"The usually blue windows of the Boott Mills in the night are piercing, heart-breaking with a blue that's never been seen before... terrible how that blue shines like a lost star in the blue city lights of Lowell."
from Doctor Sax
No one who was there will soon forget what happened in the shadow of the old cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts on the warm mad night of August 12th, when Bob Weir, RatDog and a small but fortunate group of locals and latter-day pilgrims gathered in Jack Kerouac's hometown to participate in a remarkable event.
The setting was the Lowell National Historical Park, a monument to the city's role in the Industrial Revolution, located on the site of the Boott Mills, the former textile factory that was the heart of Lowell's working life, and which now serves as a museum devoted to the history of the mill and the city.
The occasion was a commemoration of another kind of revolution: the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book that shook the foundations of American literature, and forever changed the lives of many who read it: On The Road, the magnum opus of the Beat Generation, written by Lowell's most distinguished literary son, Jack Kerouac. The famous scroll on which the book's first draft was written in an astonishing rush of sustained creativity has come home to Lowell for awhile, open to public view in a small gallery in the Boott Mills Museum complex, where it will remain on display until September 14, after which it will continue on a tour of the United States that began in 2004 (for a complete itinerary, go here).
(Some facts about that scroll: It is not, as has often been said, a single roll of paper, but many individual pieces which Kerouac painstakingly cut to size, taped together and fed through his typewriter so that he could write continuously, uninterrupted by page changes; the scroll is on the road under the auspices of Bob Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team and an avid collector of important cultural artifacts, who bought this particular treasure at auction in 2001 after it had passed through various hands over the years; interestingly enough, Irsay also was the winner in the bidding for Jerry Garcia's "Tiger" guitar about a year after he scored On The Road. You've got to give the man credit: he's got great taste in power objects.)
Adjacent to the Boott Mills Museum is Boarding House Park, a peaceful and lovely landscaped space that takes its name from the old brick building that forms its western boundary, and which provided housing for many of the mill workers. On the north end of the park, on the bank of the Merrimack Canal, is a small stage that is the home to the annual Lowell Summer Concert Series. The director of the series, John Marciano, also serves a National Park Ranger, and the inspired act of bringing RatDog to Lowell to commemorate On The Road was largely the result of his hard work, in close collaboration with our dear friend Dennis McNally.
Marciano could not have had a more appropriate or avid co-conspirator than Mr. -- no, that's Dr. McNally. Not only is Dennis the longtime publicist and official historian for the Grateful Dead, but he also holds a doctorate in American History from the University of Massachusetts. And his doctoral thesis just happens to have been on the subject of one Jack Kerouac. Said thesis was later adapted into one of the most widely praised Kerouac biographies, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation and America. If you haven't read it, do so, now.
As On The Road depicts members of a restless generation lighting out across America in search of new experience and enlightenment (and FUN!), it would be hard to find a more inspired choice to commemorate the book's anniversary than Bob Weir and RatDog. In carrying on the creative mission of the Grateful Dead, Bobby helps extend a countercultural continuum in which Kerouac and the Beats are seminal figures and inspirations. And for Weir, there is a far more direct connection: Neal Cassady (1926-1968), the irrepressible force of nature who was immortalized (as "Dean Moriarty"), the traveling companion of Kerouac (as "Sal Paradise") in On The Road, and who later drove the famous bus known as "Furthur" for Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, in the wild 60s California cultural milieu that gave birth to the Grateful Dead. Of the many remarkable things about Neal, there may be nothing more so than this: very few people get to be pivotal figures in one of a century's great cultural upheavals; Neal was smack dab in the middle of two.
Before the RatDog show began, Weir, McNally and John Marciano took the stage for an illuminating (and hugely entertaining) round of stories of Jack, Neal and how we all got here. Bobby summed up quite succinctly the effect that On The Road had on him and countless others of his generation: "I read that book and left home." There were also wild tales of Neal's unique communication skills (he was said to be able to carry on several conversations at once with different people in different rooms, and somehow have it all make sense) and his equally legendary abilities as a driver (it's claimed that he could see around corners).
Photo: Susana Millman
Instead of the usual house music before the show and during intermission, the audience was treated to recordings of Kerouac himself, reading poetry and passages from his novels. His voice, unencumbered in the open-air venue, floated through the streets of Lowell and echoed off the walls of the old cotton mill, off the high school where Jack was a football hero, and the library where he devoured the works of Whitman and Thoreau and Thomas Wolfe. Maybe if the wind was right it even drifted the two or so miles to Edson Cemetery, where Jack was carried to his final rest in 1969.
Opening passage of On The Road, with Lowell sky reflected in the marble of Kerouac Memorial, Jack Kerouac Park, Lowell. Photo: Gary Lambert
Kerouac's words gave way seamlessly to RatDog's music, the improvisational impulse that informed On The Road made manifest in the inspired playing of the band, who on this night added a special guest to the mix: Dennis McNally, who took the microphone just after intermission and delivered a splendid reading of the opening passages of On The Road, accompanied on piano (just as the Beat poets were often accompanied by great jazz musicians) by Jeff Chimenti, who with perfect empathy underscored Kerouac's words with bits of standards and bebop classics.
And then, deep into the second set, Dennis returned, during a ferocious jam in the middle of "The Other One," to read the novel's great closing segment. As with the earlier sequence, he read from Kerouac's original and uncensored autobiographical draft*, in which the characters still had their real names, so that the immortal final sequence, which in published form read this way...
"I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty"
... instead ended with "I think of Neal Cassady." which made for a stunning transition to the closing verse of "The Other One," in which Weir depicts one of his great life-altering moments:
Escapin' through the lily fields
I came across an empty space
It trembled and exploded
Left a bus stop in its place
The bus came by and I got on
That's when it all began
There was cowboy Neal
At the wheel
Of a bus to never-ever land
Photo: Susana Millman
Every song in Bob's beautifully crafted setlist alluded, either explicitly or obliquely, to the event's thematic thread, and the spirited abandon of the musicians did full honor to the wild legacy of Neal and Jack.
Thanks to John Marciano, Dennis, Bobby, RatDog and all involved for this amazing, inspiring event. It was one for the ages.
"I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center-light pop and everybody goes, 'Awww!'"
from On The Road
*For those interested in reading the original 1951 draft as contained on that fabled scroll: it has just been published by Viking Books.