodidact, bookworm, writer, music lover, traveler, hobo, wanderer and outsider. I live for road trips, I have intense love for family and close friends, I fit in with the down and out, I strive to treat all with kindness, tolerance and understanding. I live a simple life, a real one. And from reading that book, I also learned about the Grateful Dead connection, so Jack’s best friend Neal drove the Furthur bus on a tour that would become the first Grateful Dead tour. Jack and his friends are friends of mine. Time to go look them up. And the rest is history.

TDB: How do you explain to others what Jack Kerouac means to you?

JW: My answer to the earlier question perhaps answers that to a large degree. When I toured the Grateful Dead with fellow deadheads 30 years ago, I found where I fit in, my lifestyle fit them and their lifestyle fit me, warts and all, but we were family. We lost touch for a while as my life came back to more of a reality with full time jobs in the medical field, but I could never forget that Grateful Dead family. I still have friends that I could always find at a Grateful Dead concert, although today it would be groups like Furthur and Dark Star Orchestra, among many others, it seems the Grateful Dead family has grown, also today it’s easy to find our friends on Facebook. But perhaps I didn’t fit in quite as closely as I thought I did, for example, I didn’t know deadheads to be bookworms, I knew them to be music worms. Then I learned a lot about who Jack Kerouac is, deep down inside to the bottom of his heart, from what he wrote and what others wrote about him. Jack and I kindred spirits, also his friends, that’s where I fit in, so similar minded it was spooky, readers, writers, compassionate and passionate about friends and life, living life to its fullest, friends helping each other, supporting each other, it’s OK to be who we are. I feel all the more that way now that I’ve had opportunity to meet and get to know many of Jack’s friends, even a few who actually knew him in person.

TDB: Readers will be interested in your Kerouacian approach to attending Lowell Celebrates Kerouac this year. Tell us about that.

JW: In 2010, I wanted so bad to be with my Kerouac family, but I was working a full time job at that time and didn’t see a way. Someone must have seen that I wanted a lifestyle change, because it was only a month or so later that a former boss called me asking me to work for her again, only this time the work can be done online. I could only say yes for that. So early last year, I bought a camper van, traveled all over the country last year, reconnected with many friends, attended a few Grateful Dead related shows, including Further in Orlando, FL, and Gathering of the Vibes, with the finale being Lowell Celebrates Kerouac for the first time, so great to be among Kerouac family, I fit in, writing was inspired to some extent. This year, I could not afford the gas to drive my camper van around the country, so I traveled by Greyhound bus, train and foot to visit a few friends and family, finale again Lowell Celebrates Kerouac this year. That trip didn’t work out quite as planned and by the time October came around, there was little money available until payday, and I found myself with just enough to buy bus and train tickets to Lowell and a Motel 6 room in Tewksbury for a few days, I wasn’t going to miss this year for anything. By now, perhaps you are realizing I’ve been a hobo all my life, so I kicked my hoboing skills in to full gear to survive, but not without asking my Keroauc family if they might have a place to lay my head during Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. No one responded to that request, so for a few nights, I found a quiet spot in the woods to sleep, just with my backpack for a pillow, by that time I did not have enough money for a sleeping bag. Like my Grateful Dead tour days, I survived cold and rain to attend events, relying on any kindness from friends and strangers, and if it was too cold and/or rainy to stay outdoors at night, I found myself heading to the closest open McDonald’s or Starbucks, where there is always cheap food, coffee and WiFi and a warm place to hang out. About midweek, my sister sent me enough money for a sleeping bag and for food to get me by the rest of the week, and on Thursday, Vilous Fox saw me carrying around my backpack and sleeping bag, and out of the kindness of his heart, offered an otherwise unused bed to sleep in for the remainder of LCK. Although such help was slow in coming, I still felt that I fit in among Kerouac friends, and among the neighborhoods of Lowell. Lots of smiles and friendly hellos as I was walking town city streets with my backpack and sleeping bag.

TDB: Describe some interesting characters you met on your travels to Lowell this year.

JW: How can one describe in so few words characters like Rick Dale, David Amram, Mike Wurm, Bill Walsh, George Koumantzelis, Billy Koumantzelis, Nomi Herbtsman, Vilous Fox, Tess Adamski, Roger Brunelle, Steve Edington, Jason Pacheco, Kurt Phaneuf, Cameron, Tomas, the Lowell neighbor telling me to smile as I walked down the street, friendly staff that now know me by name at Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus, and many more I’m forgetting or don’t remember the name or don’t have time to name, sorry for that, each one a unique character in their own right, each one supportive of this lowly hobo who wants to travel, write and spend time with his friends. Hard to single one of them out and describe them, I’d have to write a book for that.

TDB: What were your two most memorable experiences at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac this year, and why?

JW: My sleeping bag moment which I talk more about in the answer to my next question. And reading my own poem based on my own experiences in Lowell, to the background of David Amram’s music at the jam at Lowell Beer Works on the last day Sunday, lots of hugs, handshakes, teary eyes, and a shout from some yet unknown audience listener, “you can stay at my place.” And it’s hard not to include this third one, being named “Beat Hero.” Why? That finale at Lowell Beer Works just gave me the feeling that all this was worthwhile, I was truly among friends. Being named “Beat Hero,” one can be a hero for being a beat? It’s who I am, it shows I can be a hero just for being me. And it all created inspiration for writing, I was writing daily on Facebook, my most popular writing to date, as evidenced by the many likes and comments, and not just by Jack Kerouac’s friends, but also by my other friends and family that do not have the interest in Jack Kerouac that we do.

TDB: You had a chance to see the world premiere of Jack's lost play, Beat Generation. Please give us your reactions (and make sure to talk about your backpack).

JW: I’ve been to theatres off and on over the years to see plays and Broadway style shows, but I’ve never had the experience to walk in to one with a good sized backpack and sleeping bag. So I wondered what the staff and play goers thought about this lowly hobo bringing his backpack inside the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Small theatre, simply laid out. I asked a staff person if there was some place I could put my backpack, and the manager overheard from the food counter and offered to let me put it just behind the counter in full view. Little did I know that would have some significance as far as the play. I’ve read that Jack’s intention with the play was to just tell the story of the beat generation as just friends hanging out, doing what they do, showing that life with friends is meaningful and full of stories. The final scenes of the play found Jack’s friends grappling over who would sleep on the couch at the end of the day. Jack chose a sleeping bag instead of the couches, a sleeping bag under the stars, he seemed to want time to think, think about what direction his life would take him, to San Francisco he said, but first, that night in a sleeping bag under the stars, playing the flute to his own music, his friends chose to sleep on the couches. Like Jack, I would choose to sleep in a sleeping bag under the stars any time, hopefully it’s not too rainy or cold, I’ve been doing that all my life, even when I was a little kid living in my house with my family, I’d often choose to sleep in a sleeping bag under the stars. And at this point in my life, I’m still thinking about my life’s direction, I just know it is as a writer, a traveler and among Jack’s friends. So the play ended, I picked up my backpack and sleeping bag from behind the food counter, walked out and could only say Wow! My backpack and sleeping bag, in addition to being a prop for the play, are part of me, who I am, I walked out a lot more comfortable with who I am, a lowly hobo with a backpack and sleeping bag.

TDB: Do you have favorite authors other than Kerouac, and, if so, who are they?

JW: A writer by the name of Po Bronson got me started with my mid life changes through a book of his, “What Should I Do With My Life?” He helped me to realize that I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do with my life, and that I could be doing what I really wanted to do if I chose to do so. So I’ve been spending the 9 years since I read that book figuring out how to do so. Other favorite authors over the years include HG Wells, JR Tolkien, L Frank Baum, I was very interested in science fiction and fantasy until I became a bit more grounded as an adult. I could also mention a few favorite travel related authors, John Steinbeck as in "Travels with Charley,” Ted Conover as in “Rolling Nowhere,” Brad Newsham in “Take Me With You,” and Mike McIntyre as in “The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America,” it’s hard to name a favorite among those, and there are more examples I could name, but each one lived the simple travel life and survived to tell their unique travel stories of humankindness, and currently I’m reading William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.” It’s hard to compare any one of these to Jack Kerouac. And reminding me I’m still looking for my own voice, just as each one of these authors has.

TDB: Tell us about your own writing experiences and goals.

JW: I’ve been writing all my life, which I have talked some about already. It wasn’t until about 2003 that I decided that I wanted to become a writer, that I was a writer. In 2004, that evolved in to publishing travel stories on my website at, so many stories lived but yet to be published there. Currently, I use Facebook as a forum for my writing, I have been doing that for a couple years now. Due to LCK this year, I find myself writing every day, I hope I can keep that up, I know who my friends are, you are all so supportive, gives me the drive to keep it up. So if I falter, please remind me, support me, friends. My goal is to some day have a shelf of books published, or perhaps a shelf of books in e-book format, nothing like a good old fashioned book, I hope they stay around, at least long enough for me to publish a few.

TDB: Where will the road take you next?

JW: The scenic route back to Lowell. Lowell is like a another home to me now, so I’m anxious to get back here, stay a while and spend time with friends here. But I have friends in Washington State, I also find myself anxious to see them. I have friends and homes in other places, too. A difficult life, everywhere I go it seems I must leave one home and the friends that live there, to go to another. But that’s always a good excuse to travel and make myself at home for a time somewhere else. So as for the immediate future, back to Washington, I have friends there who want me to spend time with them. In December, California beckons, my annual visit to my parent’s place in Oceanside, and to my physical office in San Diego. Other than that, my heart is currently in Lowell, so I will be back soon.

Note: John's answers were written at the Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus on Market Street in Lowell, MA.

1 comment:

Crystal said...

Excellent interview, John. It was great to meet you in Lowell and I enjoyed learning more about your background and your travels. How fabulous to have a job that supports your vagabond tendencies, if only just barely. Though I suppose that's what helps to keep it all real. Hope you winter well out in the Northwest and we'll look forward to seeing you at the next LCK.