EDITORIAL FOREWORD: This is a guest post by my friend, Gerry Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. This is Part 1 of 2, with Part 2 to follow tomorrow.
Memories of the On the Road 25-year anniversary conference at the Naropa Institute,
Boulder, Colorado, July 23-August 1, 1982
Part 1 of 2
by Gerald Nicosia
|Group photo of the speakers at the 1982 On the Road 25-year-anniversary Kerouac conference. Photo by Lance Gurwell, courtesy of Gerald Nicosia. See 12/27/16 Daily Beat post for key. Click here to buy an original from the photographer.|
Recently I was in Tacoma, Washington, visiting with my friend Joe Lee, an avid Kerouac
collector, and he handed me a photograph I’d been waiting almost 35 years to see: the group
photo taken of all the speakers at the On the Road
25-year anniversary conference at the
Naropa Institute in Boulder in 1982. I remember very well when it was taken. It was the closing
session on the last day of the conference, and we were all gathered in Fairview High School,
since Allen Ginsberg wanted us each to give an “oracle”—a prophecy of what the writings of
Kerouac would lead to in another 50 or 100 years.*
I said, “What Kerouac teaches is that we’re all brothers and sisters, that you can travel
anywhere on this planet and you will be taken care of. The knowledge that we’re all brothers
and sisters is eventually going to spread all over this planet; it will bring an end to wars and
people hurting one another; and Jack Kerouac will be a very large part of that.”
I was amazed to see even Allen applauding as I came off the stage. He came up to me
and kissed me on the lips—it was the only way he ever kissed people—and said goodbye and
thanked me for coming. A number of other people congratulated me on this “parting
shot”—and then we were all encouraged to gather in an adjoining room for the group photo.
|Jan Kerouac reading from her mother Joan Haverty's memoir, "Nobody's Wife" (still unpublished), at the Women's panel, On the Road conference, Boulder, July 1982. Photo by Gerald Nicosia.|
Jan Kerouac was at the oracle—I don’t remember what she prophesied—but she didn’t
stick around for the group photo. She was already running around with the “Buddhist plumber”
who would become her steady boyfriend for the next couple of years. I think Kesey and Babbs
may have left early too, on their way home to Oregon. But a surprising number of people
stayed for the photo—several different photographers snapped the group—and more than one
photographer promised to send me a copy. But until Joe Lee handed me that photo by Lance
Gurwell in the Spar restaurant down on the old Tacoma waterfront in October 2016, I had
never seen a single copy of it.
I should add that, in a way, there was nothing unusual about this. That conference was
the first taste a lot of us had of fame—of people snapping our photographs everywhere we
went. Something like 2000 people showed up over the course of ten days and nights, and there
were media not just from the U.S. but from numerous other countries, even Japan. The first
time I was ever interviewed for National Public Radio (by Connie Goldman) was at that
conference. I never saw most of the photos or even the articles that resulted. But over the
years, the value of that one particular photo, to me, kept increasing steadily.
Although I’m writing this piece to share some of my memories of that fantastic
conference, there is something that needs to be said here at the start. And that is, that over
the course of the past 25 years or so, there has been a massive rewriting of Beat and Kerouac
history—and a lot of that rewriting has originated with one man, John Sampas, who was not at
the 1982 conference, but who now claims a large share of the credit for the revival in
recognition of Jack Kerouac’s work. The fact is, that the 1982 Naropa conference marked a
watershed in the recognition of Jack Kerouac as an important 20th-century American writer. I
was on four key panels at that conference, including the biography panel and the Catholicism
and Buddhism panel. But John Sampas has had a vested interest in making me disappear from
the annals of Kerouac scholarship, and such is the power and pervasiveness of his influence that
in many respects he has been successful. Fortunately, he never got to Lance Gurwell’s
Brian Hassett has written a remarkably detailed book about the 1982 On the Road
conference, The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac
, which he kindly gave me a copy of when I
was in Lowell this past October (just before going to Tacoma). The truth is, I have enough
memories of that conference to fill my own book. Obviously I have neither the time nor the
space here to write that book, so it will have to suffice for me to give a sort of impressionistic
pastiche of what I saw and heard there.
