By Mick Brady
Writing a memoir is like climbing the Matterhorn. It’s a hell of a long haul to get to the top, but when you do, you get to sit around the campfire and tell all yer wildest of wild tales, with the added bonus of seeing all these crazy things you went through from a completely new angle, as though you were another person when it all happened. Which, of course, you were… if you’re worth your salt at all and maybe grew a little along the way. There were moments, I swear, when I felt like an anthropologist studying the natives of Samoa, I was that foreign to me.
To heighten this dizzying sensation, all the while I’ve been writing this tall tale I’ve been re-reading many of the books that played a role in how I lived it – books that actually got right up in my face and told me what is. Books whose authors and characters whispered in my ear in the dark of night; who woke me from my dreaming and drew me into the unfolding of their own delicious dreams. I followed them willingly into their darkest secrets; they shone their flashlights into mine without a peep or a protest from me. I was a dream traveler.
The book of all these books, though, is the authentic Beat Bible: Kerouac’s On the Road. A crazy mad book that blew the top of my head off when I was but fourteen years old. It catapulted me into the wide open world at breakneck speed. It took my breath away. I had no idea that life could be swallowed in one gulp, that you could careen around the world like a billiard ball; that you could kiss the sky on the fly and leave without saying goodbye. Mad, bad, beautiful, sad, and glad ta know ya Jack Kerouac.
But times have changed. The frenzied young men cast in the amber of this book are now very different creatures to me than when I first encountered them. I see their tragic beauty in a new context; they are lost souls; brave, crazy, damaged; they are self-obsessed beautiful losers, in love with the world and all it has to offer, but with a brutal kind of love, the love of someone who cannot love themselves. In short, they were everything I was at that age, but I lived to tell a very different tale. I wish there could have been happier endings for them as well.
After his days of careening through the Beat scene, Kerouac retreated to the comfort of his mother’s home and drank himself to death at the age of 47; Cassady died of a possible drug overdose while walking along the railroad tracks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He was 42 years old. I would likely have met a similar fate had I not turned myself in at the sheriff’s office – that is, rehab – and accepted the truth that turned my life around.
I still cherish their works, though, much as I cherish the Greek tragedies. In fact, I’ve been reading the LoA cloth-bound edition of Kerouac”s road novels (On the Road, Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, et al), complete with a sexy red marker ribbon, just like the King James version of the Bible. Praise be to Kerouac. May he rest in peace.
Photo: Jack Kerouac in Tangiers, by Allen Ginsberg