18 October 2019

Cultural movements

Last of the mad ones

Fifty years after Jack Kerouac’s death, his friend David Amram is still bopping on

By Liz Thomson

“You must have Amram,” Janis Ian told me. “You have to have David Amram. Because he’s just so amazing.” We were talking in Dunfermline, Scotland, about an idea I’d recently hatched for a concert in Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, an event that would celebrate the music scene in 1960s downtown Manhattan. Janis had been just 15 when she’d had her first hit record, ‘Society’s Child’, a controversial story of interracial teenage friendship, which had been championed by Leonard Bernstein. She’d hung out in the Village, absorbing what Lenny would call “the infinite variety of music” on offer: it was possible in one night to catch sets by Phil Ochs, Frank Zappa and Oscar Peterson in clubs such as Cafe Wha?, the Gaslight and the Blue Note. Amram was a crucial part of the scene back then, playing jazz and composing for Bernstein and for the movies.

Friends thought I was nuts for even considering the idea of what had now become an arts festival in New York, but Janis saw the possibilities and cheered me on – and I try not to argue with Grammy-winners. As it turned out, doors opened easily and I soon found myself among a group of musical luminaries at the opening night of Folk City, at the Museum of the City of New York. At the after-party, I had my first glimpse of David Amram, a real-life Zelig who would shortly become my friend and champion.

David Amram does his thing at The Village Trip

By 2018 I’d made enough contacts (though not enough money) to start building my festival. The Village Trip, as the festival was now called, would take place over the last weekend of September, a free concert in the Park its centrepiece. But it would also celebrate the wider history and heritage of Greenwich Village, where, as one wit put it not entirely inaccurately, “Everything started except Prohibition.”

It was early spring and Amram was playing a gig at the Cornelia Street Café, a typical Village cafe-restaurant with a cellar stage for putting on musical performances, poetry, theatre (The Vagina Monologues began there), and much else besides, until it was driven out last winter by a rapacious landlord. I bought a ticket and stood in the upstairs bar amid a crush of Amram admirers. The man himself bustled in, dressed in chinos and sneakers, his curly white hair framing a warm, weather-beaten face and observant blue eyes. Various instruments were clutched in each hand as he descended the steep stairs to what he called “the Cornelia Street Stadium”. I followed, settling in to watch him and three musicians, including his son Adam, perform a two-hour set. David himself played piano, French horn, penny whistle, percussion and sundry ethnic instruments, occasionally accompanying a local poet. He chatted about long-gone friends; not least Jack Kerouac, the writer and ringmaster of the Beat Generation.

After the show, he chatted to everyone, friends old and new. Eventually, he got to me, and I began to explain my plans. Before I could finish, he said: “I’ll play.” But Mr Amram, you don’t know when it is, you might not be available! “I’ll play.” No inquiry as to money, nor would there be. I handed him a letter, explaining a little about myself and my ambitions. By the time I awoke the next morning, this extraordinary octogenarian had been to a late-night dinner, driven the 60 miles home to Beacon, and written me a long email.

“Thank you for your fine note and gracious invitation to be part of the exciting and historic four-day celebration of our beloved Greenwich Village,” he wrote, adding that the Village “remains an oasis for people around the world who wish to live or visit a place that has remained an energy centre and hotbed of creativity and artistic innovation for generations”. He loved my proposal for a jazz-and-poetry performance honouring Kerouac and suggested adding “a musical salute to the Village” with a performance of his own Greenwich Village Portraits, celebrating “three streets and three late great artists whose presence in the Village remain part of the best of our culture” – MacDougal Street and Arthur Miller, Bleecker Street and Odetta, Christopher Street and Frank McCourt. All of them had been his friends.

Kenneth Radnofsky, the saxophonist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra for whom Portraits was written, would perform with the pianist Yoshiko Kline. We were all set.

People gather around the folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott on a Sunday afternoon in Washington Square, Greenwich Village

Over the following weeks and months as my crazy dream acquired form, I got to know David via phone, email and in person. I decided to pair his extravaganza with a lecture on Edna St Vincent Millay. She and Kerouac had never known each other, but they’d surely have got on well, each burning their candles at both ends, and in the middle. Steinway loaned us a piano and we had lines around the block, cramming the Jefferson Market Library to beyond capacity.

We bestowed on Amram the title of Village Trip Artist in Residence and he was pleased as punch, sprinkling memories and magic at each event and showing great generosity to fellow artists, jamming where appropriate. He returned to The Village Trip 2019 as Artist Emeritus and I presented him with a special tour jacket, as well as a portrait by Rita Paul.

The singer-songwriter Fred Neil crosses the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets

A week or so before this year’s festival, I took a train up the Hudson Valley to visit Amram at home. We settled in his living-room-cum-studio, its walls lined with posters and photographs. Framed awards and statuettes are scattered around, propped unceremoniously here and there. Memos dangle, held up by sticky tape, from his bedside lamp. Upstairs are books, more photos and manuscripts, and stacks of reel-to-reel tapes containing who-knows-how-many moments in history. He has lived in Beacon for a few years now, the Village too expensive, and the farm where he brought up his children too big.

