Canadian writer/poet/traveler Brian Hassett talks about the rock n’ roll, counterculture and Beat movement

"In the counterculture at large it's the idea of independence — thinking for yourself  — expressing yourself — being yourself — in a long line from Neal & Allen to flower children to green hair to sex changes to hugely popular stoner films."

Brian Hassett: The Beat State Of Mind

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.           (Photo: Brian in front of Kesey's Furthur)

Performer of spoken-word-with-music shows at writers conferences, festivals, nightclubs, schools, bookstores and such in the U.S., Canada & Europe. Stage manager at “On The Road – The Jack Kerouac Conference” in Boulder, CO, 1982; the Bear Mountain Folk Festival; all the Music Business & Technology concerts at NYU, etc. After touring with Yes and other major bands at age 17, moved from Winnipeg Manitoba to NYC, was on the road with The Rolling Stones by 19; lived in Manhattan for next 27 years; appeared on numerous TV & radio programs. He also became close friends with Carolyn Cassady, Edie Kerouac, Henri Cru, Walter Salles and many other Beat notables, and maintains an active web site of his ongoing adventures at BrianHassett.com.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What did you learn about yourself from the rock n’ roll and Beat movement?

Rock n roll taught me life is participatory. A group endeavor. Both the collective playing — but also the intertwining of band and audience. Whenever I got interested in a group, the first album I'd buy would be their best live album. Even at age 13 or 14 I knew you could do anything in the studio — the real test was how it sounded live.

And rock n roll taught me how to stage a show, and then later how to create my own shows — booking bands and venues. And how one person, by doing that, could change so many other people's lives in a single night. I learned that transformation was possible — and it didn't have to come from a religion or government leader or school teacher — but from people like myself working collectively on a common endeavor — we could create the environment where people could fall in love, or discover their own path in life, or dance themselves to a new worry-free mindset. I'm very bullish on the power of dancing.

It was through reading interviews with, and stories about, the Grateful Dead and other bands that I kept seeing references to this author with a strange last name. If it was once or twice it probably wouldn't have had an impact. But after the third, fourth, fifth time seeing this same name ... I had to find out who this guy was. So it was rock n roll that first set me off on this Beat journey.

From Jack's books I learned there were people out there like me. I grew up in this Mayberry of a town on the Canadian prairies a million miles from anything. I was always marching to my own Beat since growing up an only child — and I knew there was something more out there than we were being presented with.

Reading Jack's passion for The Road and for other loveable misfits, I saw that this approach to life had gone back decades and people were capturing long ago exactly what I was feeling in the 1970s present.

I learned I wasn't alone.

What does ‘Beat’ mean to you?

"Beat" is a state of mind. Sure, there were the founding fathers of the movement so named, but I'm Beat. I can meet a 20 year old kid today who's never read one of their books and he or she could be Beat. It's like the Merry Pranksters say of one another — we just recognize each other.

For me it's about Adventure with a capital A. It's about being open to everyone and everything you encounter. It means expressing yourself. You can't just read or watch or listen — you have to take it in and filter it back out into your own creation in whatever form that takes. That's also something the Pranksters picked up on. Playing. Doing. Even if you're not Michelangelo — make art. Even if you'll never be The Beatles — make music. Shakespeare didn't stop Kerouac. Each of us are new rings of growth on the tree of life. Branch out. Blossom. Grow. Express. Embrace the Light — and dance in the dark.

"I miss the people — being able to hang with them — but The Spirit is still alive. I miss the old cafes and bars, but there's still some around. I don't miss much else — because everything's better now." (Photo: Brian Hassett and Phil Lesh of Grateful Dead holding Brian's book, 2015)

What were the reasons you started your rock 'n’ roll and Beat Generation research and experiments?

Once I first experienced the joy that fans do at a rock concert (Alice Cooper, '75) — there was no turning back. I suppose people in some Baptist churches experience this kind of group euphoria. And maybe in some sports crowds when the home team is winning some big game there's that same collective elevation. Different people can experience it in different places. For me, it was in the pit in front of the stage at a rock n roll concert. And turning around and looking into this whole arena or concert hall and seeing thousands of people jumping off the ground screaming in joy. How do you not follow that path?!

As soon as I discovered this — whereas all of my friends were into what was cool then I had to go and find out everything about it first — "Where did THIS come from?!?! Holy heck! What an invention!"

Right away I went back to the beginning and was buying Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly records and studying the hell out of them. From there, I listened to the first Beatles albums — where they were sometimes covering Chuck & Buddy — and the progression totally made sense. And from there, I could understand how we got to "Like A Johnny B. Goode Rolling Stone" and "Sargent Rubber Pepper." And how that led to the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd and Yes. I couldn't have really understood my contemporary music without doing my own chronological study of how we got here. But once I did, it all made it sense. Then right around this time, the acid kicked in. And — phwoosh! — now we could really fly!

