Still Seeking Out ‘the Mad Ones’
LOWELL -- For many fans of Jack Kerouac, it’s one line in “On the Road” that made them fall in love with the Beat Generation writer.
It changed Brian Hassett’s life forever when he read the novel for the first time at age 15.
“Seven or 10 pages into it, you get to that line: ‘The only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones that are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved’... you get to a line like that and you’re like, that guy’s describing my life and my friends,” Hassett said.
A few years later, in his early 20s, Hassett found himself surrounded by Kerouac’s contemporaries: William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ken Kesey and others, at a 1982 Jack Kerouac conference in Boulder, Colorado.
“It was sort of like following your dreams to the living rooms of your heroes,” Hassett said, “Here were all these people, and at the time, they were around 50 years old. So I was meeting these people and it proved that you could live a life of creativity,” Hassett said.
Hassett, 57, is now living that creative life he’d been dreaming of since he was young. After a lifetime of working in the music business, he now lives on Lake Ontario surrounded by his books, with plenty of time to write.
When he speaks over the phone from his home not far from Toronto, he’s about to get back on the road for New York, just before he arrives in Lowell to perform at the 30th annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival.
His dramatized readings of scenes from Kerouac’s novels have become a staple at the festival for the past few years.
The annual festival that celebrates the life and work of Kerouac, who was born in Lowell and often wrote about it in his books, kicks off on Thursday.
This year, the festival will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the publication of Kerouac’s 1958 novel “The Dharma Bums” as well as the 30th anniversary of the Jack Kerouac Commemorative’s dedication.
Hassett knew about the festival since its founding in 1988, but didn’t attend until 2015, after the publication of his first book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac.” After a few open mic readings that year, he found lifelong connections with other Kerouac lovers and became a staple performer at the festival.
“I just fell in with everybody. I keep coming back because I call it ‘the Woodstock of Jack.’ It’s not the casually curious who stroll in; the festival brings people in from all over America and all over the world,” Hassett says. “It would take quite a while to list all the people I’m permanently friends with from all the other (festivals). And it will happen again this time.”
“Nobody can do Kerouac better than Brian,” says Dale Topham (who goes by his prankster name, Gubba), 73, who met Hassett online in 2014 and in person for the first time at the festival last year.
Hassett’s performances, a mix of scripted dramatizations and pure improvisation, capture Kerouac’s wild, untamed spirit and bring him back to life for those few moments in front of a microphone.
Last year, Hassett played Kerouac alongside original Merry Prankster George Walker, who played Neal Cassady, the character named Dean Moriarty in “On the Road.”
“When George was gonna be performing with Brian, I thought, I can’t miss that,” Topham said.
Topham made the trip from his home in Vancouver all the way to Lowell to attend his first festival last year, and is looking forward to doing it again this year for another series of performances by Hassett, this time alongside Neal Cassady’s son John, who will play his father during Hassett’s shows. The two will also recreate scenes from Hassett’s new book, “On the Road with the Cassadys,” which tells stories of Hassett’s adventures with John and the Cassady family. It’s the third in Hassett’s Beat Trilogy.
His new show with John Cassady this year involves a deeper kind of thrill that Hassett hasn’t experienced before: the uncertainty of pure improvisation.
“I’ve been doing shows for 30 years or something, and this is something I have the least idea of what is actually going to happen from the time we say hello and the time we say goodnight,” Hassett said.
Catch Hassett’s shows at Zorba’s Music Hall this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.