At the risk of seeming too self-obsessed, I feel the need to talk a little about my
circumstances before coming to the conference, because the situation I was in at the time had
a lot to do with how I perceived these people and events.
For two years, 1979-1981, I had shared the rental of a house in San Francisco’s Sunset
District with my mother Sylvia Nicosia; but in 1981, she had decided to return to Chicago, and I
was left to fend for myself in San Francisco. This was at a time when the rents and other costs
of living in the Bay Area were just beginning their 30-year skyrocket, and I was having my own
career problems. First City Lights cancelled my contract for Memory Babe
, and then Harper &
Row cancelled my contract for Memory Babe
. Finally, thanks to the good will of Seymour Krim,
I got a third contract for the book at Grove Press. But things did not go smoothly there either.
A number of people threatened to sue to stop publication of the book, and then the putative
copyeditor Hettie Jones undertook to rewrite the book, and it took me almost a year to get her
rewriting undone before I could allow the book to go to press.
During that period, I had to give up my new apartment in San Francisco, and I ended up
in my mom’s new rented house in LaGrange Park, Illinois. Whether any of these mishaps had
anything to do with my health, I’ll never know; but the summer of 1982, when I was invited by
Allen Ginsberg to take part in the coming great Naropa Kerouac conference, I was having
terrible heart fibrillations—the kind I never had before or, thankfully, since.
|Gerald Nicosia and Edie Parker Kerouac, On the Road conference, Boulder, July 1982. Photographer unknown.|
I also lacked money to get from Chicago to Boulder. But that summer, Edie Parker,
Jack's first wife, and I had become pretty good friends—I'd even visited her a couple of times in
Grosse Pointe, which was only half a day's drive from Chicago and even easier to reach by
train. My car was currently being borrowed by my friend, the poet Janet Cannon, to haul her
belongings from Taos, New Mexico, to her new home in the Bay Area. But Edie had a car,
wanted to go to the Naropa conference, and needed someone to help her drive there. We
made a deal—she would drive from Detroit to Chicago, pick me up, and I would drive the rest of
the way to Boulder.
Among the accomplishments I'm most proud of—though it's not on any of my resumes—
is having traveled "on the road" halfway across the country in a big Motown gas guzzler (she
wouldn't drive any other kind) with Jack Kerouac's ex-wife! I met all of Jack Kerouac's wives,
and a whole lot of his girlfriends, but the only one who was unequivocally "hell for leather"—in
the words of Lucien Carr—was Edie Parker. Edie was not the brightest intellectually—by a long
shot—but she was certainly the most spontaneous and the most fun. She would do anything
anyone suggested if it tickled her fancy or seemed like a surefire kick. She also had a sailor's
mouth and would say exactly what was on her mind—which was something a workingclass guy
like myself could not help but admire and feel comfortable with. When I read The Sea Is My
, the character of Polly was a dead ringer for her.
If you wonder what we talked about for over a thousand miles, that's easy—her love of
Jack Kerouac and her current love life. She claimed that Jack was the only "soul mate"
she had ever had—though she had several later husbands, who married her for her money, she
claimed, and then all left her when they discovered her money had been carefully tied up in trust
funds by her family. She currently had a lover called Muggsy, more than thirty years her junior, and
she worried endlessly about whether she were betraying her love for Jack by getting involved
with him. Muggsy was an aspiring poet, and Edie was helping him out, paying to publish his
work, and so forth. They fought a lot, and she obsessed over their arguments. I tried to be
supportive, though the samples of his work she showed me were not inspiring. He had not
wanted her to make this trip to Naropa, and had warned her that she would be "crucified in a
war of egos" there. For all I know, Muggsy thought I was some kind of romantic rival trying to
beat him out.
