Sunday, October 14, 2012

Report from Lowell Celebrates Kerouac 2012

Thursday through Saturday Crystal and I attended the annual October Kerouac event in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack's hometown. It's always organized and sponsored by Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, Inc., no difference this year in that, but every few years it is co-sponsored and called the Jack Kerouac Literary Festival. The co-sponsors this year were UMass Lowell's Kerouac Center for Public Humanities and Center for Arts and Ideas and the Cultural Organization of Lowell. With that extra horsepower, the festival had pre-festival events in August, September, and October, and the actual festival ran from October 8 - 14. I counted 29 events during the festival itself! There are also two post-festival events, one in October and one in December. For details, click here.

Festival guide (on a table at Ricardo's)

Of course, as I post this the festival is still going since it is Sunday October 14. We had a prior commitment in Maine at 3 PM on Saturday (more on that later because that turned into a Kerouac "event" as well) and had to leave after the Commemorative at "The Commemorative." What follows is a chronological report of our experience.

We left Maine around 11:30 AM on Thursday (October 11). I put in a couple of hours of work on campus and Crystal took the day off so that we might be able to catch poet Anne Waldman in performance at UMass Lowell's O'Leary Library at 3:30 PM. We made good time and even had a chance to check in at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center beforehand. This is the first thing I saw when we entered our room. (John J. Dorfner, your copy will hit the mail tomorrow.)

Merrimack Valley Magazine featuring Jack on the cover

We took a cab (Town Taxi - very quick response and friendly service) to the library where we sat by our friend Kurt Phaneuf and met Raven, a Boston College student who just read a paper on Beat women at an international Beat conference in the Netherlands.

Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye in performance

Waldman read a poem (solo), "HOLY 21st Century," in honor of Allen Ginsberg that is a riff on the "holy" section of his footnote to "Howl." You can read Waldman's version and hear her recite it here. Very dynamic and we enjoyed it. Then she performed a number of pieces from her long epic poem (couldn't catch the name) she's worked on for 25 years, backed up with music by her son, Ambrose Bye. Recordings of their collaborative efforts (e.g., "The Milk of Universal Kindness") are available (see Amazon). Good stuff.

From there we headed back to the hotel via Town Taxi for a short break before heading to dinner. We chose Cobblestones for dinner because it was near where the Off the Road Kerouac Pubs Tour would begin at 6:30 at the Old Worthen Tavern. We had an excellent crabcake appetizer and split a wonderful halibut dinner. As we stepped out of Cobblestones en route to the Worthen, I snapped this picture of Lowell High School, thinking how things have changed since Jack attended there (the satellite dish reminding me of Sputnik in 1957, the year On the Road was published). 

Lowell High School from Cobblestones parking lot
On the way to the Old Worthen Tavern (that's what Lowellites call it, but the sign says Worthen House), I snapped a picture of City Hall, imagining that it looks pretty much the same as when Jack wandered these same streets.

Lowell City Hall

Worthen House (Old Worthen Tavern), a place frequented by Jack Kerouac

The Worthen features an elaborate belt-driven overhead fan system, the only original system in the country that is still in its original building. We didn't see anyone we recognized in the tavern, so we asked the bartender if we were in the right place. She said everyone was outside. We made our way to the outdoor area and there were the usual suspects, Mike Wurm, Roger Brunelle, Steve Edington, Bill Walsh, etc. That's where I first met John Wight, a friend from Facebook and e-mail who was hoboing in Lowell for the festival. More on John at a later time as I'll be interviewing him for The Daily Beat as Beat Hero #2. After a few people spoke, we headed for the next stop, Ricardo's, led by Bill Walsh (each year it seems we need to re-learn how to get from one place to another in Lowell). Along the way I talked with Kurt Phaneuf and Roger Brunelle about our friend, John J. Dorfner, who couldn't be in Lowell for health reasons. We missed you, John, but you were there in spirit.

