Interview by John Wisniewski
AMFM MAGAZINE: What research went into writing about Jack Kerouac – how did the project begin?
Brian Hassett: Believe it or not, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac” began as a comment in a Facebook group! Somebody posted a photo of a bunch of Beat luminaries taken at the now historic 1982 Kerouac “On The Road” conference in Boulder, and everyone was freaking out about them all being together in one place, but to me it was just a picture of my summer vacation. When I mentioned I’d hitchhiked to it as a 21 year old and worked at the thing, everybody started asking me to tell them about it. I thought it would just take a few minutes, but as I started writing I remembered I had a folder on it. Turned out to be pretty thick when I pulled it out. Then somebody asked if I’d taken any pictures and I suddenly remembered that I had! So that began a whole other search. Then I found the notebooks I’d kept while on the road, and remembered the cassette tapes I’d recorded there, and found letters home, and one thing led to another, until I wrote the whole arc of the real-life Adventure Tale in eleven days. After that I watched the five different documentaries that were filmed there, and that sparked more memories, and then I started getting in touch with others who were there, and that sparked even more memories and details, and I transcribed more of the tapes, until I ended up with 400 pages and 60-something photographs that people seem to be quite enjoying.
AMFM: What interests you about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and Kerouac?
Brian Hassett: Kesey & the Pranksters and Jack Kerouac are of course two very different worlds and art forms and philosophies, but they have some interesting connections, including Neal Cassady driving both of them across the country in the most historic trip of each of their lives. You can read a lot about the connections between the two in the book I wrote last year, “How The Beats Begat The Pranksters.” Besides the poetry and power of his prose, Kerouac inspires me because of his work ethic, something I appreciate more and more with each passing year. He died at 47, and has over 50 different books in print today. And they range from novels to poetry to philosophy to plays to haiku. That’s astounding. And that he created so much of it before On The Road was ever published. These were not check-cashing paydays but a herculean effort to capture the world around him — from his small town roots in Lowell, Mass., to the jazz clubs of Manhattan, to the mountains of the West Coast, and all the road in between. And how he conveyed that all of our lives are ‘novels’ and that all the people we know are characters in our own epic stories. That’s fantastic stuff that makes life so much richer.
Brian Hassett: Kesey was a hero to me since I first read about him as a teenager in little old Winnipeg Manitoba Canada. Back then I was too young to appreciate the scope of Kerouac’s lifework, but Kesey was a guy who was physically creating magic. I found out later he was actually a practicing amateur magician, but what I mean is that he created the Acid Tests, and that his house band was the Grateful Dead, and that they were all so proactive. They didn’t just get drunk or stoned at parties, they were all participating — no passengers — everyone was part of the show. That’s a good life lesson in general — to not be the screaming American brat in the Nirvana song — “Here we are now, entertain us.” Kesey & the Pranksters resonated with someone from the isolated Canadian tundra where we had to create our own fun. Here were people doing it in costumes with electric kool-aid and a great band that never played the same show twice. And this self-created party is still going on to this day, from the thousands of jam bands playing all over the continent tonight, to Burning Man and the whole festival culture that’s thriving all across North America.
AMFM: Did you speak with Merry Prankster Ken Babbs in writing the book?
Brian Hassett: Babbs was great for fact-checking specific things for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac about the ’82 On The Road summit in Boulder that both he & I were at, and then back at his and Kesey’s houses in Oregon, but he’s also, interestingly, of a mind to allow the myths to grow and become what they will. He’s obviously, by his history, a Prankster to his marrow, but is also still one at heart in that he likes to play with people’s imaginations and parameters of reality. I also ran the book or parts of it by Paul Krassner and Michael McClure and Zane Kesey and George Walker and representatives of most of the estates if the principals had passed, as well as lots of not-so-famous people who were also there.
For the How The Beats Begat The Pranksters I interviewed many of the living original Pranksters including Mountain Girl, George Walker, Wavy Gravy, Roy Sebern, Anonymous, Mary Microgram (Denise Kaufman), plus official Kesey biographer Bob Faggen and many others, as well as digging up every Beat quote or anecdote of Kesey’s I could find. Babbs had already been interviewed by Beatdom on the matter so I used his comments from there. I spent some time with him out in Oregon last summer, and he was raving about the book, particularly how I brought events to life and that it wasn’t about hero worship but rather the real people that he and Kesey were.
AMFM: What will your next book be about, Brian?
Brian Hassett: On The Road with Cassadys (Sept. 2018) is a playful riff on friendship and Adventure with a rich overlay of Kerouac and the Beats. Neal & Carolyn Cassady’s only son John and I became friends in the ’90s and started gallivanting about in various locales. It struck me right away that we had a Cassady and an author in a car going On The Road in a contemporary version of prior Road Trips that went down in history. I always meant to capture them, but life was always too busy, until now, when I’ve made the conscious decision to sit down, stay put, and get the tales writ.
I also became close friends with his mother Carolyn Cassady and lived with her for several months in England, and included some of that in the book as well. So much has been written by so many about the family patriarch, but not enough about his better half and genetic junior, so that’s part of what I’m adding to the collective canvas. Filling in the Cassady family portrait with the color and verve they deserve.
About Brian Hassett: Canadian writer, poet, essayist, critic, columnist, reviewer, and songwriter Brian Hassett is the author of the new Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac about the historic ’82 super-summit in Boulder, and also helped put together The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats, and wrote two of its keynote essays. He’s produced many Kerouac and Beat-related shows in Manhattan at The Bowery Poetry Club, The Bitter End, The Living Room & other clubs; he inducted Kerouac into the Counter-Culture Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, and performed Jack’s words live from there to London to Toronto; and he produced the two “50th Anniversary of Jack Writing On the Road” shows in 2001—in New York on the day he started it, and L.A. on the day he finished.[/vc_column_text]