Farm Aid, with his old friend Willie Nelson, was in his calendar for a few days later. Then the Village Trip. After that, Amram would head to Massachusetts for the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival, during which Kerouac’s premature death would be commemorated at a special mass – throughout the craziness, Jack remained a devout Catholic.

Jack Kerouac, accompanied by a beer, draws from a pack of cards

Amram and Kerouac met in 1956, a chance encounter at a bring-your-own-bottle party in a Village loft at a time when Bohemia was cheap. They gave an impromptu and improvised performance, and thereafter kept running into each other on Downtown’s crooked streets. A classically trained musician, Amram was “trying to become a composer”; while Kerouac was on the cusp of fame, On the Road poised for publication the following year.

“After it came out, overnight Jack went from being an unknown person wearing a flannel shirt and a cross who lived with his mother and had a Lowell accent, a patriotic, all-American boy and an ex-football player, to someone who became so famous that people would come up to him and be disrespectful,” Amram recalls, in one of his typically long sentences, each leading to another reminiscence but always returning to the point of departure. “There were people who despised him because he didn’t act the role of the uptight neurotic, pandering, simpering author of the year. He was just himself. It was wonderful.”

The so-called beats and beatniks – terms that Kerouac himself despised, preferring beatific and the biblical beatitudes – were suddenly like “exotic creatures in a zoo”, tour buses chugging slowly down Bleecker and MacDougal streets, the main arteries of the Village, as guides megaphoned their commentaries.

The first official New York jazz and poetry reading took place in October 1957 at the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. Shortly afterwards, readings began at the Circle in the Square, on Sheridan Square, a few blocks west. Everyone improvised, even the lighting man, who “wailed” on the lighting board. Kerouac would riff on ideas thrown at him from the audience, read extracts from On the Road, and sing to Amram’s French horn or piano. Thought of mostly as a novelist, Kerouac hoped “to be considered as a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session on Sunday,” as he wrote in the introduction to Mexico City Blues. “Jack had a phenomenal ear – it was like playing duets with a great musician.” He was knowledgeable about a wide range of music, just like Amram. Their friendship was cemented around shared enthusiasms.

The scene inside Gerde’s Folk City nightclub near West 4th Street and Broadway

It is almost precisely 50 years since Kerouac died, on 21 October 1969, aged just 47; his life of excess coming to a stop in St Petersburg, Florida, where he spent his final years with his elderly mother and third wife, Stella. There’s another anniversary next month, on 11 November, which is 60 years since the release of Kerouac’s “petit flic” Pull My Daisy, based on part of his then-unstaged play Beat Generation. This film, and particularly its premiere screening in a double-bill with John Cassavetes’ Shadows, is considered a great forward-leap in the development of American independent cinema – and, of course, Amram was involved.

A silent movie in black-and-white filmed in artist and filmmaker Alfred Leslie’s East Village loft, Pull My Daisy features poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky, who played themselves, and artist Larry Rivers as Neal Cassady (renamed Milo) with Delphine Seyrig (aka Beltiane) as his wife Carolyn. Amram was cast as Irish jazz legend Mezz McGillicuddy and wrote the score to words Kerouac improvised over co-directors Leslie and Robert Frank’s 26-minute edit. It’s hard to overstate the significance of the moment: imagine the Beyond the Fringe quartet getting together with Bill Brandt and David Hockney.

Some 50 hours of film were shot in those long-ago sessions as everyone horsed around, Ginsberg divesting himself of his clothes on at least one occasion. “Basically no one did anything except show off, but Allan wanted to get noticed even more. We tried to get Robert Frank to laugh so hard his camera would shake – he had a wooden tripod and an old 16-millimetre camera, and that was it. He’d have tears rolling down his cheeks, but the camera never shook and somehow, he got these great shots. And then Leon Prochnik managed to edit it and make it appear almost as if it was a home movie.”

Robert Frank and his Leica

“We were all old friends since way before the movie and the cast was what you might call ‘a loosely knit community’, like a 12-step programme in all the arts to encourage one another to pursue our dreams, and whatever everyone considered career death wishes, because we thought we were put here to do something and we were willing to do it even if it meant we had to do something else to make a living.” Amram was about to be trained as a bartender when Leonard Bernstein appointed him the first Composer in Residence at the New York Philharmonic in 1966, even though by that time he had scored The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and been Composer and Music Director for the Lincoln Center Theatre.

Amram grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, learned trumpet and piano as a child, and then French horn before he “stumbled and fumbled” into a whole range of other instruments, exploring world music before the term existed. A history major, he started off playing horn in the National Symphony Orchestra in DC and writing music for the theatre before arriving in New York City where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music with Vittorio Giannini, a classicist who appreciated jazz and folk music. Joseph Papp hired him to compose for Shakespeare in the Park, a now-annual tradition that was pooh-poohed at the outset. Then came The Turn of the Screw (1959) starring Ingrid Bergman, which won Amram an Emmy and led to a series of commissions from the director Elia Kazan. “I could have spent the rest of my life doing that but I wanted to write concert music and play jazz.”