Ricardo's (where Crystal and I ate dinner the next night) used to be called Nicky's, and Kerouac fans will recognize it as a place that Jack spent a lot of time in his later years because it was owned by the brother of his wife, Stella Sampas, and they looked out for him there. At Ricardo's we met Cameron, yet another person hoboing it for the festival. I had a chance to give John Wight an autographed copy of The Beat Handbook at Ricardo's, something I had promised to do in honor of his dedication to Jack as demonstrated by coming to Lowell with no place to stay and only a backpack and a couple of bucks for subsistence.

On the way to Ricardo's I took this picture. It always reminds me of the way Lowell may have looked in Jack's time.

Dana's Luncheonette in Lowell

From Ricardo's we made our way to Cappy's Copper Kettle. Crystal bought us a couple of pub crawl T-shirts and got a free copy of Where the Road Begins (an anthology of Lowell writers).

Where the Road Begins: An Anthology

John Wight asked me if I'd give a book to Cameron as a fellow hobo and I said sure, and then we settled in for music and readings. One highlight of the evening for me was when Kerouac friends David Amram and Billy Koumantzelis took the stage and answered questions from the crowd.

Billy Koumantzelis (left) and David Amram (middle) at Cappy's

Of course, David was there to back up readings such as the one by Nomi Herbstman, a mainstay of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac.

Nomi Herbstman reading with David Amram backing her up on keyboards

We drank way too much on the tour, so much so that we took a cab back to the hotel (Town Taxi again) despite it being about a city block away. The taxi driver laughed when we told him where we were going. By the next day I had remembered enough of Lowell that we didn't take a cab again, and wouldn't have had to that night. Oh, well . . . as Crystal says, we supported the local economy.

We were a bit lazy Friday morning (and I was a tad hungover), so we had a late breakfast at the Inn's dining room. We remembered the waitress there and she was very friendly, just as last year. David Amram was staying at the hotel and when we walked in the dining room he was playing the piano. 

After breakfast we geared up and drove to Edson Cemetery for our annual visit to Jack's grave. It was raining (despite a clear forecast), but we went anyway, hoping for a long-enough break to get some pictures and videos. We were able to do both. Not another soul came by while we were there, perhaps because of the weather, but the rain did let up enough that we accomplished our mission (thanks to 2 umbrellas and what I consider to be divine intervention from Jack). A funeral procession entered the cemetery while we were there, but fortunately headed for a distant area.

This is how Jack's grave looked when we got there except for the addition of a copy of my book (sorry for the glare from the plastic bag). It will be interesting to see if someone snags my book and lets me know about it. I know where two of the last three ended up.

Jack's grave October 12, 2012

Rick at Jack's grave October 12, 2012

Click here for my video at the grave.

Click here for Crystal's video at the grave.

After the grave ceremonies, we drove back to the Inn and then walked to the Old Worthen for lunch. We were hoping to run into Facebook Kerouac group friends Richard and Michelle there. Because of my incomparable directional capabilities, we made it there but it took forever as I took us the wrong way on Central and then out Jackson, thinking it would intersect with Market. It did not (as we found out), and we ended up walking along a canal through an empty industrial section of Lowell (past some interesting characters) until we got all the way to Dutton Street, which I recognized as the street that runs right in to Cobblestones, which is near the Old Worthen. We got there too late to catch Richard and Michelle, but I did have a hot dog boiled in beer, making the walk worthwhile (Crystal had excellent Portugese soup). We walked back along Merrimack Street, a route we had taken enough times in the past that getting to the Inn was no problem. Along the way we ran into Kurt Phaneuf and chatted with him for a while.

Next on the agenda was Talking Jack: Discussion and Readings of Favorite Kerouac Passages. This conveniently took place in the bar of our hotel. It was well-attended, and a number of people read passages from different Kerouac novels and/or spoke about Jack. I started it off at Nomi's request, and read from "The Vanishing American Hobo" from Lonesome Traveler in honor of John, who I stood next to during my reading. Afterwards we met Tess, another member of the Facebook Jack Kerouac group. John later read from the same section.