If you're getting a sense that Edie was a bit ditzy, or more than a bit, you're getting
a just impression. But ditzy in a fun way. She was full of life—the way I suppose Jack Kerouac was
when she met him—and there was never a dull moment with her. I'd trade her company for
almost anyone I know today—except maybe my kids, but that's just fatherly prejudice.
We stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the night and had dinner at a fancy steakhouse.
She picked up the tab. I remember she drank several beers—didn't really get drunk, just a little
gayer and more vivacious (no wonder Jack loved her!). Because of my ongoing health
problems, I only drank one beer, and she called me a "cheap date."
Then, thinking about saving money, I asked if we could share a motel room. Her eyes lit
up for a moment, and she said that if we shared the same room, we'd have sex. It wasn't a
come-on; it wasn't a threat, or even a warning. It was just matter-of-fact. If I took one big
lesson away from the Beats, it was how matter-of-factly they treated the sex act. It was just
something you did when the urge struck you, or if it was convenient, or if you had a need. She
asked me, "Is that what you want?"
I quickly told her, "No," and she told me she'd pay for a separate room for me. Besides
all those health problems, I was still very much, psychologically, the "good Catholic boy from
the Midwest," and jumping into bed with a woman 27 years older than myself, no matter how
vivacious, was not yet in my sexual vocabulary.
When we got to Boulder, Edie stayed at a nice hotel—it might have been the
Boulderado. One of her close friends was Jeanne Milner, the heir of a hotel chain; and wherever
Edie traveled, Milner found her a luxurious place to crash. In any case, we did have a big
celebratory supper at the Boulderado. The Boulderado was a gold-rush hotel, the height of
luxury in its day, with lovely dark-wood paneling and an enormous stained-glass ceiling. As
usual, Edie was paying, and we both had steaks, and this time she added a bottle of Korbel's
champagne. It was a hilarious dinner, as I remember, because there was some kind of radio
gizmo in our booth, and its red light would start blinking at random moments. Edie
immediately declared it was Jack speaking to her. "He's yelling at me for drinking too much,"
she laughed. And then, strangely, whenever she mentioned Muggsy's name, the light seemed
to start blinking again. "He's warning me not to get hurt by Muggsy," she said, this time more
----------------To be continued tomorrow----------------
I realize that my memory of where and when the photo was taken differs from that of Brian Hassett
—although it's possible there was more than one shooting of group photos. I have great respect for Brian's detailed records of the conference, especially as he put all his notes together in a coherent and very enlightening narrative in his book The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac. Brian says the photo was taken "Sat night, July 25th, 1982, in the press room just off the Glenn Miller Ballroom." He may be right about the place where it was taken; but July 25th, 1982, was a Sunday, not a Saturday. There are further problems with his scenario, which is why I have kept my version here
—which was written before I read Brian's version. I also freely admit there are doubtless problems with my scenario
—since we're all dealing with the fallible memories of aging Beatsters looking back on an event that happened more than 34 years ago! Maybe if Lance Gurwell still has his notes to this particular shooting, we'll finally know for sure. Two things trouble me about Brian's version. Regina Weinreich was not invited to the conference
—she was still in an early stage of working on her book in 1982. She was not yet known to the Beat community. Regina asked me to introduce her to the audience when I was on stage at the biographers' panel, which took place on Monday July 26
—and I did introduce her, and told the audience that she was working on a book about Jack. From that point on, she was known to many people and included in more of the activities. I don't remember whether they actually gave her a chance to speak. But I don't know why she would have been included in the group photo on July 25, while she was still largely unknown as someone working on Kerouac. Also, there are notable people missing from this group photo. Edie Parker is not in it, and I don't know why she would be missing if the photo were taken on July 25. Eventually Muggsy joined her at the conference, and they left a day or two early. Kesey and Babbs are not in the picture, and I'm almost certain they arrived by Sunday night July 25
—and Jan Kerouac came with them, so they should all be in the picture if it were taken then. I don't remember Kesey and Babbs at the oracle, so it may be they left early too, which would explain their not being in the photo if it were taken on Sunday, August 1, as I propose. In any case, I'm open to hearing more argument on this subject.