Dead Beats

The much-ballyhooed arrival in Denver of the scroll bearing Jack Kerouac's On the Road manuscript brings back memories of the last great Beat convergence in these parts, a time when wacky Kerouacians crowded the University of Colorado campus in Boulder to revel in all things Jack.

The year was 1982. The occasion was the silver anniversary of the publication of On the Road, an excuse for a ten-day literary conference sponsored by the Naropa Institute and its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. It was an opportunity "to indulge," as Allen Ginsberg put it, "in delicious orgies of nostalgia" concerning the glory days of Beatdom, and everybody who was anybody was there: Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Ted Berrigan, Ken Kesey, Paul Krasner, even Timothy Leary and Abby Hoffman. The only ones missing were, of course, Kerouac himself (who drank himself to death in 1969) and his pal Neal Cassady (barbiturates, 1968).

It was one weird time. In those early days of the Reagan regression, the wide-open ramblings of Jack and Neal (and the counterculture that followed) seemed very far away indeed. But the conference stars did their best to revive some taste for free love and altered consciousness. "We couldn't have had the Sixties without the Fifties," Abby Hoffman insisted, with indisputable logic. "If we were the warriors of that social revolution, the Beats were the prophets who predicted that revolution in writing."

Defying Nancy Reagan's just-say-no campaign, LSD guru Leary declared, "There are no bad drugs." That prompted me to seek out the author of Junkie and Naked Lunch, to see if he agreed with Dr. Leary.

"I wouldn't go along with that," Burroughs muttered. "There are certain drugs that are a hell of a lot worse than others. Ether, for example."

The best zinger, though, was delivered by a young member of the audience, who asked the assembled panelists, "Why are Jack and Neal dead? You all are up there, but they're not."

Nobody had a good answer.

A quarter-century later, all the major luminaries of that conference -- Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kesey, Leary, Hoffman -- are all dead, too. But On the Road, at fifty, is still holding up just fine. -- Alan Prendergast

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts