The memories were painful, joyous, studied, spontaneous, drunken, analytical, grudging and grateful as up to 2,000 people gathered here starting Friday for the various symposiums, writing workshops, films, art exhibits and readings to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's most famous novel, "On the Road."
Kerouac died an alcoholic in 1969, having disavowed much of the social turmoil that he is credited with inspiring as a father and namer of "The Beat Generation."
Nonetheless, his peers and heirs began this week-long conference on his life and work with gratitude.
"This generation changed the social values of America--without wanting to," said Father Albert Huerta, a literature professor about to leave for Rio de Janeiro to teach a course in contemporary American authours at Catholic University there.
Said Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal Cassady, who inspired the madly peripatetic Dean Moriarty in "On the Road," "my 7-year-old grandson said the other day, 'My grandma is famous!' "
Said poet Allen Ginsberg, a fellow founder of the beat generation and prime organizer of the conference, "One tone in Kerouac's life and work that makes sense to everybody is tenderheart: art, heart, tenderness." Other beat-generation alumni and literati from the '40s and '50s included novelists William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, poets Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky and Jack Michelin, publisher Jay Landesman, former thief, street-wise hustler and writer Herbert Hunke, Kerouac biographer Ann Charters, former wife Frankie Edie Kerouac Parker and others who knew and admired this author of 19 books.
In the open and celebratory style the beats became famous and often reviled for, Ginsberg advised the opening night audience to "have fun . . . enjoy drinking, enjoy your psychedelics if you have any, your meditation . . . "
But the original beats seemed models of moderation next to some of their celebrity heirs. Psychedelic guru Dr. Timothy Leary announced that science was on the brink of curing death. "Get that one out of your appointment book," said Abby Hoffman, an activist most noted recently for being a fugitive after an arrest for cocaine dealing and then surrendering to Barbara Walters on national television. He evoked nostalgia in some for the 1960s with a shouting, fist-waving attack on the Protestant work ethic and people who live in "split-level houses" and have "4.2 children."
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist who heads the Naropa Institute which sponsored the gathering and claims 20,000 followers worldwide, had to be helped onto the stage for his sometimes incoherent ramble in which he predicted there would be no nuclear war.
"He'd been drinking," said a public relations spokeswoman for Naropa. "It's part of his lineage, the crazy wisdom school of Buddhism."