On the Roadside

After a decade of threats Francis Fathead Coppola says he’s really gonna do it this time . . . make the movie version of On the Road. I might as well claim my cot at the nursing home now. Coppola made a few great movies and then just plain got stupid. We need a movie version of On the Road like we need a hockey version of a lime milkshake.

I set out to meet Kerouac in 1962. I was going to move in with him and write books on his typewriter while he slept or was out at work on the railroads. The problem was that about twenty thousand of my peers had the same idea and beat me to it, driving Jack crazy in the process. So I never met him although I met many of the characters he wrote about.

His main hero, Neal Cassady, I met briefly, once. There was a house in San Francisco . . . I’d drop by every few days or so. Jack Agins lived there and I met him when I tried to sell some jazz records out of my usual desperation for money. When I had money I’d buy things like books and records and, having spent my cash and being now broke I’d start selling off the stuff for food and rent. So I had these great Blue Note sides and no money so found a used record store to try flogging them. The clerk said, man these records are worth way more than we pay for used disks. I have no cash on me but come by my place and I’ll give you five bucks a piece. That’s what we call a mensch. So later I went by his place with the records. A communal house in the Haight. I got to know everyone and went by there often. One time Ginsberg (whom I’d already known for a few years) and Cassady were there. Cassady was very cool, we all got high, he asked questions about where I was from and all that and seemed genuinely interested and encouraging and nicer than I had any right to expect a personal hero to ultimately be in his human form. That was my one meeting with him.

Thirty odd years later I read an interview with Neal’s son John Cassady by Levi Asher with whom I’d been corresponding for some time. John made such a great impression on me in that interview. He still lived in San Jose, worked for a computer outfit, and had great, fun memories of Neal and just sound like an all-round regular guy who enjoyed being Neal’s son and had absolutely no airs or conceits about the whole thing. I got his address from Levi and we exchanged some letters and had a couple of lengthy phone conversations. Very cool guy.

The first letter I sent him described my one encounter with his heroic dad and the impact that he and Kerouac and Ginsberg (John Allan Cassady was named for both) had on me, growing up in the late fifties-early sixties. John dug the letter enough to forward a copy to his mom, Carolyn. Carolyn, of course, was an important figure as well in the Kerouac ouevre. She wrote to me and thus began another correspondence.

Neal Cassady photo by Harry RedlMy friend Harry had photos of Neal taken in San Quentin where Neal had been incarcerated on drug charges around 1957. Harry as you already know I met through Mort Fega. I mention this again because I mean to stress that every person and every event in my life is connected to every other person and event in sometimes miraculously strange and unexpected but poetically intriguing ways. And it keeps getting more interesting. Just wait, you’ll see. Harry agreed to give one of the prints to me to send to John and he inscribed a beautiful personal message on the back.

Cissy Spacek had recently played Carolyn in the film version of her story of her life with Kerouac and Neal. It’s a movie I avoided like the plague and I only mention it now because of my earler reference to Hollywood’s reverse Midas touch, turning gold to shit. (Yes, there are exceptions.) I kept coming across the book on which the movie was “based”, Off the Road, in the library but passed over it thinking, god, do I need to read another beat book? But after the letters to and from Carolyn and talking about the book with John, who said he couldn’t actually get through it (too close to home) and, besides, he didn’t believe Carolyn really knew what the kids were thinking through all that (there are three kids) – I finally got the book out and read it and it turned out to be one of the best of the lot and probably the most realistic depiction of those mythological events described by Kerouac.

Meanwhile, Mark Murphy came to town to perform at the jazz festival. My friend John Nolan played drums behind him so I got to meet Murphy backstage and when he asked me about Linton Garner I took him to the club where I believed Garner would be playing that night. He was out of town, it turned out. But I got to ask Murphy about his brilliant and definitive performance of the song Ballad of the Sad Young Men. The song appears to relate to the lives of Kerouac and Cassady and in his recorded version Murphy begins with a reading of the last paragraphs of On the Road. Did you know these guys? I asked him. He said he didn’t but was fascinated by them. I told him I’d been corresponding with Neal’s wife and son, which seemed to interest him very much.

That night I wrote John to ask if he knew the song and, surprisingly, he didn’t. I made him a tape and sent it along with a xerox of the notes off the record. He wrote back telling me gleefully that the author of the song, Fran Landesman and her husband, Jay, were this fabulous, eccentric and wonderful couple – great friends of his mom over in London where Carolyn had lived for years. I asked Carolyn and she confirmed this and said I had to read Jay’s autobiography, Rebel Without Applause, which I did that day, thereby opening several new doors to hitherto unknown corridors through the funhouse of my life and times.

Listen to Mark Murphy, Ballad of the Sad Young Men:


Fran Landesman web site
Levi Asher’s John Cassady interview

thus spake drake: 50 Years Later, On the Road still ‘burns, burns, burns’

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