We decided to forego the subsequent walking tour by Roger Brunelle, deciding instead to rest up for the play later in the evening and giving ourselves plenty of time for a nice dinner. We made reservations at Ricardo's, and Ricardo himself answered the phone and took our reservation. When I asked for a 6:15 reservation, he asked, "Are you going to a show?" I said we were, at 8 PM at the Merrimack Repertory Theater. He said 6 PM would be a better time. We deferred to his judgement and it worked out just right. Ricardo's is an upscale Italian restaurant where you feel like it would be a sin not to order a bottle of wine. We had a Casale del Giglio Merlot that was very good, and served as a nice accompaniment to our dinners. I had broiled scallops with crab ravioli in cream sauce and Crystal had eggplant parmesan. Excellent food (nicely presented - see below), and excellent service (from David, who hadn't read any Kerouac yet and we tried to steer him in the right direction).

There was a big party seated directly to my left, and Crystal mentioned that she heard them talking about Kerouac. I heard a woman telling a story about when she gave birth and the first person her husband called was Paul Marion. Marion, executive director of community and cultural affairs at UMass Lowell, is the editor of Atop an Underwood and is solidly aligned with the Kerouac estate. At the time we wondered if the older gentleman at the table was John Sampas, but after-the-fact I don't think so. We did see this group at the play that night.

Dinner at Ricardo's

We walked from Ricardo's all the way to the Merrimack Repertory Theater to see Beat Generation. It was cold, but only took about 10 or 12 minutes, and we needed the walk and the fresh air to avoid food comas. This is the sign that greeted us outside the theater.

This was a truly historic literary event, as it was the world premiere of Jack's only full-length play, written in 1957 and shelved, only to be re-discovered 47 years later. Of additional significance was that the world premiere was happening in Jack's hometown. Click here for Rolling Stone's review. Keep in mind that this was a staged reading, so the actors were reading from scripts as they went through their paces. The set was very sparse.

I'm no critic, and especially where plays are concerned I have no academic credibility. That said, I enjoyed the play. It's hard to say whether I would have enjoyed it if I weren't a Kerouac fan to begin with, but I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much. The importance of the event certainly colored my reception of it, plus I had important prior knowledge for understanding what was happening. I don't think it's the best thing Jack ever wrote, but it has flashes of genius. The actors were all good, particularly Joey Collins as Milo (Neal Cassady). I kept thinking, "If this is an accurate portrayal of Neal, how tiring it must have been to be around him for any length of time." Crystal thought it was fun to try and figure out what real-life people the characters represented. Buck (as Jack) was obvious, as was Milo as Neal. Ginsberg was obvious, too (Irwin). Crystal thought Cora (played by Tamara Hickey) was perfect as Carolyn Cassady. We guessed correctly at Peter Orlovsky (Paul) and Gregory Corso (Manuel), but completely missed Al Hinkle (Slim - makes sense now) and some others. One character, played by Stephanie Bates, played a femme fatale whose only role was to walk across the stage during the racetrack scene, triggering Buck (Jack) to say, " "Why doesn't God just stop the world with a snap of his finger?" If you'd seen her, you'd understand. Click here for a character key. The script itself is available on Amazon, so you can read it yourself if you're so inclined.

The playbill

The third scene is the basis for the Robert Frank/Alfred Leslie movie, Pull My Daisy. Interestingly, it was Crystal's favorite act of the play and yet she disliked the movie.

Overall, I'm glad I went and think I got my money's worth. Jack wrote it and it was professionally produced. What else can be said? Oh, we did wonder about two things and I don't have a copy of the script to check this out. In one scene, a character refers to "hippies." In another, a character says, "Oh, snap," using it exactly as the youth of today do. These usages seemed post-1957 to us, but after some quick Internet research, it seems that both usages may have been around at the time, "hippie" being a disdainful term the Beats used for wanna-be hipsters and "Oh, snap" appearing in Norman Harrison's 1954 novel, Once a Miner.

