Saturday, February 23, 2013

An Old Kerouac Memoir


In the spring of 1965 I was starting my senior year at UNC, having
missed a semester with mono in l963 (a topic worth lengthy discussion
elsewhere). It was final exam time, which meant then, as I recall, late
May: warm early summer nights, with twilight lasting till 9:30, and a
general tendency towards drink as the end of the school term approached.

In Chapel Hill at that time was a fine cellar bar called "The Tempo
Room," which has had various incarnations since as a variety of botiques
and mid-range Italian restaurants, none of which have even tempted me
down those dark, narrow stairs. But the Tempo, as I say, was a fine place,
both in the afternoon and the evening, and I spent many an hour there in
my undergraduate days in the mid-sixties.

In those days I was part of a fairly small society of students and
ex-students who shared a group of necessary and sufficient conditions,
including a rather high consumption of alcohol (and may I say, "the
smoke,") and an affinity for poetry, painting, and the short story, with
a bit of the politics of the civil rights movement thrown in, and the
gathering cloud of Vietnam just over the horizon. We were
all listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. We had all, certainly, read
On The Road and much of Jack Kerouac's other opus. Most of us were editors
and writers for local literary magazines, including the Carolina Quarterly,
Reflections, and Lilibolero. Our number included Russell Banks and Lucius
Shepard, as well as Robert V.N. Brown and Norwood Pratt. (Brown and Banks
were friendly rivals, the former editing Reflections, the latter
Lilibolero. As I dimly recall, Banks rented a room in Brown's '30s era
duplex on West Franklin for a while.)

One of these loosely connected people was a guy named Marshall Hay. He was a
couple of years younger than me, and wrote poetry I think. Whatever, he had been
indulging in that most studently activity of hitchhiking back from his home
town of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina this fine morning in late May, l965,
when an old black Chevy stopped to pick him up. Climbing into the front,
he was poked and passed a large bottle of cheap red wine from the occupant
of the rear seat: Jack Kerouac!

This was a remarkable thing, and surely one of the great rides of all
time, any place, any where. Kerouac himself, and not only that, but
seemingly the very same Kerouac who peopled the books Marshall and all of
us had read in high school, still amazingly on the road, boozing, digging
the road whizzing by, still possessed of "white line fever" as Merle
Haggard called it later. When asked his destination, Marshall said "Chapel
Hill", and offered the great one an invitation to visit a town second only
(so we all felt then) to San Francisco in hipness. Kerouac had never been
to the southern part of heaven--though he had spent some fine time in
Rocky Mount, N.C. according to his novel Dharma Bums. He took Marshall up
on the invite.

It is at this point, late afternoon, an exam in Religion 52 to study
for later, that I walked down those dark stairs and into the Tempo and
found the place a hubbub, the back tables crowded with a throng of people.
I soon learned what the commotion was about: Jack Kerouac was holding
forth. I rushed over to listen.

If only I had had a tape recorder. Kerouac talked just like his books,
an endless, intense stream of words, enthusiastic, exuberant. He was
talking about his recent trip to Brittany, in search of his ancestors. He
was talking about many, many things. But all I remember now is the moment,
the sense of connection with someone known before only in books, and the
sense, too, of recognition, of that voice that had spoken so many evenings
in Raleigh, N.C. in my ear, spoken of the real wide open possibility of
the life which stood before me. At Chapel Hill, of course, we students
were privileged to see and hear many famous writers over the years. Such
is the life of the academe. I remember well nights in vast Memorial Hall
with Norman Thomas, or William Buckley. John F. Kennedy spoke at UNC while
I attended. Kerouac was quite different. He was here, in the Tempo Room,
sitting and drinking and talking just like we all did, a guy at a back
table under the dart board, talking, talking, talking.

