Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Adventure 2015
The first time I came to Lowell in 1983 you couldn’t find any indication Jack ever lived here. I asked all around and finally found a bartender who said the only guy in town who knew about him was his old Reverend. The afternoon barkeep even looked up his number in the Lowell phone book for me, and I called him from a payphone and was surprised he sounded just like the French people back home in Canada. He said he couldn’t come out that afternoon to show me around, but gave me a detailed description of how to find Jack’s almost unmarked grave in Edson Cemetery.
Today, not only is there a giant headstone and commemorative parks and parts of libraries named for him and walking tours and festivals, but even the Reverend I was talking to on the phone has got a street named after him!
When I was checking into the Motel 6 on this visit, the woman behind the desk quite proudly said of my room, “You’ve got a view of the pool!”
In some insane world, that I’m coming to learn is Lowell, this is the pool she was referring to:
Mondays with Michael
Gettin’ Things Done in Lowell
First thing, I immediately zip over to the AAA to pick up some local maps — until the young clerk says AAA just stopped making Lowell maps and they can’t get any more. What?!
Then this older woman overhears what we’re talking about and goes, “I think there’s one more left,” and pulls out a drawer, and I go, “Alright! Perfect synch!” and give the air a victory punch. And then she goes, “Oh, no, it’s gone.”
So I ask the young clerk about any waterfalls in the area, and she says, “You should talk to Julie,” and nods to the woman still digging through the drawer. “She knows this area better than anyone.”
So I go over to drawer-diggin’ Julie who’s flipping through file folders n shit, and she says, “Why? What are you doing in Lowell?”
“I’m here for the Kerouac festival.”
“Ohhh — that’s one of my favorite things to do every year!”
“Yes — I got my degree in English — love him.” (!)
Suddenly — “Oh look! Here it is!” As she pulls out the last copy of the last map of Lowell from the bottom of the drawer!
Then on top of that she starts raving on about the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac (LCK) festival for the next ten minutes! We realize we’ll be seeing each other again in a couple days, so I grab the last chance map and bolt out of there to head over to UMass for the Michael McClure reading — his first appearance anywhere off the West Coast in years.
Get there — small visitor parking — the only non-permit lot for miles around, and would you believe me if I told you I got the very last open parking space on the campus? It’s true!
And now it’s a nice sunny afternoon Moosehead walk through a classic tree and architecture rich American campus to the Allen House! Yes, of course. We’re going to celebrate Jack at Allen’s house with Michael.
Right off the Beat bat there’s Stan the haiku man, the fellow crazy-early arrivee who says he’s been coming to these LCK fests for 15 years.
And there comes Aaron Lantz, The Kansas Kid, who flew all the way from there to Boston just for this McClure show. And not only that but the guy holds the land speed record for reading my book — start to finish in 3½ hours! And he’d been askin’ me all these questions about Michael so I thought — here’s your chance, kiddo. And boy he leapt at it!
And there comes Steve “Erudite” Edington, one of the Founding Fathers of all-things-Jack in the Lowell—Nashua corridor. And he’s beaming his perpetual big smile and sporting a handful of hot-off-the-press LCK programs and seems as giddy about the doin’s as the first-timers he’s guiding.
And then we realized we were standing in the middle of the new Jack exhibit that isn’t even scheduled to have it’s ribbon-cutting opening until three days from now! Boom!
There’s his old writing desk . . .
There’s his chotchkies . . .
There’s his handmade cat carrying cases for his beloved furry family . . .
There’s an old manual typewriter, the same make and model as Jack’s last instrument . . .
And I’m typin’ away on the thing, and trying to fix the right margin that doesn’t seem to want to adjust, and along comes this woman who also grew up with these instruments and the two of us work on it for a while but can never find the lever to move the margins. Turns out the woman I’m collaborating with on this writer’s recovery job is none other than Judith Bessette, the new Prez of LCK! — on what will hopefully be just the first of many collaborations.
And there’s the room where Michael’s going to be addressing the assembled . . .
. . . students and scholars and pranksters and roadsters who’ve made the pilgrimage from across the campus or across the country.
Then the man of the hour shows up and whaddya know delivers what may be my favorite appearance by him of the so many I’ve seen! He’s come up with a whole kinda lecture thing called “On Kerouac, Shelley and Mountains” !!
