Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Jack Kerouac makes the cut

I often complain when Jack Kerouac gets left off lists (e.g., top ten American authors), but I'm not so sure I'm glad he made this one. I wonder what he thinks about the company, especially Capote (famous for his snide remark about Jack's work being typing and not writing). He made similar lists which have him in somewhat different company (click here for example).

(c) Aaron Bagley
Source: http://www.aaronbagley.com/alcoholicauthors.html

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Memory Babe (Kerouac) archive, Part 3

As promised, here is Part 3 of my series regarding the Memory Babe archive in Lowell, MA. What follows is an account of our visit to the archive. Some of the following information comes directly from Memory Babe author Gerald Nicosia himself, in which case I have so indicated.

First some background. According to Nicosia, “The Memory Babe Archive is a collection of manuscripts, materials, and recordings that Gerald Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, partially sold and partially donated to UMass Lowell in 1987.” Below is a picture of Nicosia delivering the Memory Babe Archive to UMass Lowell Special Collections, the old library in the old campus, 1 University Avenue, just across the Moody Street Bridge, before they had moved to the Patrick J. Mogan Center.  Gerry told me that, with his Illinois buddy Dennis Horacek, he carried all the archives in two cars from Chicago to Lowell in California Medallion Orange boxes. You can see one of the vinyl tape cases (brown) in the lower left corner, as well as some tapes stacked on the desk.  He is holding the foot-high original manuscript of Memory Babe that we saw in the archive and talk about later in this post.

Photo courtesy of Gerald Nicosia
Taken by Dave Moore

As long as we’re posting pictures, below is one of Gerry writing Memory Babe on his Smith Corona in the garret of his mother’s house in Lyons, Illinois, in June 1979.

Photo courtesy of Gerald Nicosia

Below is one of Gerry in 1980 with the manuscript three-quarters finished.

Photo courtesy Gerald Nicosia

Currently, the Memory Babe archive is physically housed in the UMass Center for Lowell History, which is in the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center at 40 French Street, within view of the Kerouac Commemorative. I asked Gerry for some information about the archive’s history. He said his intent in archiving the materials in Lowell was

to make them available for study by the public.  But in 1995, the year after Jan Kerouac filed her lawsuit against the Sampas family over the forging of Gabrielle Kerouac’s will, John Sampas went to the library and demanded that the Memory Babe Archive be completely sealed.  The library immediately complied and closed the archive.  This meant that even I could no longer get access to my own research materials.
I offered to buy the archive back from the university, but they refused.  I arranged for another archival library (the Bancroft in Berkeley) to purchase the archive from UMass Lowell, but again they refused.  My main concern, aside from the fact that all this information was now inaccessible, was that the old audio cassette tapes were seriously deteriorating.  I had evidence, from some tapes from the same period that I had in my possession, that the magnetic dust was already coming off certain brands of the tape.  Once the magnetic dust comes off, the sound is lost.  The period when I was buying these tapes, the 1970’s, was a very bad period for audio tapes.  A previous binder had been outlawed (it may have had to do with some product from whales), and the tape companies were experimenting with a variety of new binding products, many of which turned out to work poorly.  Since many of the people I had interviewed were already dead, I knew that a large part of these interviews could never be replaced.
I wrestled with UMass, Lowell, for 11 years, mostly with the help of attorney Neal Rosen of Bingham Dana, to try to get the archive reopened.  Mr. Rosen provided UMass, Lowell, with a 30-page dossier explaining all the legal precedents and why it was not illegal for the university to allow students and scholars access to the Memory Babe materials.  The university resisted all of Mr. Rosen’s arguments.  Finally, in 2007, just as the case was about to go to trial, the university settled out of court with me.  Although the settlement agreement is somewhat complex, the gist of it is that I paid out of my own pocket to digitize all the tapes, to preserve them from further deterioration, and the university agreed to make 99% of the archive available once again for public study.  Materials relating to Mr. Sampas, and certain materials over which Mr. Sampas claims legal control, are still off-limits to the public.  I feel those Sampas materials should have been returned to me, as they were never the property of Mr. Sampas, and are now unfortunately in a scholarly limbo.

