In 1968 the Beat novelist Jack Kerouac made his last TV appearance on William F Buckley’s talk show Firing Line. He was only 46. But he looked defeated. Old. As the bright studio lights bore down on him, his forehead slicked into sweat. Sweat that looked like it could kill flies. Like you could bottle it and sell it for moonshine. He was dressed in a horrible yellow shirt and even worse checked sports jacket. He was slurring and rambling and angry. At one point, as Buckley asked him an interminable question, he visibly drifted off. When he shook himself back into a form of consciousness, he mumbled: “I’ve lost an entire train of thought.”
There were all sorts of reasons that the programme went so badly. Many of them, sips from a vodka bottle. Kerouac was at the stage of alcoholism when friends were hiding booze from him. He was further discombobulated because he had been expecting to appear alone on the programme, in intellectual one-to-one conversation with Buckley. Instead, shortly before transmission he’d realised he was actually going to be on a panel, and was supposed to be talking about hippies alongside Lewis Yablonsky, a sociologist, and Ed Sanders, a singer in a band called The Fugs.
Kerouac didn’t know who Sanders was, but he was an interesting man. He was a prominent anti-war activist and an eloquent speaker. His band, meanwhile, had a lot to say about the hippy dream, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They had released tracks called "I Couldn't Get High", "Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out","Group Grope" and, most famously, “I Shit My Pants.” They were, according to a note found in a file the FBI were keeping on Jim Morrison’s band, The Doors, the "most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive.”
Allen Ginsberg later said that Sanders had approached Kerouac before the cameras started rolling and told the author of On The Road that he was “my father.” Everything that Sanders stood for, Kerouac had inspired.
I can sympathise. Like plenty of other 18-year-olds I went through a Kerouac phase. Not long after finishing school, I read On The Road in a café in Prague. (It felt like the Bohemian thing to do). Kerouac’s frantic prose surged through my veins with the caffeine and the hormones and blew my lid right off. I was transformed from an awkward teenager into something new. Still an awkward teenager. But also someone who was going to damn well get out there, see the world, hoover up everything the world could throw at me, write long repetitive sentences about the excitement of hoovering up everything the world could throw at me, listen to jazz, use hep slang and interjections – oh boy - get drunk and finally, oh finally, one day please, have sex and write about that too. I could feel Kerouac in my mind, stirring everything up, urging me to go, go, go! It was exciting. It was everything. I could also see the direct line from Kerouac, to the 60s, to 1990s rave culture to all the fun I was now intending to have. He made it all seem poetic and noble. Sex, drugs and rock and roll? Yes please, I thought. Not only was I going to have some of that. Having some of that was going to make me a better person. Kerouac made hedonism seem righteous.
So it’s awful to watch that William F Buckley programme and see how wrong it had gone for him. It’s also awful to watch Sanders seeing his spiritual father humiliate himself, reject affinity with hippies like The Fugs, stomp on their political ideals. Kerouac declared he believed “in order, tenderness and piety.” He said he and his family had always voted Republican. He interrupted the singer when he was trying to make a point about the Vietnam war and William Buckley told him to “shh”, like he was five. So he started blowing raspberries.
There was only a clueless academic between Sanders and the man who had set him free of the shackles of conformist society. The man whose prose and attitude to life had intoxicated his mind – as well as introducing him to the attractions of narcotics. This should have been glorious. Kerouac was the dream. But the dream was broken.
Kerouac did provide the occasional flash of brilliance. After that moment when he seemed to be asleep, he said : “I think the Vietnam war is nothing but a plot between the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese – who are cousins – to get jeeps into the country.”
Otherwise, it was ugly. Sanders looked like he had been smashed in the nuts with a spiked bat. Everything he had been promised about fun and freedom was being denied by the very person who had made the promises.
Just over a year later, Kerouac died. He was one of the first casualties of the rock and roll era he had helped usher in. He checked out before Elvis, before Jimi Hendrix, before Jim Morrison, on October 21, 1969, vomiting blood. He had cirrhosis of the liver, his symptoms probably exacerbated by an untreated hernia he’d picked up in some sordid bar fight the week before. So it goes.
One last thought. In an interview about that appearance on Firing Line, Allen Ginsberg also explained that Kerouac loved Senator Joseph McCarthy, of Un-American Activities infamy, because he was such an eloquent drunk.
“Kerouac also said McCarthy was the only honest man in the Senate,” said Ginsberg. “In the sense of someone who talks from the top of his mind and says outrageous things…” Imagine what he’d make of Donald Trump. So much for hedonism.