Close encounters with Kerouac

On this day in 1957, On the Road was published. Poet John Giorno remembers the beatnik legend

Jack Kerouac was an early seminal influence. In 1950, when I was fourteen years old, all my high school friends read Kerouac and talked about him endlessly, as the coolest guy. I read “Subterraneans” and “Dharma Bums”. (He didn’t publish “On The Road” until 1958. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was in 1956, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch” in 1958). Whenever I didn’t know what to think about something, I said, “What would Jack Kerouac think. Or what would Jack do?” In September 1954 during my first week at Columbia College, there was a photo shoot for the freshmen class yearbook. Walking across campus, I said, “Would Kerouac go have his photo taken for a dumb college class book? Certainly not!” I turned on my heel, and went to my room. In reality, Kerouac being conservative, would most certainly gone to have his photo taken. But I didn’t know that. Kerouac was the mirror of my highest purest aspiration.

 At the end of May 1958, five days before I graduated Columbia, I went with my girlfriend Alice to party on West End Avenue. We were drunk on gin Martinis before we got there, and were standing in a crowd near the kitchen drinking red wine. Alice said, “John, darling, that poet you really like is standing next to you.” It was very noisy and I could hear what she said. “Allen Ginsberg, the poet you really like.” I turned, and Allen stuck in the crowd had his elbow poking into my left rib. Alice turned and said loud and grandly, “Allen, I would like to introduce you to a young poet, John Giorno.” Allen was very interested, and I knew he liked teenager boys. We talked, and I audaciously said, “I am the poetry editor, or was, of the Columbia Review. ”Wow,” said Allen. “Who were your teachers?” “I had them all,” I said. “Eric Bentley, Lionel Trilling, Moses Hadas, Mark Van Doren.” I looked around, and spotted Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky in the crowd.

There was a guy leaning over my right shoulder, occasionally touching it with his chin, trying to listen to what Allen and I were saying. It was a loud noisy party. The second time I looked, I was shocked to see it was Jack Kerouac with his chin on my shoulder 3. Allen introduced me to Jack, “John is a poet, and graduating Columbia.” My adrenalin went ballistic. I had to say something to Jack, but my throat muscles froze, and I gagged every time I tried to say something. I asked him, “What year did you graduate?” “I graduated in 1946.” Jack said something, and I couldn’t hear him, but I said something back. He said something else, and I said “What?” Jack leaned forward and said something in my ear, as the crowd surged pushing his lips into my ear like a wet kiss. It was mind-boggling, like a nightmare: Jack Kerouac is trying to tell me something and I can’t hear him. As the crowd swelled and moved with the loud din of talking and music, Jack and I were pressed frontally together, our chests, thighs and crotches touching, as we tried to carry on a conversation. Jack was incredibly beautiful, thin and suntanned, and had the radiance of a movie star like Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront”. We were both moving our bodies as we talked, touching our cheeks and chest and thighs like dancing, and we were making love. It also occurred to me that this was gay behavior, and if we were in room alone, we would have our clothes off, and be kissing and fucking on the floor. Therefore Jack Kerouac must have a secret gay life, hidden from his wives and everybody, allowing himself to be picked up by guys to whom he was attracted. I looked over and Allen Ginsberg was glaring me, and came over and pushed himself like a steel wedge between Jack and me, and separated us. ‘Oh no, he’s breaking us up.’ I thought. “Jack, let’s go,” said Allen, and they walked away followed by Gregory and Peter. Alice turned and said, “John, darling, are you sad they are gone?” “I’m thrilled it happened.” It was the first moment of my adult life.

In the late 1960s, Jack visited New York from Lowell, and I ran into him on occasion at St. Mark’s Church. Ted Berrigan often organized certain days when the poets came to Ted’s apartment and visited with Jack. Whenever I laid eyes on him, it was a pleasure, like a blessing; but sadly he was a complete disappointment. The alcoholism of drinking bourbon from when he got up in the morning, the weight gain and dullness that came with it, and his inability to deal with fame seemed like big mistakes. After the 1960s with Andy Warhol, Bob Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and superstars and gurus of every cut, to make a problem about being famous, was a profound copout.

In August 1968, I was with William Burroughs in New York during the episode when Jack Kerouac appeared on the William Buckley TV interview. ”I told him not to go,” said Burroughs. “It is going to be a disaster.” I said nothing negative, and added a few gratuitous platitudes, because he was my distant icon. He had got something wrong, and I didn’t want to hear about it.

The last time I saw Jack was in March 1969, he was with Ted, I ran into them on Bowery and 6th Street on a freezing cold early afternoon, and I was late for an appointment with my graphic designer George Delmerico. Ted was stoned on amphetamines and speeding, and telling Jack about my Pornographic Poem and the poetry performance/installation I had just given at St. Mark’s Church using a fog machine, and somebody called the fire department and firemen came down the aisle in full gear during the crescendo of a sound poem. Ted was high on speed and went on endlessly, and I was happy that he was saying all these great things about me to Jack, but happier because it gave Jack and me a moment to be alone together, looking in each other eyes, kissing with our heart-minds. I wished we could have kissed and hugged, and it felt mutual. He was pale and puffy from drinking, and incredibly kind, gentle and beautiful. Jack died a few months later of cirrhosis of liver, where his liver exploded and he drowned in his own blood. I had forgotten my 1950 aspirational words, “What would Jack do?”

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