Now, on to our visit. Never having been to the archive before, we called ahead to make sure it would be accessible on the day we would be in Lowell. Head librarian Martha Mayo suggested we e-mail her a list of materials we wanted to access so they could gather them in advance. I made the rookie mistake of using a catalog of the materials I accessed on-line from the Cosmic Baseball Association (click here), which turned out to be different from the Center’s catalog in content as well as coding; nevertheless, I sent an e-mail to Martha with specific materials we were interested in. I listed interviews with a number of Kerouac’s childhood friends along with various letters from Jack as well as several transcribed taped interviews.

We arrived at the Center and were greeted by Janine Whitcomb, the archive manager, and we also said hello to Martha. Janine had put out several boxes of materials for us. There was no one else in the center and we were alone the entire time we were there. The materials are physically housed in traditional museum storage boxes like the ones below. These are not actual pictures from the Center because we were not allowed to take pictures of the materials.

Similar to Box 2 (see catalog at end of post)

Similar to Boxes 21 & 22 holding the Memory Babe first draft

Janine provided us with a 14-page catalog of the archive at the outset of our visit (see pictures of the catalog at the end of this post). It did not align with the one I had used from the Cosmic Baseball Association (again, rookie mistake). A few times we asked for materials we hadn’t requested beforehand and Janine had to go upstairs and carry them down for us. She was very accommodating and wouldn’t accept our help. I got the sense that they keep this particular archive especially guarded because we were sitting next to stacks of similar materials. The one artifact I asked for and was denied access to was a transcription of an interview with John Sampas. Janine informed me that I needed his permission to access that artifact. Gerry confirmed after-the-fact that this was part of the settlement agreement.

We ended up getting engrossed in written artifacts to start, and spent almost the entire 3+ hours with those instead of listening to recordings. Despite the length of Memory Babe, Nicosia says he only used a small fraction of what was on those tapes in his biography. By the way, the recordings were originally made on cassettes as noted above (remember, this was in the 1970s), but now have been transferred to CDs which you can listen to using the Center’s computers and headphones. Interestingly, the interviews are available but not listed in the catalog provided to us by the Center. I didn’t tumble to this until I got home and started writing this blog post. Janine did go through my list of interviews (accessed from the Cosmic Baseball Association) and confirmed how they were coded at the Center or listed the correct coding. This could come in handy in a future visit.

Since our visit I have been privy to Gerry’s original 46-page catalog, and it is considerably more extensive than the Center’s. I don’t know why. I can state with confidence that the coding I provided from the Cosmic Baseball Association catalog mentioned above does align with the coding in Gerry’s original, yet Janine was confused by that coding (as if she’d never seen or was unaware of the Nicosia catalog).

The one recording we did listen to was an interview by Nicosia with G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac’s childhood friend (“Fouch” in Atop an Underwood, “Mouse” in Maggie Cassidy). G.J. told stories about Jack, who he often referred to as “Zagg,” including one about the time they hitchhiked to Boston to an upscale gentlemen’s club, The Fox and Hound, and asked at the door for Lamont Cranston (one of the Shadow’s identities). The volume faded away during this story and I couldn’t hear the whole thing. When Nicosia asked G.J. how Jack got the name Zagg, G.J. said he didn’t know. According to Nicosia,

G.J. did eventually explain to me how the nickname "Zagg" came about.  He said there was a town drunk whom Jack and G.J. used to ridicule, because he was always “zigzagging” down the street. They called the drunk "Zagg," and eventually G.J. used it as a kind of taunt to Jack, as if he were predicting that Jack would become the next town drunk—but at the time, G.J. did not actually believe that.  It was just a joke.

Nicosia says,

There is a serious issue, however, with some of the CDs tailing off in sound.  I warned the university that the magnetic dust was coming off on the heads as they played the tapes in order to digitize them, and toward the end of a tape, there would be so much magnetic dust on the heads that the sound quality became severely diminished. I kept asking that the university clean the tape recorder heads frequently during the digitization process, but from what I have perceived on some of the CDs, I am convinced that the heads were not cleaned often enough.