A man of many instruments: Amram plays the French horn

So he yielded to the Manhattan of Pull My Daisy, when what’s now the East Village was simply the northern edge of the Lower East Side, an area ripe for colonisation by artists and poets. Amram lived mostly on the other side of Fifth Avenue, in “the Village”, studying at “The University of Hangoutology” – bars such as the San Remo, Cafe Rienzi, Cafe Bohemia, Cafe Figaro and the Cedar Tavern, sadly all now gone – and playing jazz with Mingus, Gillespie, Coltrane, Parker and many more besides, while learning to be a composer.

He thinks about Kerouac every day, and has recalled their productive yet mad-cap time together in Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac, one of a series of memoirs, and talks about him and a whole cast of major and minor characters at concerts, festivals, seminars, and on radio. Robert Frank died last month. The co-director of Pull My Daisy, Alfred Leslie, is 91 and in poor health; leaving David Amram as the last man active and standing, planning his 90th birthday year with the excitement and commitment of someone a third his age. His energy is astonishing, as is his memory.

“Jack asked me to write the music and the [title] song [for Pull My Daisy],” Amram continues – and the pair joined forces to record the narration. Nothing was planned as the film started to spool out. “Early morning in the universe,” Kerouac began, swigging from a bottle of beaujolais as Amram riffed on the piano. “I just got a chill, seeing this beautiful opening shot. Dark, mysterious, depressing … This funky place. That was what it was like on the Lower East Side in those days, which was where we lived.” Amram even wrote music for the cockroaches filmed crawling in the filthy sink.

The Gaslight Poetry Cafe on MacDougal St

Kerouac spoke, “gargantuan two-minute sentences, his words a great jazz solo, like Charlie Parker at Birdland”, and in no time at all it was done, the bottle empty. Leslie started telling him what he should do in take two. “C’est fini, c’est ça,” Kerouac replied. “Let’s celebrate.” Amram persuaded him to do it again. “So, begrudgingly, he did a second narration that was brilliant and different. But I’d say 80 to 90 per cent of it was the first narration and it was extraordinary. All the times I’ve seen the film I’m astounded. Somehow, he finished all of his crazy thoughts and makes it seem as though that’s what it’s supposed to be. Jack tied the whole thing up together and made it appear to be a film.”

Amram was delighted to learn from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David that Seinfeld was “about nothing and the inspiration was Pull My Daisy, which was about nothing. It was basically for all of us a wonderful home movie so we could show our grandchildren one day.”

And he’s thrilled, too, that the movie has become a touchstone for today’s aspirant filmmakers who can shoot with an iPhone. Recently he encountered a group of kids who’d made Pull My Hyatt. “They weren’t pretending to be beatniks. They were staying at a Hyatt and decided to make their own movie … Everyone can be a filmmaker … If Pull My Daisy fosters creativity in others, that’s the highest level any of us can be on.”

Amram has camped out on that highest level for decades, fostering creativity in others. He’s written in every genre and played just about everything with everyone, from Woody Herman to Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Pete Seeger and Jerry Jeff Walker, Hunter S Thompson, James Galway, Langston Hughes, Arlo Guthrie, and many more besides, in almost 40 countries. Even when he dons white tie and tails to conduct at Carnegie Hall, his neck is hung with turquoise and silver, musical chains of office from a lifetime of collaboration and enduring friendships.

Hanging out in the Village these days is expensive but Amram refuses to join “the whineologists and the blameologists” with their “I’m groovy everyone else sucks” attitude. “It’s still a wonderful part of town. If you spend your whole life being angry at what you don’t have you can’t appreciate what you do have… Once you free your mind of other people’s sense of your own inadequacy you can live a little. That’s my opinion.”

And as he issued that opinion, I couldn’t help but remember Janis Ian’s words, that time in Dunfermline. David Amram is amazing, and man for whom – as Kerouac said – “the only truth is music”. Long may he play on.

All Photographs Getty Images

Further reading

Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac, by David Amram. Amram up-close and personal with Kerouac and the Beats – Joyce Johnson thought it “a loving evocation” of the era.

The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac. A 1958 novella drawing on a Kerouac love affair in the Village. It is relocated to San Francisco.

Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, edited by Marilene Phipps-Kettlewell. Poetry was central to Kerouac’s life and work yet perhaps the least-known aspect of his oeuvre. This brings together all his major poetic works, including ‘Mexico City Blues’, which had a formative influence on Bob Dylan.

The Beat Scene: Photographs by Burt Glinn. Glinn was a celebrated Life photographer and one of the first to join Magnum. This magnificent collection brings together largely unseen photographs, hugely evocative of time and place. Unusually, some are in colour. Kerouac’s unpublished essay was found among the negatives.

Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960, by Ross Wetzsteon. The golden age of the Village which, in addition to Amram and Kerouac, includes such figures as Eugene O’Neill, Edna St Vincent Millay, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger and Jackson Pollock.

Liz Thomson

Liz Thomson, a journalist and author, is the founder of The Village Trip, an annual festival celebrating the history and heritage of Greenwich Village, New York City. Her biography of Joan Baez will be published next October.