High Times Greats: Jack Kerouac

William Burroughs’ memories of friend and fellow writer Jack Kerouac.
High Times Greats: Jack Kerouac
Photo of Jack Kerouac courtesy Ginsberg Collection of Columbia University

For the March, 1979 issue of High Times, William Burroughs provided a historic memoir of America’s greatest existentialist, Jack Kerouac. In honor of the anniversary of Kerouac’s death October 21, 1969, we’re republishing it below.

Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote. Many people who call themselves writers and have their names on books are not writers and they can’t write—the difference being, a bullfighter who fights a bull is different from a bullshitter who makes passes with no bull there. The writer has been there or he can’t write about it. And going there he risks being gored. By that I mean what the Germans aptly call the Time Ghost—for example, such a fragile ghost world as Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age—all the sad young men, firefly evenings, winter dreams, fragile, fragile like his picture taken in his 23rd year—Fitzgerald, poet of the Jazz Age. He went there and wrote it and brought it back for a generation—he wrote the Jazz Age. A whole migrant generation arose from On the Road to Mexico, Tangier, Afghanistan, India.

What are writers, and I will confine the use of this term to writers of novels, trying to do? They are trying to create a universe in which they have lived or where they would like to live. To write it they must go there and submit to conditions which they may not have bargained for. Sometimes, as in the case of Fitzgerald and Kerouac, the effect produced by a writer is immediate, as if a generation were waiting to be written. In other cases there may be a time lag. Science fiction has a way of coming true. In any case, by writing a universe the writer makes such a universe possible.

To what extent writers can, actually do, or how useful it is for their craft to act out their writing in so-called real life, is an open question. That is, depending which way you come on it—like are you making your universe more like the real universe or are you pulling the real into yours? Winner lake Nothing. For example, Hemingway’s determination to act out the least interesting aspects of his own writing and to actually be his character was, I feel, unfortunate for his writing. Quite simply, if a writer insists on being able to do and do well what his characters do, he limits the range of his characters. However, writers profit from doing something even when done badly; as I was for one short week—brings on my ulcers to think about it—a very bad assistant pickpocket. I decided that a week was enough and I didn’t have the touch, really.

Walking around the wilderness of outer Brooklyn with the Sailor after a mooch (as he called a drunk) came up on us at the end of Flatbush: “They’ll beat the shit out of us… you have to expect that…” I shuddered and didn’t want to expect that and decided right there that I was going to turn in my copy of the Times—the one I used to cover him when he put the hand out. We always used the same copy—he said people would try to read it and get confused when it was a month old, and this would like keep them from seeing us. He was quite a philosopher, the Sailor was… but a week was enough before I got what I “had to expect”….

“Here comes one… yellow lights too…” We huddle in a vacant lot… speaking for myself at least, who can always see what I look like from outside, I look like a frightened commuter clutching his briefcase as Hell’s Angels roar past.

Now if this might seem a cowardly way of cowering in a vacant lot when I should have given myself the experience of getting worked over by the skinny short cop with the acne-scarred face who looks out of that prowl car his eyes brown and burning in his head. well, the Sailor wouldn’t have liked that and neither would a White Hunter like a client there to get himself mauled by a lion. Fitzgerald said once, to Hemingway, “Rich people are different from you and me.”

“Yes… they have more money.” And writers are different from you and me. They write. You don’t bring back a story if you get yourself killed. So a writer need not be ashamed to hide in a vacant lot or a corner of the room for a few minutes. He is there as a writer and not as a character. There is nothing more elusive than a writer’s main character, the character that is assumed by the reader to be the writer himself, no less, actually doing the things he writes about. But this main character is simply a point of view interposed by the writer. The main character then becomes in fact another character in the book, but usually the most difficult to see, because he is mistaken for the writer himself. He is the writer’s observer and often very uneasy in this role and at a loss to account for his presence. He is an object of suspicion to the world of nonwriters unless he manages to write them into his road.

Kerouac says in Vanity of Duluoz: “I am not ‘I am’ but just a spy in someone’s body pretending these sandlot games kids in the cow field near St. Rita’s Church…” Jack Kerouac knew about writing when I first met him in 1944. He was 21: already he had written a million words and was completely dedicated to his chosen trade. It was Kerouac who kept telling me I should write and call the book I wrote Naked Lunch. I had never written anything after high school and did not think of myself as a writer and I told him so. “I got no talent for writing…” I had tried a few times, a page maybe. Reading it over always gave me a feeling of fatigue and disgust and aversion towards this form of activity, such as a laboratory rat must experience when he chooses the wrong path and gets a sharp reprimand from a needle in his displeasure centers. Jack insisted quietly that I did have talent for writing and that I would write a book called Naked Lunch. To which I replied. “I don’t want to hear anything literary.”