Back to the interview. I was struck by the following statement by G.J. (regarding Jack, of course):

“He was a real human being . . . but there was a wall between him and most people.”

This rather captures the complexity of the Kerouac I’ve read about in so many biographies.

In the archive were photocopies of four letters from Kerouac to Bernice Lemire, a French-Canadian woman from Lowell (210 W. 6th Street at the time) who was writing a paper about him for her degree at Boston College and had sent him questions. Two of these letters, June 16 and August 11, 1961, are reproduced in Jack Kerouac Selected Letters 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters. Two are not (October 14 and December 9) and so were not familiar to me. I assume they may be in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library but I wasn’t able to confirm that online (click here for Berg Collection).

In all four letters, Kerouac answers various biographical types of questions that Lemire must have asked. I found it humorous that at the end of his October 14 letter he wrote, "Why don’t you send me a photo of yourself, are you pretty? How old are you? I’m an old French Canadian angryman. (What else?)"

Jack being Jack, I guess.

Two statements from the December 9 letter caught my eye.

“Later on, after splash, Holiday and big magazines made requests, at good prices too ($1500 for instance for The Vanishing American Hobo, ho ho ho, some hobo) -- ….”

Not a bad fee for those days!

“Without my mother’s protection I’m afraid I’d be in the madhouse now.”

This is not a surprising statement, merely adding to what we know about Jack’s relationship with Mémère.

It was interesting to see a copy of the letter from Kerouac to Paul Blake, Jr. dated October 20, 1969. It looked like Kerouac’s signature to me, but I won’t go there. There are those who say it’s not authentic.

In the archive is a copy of a letter to Granville H. Jones, dated April 13, 1961. Jones wrote a Masters Thesis on Kerouac at Columbia (according to Kerouac’s June 15, 1961 letter to Lemire). The text appears in Charters’ book above but is dated November 22, 1960. I can’t account for the discrepancy, but I didn’t have Charters’ book with me and so I can’t be sure I didn’t transcribe the wrong date in my notes. (NOTE TO SELF: For next visit to the archive bring stacks of reference books!)

In a January 10, 1949 letter (copy) to Brom Weber, his creative writing teacher at the New School, Kerouac apologizes for his and Allen Ginsberg’s behavior during a class, and says (this is mostly detailed in Memory Babe on p. 231):

Why believe? Perhaps nothing is true but everything is real. All life, and art, nothing but a big creation . . . even a big lie . . . which we make; all a myth like the Divine Comedy; and the myths we make about each other; . . . .

Gerry notes that “Burroughs uses the line ‘Nothing is true; everything is real’—sometimes slightly altered to ‘Nothing is true—everything is permitted’—in several places, and attributes it to Hassan-i Sabbāh, a Persian assassin and prophet.” For more on this, click here.

One important task I set for myself during the visit, and this was at Gerry’s request, was to verify that the original draft of Memory Babe was there. Gerry described it as 1,200 or so pages typed on corrasable bond paper and including extensive handwritten annotations sourcing almost all of the statements in the work. He had remembered the finished draft as over 1,200 pages. The first draft is actually 1,164 pages, but he says the later, retyped drafts were over 1,200 pages. We weren’t sure which of the several items in the catalog the original draft might be housed in and had Janine lug down several possibilities. It turned out to be in two boxes (##21 and 22 – see Center for Lowell History catalog at end of this post), with about 600 pages per box. I have to say that I was amazed by the extensive handwritten annotations throughout. The work that went into this biography is staggering. On the last page, written in hand, is the inscription: "retyped & finished 4:40 PM July 27, 1980 Thanks to God." I note that Gerry remembers writing “Thanks be to God,” but resolving this little mystery will have to wait until a future visit to the archive. 