After the play it was off to bed in preparation for an early start the next day.

We needed to be in Portland Maine by 2:30 on Saturday to attend a fund-raising event for Maine Equal Justice Partners called Poetry, Poverty & Blues. That gave us time to attend the Commemorative at "The Commemorative" Saturday morning in Jack Kerouac Park. Having been there several times, we knew right where it was and drove there without a hitch. It featured seven different readings representing the major places Jack spent time (Lowell, New York, Mexico, the road, etc.). Here are a couple of pics.

The turnout for the commemorative was great

Kurt Phaneuf read from Visions of Cody

David Amram read from a couple of special pieces

At the end of the commemorative, we gathered together members of the Jack Kerouac group on Facebook for a hello to group moderator Dave Moore. In our hurry (the bus tour was leaving), we forgot to include Nomi Herbstman. Sorry, Nomi!

Richard Marsh, Michelle Kelley, Tess Adamski, Jason Pacheco, Rick Dale, Crystal Bond, John Wight, Kurt Phaneuf (holding Visions of Cody)

Right before we posed for this picture, Jason came up and said the secret word for this year ("windows"), earning a signed copy of my book. He was with Don and Sara, and she took this picture. At this point we headed for Maine.

It is always inspiring to hang out in Lowell. Between walking where Jack walked and interacting with fellow Kerouacians, the energy and spirit is just phenomenal. Plus, it's a true learning opportunity because you get to interact with Kerouac scholars, people who knew Kerouac (not forever on the latter so take heed), and passionate Kerouac fans from all over. If you've never attended this annual October event in Lowell, I highly recommend putting it on your "bucket list."


At the above mentioned blues and poetry event in Maine on Saturday, poet Gary Lawless read an excellent poem (click here). When we went up to talk with him afterward, Crystal mentioned we had just come from Lowell for the annual Kerouac event, and Lawless proceeded to tell us that in 1973 he wrote to Gary Snyder - having been influenced by Kerouac's The Dharma Bums - about living in his cabin as a student. Snyder agreed and Lawless hitchhiked out there, living in Snyder's cabin and learning from him, Ginsberg, McClure, Ferlinghetti, et al. It was a fascinating - but brief - chat and I want to see if Lawless will agree to let me interview him for The Daily Beat. Lawless owns Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, Maine.


Crystal said...

Great post and great weekend. Synchronicity comes to mind when I think of meeting Gary Lawless right after our Kerouac weekend.

I loved having John Wight - a real life embodiment of the character - standing beside you as you read from Lonesome Traveler. And it was nice to have a little flavor of some of the other Kerouac fans from the Facebook page prior to meeting them in person.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Here's a review of the play that I largely agree with:

Cha Cha said...

Did anybody go to the musical event that included Mark Murphy and David Amram? I believe it took place at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 12, and I've been looking for some reports on it.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Cha cha, I didn't go because I was attending the play, Beat Generation.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

P.S. I saw a picture of the grave from Saturday and my book was gone. The question is, who took it and will they contact me to let me know?

David said...

Looks like a great place to go for a visit! I'll be in the US next year and will definitely make a trip out there.

john j dorfner said...

i just read this rick. i was there. ;) i appreciate your very kind words and thoughts, brother rick...and so look forward to shakin' your hand and jammin' on our guitars. IT WILL HAPPEN, PAL. oh, yeah...jack took your book. ;)

Unknown said...

Hi Rick! I just came across your blog...I wrote the article on the Beat Generation in that issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine that you've got pictured! Come down for the festival again this year...I'm running an event at Navigation Brewing Co. and there's a great new restaurant where Ricardo's used to be called the Keep. Hope to see you!

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Unfortunately, I can't make it to Lowell this year as I will be in California visiting family.

Unknown said...

Oh, too bad. Maybe next year! Btw, sadly Ricardo passed away, hence the change in restaurant ownership. The Keep is far different, but still great.