Usually he’s just reading his poetry — often with that late great Keyboard of Perception — but this was storytelling improvisation with a structure — and loads of Jack, plus Shelley, plus the power of nature, which was always something he and I shared a passion for. He read the opening of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” then segues that directly into Jack’s “Desolation Blues,” and then into his favorite choruses of “Mexico City Blues” including one of the last ones, 239, which he called a Buddhist love poem.
And all the while and in between he’s telling stories like about the first time he met Jack at the legendary Six Gallery reading, and how he couldn’t believe Jack’s level of understanding of Buddhism after he’d read “Some of The Dharma” in manuscript form — because Buddhist teachings were so hard to come by in the ’50s — he couldn’t fathom how Jack had learned all of this. And he tells the story of how he happened by the lion enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo with Bruce Conner, and he performed some of his human beast language poetry, growling sounds of life eternal.
And then it ends, and I’m talkin’ to Judith and it’s the usual end of show schmoozethon, and The Kansas Kid is just standin’ around next to me. I tell him, “Hey! Get over there and talk to Michael! This is your cue, Kid!”
After a while I head over to where the lion’s holding court, where he wasn’t that swamped since it wasn’t that big a scene, and I just move right in and start riffin’ away with him as The Kansas Kid is still holding back in his Midwestern shyness. It takes Michael a minute before he remembers me, then we’re off, talking about our mutual love of the Earth, and how cool it was that he made it a central theme of his talk today. I asked if he was doing anything for the sixtieth anniversary of the Six Gallery this week — and he goes, “It is? I had no idea. I’ll have to drop Gary a line.”
And I tell him about my new book about Boulder ’82 and how his chapter is one of the most popular among readers, and I’m finally able to give him his own copy. At some point I say, “Hey, we should get a picture together — we never did before,” and he goes, “Oh, I’m too old for pictures anymore.” Which was an echo of Carolyn in her later years.
After we had a nice memory lane run, I tell him about The Kansas Kid who’d come all the way from his home state just to hear the lion roar, and both of them couldn’t be happier as they met and took off talking about the difference between projective verse and free verse and metric verse, the young poet looking for and getting answers from the octogenarian vegetarian.
And as others mosey in for an autograph or question, Michael keeps thinking of new tips and books for Aaron to read, who’s now become the center of the collective conversation. It was so nice to see the old bard taking an extended proactive interest in the young cub, and since they seemed to be getting on so well I decided to go say hi to Amy, Michael’s longtime partner.
She tells me she’d been looking at us talking and thinking, “Who is that guy? I know him …” I hand her a copy of my book and she looks at the front cover and after a second starts tapping the chest of my picture going, “That’s the guy I remember.”
And we start having a good old chin-wag like we always did which always made for good hangs with Michael cuz her and I would be just as happy to riff all night while others were basking in the light of her rock star husband. And on this day, as all the autograph seekers and young and old fans eventually drift away, it was just the four of us left in the big empty room with the glass doors that filled it with bright afternoon light and we all sat down for a comfortable post-show chat, the two Kansans on one side, me & Amy swappin stories on the other. When I told her about The Kansas Kid comin’ all this way to see Michael, she said with a big smile, “Oh, isn’t that lovely. Well we’ll just sit here for as long as that takes.”
She asks about Boulder ’82 and how it came about, and when I mention the part about Allen getting the Grateful Dead to fund it, she said it’s just like the time they were hanging in New York with Allen when he unexpectedly blurted out, “We have to go see the Grateful Dead tonight.” One of the original Beats was in a bad way, and Allen had to talk to Jerry, and there they were in the dressing room after the show, and by the end of the hang Jerry calls some guy over and tells him Allen needs $10,000 and that was that.
And a wonderful thing was — for this whole long hang, there was never anybody standing around waiting to kick us out or move us along. Both pairs had an eternity of afternoon sunlight to explore the unexplored, and that’s just what we did. And it was funny — after it was over, Aaron told me Michael kept bringing their conversation back to political engagement. Another reason I luv the guy. It’s not enough that you enjoy or study or write poetry — what’s important is if you’re engaged in the world and working to make it a better place.
Here was Michael spending this important time with his young acolyte challenging him to be involved and to not spend his life with his nose in a book. I almost pinned on my “Abbie Lives!” button before heading over — and after hearing this I wish I had.
Eventually it all winds down and we watch from the majestic Allen House stoop as Michael & Amy drive off into the sunset and their visit to Walden Pond tomorrow. And of course ol’ Aaron is just beaming after a whole afternoon with his hero. Then I suggest in the giddiness of the moment we go prank about and explore this old 1854 mansion before we leave the hill . . .