And what was so blissfully beautiful about the Beats was — all the characters in all the books and poems were real people . . . who wrote their own books and poems! So, immediately after reading On The Road, the next question was — who's this Neal Cassady guy everybody's talkin' about?! And he was connected to the Grateful Dead?!?! You gotta be kiddin' me! And Allen Ginsberg's on the back of my Bob Dylan album. What!? It was so obvious ... but still so hard to believe ... that these coolest of books were connected directly to the coolest of musicians. "I gotta find out EVERYthing about this stuff!" And 30 years later I'm still finding new connections.

Why do you think the Beat movement continues to generate such a devoted following today?

Boy, does it! You see 15-to-25 year olds joining the various Beat groups online every day. And every live event from the Beat Shindig in San Francisco to the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festivals have tons of young people in every audience.

There's lots of reasons. For one thing, the work is really good. From Jack & Burroughs' prose to Ginsberg & Corso's poetry, from Robert Frank's "Pull My Daisy" movie to to all the documentaries that have been made, from Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore to Carolyn Cassady and Edie Kerouac's memoirs, from Van Morrison citing Jack in numerous songs to Katy Perry's hit "Fireworks" being inspired by Jack's famous "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars" line in On The Road — original source material to contemporary pop culture — we're everywhere.

If they were crappy writers — none of this would have happened. But they weren't.

They were speaking poetically forcefully directly openly to disenfranchisement, non-conformity, pulling back the curtain on sexuality and drugs, and celebrating Adventure.

And they were FUN!

Salinger wrote a great book — then became a hermit.

Ginsberg wrote a great poem — then went on the road with Bob Dylan and Rolling Thunder.

Cassady inspired Jack Kerouac — then helped inspire the formation of The Grateful Dead.

These were the rock stars of writers!

                                                                (Photo: Brian and Jack's friend Henri Cru, NYC 1986)

Which acquaintances have been your most important?

Of the people your readers would know, probably first came Bill Graham who was (and is to this day) one of my biggest heroes. So, I set out to meet him. Which is what I do.

Within a month or so of achieving that, I was working with him in the office full-time putting together The Rolling Stones tour of '81. I'd been involved in show production since I was about 15 in 1976 — always inspired by what I'd read about him doing. And now I was watching him do it. For me, this was like being in Abbey Road while The Beatles made a record, or in Michelangelo's studio watching him carve David. And it confirmed my love of and desire to always put on The Best Show Possible.

The next year I sought out and met my second biggest living hero — Ken Kesey.  That's one of the main subjects of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac." We became friends on that '82 Adventure and stayed in touch for the rest of his life.

Right after that pivotal summer I became good friends with Kerouac's first wife, Edie, and her & Jack's best pal, Henri Cru, who lived just a couple blocks from me in Greenwich Village.

This ties back to the "fun" I was referring to earlier — that both of these two were just riots to be with. Henri Cru had this deadpan humor to die for — with the greatest laugh in the world — as Jack described him in On The Road. And now here I was sitting with Remi Boncoeur! We became besties because we could both make the other laugh like crazy. On his big 70th birthday I was one of only six close friends he invited to his party.

And then Edie!  Good Lord! Again, exactly like Jack described her — she would change any room she walked into. Outgoing, funny, in control, callin' the shots, pouring the drinks, talking to 3 people at once. The female Neal. And again — I'm hanging with the real people who were the characters in my favorite books! Not only is that the buzz of a lifetime, but it was a lifelong buzz that charged my battery and I'm still running off it.

Then becoming friends with Carolyn, John and Jami Cassady! And how that grew into sorta family. And then all the Beat connections fall away, and you don't see each other as anything but loved ones.

So — there's a rainbow arc from Business Bill to Brother John.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Never met the man, but Joseph Campbell said, "Follow your bliss," and that's about as good a three words as you're gonna get.

Jack said in his Belief & Technique for Modern Prose, "Be in love with your life." 

My mother always asked me, "What did you do today to further your goals?"

She also taught me to say nice things to people. Life is too hard, and giving a compliment is so easy and should always be done whenever you think of one.

Ken Kesey told me when I first met him to honor my parents as long as they're alive (quoted in detail in my book) — and I followed his advice from that point forward.

My grade 7 teacher pulled me aside one afternoon and told me I could write really well. I didn't know what in the hell that meant. But he told me it would be very useful and play an important part in my success in life in the future. And that part I got. When you're a kid, the whole adult world seems like such a mystery. And I knew in this moment some important lesson was being imparted — some secret shared. He was giving me a clue. This is what you can do. This is the way you're going to fit into the picture. And from that point on I paid particular attention to writers and writing, including my own.

"Reading Jack's passion for The Road and for other loveable misfits, I saw that this approach to life had gone back decades and people were capturing long ago exactly what I was feeling in the 1970s present." (Photo: Brian Hassett on stage at The Beat Shindig in San Francisco, June 2015)

What do you miss most nowadays from the Beat movement?  How has the world changed most since those days?

