A vanishing America? Kerouac memories, a Guthrie symphony and a trip to Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog emporium

In a second missive to C&V, David Amram, prolific composer and writer, reports on his ongoing odyssey, celebrating the surviving Beat traditions and the fading façade of a changing nation

Spring 2005

Dear Chapter&Verse,

This has been a great action-packed month [Editor’s note: October, 2004] with hardly a day off. I did my annual series of events at the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival in Lowell Mass., where I performed with my trio, accompanied scores of other musicians and poets, read from my books, hosted screenings of Pull My Daisy, played at an art show where my caricatures of the era are being shown, and did programs with John Cassady, the son of Jack's road buddy and inspiration for On the Road, Neal Cassady….

I also did a program at U. Mass Lowell, and a bunch of interviews (in three languages) for people from around the World who come every year to this amazing event which also celebrates Kerouac's hometown, where 27 languages are currently spoken.

The old French, Greek and Portuguese communities have been replaced with new immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia. Laos and many countries from Central and South America, and most of the people who were born here still have a strong regional old New England accent that has like so many other regional accents, disappeared throughout so much of the country.

Even the way people dress and relate to one another feel s like a much earlier time, and the stark beauty of the old abandoned red brick mills, the rushing waters of the Merrimack River, and the old wooden frame houses and shops with fading hand written signs in many languages are magical in comparison to most plastic chain store franchised Burger-King-ized miles of monotonous malls that make more and more cities in America all seem like the same place.

Wish you could have been there, to see all the people gathered from all over to celebrate Jack's life and the enduring value of his life's work...the beautiful books he left us.

Back in New York, I performed for the City Island Jazz Festival and then went off for a Bruce Springsteen concert in Orlando, where Clarence Clemons, his great sax player and I are planning some collaborations, and then came back to NY to continue work on my new "SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS ON A THEME BY WOODY GUTHRIE”, I think about him as I wither fly over or drive by the places he wrote about in his songs. Like Kerouac, he embraced America in a way that makes us all open up our eyes and our hearts to the beauty part of this amazing country that still has so much to offer and so much that is overlooked or ignored.

I just returned from a festival in Windber Pennsylvania where I was the guest of honor (Senior-Bopper-at-Large!).  Driving from our farm in New York through the Western Pennsylvania mountains to Windber, Pennsylvania was amazing, with small truck stops with religious signs saying "The Holy Road" posted on small clapboard chapels for truckers to come and pray. It was great to enter the truckstops and watch and talk to the people working there and see the local farmers hanging out, speaking with the same rural accents of my boyhood's farmerly neighbors of 65 years ago in Feasterville Pa. (pop. 200)

Most of the people in the truck stops looked the same as these people from long ago, as if I were in a time machine, going back to late 1930s to 1942.

I spent the first day in Windber giving   concerts, and hosting a screening of Pull My Daisy, the film in which I collaborated with Kerouac in 1959, prior to a marathon 12 hour reading of On the Road the next day, for which I provided some of music, as well as playing between and during the readings with local musicians. I also had a show of my caricatures of everyone from that era.

The festival was held in an abandoned hotel which had been purchased for $10,000 from E-Bay by a wild guy named Blaire Murphy who loves Kerouac's work, and who was our tireless and gracious host. During the one break I had in the two day marathon event in Windber, we went a few miles to eat a celebratory meal with Neal Cassady's son John, at the one place I wanted to take everyone to that I felt would be a transcendental experience.

In the 1960s when my symphonic music was played in Pittsburgh, the more adventurous members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. joined by local jazz players and poets all joined to take me on a ride to eat at Nathan's Coney Island in Johnstown, for a 2am chow-down.

After all those years ago, I still remember feeling like I had visited Johnstown Pennsylvania's equivalent of Mecca, the Taj Mahal or the Vatican....one of the world's Seven Culinary Wonders...Nathan's Coney Island hot-dog emporium in downtown Johnstown, and I never forgot it. I could taste that grease in my sleep to this very day.

I hadn't been there to eat in almost 40 years, but remembered the waitresses bring 12 hot-dogs laid out on their outstretched arm, like some great late-night ballet, with hordes of hungry workers from the nearby mattress factory storming in   for their night shift 2 a.m. lunch break, and some of the wild-eyed old timers who sat in a near catatonic state sipping coffee who I was told were still suffering post-traumatic shock, from the great flood that took place many years before that in Johnstown. which they had survived but from which they never had recovered.

And like an intoxicating perfume, all the subtle variety of various burning grease aromas, intertwining with the smell of spilled beers and used coffee cups with cigarette butts ground out in the bottom of them, and old pie crusts and syrup stains caking the Formica tables, along with the pickle juice, mustard and relish scattered on the tables, chairs and floor, all combined to build up your late night/early morning appetite. No master chef or interior designer could ever construct such a temple of late-night/early-morning chow-downing.

As we drove to Johnstown for our only sightseeing moment of the festival, I told John Cassady and Jerry Cimino, the heroic owner and instigator of the Beatmobile., which he had driven all the way from California, that it was worth the 3,000 mile trip just to eat a meal at Nathan's Coney Island.

I described to them how the fluorescent lights cut through a perpetual light cloud of smoke inside the cafeteria, like a drifting fog.... a haze of onions, peppers, gristle, pork, beef and chicken fats, combined with cigar, cigarette and pipe smoke, all slowly rising the ceiling, which after many decades was encased in various greases, looking like some giant Abstract Expressionist Renaissance Sistine Chapel mural of various greases, caked there over the years, and excuding its own subtle smells, adding to the total ambiance.

When we pulled up to the landmark cafeteria, even though the place was packed, and the doorway and sidewalk outside was jammed with a crazy assortment of Saturday-night Johnstown bon vivants in various states of intoxication, eating hot dogs, fries, hamburgers, fried onions, stale pastries and drinking beer, whiskey, soda and coffee, shouting, arguing, laughing and releasing various exploding sounds of heavy digestion, I could sense that this was a different place from the one I remembered.

I sensed that before entering to eat, that like the family farmers fir whom Willie Nelson and all of us play benefits for each year at Farm Aid, and like so much of what Kerouac chronicled, Nathan's Coney Island in Johnstown Pa. in October of 2004 is now another part of a vanishing America.

The ceiling mural of grease was still there, but the waitresses no longer delivered either the hot dogs or the Sundowners (a terrifying heart-clogger cheeseburger with a greasy fried egg on top of it) on their outstretched arms to the tables.

Nathan's Coney Island was now a regular 24 hour day/night cafeteria, although what looked and smelled like black crankcase-oil where the fries were cooked appeared to be unchanged from the 35 years ago when I last dined there, and for which I later wrote a song called "Greasy Spoon."

I asked the oldest looking person behind the counter what happened to the waitresses serving meals with the hot dogs on their arms.

"The Health Department don't allow it no more. That's what made them hot dogs taste so good for all them years. The bigger the waitress arm, was, the better them dogs tasted. That's all history now. Like the coal miners in Windber. They ain't here no more either.”

"Well, I guess that's progress" I said.

"Tell your friends how it used to be, 'cause it ain't that way no more, and never gonna be," said the man behind the counter. "But we still got the world's best hot-dogs."

After our sojourn of chomping down the quadruple bypass specials, we returned to nearby Windber, and I was asked to read the final pages of On the Road, to end the festival, to be filmed and then intercut with the old video of Jack reading the same passages with Steve Allen playing the piano from the 1958 telecast.

There were people of all ages who attended this event, and it was a heartwarming two days, seeing how much young people love this great book, and the spirit it conveys.

 Now as I write to you, I'm winding up my residency in Denton to Texas, barnstorming the Denton/Dallas area with concerts, workshops, collaborations with dancers, actors, choral groups, writers, poets, composers and then going one hundred miles to conduct performances of "Giants of the Night," the flute concerto which I composed for James Galway, and my "Theme and Variations on Red River Valley' for flute and strings.

We just had a rehearsal with the orchestra for Saturday night's concert in Wichita Falls and to my amazement, they are playing both of my symphonic works incredibly well. It is really fun conducting them, and the flute soloist in my concerto is amazing, so THERE IS HOPE IN THEM THEIR HILLS!!!

I am staying in an old bed and breakfast close to the university here in Denton, and the owner is also a story teller, and it is a step back in time, eating meals with visitors, most of whom are not from Texas. And of course, in between my marathon of activities here, I get to spend time rapping with a small army of people of all ages who are native Texans who have such an amazing bunch of stories, regional accents and a poetic way of expressing themselves, making their down-home Southern-Western everyday conversational speech styles a musical feast to listen to, as they share stories and observations about their lives that are always unpredictable, often humorous and consistently full of energy and special farmerly rural joie de vivre!!

And also I am preparing a collaboration with Willie Nelson for a new CD with him, using idioms from Native American, Latin American, jazz and classical styles. All in addition to doing programs resulting from the release of my new symphonic CD for Naxos records and the Varese-Sarabande release of my 42 year old score for The Manchurian Candidate.

So with all this crazed activity, I won't have any time to get into trouble. My little free time is spent working on my new book, my composing of new orchestral music and trying to answer mail!!!

Jack's work is more appreciated than ever, and the positive energy I see in the faces of young people I encounter every day who are inspired by his work are a constant source of joy, proving the old adage that a thing of beauty IS a joy forever.

I send cheers from that never-ending road, and look forward to our paths crossing soon again.



David Amram
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