Report from the Kerouac Front Thirty Years After Jacks Death
By Gerald Nicosia
I went to Lowell for Kerouac Week this year, October 1999, even though I was told by Hilary Holladay of the U Mass English Department that I could not participate, and even though a number of Sampas goons were on the internet weeks in advance, warning me to stay away.
What I saw and experienced in Lowell was a disgrace, and a huge dishonor to the openhearted, compassionate spirit of Jack Kerouac. I came because I have a lot to say about Jack Kerouac. I spent six years of my life researching his, interviewing 300 people in the fieldmore than any other biographerback when everyones memory was fresh, in the late 1970s. No other biographer has duplicated that feat. Authorized biographer Ellis Amburns claim of having based his book on 500 interviews is a joke. Take a close look at the list of his intervieweespeople like Jackie Kennedy and Paul Maher, neither of whom ever met Jack Kerouac. Amburn also lists among his interviewees people like Jacks cousin-in-law Doris Kerouac, who did know Jack very well. Doris told me shes never been within a country mile of Amburn. His claim to have interviewed her is pure b.s. But thats hardly the only b.s. floating around these days.
The Sampas propaganda machine had put the word out on me long before I got to Lowell. I was supposed to be interviewed by Paul Sullivan of WBZ, but when I got to Lowell, Sullivan told me I was too angry (without even having met me) and wouldnt talk to me. Chris Wright was assigned to do a story on Kerouac Week for the BOSTON PHOENIX; he had been warned that I was a mad dog with froth coming out of my mouth. After talking with me for a few minutes, he decided I wasnt really a mad dog, and did the story anyway.
For the record, Im a Christian pacifist, whose only weapons are my words and the truth. Im about to turn fifty years old and have enough ailments to put away two men half my age. As far as I can see Im no threat (at least no physical threat) to anyone. My most radical activity is spending two hours a day with my stroke-incapacitated, 88-year-old mom Sylvia in a nursing home near my house. Many Kerouac fans, including those in England, have seen me escorting my mom around to Kerouac events, in the days when she could still walk. I dont believe I impressed any of them as a potential Mack the Knife.
Yet when I showed up at the 5th Annual Kerouac Conference at the OLeary Library, South Campus, U Mass, Lowell, on Friday October 1, 1999, the room was filled with armed guards and undercover cops, some of whom sloppily (or on purpose?) had their badges hanging out from under their sweaters. One such woman cop kept dodging behind a concrete pillar every time I tried to take her picture. All these cops were following me around like hound dogs on the scent of David Janssen (TVs former fugitive, for those of you too young to remember).
Oh, theyd talked about my coming, you may be sure of that.
Robert Creeley spoke first. I interviewed Creeley at his home in Placitas, New Mexico, 22 years ago. He evidently didnt think I was a mad dog in those days. But hes steadfastly refused to speak out against the censorship of Kerouac studies, citing as his reason his friendship with Ann Charters, who works for John Sampas, and with Ron Johnson, a Massachusetts poet who plays tennis with Sampas. After Creeleys talk, a good one, on Jack Kerouacs sincerity and passion for truth, Creeley asked for questions. I was the first to raise my hand. I wasnt called on. I kept raising my hand. At several points, I was the only person with his hand in the air. I was sitting down front. Creeley may only have one eye, but his vision isnt THAT poor. Creeley kept asking, Are there any OTHER questions?
Next came the panel on Kerouacs writing, the one Ms. Holladay had told me she had been warned to keep me off of. At the start of the session, Ms. Holladay announced that the University of Massachusetts was deeply indebted to John Sampas and his family for a large bequest. I.e., the University of Massachusetts had sold itself like a cheap prostitute to become a front for Sampas Enterprises, Inc. Or perhaps I shouldnt condemn the entire university; perhaps Ms. Holladay alone bears the responsibility. In that case, let the other people at this university open their eyes to what is being done, and how scholarship is being degraded there in the name of money, jack with a small j, the Almighty greenback dollar, of which Mr. Sampas has an endless supply thanks to the genius of Jack Kerouac.
On this supposedly scholarly panel of five individuals, there was not one person who was not making money off of John Sampas. Coincidence, you suppose? There was Douglas Brinkley, the hotshot young historian who has climbed to prominence on the back of World War II scholar Stephen Ambrose, and who got his face all over the news when JFK, Jr. died, claiming to be JFK, Jr.s best friend, which earned Brinkley the moniker of necropublicist in SLATE magazine. Brinkley is Sampass next great white hope, the latest authorized biographer sent to knock out MEMORY BABE, after Amburns book stunk so bad they had to fumigate the bookstores that carried it. Brinkley reputedly signed a deal cutting Sampas in for a big percentage of the profits. Sampas once phoned me, and told me the biggest thing he had against me was that I didnt pay him a percentage of the royaltiespaltry as they arefrom MEMORY BABE.
Next on the panel was Sterling Lord, Sampass agent. He gets ten percent of every book, tape, CD-rom, etc., sold with Jack Kerouacs name on it. Enough said.
Next, Paul Slovak, Vice President of Penguin Putnam books, which is reaping the financial harvest of all the new Kerouac books hitting the stands.
