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 2 of 2. Part 1 was posted yesterday.
Memories of the On the Road 25-year anniversary conference at the Naropa Institute,
Boulder, Colorado, July 23-August 1, 1982
Part 2 of 2
by Gerald Nicosia
Because I had no place designated to sleep the first night, Ginsberg let me sleep in the attic of his large frame house on Mapleton. I was not feeling well, and had a hard time getting to sleep; and as I lay awake, I listened to Allen, Peter, and Gregory talking below. It was 1:30 in the morning, and they'd been going hard all day, but they were still full of energy, planning out the next day's activities. I thought, Here I am, 32 years old, and I'm falling apart, and these "old guys" (in their fifties) are running circles around me! It was a moment of genuine insight for me, a realization that a big part of why the Beat Generation had happened was the enormous, almost super-energy energy of these particular individuals.
|Gerald Nicosia with Allen Ginsberg and Tim Leary, On the Road conference, Boulder, July 1982. Photographer unknown.
The next morning, making breakfast in Allen's kitchen, I burned the toast. Ginsberg couldn't pass up the opportunity to turn the experience into a Buddhist lecture on dharma poetics. "While you're waiting for your toast to cook," he said, "you are in a sort of dreamy state of pure existence in space. This is nirmanakaya. Suddenly you smell smoke and yell, 'The toast is burning!' Now you've entered awareness of the self, consciousness of place and time in space. This is dharmakaya. Finally you decide, 'Oh, it's still edible'—you scrape off the burnt part and go ahead and eat it. You are able to make an intelligent comment on your situation. This is sambhogakaya."
It was, Allen said, analogous to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit I had been brought up with as a Catholic. That lesson has stayed with me. Previously, I had sat in on some of his classes at Naropa; and I have to say, Ginsberg was a natural teacher.
|Picnic at "Camp Kerouac." On the ground, from left to right: Diane DiPrima; Lawrence Ferlinghetti; unknown man; Allen Ginsberg; Nanda Pivano, the Italian translator of Kerouac and Ginsberg; unknown woman. Photo by Gerald Nicosia.
It was, as Abbie Hoffman dubbed it, "Camp Kerouac," and everywhere I went I ran into people I knew. Allen sent me over to the Chautauqua Lodge to see if I could get a room there, and outside I chatted up a tourist from North Carolina and another guy from Fort Wayne, Indiana. All of a sudden, Herbert Huncke emerged from the lodge; and as he passed us, he said in his most aristocratic tone, "Good day, gentlemen!" I laughed to myself, thinking these wholesome tourists had no idea that they'd just encountered the most famous junkie in America.
The lodge was old and rickety, and in what would have been my room was a clawfoot bathtub. A morning shower is an essential part of my day, so I decided I couldn't stay there; and later I phoned Allen, who arranged for me to stay with a well-to-do Buddhist couple who had a big, modern house. That was one of the worst mistakes I made, because it later turned out almost all the key Beats stayed at the Chautauqua Lodge, and on the rickety porch took place some of the most stimulating conversations of the conference.
One of my last memories of the Chautauqua Lodge was the sight of Herbert Huncke running down the hall to one of the communal bathrooms in his flashy bikini briefs.
Later, in downtown Boulder, I ran across Arthur and Kit Knight, who published a Beat journal called the unspeakable visions of the individual. Arthur asked "where the orgies were?" He would keep asking that for most of the conference.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the resident Tibetan guru, probably knew where the orgies were, but wasn't telling. The first night, we were required to listen to his keynote address. Two Vajra guards carried him on to the stage at the University of Colorado (Naropa didn't yet have its own campus) and set him on a small chair, which he kept falling off of. His disciples said he had been injured in an auto accident and had lost control of certain muscles in his body. Others, not so enamored of him, claimed he was merely drunk. He asked us all to look up to him "with curiosity and desire for compassion like my little dog when I feed him." His disciples began cheering, in what I thought was a Hitleresque fashion, "We believe in the great Eastern sun!" Tim Leary made a hand sign, joining his thumb and forefinger—which looked like he was digging the old lama. "The answer to humanity's nuclear problems," declared Trungpa, "is milk."
The Vajra guards, who surrounded the stage while Trungpa spoke, looked pathetic to me, like bald, potbellied wimps, and I wondered if they were actually eunuchs. I mentioned this to my friend, the poet Janet Cannon, who replied, "Don't try anything funny—they're all packing .44's!"
In the following days, as I wandered from event to event, I kept making new friends. One of the most interesting was Jay Landesman. From a wealthy Jewish family in St. Louis, he looked and dressed like a high-society WASP, and had the tall, slender, graceful body and dégagé straw hat to go with it. Dabbling in publishing, night clubs, and theater promotion, he always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, and knew almost everyone who mattered in American artistic circles for several decades. "Kerouac said I was 'nothing but a playboy,'" Landesman told me, "and he was right. It's the best thing to be!" He told me that I looked too serious, and I probably was. Ever the scholar, I was trying to make literary sense of the conference, to glean a bushelful of esoteric truths about Kerouac. I soon found that the conference was like a train or a Kesey bus that you just had to get on board, and then let it take you where it would.
|Ken Kesey autographing Gerald Nicosia's copy of Sometimes a Great Notion with his left hand. Kesey is holding a butterfly in his right hand, which he is about to release on stage at the beginning of the reading. Photographer unknown.