The night prior, he and I made a sunset dash to Jack’s gravesite with its new headstone . . .
and tonight at exactly the same time we made a mad dash to the Kerouac Commemorative Park so he’d have that under his memory belt before he left town tomorrow. And as we arrive, raging against the dying of the light, I spy the only open parking spot in town which also happens to be the closest possible spot to the park and pull a mid-traffic U-ey to snag it, prompting my navigator to exclaim, “This is a time the Gets Things Done sign should be on the front window.”
It’s so cool hanging with someone who can make jokes referencing your own book!
The Kansas Kid ready to quick-draw his six-shooters
And we each got to pick our passages to be photoed by —
Aaron at Mexico City Blues,
which Michael had been reading this afternoon
Me at The Scripture of The Golden Eternity
And on the corner of the park is the classic Sal Paradise Diner!
But sadly this Paradise is mostly Lost — only being open 6AM till noon daily.
As Aaron’s trying to find the location of Jack’s Grotto on Google, I decide to bolt us over to his famous library where he learned the words of the world. We get there and I se somebody comin’ down the stairs and realize it was still open, so we dashed up two at a time in order to see the new Young Prometheans section they’d just recently set up in honor of the Dead Poet’s Society type group-of-the-mind that Jack and Sebastian Sampas had imagined themselves as being part of as youths.
Which is right next to . . .
And not fer nuthin but — this library is freakin’ gorgeous!
No wonder Jack fell in love with books!
Discovering the library’s open till 9, we dash back out past the poster for this week’s JackFest
to soak in the final red rays of the red brick town of the railroad earth
The City Hall clocktower
And all of a sudden there’s this spectacular sunset goin down . . .
But I gotta get elevation . . .
Can’t catch the sky from the sidewalk . . .
and I’m suddenly running around downtown Lowell looking for anything I can climb on! I try a green recycling container but the lid starts to cave in while I’m on it and I jump off just as it’s cracking to my death. Boom! Dash around the corner, lookin for perspective . . .
Run around the back of some giant building into a schoolyard, trying to get the obstacles out of the way, when . . .
A fire escape on the back of some big-ass church er sumpthin! Boom!
Climbing those creepy creaking century-old iron slats, watchin carefully for them to bend or break — up to the first floor — take some shots — creep up to the second — take more shots — the windows behind me all seem closed so sneak up to the third — may as well get hung for a sheep as a lamb — yeah baby — so far, so good — snap snap, scurry hurry — race, race against the dying of the light . . .
Then, of course, it became a mission to the missions — Find out what those two churches were outlined on the skyline. Wandering through the yards of the redbrick row-houses we come out at the base of the dome of the Hellenic Orthodox Church of The Holy Trinity — to which encyclopedic Aaron immediately recalls that Sebastian Sampas going to a specifically Greek church in Lowell and thinks he remembers Holy Trinity as part of its name.
Then anothur furthur wander and we’re outside the pointed gothic spire we’d spied and sure enough it’s another old St. Patrick’s.
Since we hadn’t been able to find Jack’s grotto on Aaron’s phone, and we’d spotted what looked like a cool room on the second floor of the library, we decide in the now-dark night to return to the light. As we stealthily enter the majestic second floor reading room and are making our way to its center to take in its full grandeur I hear someone say quite distinctly, “Hey Brian … ” and think how funny it is that someone else here at the library is named Brian.
I start looking around to see what this alternate me looks like — and there walkin’ through the middle of the room right towards us is — Tony Sampas! And the first words out of his mouth — “Glad you could make it! Here, let me show you the motherlode.” 🙂
Motherlode?!?! And he takes us over to the massive Jack stash!
A HUGE section of books you can take out, and another huge section you can only read there.
And on top is another nice plaque with a mock-up of his library card.
And he proceeds to give us the whole history of the place since he’s been workin’ there for years and loves his history. The building opened in 1893, and it was really built as a monument to the local men lost in the Civil War, only over the decades has the library grown from its first home in the basement to eventually taking over the whole building.
And wouldn’t ya know it but they have wall-size action paintings of none other than good ol’ General Grant! My favorite battlefield figure of the war!
“President Lincoln, I have to inform you General Grant has been seen drinking on the job.”
“Well, whatever he’s drinking, serve it to the rest of the troops.”
