Kerouac and the Beats: Generational Influences

Remarks by Peter Coyote at a panel discussion on Kerouac and On the Road (the book and the upcoming movie)

This event took place at the Koret Auditorium, SF Main Library, Jan. 10, 2013. The panelists spoke after a 20-minute screening from the film which is to be released in March, 2013.  [Transcribed by E.P.N. with final edits by P.C. 30-Jan-2013]

Coyote: You saw that New Year's Eve celebration [in the screened film clip] and they said it was 1941. That was the year I was born. [Comment by Gerald Nicosia: "It was 1949."] Oh, 1949. Well I'm so old I'm hard of hearing. [Laughter] It actually makes more sense because by the time I was fourteen, I had gotten my first inkling of the counterculture through folk music and that led me off the suburbs and off the asphalt and into the province of poets and revolutionaries and anarchists and of course beatniks too. And when On the Road was published in 1957, I could drive, and the original black cover had a neo-modernist outline of a city on it. When you saw someone carrying that book, it was kind of a talismanic calling card—that this person was hungry for some kind of experience and some kind of authenticity like you were.

I grew up in the Truman-Eisenhower years—the kind of reality based on science and modernism and rationality. By the time I was sixteen, that had grown quite thin. By the time I was seventeen, I was in jail coming from Mexico caught with eight kilos of weed, a copy of On the Road in my backpack and doing my best to understand what this pursuit of freedom and authenticity was about. And then as luck would have it, slightly later in life I came to California and I was befriended and became intimate friends with a number of poets—and through them met Lew Welch and Gary Snyder and through him Allen Ginsberg.

A number of these people had been my mentors in college while reading Donald Allen's book New American Poetry: 1945-60. So these people were like my forebears, as the American Transcendentalists were for them. They opened up a psychic terrain; they opened up possibilities outside my inherited cultural paradigms. And through their example challenged me to follow it.

The Diggers were an anarchistic group in the Haight-Ashbury that pushed countercultural ideas to the very edges. We were cultural revolutionaries. We couldn't imagine people throwing themselves on the barricades to be classified lumpen proletariat, so we challenged ourselves and other people to imagine a world that they wanted to live in and make it real by doing it. We wanted to live in a world with Free Food, so we figured out how to feed 600 people a day for nothing. We wanted to live without being employees—it seemed like a short circuit to give away your time and become an employee so you could earn money to become a consumer, when the stuff was out there for nothing if you didn't care if it was new or not. So we created a Free Store in which you could get televisions or furniture or bicycles or tools or clothing for nothing. And work for yourself. And we did that for a number of years and then the Diggers gradually merged with some other groups and became known as the Free Family. That became several hundred people and we established communes to create alternative economies and to learn something about the native lore and wisdom of living in place in Northern California. All of that was a direct result of being inoculated with the pursuit of freedom and authenticity of the Beats.  And we were lucky enough to have living examples. Gary Snyder was alive. Allen Ginsberg was alive. Michael McClure was alive. David Meltzer was alive. Philip Whalen was alive. And I came to know these people intimately and little by little my ideas, my romances, my illusions about them were replaced by images that were far more substantial, far more durable, and actually more admirable.

In closing the last thing I'll say is the thing that I liked most about this movie was its moral core. It's what the plot spins on. I won't give it away for you. The difference between Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise is basically an ethical one. Bob Dylan once had a line in "Like a Rolling Stone" where he says, "You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat. Ain't it hard when you discover that. He really wasn't where it's at. After he took from you everything he could steal."

Very often a young writer like Sal finds himself without his voice, without having all his powers available to himself yet, and falls under the sway of a charismatic person who kind of perfectly embodies the zeitgeist. And this exploration, this film that Walter's made, it's not exactly the book, for my money. It's more an exploration of this dynamic of a young artist coming to the fulfillment of his or her powers. And separating the chicken-shit from the chicken-salad. So I'm here to give homage to my forebears and to urge you all to go and see and enjoy this film.

[Applause]

During the question/answer period:

Audience member:  The Occupy Movement seems to have embraced the culture. .. [Inaudible]

Coyote: Yeah, I think it's the most positive and exciting movement because … it's a movement … not about a charismatic individual. I think they actually managed to break the frame … the great hidden secret of our economy which is an invisible class war carried out since the 1940s and the McCarthy era. These kids, these rag-tag gypsies created this perception of the 99% and the 1%. It's the media that suggested they've gone away, but they haven't gone away at all. They're having a deep and enduring dialogue with America. We're all invited to participate in it. And they kind of draw a line in the sand and they invite us to participate. I don't think it's a past tense event.

Audience member: What about one of the unnamed forebears, Emmett Grogan? Do you have a word about him?

Coyote: Emmett was a person who perfectly encapsulated the zeitgeist of the counterculture in the 1960s as you could say that Neal Cassady encapsulated his time in his life. Neal and Emmett were both life-actors. Emmett was a writer, but he didn't achieve his fame through his writing. And when the 60s transmuted into the 70s, and then whole cultural worlds shifted, Emmett didn't make that shift very well. Emmett died in 1978. They found him on the Coney Island subway April Fool's Day, 1978, dead of an overdose. He was the guy who pierced my ear. We saw each other every day. We lived together. We caroused around the country. He was a huge influence on me. Also not always a great influence. I became addicted to heroin through him. Like young Kerouac in this movie I had to learn to separate myself and kind of opt for what Gary Snyder calls the responsibility of an artist. Which in an insane culture manifests health and sanity.

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