Jack Kerouac Live at the Vanguard


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December 25, 1957, Vol. III, No. 9

Jack Kerouac: Off the Road, Into the Vanguard

By Howard Smith

Out front the J.J. Johnson Quartet heats up the buzzing, jammed-in, packed house to a supercharged, pregnant pitch. In a back alcove, near the men’s room, sits Jack Kerouac, who has come off his road into the spotlight of the literary world and his sometime home, Greenwich Village, for a stay at the Village Vanguard that was supposed to be indefinite — and was. It lasted seven nights.

His receding hair touseled, sweat enough to fill a wine cask, Kerouac looks like a member of in good standing of the generation he called “beat.” Anxious drags on cigarette after cigarette, walking around in tight little circles, fast quick talk to anyone nearby, swigs from an always handy drink, gulps of an always handy coffee, tighten paisley tie, loosen tie, tighten tie.

“What am I going to read?”…and he leafs through a suitcase-full and suddenly realizes no one remembered to bring a copy of his “On the Road.” His combination manager-literary agent talks slowly and carefully in the assuring way they get paid to talk in, but the girl jazz singer is lilting a flip version of “Look to the Rainbow,” and Jack knows he’s on next.

He leafs through lots of little pads filled with the tiniest hand-lettered notes. “When I write I print everything in pencil. My father was a printer. He lost his shop on the horses. If he didn’t, I’d be a printer today. I’d probably be publishing the fresh, young poets…”

He’s getting more nervous, but his speech comes easy in answer to certain questions. “You don’t know what a square is? Well, old Rexroth says I’m a square. If he means because I was born a French Canadian Catholic…sometimes devout…then I guess that makes me a square. But a square is someone who ain’t hip. Hipness? Him” (pointing to me) “and I, we’re hip.”

Trying to keep up with the questions, he goes on at an even faster rate. “I was sitting with Steve Allen out front for a while; he said he wished he had his old ‘Tonight’ show, so he could put me on. I told him he should wire Jack Paar…Jazzmen and poets are both like babies…No, I decided not to read to music because I feel they don’t mix…Well, maybe Allen will sit in on the piano for a while, though…Yair, whatever I write about is all true…I think Emily Dickinson is better than Whitman, as a wordman, that is.”

The drink, the sweat, the smoke, the nerves, are taking effect. It’s time for him to go on. He grabs some of those pads and begins making his way through the maze of tiny nightclub tables. They all came to see him, and a few tieless buddies from the old days, a little proud and a little jealous, the fourth estate, the agents, the handshakers, the Steve Allens, the Madison Avenue bunch trying to keep ultra-current; all treating him like a Carmine DeSapio or Floyd Patterson.

He’s shorter than they expected, this writer who has been likened to Sandburg but looks like a frightened MC on his first job. They applaud wildly for this 35-year-old who was drunk for the first three weeks that his book made the best-seller list, and now stands before them wearing an outfit of fair middle-class taste, but with a thick, hand-tooled, large-buckled leather belt.

“I’m going to read like I read to my friends.” A too-easy murmur of laughter, the crowd is with him. He reads fast, with his eyes untheatrically glued to the little pad, rapidly on and on as if he wants to get it over with. “I’ll read a junky poem.” He slurs over the beautiful passages as if not expecting the crowd to dig them, even if he went slower. “It’s like kissing my kitten’s belly…” He begins to loosen up and ad lib, and the audience is with him. A fast 15 minutes and he’s done.

The applause is like a thunderstorm on a hot July night. He smiles and goes to sit among the wheels and the agents, and pulls a relaxed drag on his cigarette.

He is prince of the hips, being accepted in the court of the rich kings who, six months ago, would have nudged him closer to the bar, if he wandered in to watch the show. He must have hated himself in the morning — not for the drinks he had, but because he ate it all up the way he really never wanted to.

As I was leaving I heard some guy in an old Army shirt, standing close to the bar, remark: “Well, Kerouac came off the road in high gear…I hope he has a good set of snow tires.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]