Speaking of Kesey, I remember him in a glaring white suit and sunglasses, with a hippie kerchief over his bald head, and various other striking costumes. He had driven to Boulder from Eugene in a convertible Cadillac with his buddy Ken Babbs, and Jan Kerouac in the backseat. One of the most remarkable readings I heard—then or ever—was Kesey reading the long piece about the death of John Lennon, called "Now We Know How Many Holes It Takes to Fill the Albert Hall." He came onstage dressed like an Oregon woodsman, with vests and sweaters, and as he read, he would take off first one piece of clothing, then another. Most people thought he was feeling the heat of the spotlights, but I intuited right away what he was doing. He was pacing himself through a long performance by giving himself stop-and-start intervals. It made me realize something about him—he was not at ease with being a public performer, but he was a good performer, because he worked assiduously at it, the way a logger might work methodically at bringing down a big tree. Kesey's innate shyness, his enormous work ethic—it was all on view there as he read.
My friend Richard, the singer-songwriter known as R.B. Morris, had hitchhiked all the way from Knoxville, Tennessee, to join me at the conference, and one of the great amusements for me was watching the ongoing duel between him and another of my new friends, the actor and would-be poet Paul Gleason. Gleason was a tall, good-looking man who had gone from being a professional athlete (football and baseball) to being a highly successful character actor. Along the way, he had made friends with an interesting assortment of people, which included Kris Kristofferson and Jack Kerouac. Richard loved Tom Waits and called him a genius; Gleason claimed Kristerofferson was the only genius in country music. Their arguments went on for hours in the basement bar of the Boulderado. "Tom Waits just parodies himself," Gleason said. Richard countered, "Kristerofferson hasn't written a decent album since Silver-Tongued Devil."
But what really amazed me was hearing stories of Gleason and Kerouac going to minor league baseball games in St. Petersburg. At one point, Kerouac told him, "I prefer athletics, because if you run the 40 in 4.5, they can't say you ran it in 9 seconds. But these damn literary critics can damn well say anything they feel like about a book, and there's no way of disproving it."
Gleason clearly loved Kerouac, and even identified with him, but that was not true of all the conference participants. Abbie Hoffman told me there was a long period when he out-and-out hated Kerouac. "Kerouac didn't think much of you either," I told him. My remark incensed him further.
"That damn 'Deluge' article!" he ranted. "Kerouac had no right to criticize me. That criticism hurt our cause [of ending the war]."
He might have been right, but I couldn't escape the feeling that he talked and acted like a little Napoleon—somebody who felt they were so morally right they were above criticism of any kind.
"Ginsberg was the center of the Beat Generation anyway," Abbie said. "Unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg was an activist. He marched and joined our protests."
"There's a need for visionaries too," I said.
"There's a need for visionaries too," I said.
"I don't want to hear that shit," he said, waving me off. Ginsberg, passing by just then, tenderly put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I needed a ride or anything else. Then he turned to Abbie and said, "You've got to stop clinging to anger ... you have to go beyond winning and losing."
Abbie walked away from both of us.
For every knock on Jack, there was a corresponding moment of triumph. During one of my panels, the biography panel, a guy in the audience stood up and demanded, "Was Jack sexually frustrated?" Edie, also in the audience, immediately stood up, and swaggered with her broad shoulders like a truck driver.
"Not with me he wasn't!" she shouted, to a big round of applause.
I got an equally big round of applause when I finished my presentation. As I came down from the stage, Larry Fagin said, "I'm going to press a record from this panel and a few of the others ... we may even give you a chair here."
Several people shook my hand. One guy bowed to me at the door to the washroom.
That all seems like a million miles away now, when my name and the title of my Kerouac biography have been removed from almost every Penguin book.
Nevertheless, there were signs of the darkness to come too. Jan Kerouac was having a really hard time there. Her first novel Baby Driver had come out the year before, and everywhere she went, flashbulbs were popping and people were calling her the "Kerouac princess." I didn't understood her new coldness toward me—especially since I'd helped her get that book published. For the first time, I saw her enter rooms without a friendly "hello," or leave them without a friendly "goodbye." It would take me a while before I understood that Jan was starting to see everyone as wanting a piece of her, because somehow she also provided a piece of Jack. The Beat Generation was transitioning from a gathering of friends, a transmission of the heart, to big business, and Jan was one of the first to see it—maybe because she was one of the first to be affected by its mercenary grabs.
This was not a free conference by any means—not an old-timey Six Gallery-style reading. It required a $150 ticket to get in, and one of the things I did was to score as many free tickets for my friends as I could.
After I spoke on the religion panel, the Dharma Regent Ozel Tendzin came up to me and thanked me for my presentation. He would end his life under a cloud too, having neglected to tell his sexual partners, who were also his disciples, that he had AIDS.
|Carl Solomon, John Clellon Holmes, and Allen Ginsberg conferring at the On the Road conference, Boulder, July 1982. Photo by Gerald Nicosia.
I remember at the end of the conference, John Clellon Holmes worriedly asking Ginsberg if he'd found any time for fun for himself there.
"A cute boy came all the way from England," Allen replied, "and we're making it!"
Janet would later tell me, "Oh don't worry. Allen dropped him, just like he drops all the others, after he's made his conquest."
(In fairness, Janet Cannon was not one of Allen's biggest fans.)
|Press conference at the On the Road conference, Boulder, July 1982. From left to right: Allen Ginsberg; Anne Waldman; William Burroughs; Ken Kesey. Photo by Gerald Nicosia.
Maybe William Burroughs had the last word on the conference, when he gave his oracle.
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