Trying to remember just where and when this was said is like trying to remember a jumble of old films. The 1940s seem centuries away. I see a bar on 116th Street here and a piece five years later in another century; a sailor at the bar who reeled over on the cue of Naked Lunch and accused us—I think Allen Ginsberg was there and John Kingsland—of making a sneering reference to the Swiss Navy. Kerouac was good in these situations since he was basically unhostile. Or was it in New Orleans or Algiers to be more precise, where I lived in a frame house by the river, or was it later in Mexico by the lake in Chapultepec Park… there’s an island there where thousands of vultures roost apathetically. I was shocked at this sight since I had always admired their aerial teamwork, some skimming a few feet off the ground, others wheeling way up, little black specks in the sky—and when they spot food they pour down in a black funnel—we are sitting on the edge of the lake with tacos and bottles of beer… “Naked Lunch is the only title”… I pointed to the vultures.

“They’ve given up, like old men in St. Petersburg, Florida… go out and hustle some carrion you lazy buzzards!” Whipping out my pearl-handled .45 I killed six of them in showers of black feathers.

Black wood table in the booth rum and Coca Cola Hong Kong Blues on the juke box no that was another bar on 42nd Street.

The other vultures took to the sky… l would act these out with Jack, and quite a few of the scenes that later appeared in Naked Lunch arose from these acts. I remember we were in the University Club, of which I was a member, and a spastic member on a crutch got in the elevator and we got the idea of tripping him and taking his crutch away and mimicking his twitches. When Jack came to Tangier in 1957 I had decided to take his title and much of the book was already written.

In fact during all the years I knew Kerouac I can’t remember ever seeing him really angry or hostile. It was the sort of smile he gave in reply to my demurrers, in a way you get from a priest who knows you will come to Jesus sooner or later—you can’t walk out on the Shakespeare Squadron, Bill. Now as a very young child I had wanted to be a writer. At the age of nine I wrote something called the Autobiography of a Wolf. This early literary essay was so strongly influenced as to smell of plagiarism of a little book I had just read called the Biography of a Grizzly Bear. There were various vicissitudes including the loss of his beloved mate… in the end this poor old bear slouches into a valley he knows is full of poison gases, about to die… I can see the picture now, it’s all in sepia, the valley full of nitrous yellow fumes and the bear walking in like a resigned criminal to the gas chamber. Now I had to give my wolf a different twist, so saddened by the loss of his entire family he encounters a grizzly bear who kills him and eats him. Later there was something called Carl Cranbury in Egypt that never got off the ground really… a knife glinted in the dark alley. With lightning speed Carl V. Cranbury reached for the blue steel automatic under his left arm… frozen forever an inch from his blue steel automatic… These were written out painfully in longhand with great attention to the script—the actual process of writing became so painful that I couldn’t do anything more for Carl Cranbury as the Dark Ages descended—the years in which I wanted to be anything else but a writer. A private detective, a bartender, a criminal… I failed miserably at all these callings, but a writer is not concerned about success or failure, but simply about observation and recall. At the time I was not gathering material for a book. I simply was not doing anything well enough to make a living at it. In this respect Kerouac did better than I did. He didn’t like it but he did it—work on railroads and in factories. My record time on a factory job was four weeks. And I had the distinction to be actually fired from a defense plant during the war.

Perhaps Kerouac did better because he saw his work interludes simply as a means to buy time to write in. Tell me how many books a writer has written… we can assume usually ten times that amount shelved or thrown away…and I will tell you how he spends his time. Any writer spends a good deal of his time alone, writing. And that is how I remember Kerouac—as a writer talking about writing or sitting in a quiet corner with a notebook, writing in longhand. He was also very fast on the typewriter. You felt that he was writing all the time; that writing was the only thing he thought about. He never wanted to be anything else.