Now that we know more about what’s in the archive and how to access it, we can visit again in the future with a laser-like purpose. Nicosia says that he gave his 46-page catalog of materials

to librarian Martha Mayo when I delivered all my boxes of materials to the university in the fall of 1987.  In 1996, I discovered that a large amount of material was missing from the Memory Babe archive, including over 60 autographed letters—many from famous people like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, Ferlinghetti and so forth, including one handwritten postcard from Kerouac to John Montgomery.  The university refused to file a police report, so I filed a report myself, using my own 46-page catalogue to record what was lost (though I did not have the time to do a full assessment of what was missing).  In 2007, some of these stolen materials showed up on eBay, being sold by a rare books dealer in Nashua, who pinpointed the thief.  Because the theft was now over the 6-year statute of limitations in Massachusetts, Lowell police declared that they were unable to bring charges.  About 30 of the stolen letters were recovered and returned to the library.

Below is a February 17, 1997 Lowell Sun article about the theft.

From our visit there is no way to tell how much and what is missing from the archive. That would require hours and hours of comparing what is actually there (i.e., not depending on the Center’s catalog) to the Nicosia 46-page catalog. In any event, when I visit the archive in the future I will definitely bring the Nicosia catalog with me since I now have a copy.

In summary, this was an exploratory visit. We didn’t know what we’d find, and had no particular agenda beyond becoming familiar with the archive, especially the logistics of accessing it. We ended up getting lost in various written materials such as letters and marriage certificates and baptismal certificates and drawings and poems and, well, it’s a treasure trove any Kerouacian would get lost in. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in Lowell, but call ahead to make sure someone will be there who can retrieve materials for you.

Click here for the Center for Lowell History website. Their phone number is 978-934-4998.

Memory Babe Archive Catalog
as provided by UMass Center for Lowell History

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p. 14

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Happy Birthday to Anne Waldman

(L-R) Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley (source)

It's internationally acclaimed poet Anne Waldman's 70th birthday today. For those of you who don't know, Anne Waldman "co-founded with Allen Ginsberg the celebrated Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, the first Buddhist inspired University in the western hemisphere, in 1974" (click here for source).

We heard Anne read her poem, "Holy 21st Century," at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac in 2012. She was accompanied by Ambrose Bye, and it was inspiring.

Fortunately, you can listen to her read this poem by clicking here.

And here is a 2008 interview you may find educative.

Happy Birthday, Anne!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Kerouac fan Tyler from Flint, MI: Where are you?

A 19-year-old from Flint, Michigan, left a letter to Jack Kerouac on Jack's grave in Lowell, MA. The letter was dated 3-6-15 and written on lined yellow paper. It was stuffed in a bottle leaning against the newer gravestone. My friend and I read it today and returned it to the bottle.

It starts out with something like, "Here I sit at my bullshit job" and goes on to bemoan what has become of America and how disappointed Jack would be in it. It describes the writer's affinity for Kerouac and how his friends remind him of Jack and Neal.

The letter is signed Tyler (we think) with a last name that is unreadable.

Tyler from Flint, MI, we dig your letter, man, and I want to send you a free signed copy of my book in honor of your leaving such a heartfelt homage to Jack at his gravesite.

You can reach me by responding to this blog post or by sending me an e-mail at anamcara16933@yahoo.com.

I look forward to hearing from you. And hang in there!

The Memory Babe (Kerouac) archive, Part 2

As promised, here is a report from my trip to Lowell to access the Memory Babe archive (materials related to Gerald Nicosia's book, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac). This is basically an overview of the whole trip: I'm leaving details about the archive visit itself to Part 3.

I met my friend, Richard Marsh, at the Lowell National Historic Park Visitor Center (parking is free there) at 11:30 on Monday March 30. It was a cold, windy March day with spitting snow. Being lunchtime, we walked over to the Club Diner on Dutton Street (a classic train car diner) where Richard wanted to get his traditional breakfast fare: eggs, home fries, toast, ham, and - especially - "breakfast beans." I had the same thing except with hash instead of ham. We did this because I wanted to take Richard to Jameson's for breakfast Tuesday morning. More on that later. Below is a sign that hangs inside the diner. Since it was established in 1938, can't you just imagine Leo Kerouac and Jack eating there? Maybe the whole family?

