Lowell, Massachusetts, birthplace to Jack Kerouac, the well-known author of “On the Road” and other perhaps lesser known works that include poetry and prose, has been the hub of several events this past week, all toward one purpose – that of remembering the 90th birthday of Jean Louis Kerouac, better known as Jack. Even the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has joined in the celebration by declaring today, March 12, Jack Kerouac Day.
So Saturday night we headed from Cambridge up the highway to Lowell to join in the festivities of the evening at a Jazz club. It was Jazz and Jack. We knew it would be fun, but we had no idea just how fun. In a room full of strangers we ended up sharing a table and having drinks with Jack’s oldest living friend, bodyguard, and pall bearer at his funeral – a handsome, 85-year-old Greek gentleman named Billy Koumantzelis, or “Uncle Billy” to many. The evening was itself like something out of a novel.
A local jazz band started off the evening, followed by a monologue from a play done on Jack’s life – this too from local talent. The playwright then read two short scenes from the play followed by more jazz. The real story, for us, was in talking and sharing with Billy.
When you’re 85, you’ve seen a lot of life, and Billy has seen his share. He knows Lowell. He knows the good and the bad. And he knew Jack – the good and the bad. To say Jack was a tortured artist is probably being somewhat kind, for he had his demons and they were not hidden. It is the never-ending complexity of life that where there is great talent there may also be great dysfunction. There is Jack the writer, whose writing inspired many, who felt he was created to write. And there is Jack the man, who made some poor choices and had to live out the effects of those choices. Jack the writer, who wrote of a generation that was lost after the Great Depression and the war. Jack the man, who lived a lost life.
And there is Billy K. his friend, faithful and never aspiring to fame, but receiving it by default because of our celebrity cult culture. Billy, who lived with his wife and six children in Lowell, and stood firm at Jack’s funeral – Jack a young 48-year-old, Billy barely 44. Billy, who sometimes gets sick of being known simply as Jack’s friend. Billy, who is a first generation Greek gentleman and rescued Jack from many a bar brawl. Billy who was the one person in the room who really knew that we shouldn’t celebrate everything about Jack’s life, but we could still celebrate.
Is it any wonder that our evening was that much richer because we were able to hear memories from a real person so we could go beyond just the idea of a man? An idea made over by speculation and artistic license of authors and poets so that what remains may barely represent reality.
We ended the evening after midnight, a midnight lighting of birthday candles and singing Happy Birthday in French in honor of Jack’s French Canadian heritage. We are the richer for the evening and have an invitation from Billy to come up to Lowell when it’s “quieter and I’ll show you Lowell” — Uncle Billy, we can’t wait to take you up on it!
- On the Road – Jack Kerouac (afictionhabit.wordpress.com)