Jack Kerouac at 100: How a heady cocktail of trauma, faith and rotgut wine made a literary legend

David Amram started collaborating with Jack Kerouac before he even knew his name. The celebrated composer first met the novelist in 1956 at an artist’s party in Manhattan. “This guy came up to me in a red and black chequered shirt, looking like a French-Canadian lumberjack,” remembers Amram, now 91, from his New York home, which is littered with souvenirs of an illustrious career spent making music with everyone from Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie to Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. “He said: ‘I’m gonna read, you play.’” Amram took out his French horn and penny whistle and set about accompanying the stranger’s performance. “I just closed my eyes and listened to him,” he recalls. “I had no idea what he was going to do, and it was magical. I’m hesitant to use the phrase ‘ESP’, but not hesitant enough not to use it! That’s the best way to describe what it was like to get the feeling you’d known somebody your whole life, and that they were talking right to you and making sense.”

Afterwards, Amram still didn’t get an introduction. “He ran off to go dance with some fine young woman,” he says with a chuckle. “We were all out there flirting and drinking and having a good time.” It was only when they bumped into each other again at another party a couple of weeks later that Amram learnt Kerouac’s name, and that he was an author whose first major work, the 1950 novel The Town and the City had been published to a chorus of widespread indifference. That all changed in 1957 with the publication of his second book: On The Road.

A poetic and profound account of his years traversing America, often in the company of his irrepressible friend and inspiration Neal Cassady, On The Road made Kerouac a celebrity overnight. Its runaway success helped him to publish another dozen novels before he drank himself to death in 1969, at the age of 47, but he never enjoyed his sudden fame. “Most of the time, he was very quiet and very shy,” says Amram. “That’s one reason he used to drink, so that he could anaesthetise himself enough to be comfortable with people.”

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