Next, David Stanford, the editor who convinced Penguin to buy anything Sampas put up for sale (anything with words on it, they havent bid for his jockey shorts yet).
And finally, Paul Marion, who may be the biggest joke of a poet in Massachusetts, but who earned the plum of editing Kerouacs early short stories, ATOP AN UNDERWOOD, by his undying fealty to his Lord John Sampas. In Lowell, Marion is known as Apples and Oranges, after the title of his first book of poetry. Apples and Oranges arrived in a deep blue, very serious Brooks Brothers suit with a leather briefcase almost as portly as he is, to tell us how he saved Jack Kerouacs early works from oblivion.
This, the objective, scholarly panel that was going to tell us how Jack Kerouac is moving into the next millennium.
When they got done talking, I again raised my hand. And kept it up. This time, however, the panelists were protected from the mad dog (myself) by a female intermediary, who alone was empowered with calling on questioners. This was Ronna Johnson from Tufts University. Ronna knows very well who I am; weve been published in the same Kerouac scholarly collections for years. She knew all too well. She too ignored my hand, even when no one elses hand was up in the entire room. Just like Creeley, she refused to make eye contact with me, looking over and around me to ask, Are there any MORE questions?
They all knew damn well what I wanted to ask. Sampass lawyer George Tobia had promised six years ago that all the Kerouac paintings and drawings were on their way to museums, and all the papers on their way to the New York Public Library. Sampas himself promised, through his mouthpieces James Grauerholz (Burroughs executor) and Bob Rosenthal (Ginsbergs executor) that when the lawsuit was over, the entire Kerouac archive would find its way to the proper public repositories. Now, the lawsuit is over (I lost in my attempt to carry out Jans wish, of recovering the papers to place them in the Bancroft Library). But instead of hastening to a museum or the New York Public Library, Sampas hastened to Sothebys to hold the first public auction of Kerouac materials, paintings, annotated books, even his old conga drum, as part of the so-called Beat Auction of the Century. It occurred on October 7, and prices soared through the roof. Grauerholz told one of the bidders that Sampas had intended to auction off Kerouacs papers at this first auction as well, but that he got cold feet because of the public spotlight I was shining on the auction, pointing out the hypocrisy of it every chance I got. In fact, Sampas pulled back a large number of items before the catalogue went to print. This can be verified with Sothebys.
So I wanted to talk about thiswhy, 30 years after Kerouacs death, after the lawsuit is over, after weve all waited long enough, after years of Sampass promises to the contrary, are materials from the Kerouac archive going to the auction block instead of to a public institution? That was the question they dare not let me ask, in fact had to fill the auditorium with armed guards to keep me from asking.
How much did they pay Ronna Johnson to keep her from calling on me? Or did they just offer to let her edit the next Kerouac collection? I was disappointed in many people there, people whom I have known for twenty years or more, who would not open their mouths to say, simply, This is wrong. Let Nicosia speak. He has something to say.
There was Regina Weinreich. She came up to me when I was on stage in Boulder, 1982, at the ON THE ROAD 25 year anniversary conference. I was already well known as a Kerouac scholar; she was unknown. She asked if I would introduce her to the audience, and tell people she was writing about Kerouacs spontaneous poetics. I did this for her. Later, when MEMORY BABE came out, and I came to New York to do some radio shows, she asked if she could get on the shows with me. I agreed, and I still have the tape of her on WBAI with me. But Regina didnt open her mouth, not one inch. Then we heard the announcement that she would be editing a book of Kerouac haiku (thanks to Mr. Sampas).
What about Joyce Johnson, who claimed to love Jan Kerouac? She refused to support Jans right to speak in 1995, when Jan got pulled out of NYU by police, at the behest of NYUs Helen Kelly, who owed her whole conference to the permissions granted by Mr. Sampas. Joyce has spent time with me at numerous Kerouac conferences, from Quebec City on down. She knows about my work with the Vietnam vets, and about the years I worked with Ron Kovic, whose first book she edited. Joyce didnt open her mouth either. Joyce, it was announced, had just received permission from Mr. Sampas to publish her letters from Jack Kerouac.
A little slice of the pie for everyone, and everyone shuts up.
There was Dave Amram, whose whole musical career now depends on issuing Amram Plays with Kerouac CDs and playing at every Kerouac/Beat event from here to Timbuktu. He not only wont speak out against the way theyre shutting my mouth; he goes even further in groveling to Sampas, by lying to everyone that I murdered Jan Kerouac. I have over 100 letters from Jan, over an 18-year period, most of them signed Love. Amram hasnt got one. Moreover, Amram remembers damn well that I brought Jan to his cottage on Fire Island (Watch Hill) in 1978, so that Jan could cook him dinner and he could ogle her on the beach in his girlfriends bathing suit. He knows damn well that I didnt murder her. But if it revives a flagging musical career, hey, why not jump on the lying bandwagon just like everyone else?
Because its wrong, Dave. Because some people still believe in some kind of basic morality. Jack Kerouac certainly believed in it. A place for everyone at the table. Everything belongs to me because I am poor. Those were Kerouacs mottos. What happened, Dave, Joyce, Regina, all of you? Have you all forgotten what this man stood for, in the name of making money off of John Sampas?