After a few hours of this, Russ Banks (now an acknowledged American
Author in his own right, with several novels that I see with some pride
displayed in the Intimate Bookshop) invited the whole gathering over to
his house on (I think) Purefoy Rd. Adjourn we did, and the word continued
to spread, and more and more arrived. I arrived too, and found Kerouac
on the couch in the living room circled by people, who occasionally got in
a question as he continued his marathon declamation. At eleven or twelve,
Russ finally closed shop, and the diehards went on to still another house,
Tom Banks' (no relation) on Justice St., where the talk* still continued.
Sometime in the early morning I began to remember the Religion exam. I
at least had to attend, and to do that I had to be awake. So off I trudged,
back to the dorm.

The exam was at some hour like 10 AM, and I took it, and probably
reduced my grade by a letter. Afterwards I went back over to Tom's, and
incredibly Kerouac and his youthful Neal Cassidy look-alike driver were
still there, stirring. Kerouac started the day with a large pull of
wine, then doubled over with stomach pains. Then they straggled out to the
old black chevy, something like a '53 I think, and we all said goodbye,
come back again, good luck, and such, and they were off: on the road again.

At the time, and in a way still, I was very impressed. Kerouac was
famous. He could have been teaching somewhere, like many authors his age
and younger, safe in the bosom of the English Department after a blazing
youth. But he wasn't. He was still out there, still living his books.
Remarkable. Brave even. It is the choice all rebels want to make, intend
to make, when they are 20. It is why everyone in the older generation
seems like a "sell out," and why, at the time, there was a ring of truth
to the firebrand "never trust anyone over 30."

But on the other hand, most of us, though not all, did pass 30 (how
long ago, how young!) And 40, and 50. Kerouac didn't. He died at 47,
only a few years after that meeting. And it's easier to see, now, all
the torments and tangles in his life, the losses and failures as well as
the bravery.

It's coming on to 30 years since that Kerouacian visit to Chapel Hill,
though, and it's still one of my vivid memories of the decade, along with
the assassinations, and Vietnam, sit-ins and smoke-outs. He had a lot of
power, that wildeyed canuck. Rest in peace, Jack.


*"the talk" of what you might well ask. I recall much about Kerouac's recent
trip to Normandy, France, home of his ancestors. At some point at Russell's
place he launched into a feux about South Carolina's "blue gummed niggers,"
a phrase which was probably something said here and there in the South, and given
Kerouac's overall affinity with black culture, was probably a phrase he found
interesting as a poet finds interest in phrases, and also delimited his concern
in any sort of political correctness. Some in the party were offended and retired.
He was Jack Kerouac and could have cared less. It was a moment when the demarcation
between the '50s bohemian culture and the civil rights struggles of the '60s
was evident. In a year, some of the people there were enlisting rather than
waiting to be drafted, while others were on the road to Canada. I re-upped into
graduate school and got a very high draft number.

I wrote this back around 1995 I think. There was an event called the
"Harry's Reunion" happening in Chapel Hill, a kind of reassembling of this
group of folks I refer to in the piece. Russell Banks was in fact there. The
most remarkable thing about the event was to see Franklin Street, in downtown
Chapel Hill, suddenly full of the same folks as one would have seen on a typical
day in the mid-'60s. Harry's was a deli down the street from the Tempo Room.
By '95 the Tempo Room space had turned into a shoppe of some sort. Russell, who
was at least as old as Kerouac was when we met him, and who had published well
by then, was ensconced at Princeton. I'm now 70, and see more clearly than
I did eighteen years ago (sheesh!!!) that time does fly far far too fast, and that
we learn too much in the rear view mirror, when it's much too late to help. I dug
this piece up at the nudge of a great Sheila O'Malley piece:

about Russell Banks' essay on depression. Kerouac was of course surely depressed,
as well as frequently manic and self-medicating himself literally to death. He
nonetheless did live a fine few years, and experience quite a lot of joy, from
the sound of it, and wrote some possibly timeless prose, even if it all rests
firmly on the foundation of "... so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his
heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."


  1. Really fine writing, first of all..... it captures the sadness and wild desperation of ol' Jack and his crew. I'd say it was fame that got him, too, and the hope that having writing OTR would somehow make his life a lot better. Which it mostly did not.

  2. Desolation Angels holds a good description of the loss Kerouac felt. He gets back to SF after a summer in the literal wilderness, his book's hit, and everyone has scattered to the winds.