If I seem to be talking more about myself than about Kerouac, it is because I am trying to say something about the trade of writing and also something about the particular role that Kerouac played in my lifescript. I had given up as a child on writing, perhaps unable to face what every writer must: all the bad writing he will have to do before he does any good writing. It would be an interesting exercise to collect all the worst writing of any writer—which simply shows the pressure that writers are under to write badly, that is, not to write. This pressure is of course in part simply the writer’s own conditioning since childhood to think (in my case) white Protestant American or (in Kerouac’s case) to think French-Canadian Catholic. There are many other pressures from well-established pressure groups in big business and the mass media. Writers are potentially very powerful indeed. They write the script for the reality film. Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levi’s to both sexes. Woodstock rises from his pages. Now if writers could get together into a real tight union, we’d have the world right by the words. We could write our own universes, and they would all be as real as a coffee bar or a pair of Levi’s or a prom in the Jazz Age. Writers could take over the reality studio. So they must not be allowed to find out that they can make it happen. Kerouac understood this long before I did. “Life is a dream,” he said.

“My birth records, my family’s birth records and recorded origins, my athletic records in the newspaper clippings I have, my own notebooks and published books are not real at all, my own dreams are not dreams at all but products of my waking imagination…” This is then the writer’s world—the dream “made for a moment actual on paper you can almost touch in the end of The Great Gatsby and On the Road. Not that I am comparing the two works, but both express a dream that was taken up by a generation.

Life is a dream in which the same person may appear various times in different roles. Years before I met Kerouac, a friend from high school and college, Kells Elvins, told me repeatedly that I should write and was not suited to do anything else. When I was doing graduate work at Harvard in 1938 we wrote a story in collaboration, entitled “Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” which I used many years later almost verbatim in Nova Express. We acted the parts out sitting on a side porch of the white frame house we had rented together and this was the birthplace of Doctor Benway… “Are you all alright?” he shouted, seating himself in the first lifeboat among the women; “I’m the doctor…”

Years later in Tangier, Kells told me the truth: “I know I am dead and you are too…” Writers are all dead and all writing is posthumous. We are really from beyond the tomb and no commissions… all this I am writing just as I think of it according to Kerouac’s own manner of writing… he says the first version is always the best.

In 1945 or thereabouts, Kerouac and I collaborated on a novel that was never published, and it is in fact difficult to remember what it was about; the manuscript has been lost. Some of the material covered in this lost opus was later used by Jack in The Town and the City and Vanity of Duluoz. At the point the anonymous gray main character William Lee was taking shape. Leo who is there just so long and long enough to see and hear what he needs to see and hear for some scene or character he will use 20-30 years later in writing. No he wasn’t there as a private detective, a bartender, a cotton farmer, a lush worker, an exterminator; he was there in his capacity as a writer. I did not know that until later. Kerouac it seems was born knowing. And he told me what I knew already, which is the only thing you can tell anybody. Sooner or later you can’t walk out on the tender criminal. A very young child wanted something called the autobiographical recall. A little book just did better than I did. Unreplied an inch from his blue steel automatic… I can’t remember writing became so painful hostile sort of smile. Writers are to write in. Tell me how many books for the reality film. Writers could get together in writing and that is how I remember we could sitting in a quiet corner all be real as a coffee bar. Fast on the typewriter, writers could take over the time. Perhaps unable to face published books are not real at all.

I am speaking of the role Kerouac played in my script, and the role I played in his can be inferred from the enigmatically pompous Hubbard Bull Lee portrayals which readily adapt themselves to the scenes between Carl and Doctor Benway in Naked Lunch. Kerouac may have felt that I did not include him in my cast of characters, but he is of course the anonymous William Lee as defined in our collaboration—a spy in someone else’s body where nobody knows who is spying on whom. Sitting on a side porch he was there in his capacity as a writer and this was the birthplace Kerouac it seems was born knowing… the only thing you can tell. On the tender criminal a young painful smile… (Unreplied. Posthumous.) This I am writing just as I remember writing the first coffee bar. Fast on the typewriter. Years before I met Kerouac a character William Lee was taking shape told me repeatedly that I should write enough to see and hear what he was doing, collaboration entitled Twilight’s Last White frame. Doctor Benway told me what I knew already.

“Are you all alright? Sooner or later you can’t walk.”

“I’m the doctor…”

Child wanted something called years later in Tangier: Kells told me book just did better than I did… ‘‘I know I am dead and you are too…” Kerouac and I are not real at all. The only real thing about a writer is what he has written and not his so-called life.

And we will all die and the stars will go out one after another….

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