I miss the people — being able to hang with them — but The Spirit is still alive.

I miss the old cafes and bars, but there's still some around.

I don't miss much else — because everything's better now.

The world around me here in North America treats women, gays, blacks, pot smokers & other offBeat Pranksters a whole lot better than it did back then.

And ... instant communication and the way we're all connected now . . .

Social media is a very Beat thing — it's confessional, ranting, sharing, flirting, riffing, frantic, smart, vivid — it's sort of a cyber manifestation of The Gaslight or its upstairs neighbor The Kettle of Fish. Never thought of that before but — Facebook is like one big Beat poetry reading run amok.

As they were prone to do.

If you could change one thing in the Beat movement and rock n’ roll culture what would that be?

Beat movement — put On The Road on every high school curriculum in the world.

Rock n roll culture — outlaw the concert ticket extortion corporations.

What has made you laugh and what's touched you (emotionally) from Jack Kerouac’s trips and experiences?

Vanity of Duluoz makes me laugh the most — and it was the last book he wrote. He was in a pretty loose state and riffin' n goofin' and being playful and silly at times. I can hear him giggling in the background as he wrote some of those lines late at night.

The most touching was the way his heart loved the world. He may have been a tormented flawed human, but he had "tender heart" as Allen phrased it. An ever-present love of all. That touched me. And I've been a little touched ever since.

"Beat movement — put On The Road on every high school curriculum in the world. Rock n roll culture — outlaw the concert ticket extortion corporations." (Photo: David Amram, Jami Cassady-Ratto, Big Ed Dunkel, Levi Asher and Brian Hassett, San Francisco, CA 2015)

What is the impact of the Beat movement on music and other racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Besides what we already riffed, . . . how 'bout rapping poetry to a Beat . . . heard any of that in the last 30 years?

In North America we currently have a black President and a bilingual Prime Minister who were both elected to lead their countries in their 40s, both admitted pot smokers, both environmentalists, both not phonies, both cool cats who coulda hung in any Beat scene past or present.

But Michael McClure gives a way better answer to this question than I ever could in our talk in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac."

What are the lines that connect the Beats to counterculture / avant-garde culture?

In the counterculture at large it's the idea of independence — thinking for yourself  — expressing yourself — being yourself — in a long line from Neal & Allen to flower children to green hair to sex changes to hugely popular stoner films.

I don't know who's avant-garde this week, but most of them in film or photography will cite Robert Frank as an influence on what they do, and a goodly percentage of the prose writers will cite either Burroughs or Jack, and all the performance poets know where their Beat comes from, and the cutting-edge jazz Jack championed is now being played at Kennedy and Lincoln Centers.  So it's kinda everywhere.

Here's one for ya — I like to think Jack invented the first word processor. The whole problem with typing as we used to know it was that we had to stop and change pages all the time. Kerouac invented the first writing system — "the scroll" — that allowed the artist to go into a trance and never have to stop. Just as we can all do today. Little known fact you'll rarely find in computer history books.

What is the moment that changed your life the most?

This is vividly described in the opening chapter of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac" — walking into a bookstore in Vancouver Canada in the summer of 1982 and seeing the poster for the Jack Kerouac On The Road Conference — "Partially funded by The Grateful Dead."

Changed everything. Took a whole book to tell it.

"'Beat' is a state of mind. Sure, there were the founding fathers of the movement so named, but I'm Beat. I can meet a 20 year old kid today who's never read one of their books and he or she could be Beat. It's like the Merry Pranksters say of one another — we just recognize each other."

Do you have a dream project you'd most like to accomplish?

I'd wanna make movies. I can shoot stuff, edit in iMovie, and post to YouTube. But I'd like to get way better at it. I'm all about storytelling — be it an Adventure book, a poem, a song, verbally in person, in an interview . . . or a movie!  Other than books, that's the storyteller's medium. If I have time, that's what I'd like to get to before this movie's over.

Let’s take a trip in a time machine — where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

For the obvious reasons . . .

— Saturday or Sunday at Woodstock in '69.

— In Abbey Road Studios during an all-day session with The Beatles circa 1966 to 1969.  Or maybe at Apple the day they did the rooftop concert.

— At the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco in 1955.

— In Jack's apartment on 20th Street in New York the day he finished On The Road on the scroll in 1951.

— Any night at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem with Bird and Dizz going at each other brass-to-brass on the bandstand.

And if the time machine also gave me the ability to understand the local language at the time . . .

— Hang with Michelangelo the day he put his tools down and realized David was finished.

— Or follow Jesus around in his prime to get more of a sense of what that cat was really like.

Keep on rockin' in the free world!

Brian Hassett - Official website

Photo: Brian Hassett at Adventure Travel Office in 2015

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