The Memory Babe archive is housed in the UMass Center for Lowell History, which is in the building which houses the Patrick J, Mogan Cultural Center. This is important. I thought the archive was in the Mogan Center itself, but that is not quite accurate. When I called the National Park ahead of the trip, I asked about the Mogan Center hours. They told me 1:30 to 5:00. In fact, the Center for Lowell History is open 9;00 to 5:00. Given that confusion and to kill some time, we walked to The Worthen on Worthen Street (actually the "Worthen House Cafe"), a place where Jack supposedly had a drink or two at some point. We had Sam Adams Cold Snap. Tasty. Oh, on a side note, the young bartender knew who Kerouac was. Not surprising given that a poster featuring Jack is on the wall right across from the bar and they host Lowell Celebrate Kerouac events.

Next we headed to the Mogan Cultural Center on French Street (very near Kerouac Commemorative Park). I will detail our visit to the archive in Part 3, coming soon,

After spending a few hours at the archive, we headed back to our cars and drove to the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center to check in. We used Yelp to see if we could identify a dinner choice beyond our usual establishments and settled on Garcia Brogan, a Mexican Italian place on Middlesex Street. We got there and spent literally 5 minutes trying to find the entrance. When we finally did manage to get inside, we went to the bar and spent another 5 minutes wondering where the bartender was. Given those two shaky experiences right off the bat and its appearance as being for the younger set, we left and went to our back-up: Cobblestones on Dutton Street.

Somewhere in our meandering on Monday we passed Lowell High School and I took the below picture of the clock. Richard reports that Lowell Kerouac docent Roger Brunelle said that this clock was gifted after Jack was a student there, so it can't be the one he writes about kissing Pauline Cole (Peggy Coffey) under in Maggie Cassidy.

Our food at Cobblestones was very good, the bartender (LeeAnne) was nice, and the three Boulevard Dark Truth Stouts I drank (almost 10% alcohol) hit me pretty hard. See picture below.

Richard had three different brews only he can remember. We started back to the Inn after a leisurely dinner and good conversation and as we neared the turn to the Inn I heard Cappy's Copper Kettle calling our name so we stopped for a nightcap (Bushmills). Another Kerouac bar.

We retired fairly early with visions of breakfast grub, the grave, and the grotto dancing in our heads as we drifted off to sleep. We had two queen beds so inadvertent spooning was not part of the equation.

Bright and early we got some free coffee from the Inn's continental breakfast set-up and went outside to drink it while looking at the canal. There were many ducks: below is a picture of one pair. We couldn't have asked for a nicer day in terms of sun, although it was still chilly.

After coffee and ducks, we walked over to Jameson's on Andover Street for breakfast. Crystal and I found that place last October during Lowell Celebrates Kerouac (recommendation from hotel desk clerk), and I had a scrumptious Irish Benedict (hash instead of Canadian bacon or ham). With visions of an Irish Benedict in my head, we walked up to the restaurant and it was . . . closed! On a Tuesday morning? Maybe it's out of business, we thought. I was bummed, but we decided to walk to The Owl diner (another classic train car diner) on Appleton Street (it's actually called Four Sisters - The Owl). We'd heard about this place for years, and I had an Irish Benny (that's what they call it). It was just as good as Jameson's and on top of that we got to  sit at the counter and watch the short order cook. He'd been working there nine years and was amazing to watch: perpetual motion. Busy place. I recommend it. They still have the old individual (nonfunctional) jukeboxes at the counter. See below.

After breakfast, we walked back to the Inn and checked out. It was time for the one required stop in Lowell: Jack Kerouac's grave at Edson Cemetery on Gorham Street. Below are a couple of pictures. Folks, please don't leave cigarette butts at the grave. It's disrespectful and gross.

