EDITOR'S NOTE: In late 1969, St. Petersburg Times reporter Jack McClintock visited several times with Jack Kerouac at Kerouac's home on 10th Avenue N for this story, which was published Oct. 12, 1969. Kerouac died nine days later, on Oct. 21, at St. Anthony's Hospital. According to Kevin Hayes, author of the book Conversations With Jack Kerouac, McClintock's interviews were Kerouac's last.
"But then they danced down the street like dinglebodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad for life, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!'"
– From On the Road by Jack Kerouac
What happens to a Beatnik in the age of Aquarius?
Some, like Allen Ginsberg, accommodate to the times and become gurus, Om-ing their way from campus to campus, demonstration to demonstration.
But what of those other cult heroes of the fifties, those picturesque, picaresque, poetic wanderers of the open road, the Beats? The Corsos, the Cassadys, the Ferlinghettis?
And what of Jack Kerouac, the king of them all, the king of On the Road?
He is 46. He lives in St. Petersburg with his third wife Stella and his paralyzed mother. The house, neat concrete and brick, is his mother's.
"I don't go out much anymore," he says. "I don't really go out at all." Nor does he particularly seek publicity.
When a photographer was assigned to get a picture of Kerouac recently, Stella answered the door and said, "He's sick. He'll call you when he feels better."
He never called.
A week or so later, a reporter walked between the palms by the sidewalk and knocked on the same door. Stella, a gray-haired woman with a wide, sad smile, said "He's not home."
And then a face came peering over Stella's shoulder. A face with grizzled jowls and red-rimmed eyes under spikey, dark tousled hair. Kerouac? The face said, "Yeah," and then: "You want to come in?"
Although the sun was two hours from taking its evening dip into the gulf 10 miles to the west, the house was dim inside. A television set in the corner was on, soundless. The sound you heard was Handel's Messiah blaring from speakers in the next room.
"I like to watch television like that," Kerouac said.
"You ain't going to take my photo are you? You better not try to take my photo or I'll kick your ass." A threatening leer, then a laugh.
"Stella. Hey! Turn the music up!" Stella went and turned the music up. Her feet were silent on the floor.
Kerouac dragged up a rocking chair for the reporter, then slumped into another one in the corner.
He was wearing unpressed brown pants, a yellow-and-brown striped sport shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. The shirt was unbuttoned and beneath it the T-shirt was inside out. He pointed to his belly, large and round.
"I got a goddam hernia, you know that? My goddam belly-button is popping out. That's why I'm dressed like this … I got no place to go, anyway. You want a beer? Hah?" He picked up a pack of Camels in a green plastic case. "Some whiskey then?"
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What was he doing these days, Kerouac was asked.
"Well, I wrote that article," he said, a trifle belligerently. His agent was busy selling a piece Kerouac had written, entitled "After Me, the Deluge," his reflections on today's world and what he might have contributed to it.
"Well, I'm going to write a novel about the last 10 years of my life …
He's been living here a couple years this time; before that a while in Lowell, Mass., his hometown, and Hyannis. It's hard to get a conventional history from Kerouac, who is bored by such commonplace matters.
"I get lonely here. I live with my mother; she's in the back room, paralyzed. Are you writing all this down? God bless the Celts, write that down. Tell them to pronounce it like it was a K."
He pursed his lips way out, and rolled his eyes.
"I can beat you up, that's why I talk so tough." Then he gave an astonishingly sheepish, little-boy grim, and said: "I hope."
He leaned back and reached for his beer can.
And here is Jack Kerouac, the man who in his lifetime has been the idol of thousands of kids who grew up envying his football prowess at Columbia University, his tossing all that aside to go on the road, his earnest, tumbling, manic "spontaneous" prose when he wrote about it all in On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans and other autobiographical novels. There were 17 books, he says, translated into 47 languages.
A Kerouac cult grew up. The cultists read all that he wrote, all that all the Beats wrote. They knew the esoterica. Moriarity was really Cassady. Cody was really Cassady. Hart Kennedy was Cassady. Cassady seemed the inspiration of the Beat Generation, though he wrote little himself.
The Beat Generation. The Fifties.
"John Clellan Holmes says one day, 'So we had the Lost Generation and the …'
"And I said, 'We're the Beat Generation.' " Kerouac says. "That was in 1948."
The Cult of the Beats was only one such, perhaps the first. Later, kids erected the same sort of mythology around Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (with a splinter cult digging instead William Goldman's Temple of Gold), then around Golding's Lord of the Flies, and then Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And Kesey had his troops, too, the Merry Pranksters, a latter-day collection of followers and hangers-on just like Kerouac's pals.