And since Tony’s excitedly telling us stories, and I’m excitedly asking questions, and this is technically a reading room not a talking room, he suggests we adjourn to the hallway / foyer / balcony in this gorgeous palace of a building. And I’m like, “Oh wait — while I gotcha — is that Holy Trinity Greek church the one Sebastian went to?” And he sez Yeah. And the Kansas Kid strikes again!
And Tony offers, “Those two churches, that’s where Jack described Sebastian as walking between them and pointing to each, saying, ‘Gothic immensity — Byzantine sensitivity.'”
As always, Jack capturing the poetry of his friends.
And then I remember — “Hey — where’s Jack’s grotto?” And he proceeds to draw us a map. And says the local waterfalls I’d been asking him about a few days earlier were right near there. What?!
Then I remember ol’ Tony’s a pretty serious photographer so I tell him about the crazy adventure up the fire escape to capture it, and our local guide promptly informs me, “You’re lucky you didn’t get shot.”
“Yeah — but I got some great photos!”
“I was shooting it, too — out the window here.”
“Nice! . . . Wait a minute . . . you were shooting the sunset out the window? I was shooting the sunset on the library — gawd — wouldn’t that be cool if I caught you at the window in a shot?!”
And with that, the Canadian Cowpoke and the Kansas Kid hit the trail again — this time armed with a hand-drawn Sampas treasure map to hidden hollows and thunderous falls!
After a quick pit-stop to grab some cold you’re-not-going-to-believe-the-name-of-it beer —
it was on to Jack’s grotto at night . . .
One of The Stations of The Cross
Then we drive around to look for the potential waterfalls, and Aaron’s saying “Maybe this is something you should do tomorrow.”
And I’m like, “No. It’s right here.” I knew it. I could sense it. I could hear it . . . I just couldn’t see it.
And we go out on the busy dark bridge and look over … but there’s nuthin.
Then I notice even in the dark that the water’s goin’ downstream on this side — and insist we sprint like mad hares through a momentary break in bridge traffic and land on the other side and look over and BOOM! Waterfall and rapids as far as you can see!
And ol’ Aaron from flat Kansas is duly impressed and givin’ some rare Wows to the universe! And then ol’ Gets Things Done is spying down below at some sorta lookout spot . . . part of the gatehouse or whatever of the bridge, and I’m like, “Let’s get there.”
And of course everything’s all shuttered down but I spy along the concrete walls back by the shore a white picket gate . . . that with a goodly push in just the right spot — pops open! . . . and now we’re climbin’ down some cement stairs along a canal in the nearly pitch dark . . . and cross some little bridges and I spot about an 18 inch wide “sidewalk” going along the outer rim over the water hugging the building . . . and insist young Aaron go first for the unencumbered view of the upcoming Adventure, but he thinks I’m insisting cuz I think it’ll collapse and he’ll fall in first.
Out we roam into the unknown . . . water raging beneath us . . . until at the end of the walkway we get to a little open balcony hanging right over the falls.
The perfect place to debrief on the arc of the day and night . . . and how Aaron flew all the way from Kansas to meet Michael who gave this fabulous colorful wide-ranging reading and talk — and their whole long private yak afterwards. And then I’m like — “Wait a minute!! The McClure chapter in my book ends with a waterfall!!” Ha!!
And the Grand Synch we’d been surfing all day came perfect circle.
Getting Things Done in Lowell, Day One.
For another grand LCK escapade, check out the Pawtucketville Social Club Adventure.
or more on the Boulder ’82 Kerouac SuperSummit check out Meeting Your Heroes 101.
Or here you can check out Who All Was There.
Or to get a copy of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac” you can order it here.
Or here’s a bunch of performance videos of The Hitchhiker’s Guide …”
And here’s a bunch of reactions to the book.
Or here’s a whole second round of the raves that came in from all over the world.
For another 2015 Kerouac summit Adventure Tale check out the amazing Beat Shindig story.
For a huge online photo album of the event check it out here.
Or here’s a Facebook photo album of LCK 2016.
To read my keynote essay from “The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats” on the decade that birthed the Beats — go here.
Or also from “The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats” — here’s my riff on The Power of The Collective.
Or for a video featuring several fellow Roadsters at this very Lowell celebration, check out this group effort bringing part of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac” alive in Jack’s old hometown bar . . .
Or here’s a video of reading “the San Francisco epiphany” part of On The Road with Kerouac’s principal musical collaborator David Amram . . .
by Brian Hassett
Or here’s my Facebook account if you want to also follow things there —