Ronna Johnson looked over my head and called on the handsome Irishman behind me. Michael Lally, one of Americas greatest living poets, with 20 books out. Unfortunately, she didnt know that Michael is a friend of mine, that he came up all the way from New York to support my right to speak. Michael asked, Why arent the Kerouac papers available yet for study? He addressed his question to David Stanford, who had just gotten done promising that someday the archive would be seen by the public. Stanford, in Lallys phrase, screwed up his face as if he were in pain, and did his best to defend his master, John Sampas, sitting about ten feet from him down in the front row. Sampas was surrounded protectively by the other members of his team, Diane DeRooy, Paul Maher, and Dave Amram.
Stanford talked about the huge burden on John Sampas of running the multi-million-dollar Kerouac Estate, and how if we were all patient, he would someday get around to placing everything safely in a library. (If a lie works once, hey, why not try it again for the zillionth time?) I yelled out, But how can it all end up in a library, if its already being auctioned off? It was four fifteenthe symposium was supposed to go till four thirty. But Johnson lunged for the microphone and announced, The session is now over! Why dont we all meet outside in the lobby for further discussion? Instantly, the Sampas panelists jumped to their feet. Members of the audience looked at each other in wonder, and many actually asked aloud, What happened?
This is censorship in action, I explained. Welcome to the world of Kerouac studies as we enter the 21st Century.
What I recount here was witnessed by many people, who will certainly verify itamong them Jim Keefe, a wonderful actor and raconteur who returned to Lowell from a successful TV and movie career, to be with his familyand who has no axe to grind, except to see Jack Kerouac properly honored in his hometown. These people are acting like a bunch of 12 year olds, Keefe told me. And theyre running the Kerouac Estate the way they used to run the family bar.
Poor Brian Foye. Hes Sampass right-hand man on the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Committee. But he also knows Jim Keefe from the Irish community in Lowell. Brian once dated Jims brothers old girlfriend. Jim kept trying to catch Brians eye in the auditorium, and Brian kept running the other way, because it was clear that Jim Keefe was on my sideat least, Keefe was operating a video camera for me, which put him squarely on the enemies list. The poor bastard couldnt even say hello to me, Keefe told me later, because Sampas would have cut him off.
Welcome to Kerouac Studies at the end of the 20th century. You cant even say hello to somebody youve known for 20 years, because Sampas will cut you off. You cant support someones right to speak, even if that person put you on your first radio show, because Sampas will cut you off.
Is this really what we want to see more of in the 21st century?
Buddah, the poet John Pirolli, who loved Jan, was there with his friends too. He got the same police bodyguard as I.
No one opened their mouth, either, about the fact that the MEMORY BABE archive, 99% of it, is still under seal at the University of Lowell, because Mr. Sampas threatened the library. Bancroft Library offered to buy the archive and make it available in Berkeley, but the University of Massachusetts refused. They wont show it to anyone, they wont sell it to anyone who will show it, and they wont take care of it properly. The library still hasnt copied the tapesinterviews with 300 people who knew Kerouac, half of them now dead--which are in a very serious state of deterioration. Playing one of the tapes for five minuteswhich it took my lawyers presence even to make happenclogged up the recorders head with brown magnetic dust. But the librarian assures me that in 70 years the tapes will be made available. I told her there will be nothing left on the tapes in 70 years.
Now that the Kerouac archive is being auctioned off, the MEMORY BABE archive is the last substantial archive that future scholars and writers can go to to gather a wealth of material on the great writers life. But the MEMORY BABE archive will also be lost, thanks to the oppressive hand of Literary Executor John Sampas, unless the University of Massachusetts has the guts to reopen the archive or let another library take it over.
Not a word about that from Music Man Dave Amram, whose interview is among the 300 censored tapes. Not a word about that from Joyce Johnson, whose interview is also among the censored tapes. Of course Dave and Joyce can still speak for themselves, Report from the Kerouac Front P. 6even if their memory isnt what it was 22 years ago, when I recorded them. But what about the 150 or so Kerouac friends and relatives who are now dead and can no longer speak for themselves? Dont they have a right to be heard? Didnt they expect to be heard when I placed my tape recorder in front of them, and told them everything they said might be used in the book I was writing, MEMORY BABE?
I call on those who care about Jack Kerouac, and who dont care if John Sampas cuts them off, to speak up now, before it is too late.
There is one archive we can still save, the MEMORY BABE archive.
Maybe there are even two archives we can save, if John Sampas reverses his decision to auction off Jack Kerouacs papers. Would he even consider doing such a thing if the big names, Creeley, Johnson, Ferlinghetti (whose CD was just produced by none other than Sampass nephew), et al., said Fuck it! to making money off John Sampas and just told the truththat Jack wanted his papers saved for posterity, made accessible to the public, and that that is where they should be RIGHT NOW???
We all know the answer to that question.
John Sampas would buckle in a minute, if the people he has to deal with every day just had the guts to stand up to him.
What is everybody waiting for?
Ive carried this load long enough.