The original gravestone as we found it minus all the cigarette butts Richard cleaned away

Rick at the "new" gravestone

Richard at the "new" gravestone
For the record, I don't like the new gravestone. The old one was understated and sufficient. The new one is overstated and unnecessary. On the plus side, it does make it easier to find Jack's grave. Or maybe that's not a plus. The way it was meant someone had to have some commitment to find it, Now any yahoo can spot it from Lincoln Street,

Among the many items left there, someone had stuffed a handwritten note on lined yellow paper into a bottle leaning against the "new" gravestone. Richard read it. It started out, "Here I sit at my bullshit job in Flint, MI" or something along those lines. It was a heartfelt letter to Jack from a somewhat America-disillusioned ("America is fucked, Jack") 19-year-old Kerouac fan named Tyler (last name unreadable). Tyler, if you're out there, hit me up with a message on this blog or send me an e-mail and I'll send you a free signed copy of my book for leaving one of the best things at the grave I've seen to date. We wanted to take a picture of the letter to post it here but the writing was too faded to show up.

I read some passages from Dr. Sax and Richard read from Maggie Cassidy (one must read aloud from one of Jack's Lowell books at the grave - it is a requirement). We had a few nips of good 10-year-old single malt Bushmills in Jack's honor (I know, he died from alcoholism and this is gauche and all of that, but I drink at his grave as a celebration of his life for my own reasons that make sense to me). Of course, as always I left a copy of my book (in a baggie with "Steal this book" written on it).

After the grave we drove to the Lady of Lourdes Grotto behind the Franco-American School on Pawtucket Street, a significant Kerouac location. Click here for some background. By the way, Jack's wake was held at the Archambault Funeral Home right next to the Grotto.

We stopped at each "Station of the Cross" and then made our way up the steps to the statue of Jesus crucified. In the cave underneath we read some of the prayers and stories visitors had left there. Moving. Below are a couple of pictures

And that was it. Richard took me back to my car at the Inn and we headed home in opposite directions. When we left Jack's grave Richard remarked how lucky we are to have something like Kerouac's work and life to be interested in and connect with others about, and I think I'll leave it at that. It's something he and I understand, as do a select few others. We'll leave it as an ineffable phenomenon, but suffice to say that the last couple of days were good for my soul.

See you in October, Lowell. ("Everybody goes home in October.")

P.S. Stay tuned for Part 3: details about our visit to the Memory Babe archive.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Memory Babe (Kerouac) archive, Part 1

On Monday, a friend and I are meeting in Lowell, MA with the express purpose of visiting the Memory Babe archive at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center, part of the Lowell National Historic Park.

Click here for a link to the contents as posted by the Cosmic Baseball Association 14 years ago. My understanding from talking to librarian Martha Mayo in Lowell last October is that the archive is accessible, whereas there was a time when access was being litigated and, according to some, access was being denied. I don't want to open up that whole can of worms because it always ends up in the same place: accusations and vitriol. And Jack rolls over in his grave every time it happens. Don't even try to go there with comments about this post: they won't get published.

Gerald Nicosia's Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac is an early, oft-cited, and comprehensive Kerouac biography. As such, this archive is of note, Does the book contain mistakes? Of course. All biographies do. Is there controversy surrounding the author and his longstanding battle with the Sampas family over various estate-related issues? Yes. So what?

Gerry may be a controversial figure in the minds of some, but that doesn't discount the merits of his work. The archive includes over 150 people on tape, including Kerouac friends, family, and intimates who are no longer alive! How can one not be excited about that treasure trove of information?

With regard to the author himself, I count him as a friend. He has never been anything but gracious towards me, and his knowledge of Kerouac and the Beats never fails to astound me. But that is irrelevant to the case at hand and I only bring it up for the sake of transparency. The merits of the archive itself are why we're visiting it.

Suffice to say that, assuming we get access, there are a myriad of materials of interest. The Center is only open 1:30 - 5:00, so we will have to prioritize what we look at and listen to.

If there is something in the archive that  you think we should give particular attention, let us know with a comment. No promises.

I'll post Part 2, a follow-up to our visit, next week.

No trip to Lowell is complete, of course, without a visit to Jack's grave. I'll post pictures.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Happy Birthday, Gregory Corso

Gregory Corso was born this date in 1930. He became associated with the Beat writers after meeting Alan Ginsberg in 1951 (see Character Key to Kerouac's Duluoz Legend).

In honor of his birthday, I suggest you read some of his poetry.

Click here for a place to start.