They included Neal Cassaday, and that brought it full circle.
"I don't like Ken Kesey," Kerouac says today. "He ruined Cassaday."
Cassady is said to be dead now. "He's supposed to be dead, but I don't believe it."
And here is Kerouac sitting in a rocking chair in a corner of this dim living room and watching Cronkite moving his lips on the silent screen. He hasn't shaved in a day or two and there is gray in the whiskers. "I'm really Wallace Beery in The Champ," he grins.
There is a half-quart can of Falstaff at his elbow, and he is sipping whisky from one of those medicine vials with the white plastic top you snap off, snap back on.
Snap. Sip. Snap, it goes, very regularly, a neat and tidy sound. Snap.
"Call me Mr. Boilermaker. I get lonesome here … You know how much I made this year? Between Jan. 1 and July 1, $1,770. That's what I made. But I just got $3,000 last week."
He was on the Buckley show a while back with two other guests, a student and a sociologist. "Yeah, two Communists." (Later, during another conversation, he said "The Mafia? The Communist is the main enemy – the Jew.")
On the program they talked about the Beat Generation a little, but mostly about the hippies and the political activists of today. Kerouac doesn't care much for today.
"Yeah, they got something from us – they just took it too far. The Communist Party jumped on my movement, they wanted a youth movement to use.
"Ginsberg … At a party with Kesey's Merry Pranksters Kesey came up and wrapped an American flag around me. So I took it (Kerouac demonstrates how he took it, and the movements are tender) and I folded it up the way you're supposed to, and put it on the back of the sofa. The flag is not a rag.
"When we went to school together, we were 21 and it was books and Shakespeare. But now Ginsberg's anti-American."
Was the beat thing an alcohol trip, the way the hippie thing is a drug trip?
"I smoked more grass than anyone you ever knew in your life," Kerouac snorts. "I came across the Mexican border one time with 2½ pounds of grass around my waist in a silk scarf. I had one of those wide Mexican belts around me over it. I had a big bottle of tequila and I went up to the border guard and offered him some, and he said, No, go on through, senor."
Kerouac laughed, remembering how that was.
"It should be legalized and taxed. Taxed. Yeah, 'Gimme a pack of marijuana!' But this other stuff is poison; acid's poison, speed is poison, STP is poison, it's all poison. But grass is nothing."
He gets up and goes to the kitchen for another beer, and on the way back he stops to replay the record. The record comes on playing at 78 rpm. Kerouac walks across the room, slumps into the rocker, neatly picks up the conversation where he had left it.
The Messiah sounds high, fast and silly, like those Alvin the Chipmunk songs a few years ago.
Stella glides through the room and sighs, "Oh Jackie," and fixes the record.
Kerouac points to an oil painting on the wall. "You know who that is?"
It was Pope Paul, with big blue eyes.
"You like that, don't you? Guess who painted it. Me."
He had said earlier, "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic."
"I just sneak into church now, at dusk, at vespers. But yeah, as you get older you get more … genealogical."
Kerouac wanted to talk about the article he had written, which was selling rather well to Sunday magazines in major cities in the U.S.
"It's about the Communist conspiracy," he said. He eyed the reporter narrowly, and when satisfied with the lack of response, began to read. The article was typed on yellow legal paper. He read with broad, wild gestures, grinning and mugging and assuming various foreign accents. The voice went up high, dropped confidentially low. It sped along, it dragged portentously. And the words had an unusual eloquence, the allusions were astonishingly erudite, the sounds made a lush and rich cadence, all coming from this man with bare feet and two days' growth of salt-and-pepper whiskers.
It was a wondrous performance, so much so that the reporter came away without the vaguest notion of what the article might have been about.
"I'm glad to see you 'cause I'm very lonesome here," he said, and then talked for a moment about the proposed new novel.
"Stories of the past," said Jack Kerouac. "My story is endless. I put in a teletype roll, you know, you know what they are, you have them in newspapers, and run it through there and fix the margins and just go, go – just go, go, go."
Cody (Neal Cassady) you are, I believe, my last remaining pal – I don't think I'll ever have another like you for I might retire in (like Swenson) so far, or go crazy or eccentric – of course somewhere along the line I'll end up yakking with some wench in a black night, like Louis-Ferdinand Celine, like those lonely soldiers who came back from Germany with six-foot-ten-years-older-than-them Isolde warbrides and argue with them in bleak rooms over drugstores, in bars, on church steps, in the middle of the night in winter …
- From Visions of Cody