Desolate Angel

Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, And America


By Dennis McNally

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“A blockbuster of a biography . . . absolutely magnificent.”–San Francisco Chronicle

Jack Kerouac–“King of the Beats,” unwitting catalyst for the ’60s counterculture, groundbreaking author–was a complex and compelling man: a star athlete with a literary bent; a spontaneous writer vilified by the New Critics but adored by a large, youthful readership; a devout Catholic but aspiring Buddhist; a lover of freedom plagued by crippling alcoholism.

Desolate Angel follows Kerouac from his childhood in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, to his early years at Columbia where he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, beginning a four-way friendship that would become a sociointellectual legend. In rich detail and with sensitivity, Dennis McNally recounts Kerouac’s frenetic cross-country journeys, his experiments with drugs and sexuality, his travels to Mexico and Tangier, the sudden fame that followed the publication of On the Road, the years of literary triumph, and the final near-decade of frustration and depression.

Desolate Angel is a harrowing, compassionate portrait of a man and an artist set in an extraordinary social context. The metamorphosis of America from the Great Depression to the Kennedy administration is not merely the backdrop for Kerouac’s life but is revealed to be an essential element of his art . . . for Kerouac was above all a witness to his exceptional times.


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Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

City Lights Books: Excerpt from Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. Copyright© 1961 by Allen Ginsberg. Excerpt from Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. Copyright© 1956, 1959 by Allen Ginsberg. Excerpt from The Yage Letters by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Copyright© 1963 by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Excerpt from Mishaps, Perhaps by Carl Solomon. Copyright© 1966 by Carl Solomon. Excerpt from Scattered Poems by Jack Kerouac. Copyright© 1970, 1971 by The Estate of Jack Kerouac. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.

Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.: Excerpt from Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac. Copyright© 1960, 1965 by Jack Kerouac. Excerpt from Vanity of Dulouz by Jack Kerouac. Copyright© 1968 by Jack Kerouac.

E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.: Excerpt from Nothing More to Declare by John C. Holmes. Copyright© 1967 by John C. Holmes. Reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton.

Dwarf Music: Excerpt from “Absolutely Sweet Marie” by Bob Dylan. Copyright© 1966 by Dwarf Music. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Grove Press, Inc.: Excerpts from Mexico City Blues and The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.: Excerpts from The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac are reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Copyright© 1950 by Jack Kerouac. Copyright renewed 1978 by Stella S. Kerouac.

Sterling Lord Agency: Excerpts from Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac. Copyright© 1962 by Jack Kerouac. Reprinted by permission of the Sterling Lord Agency. Excerpt from “The Origins of the Beat Generation” by Jack Kerouac, copyright© 1959 by Jack Kerouac, which appeared in the June 1959 edition of Playboy. Reprinted with the permission of the Sterling Lord Agency.

The Lowell Sun: Excerpts from the Lowell Sun granted by permission.

McGraw-Hill Book Company: Excerpt from Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac. Copyright© 1972 by Jack Kerouac. Used with permission of McGraw-Hill Book Company.

New Directions Publishing Corp.: Excerpt from The Back Country by Gary Snyder. Copyright© 1968 by Gary Snyder. Excerpt from Regarding Wave by Gary Snyder. Copyright© 1970 by Gary Snyder. Excerpt from Elegaic Feelings by Gregory Corso. Copyright© 1970 by Gregory Corso. Excerpt from letter of February 27, 1952, from William Carlos Williams to Allen Ginsberg, published by permission New Directions, Agents for the Estate of Florence H. Williams. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

New York Post: Excerpts from “Mike Wallace Asks Jack Kerouac What Is the Beat Generation” and Alfred G. Aronowitz, “Saint Jack.” Reprinted by permission of the New York Post. Copyright © 1958, 1959 by New York Post Corporation.

Charles Peter Olson: Excerpt from “I Maximus of Gloucester, To You” by Charles Olson, from The New American Poetry.

Totem Press in association with Corinth Books: Excerpt from The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. Copyright© 1960 by Jack Kerouac.

The Viking Press, Inc.: Excerpt from On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Copyright © 1955, 1957 by Jack Kerouac. Reprinted by permission of The Viking Press.

The Village Voice: Excerpt from Jerry Talmer, “Back to the Village-But Still On the Road,” reprinted by permission of the Village Voice. Copyright© 1957

The Village Voice, Inc.

Washington Post: Excerpt from Jack Kerouac, “After Me, the Deluge.” Copyright © The Washington Post.

The excerpt from “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” is Copyright 1958 by the Partisan Review.

Acknowledgment is also made to the following individuals and libraries for permission to print previously unpublished materials:

Alan Ansen: Excerpts from passages by Alan Ansen granted by permission of the copyright holder, Alan Ansen.

Alfred G. Aronowitz: Material from the unpublished manuscript, The Beat Book, reprinted by permission of AI Aronowitz.

Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley: Excerpts from the letters of Donald Allen and Gregory Corso are quoted by permission of the Bancroft Library.

Butler Library, Columbia University, New York: Excerpts from the letters of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg are quoted with permission of the authors and Butler Library.

Carolyn Cassady: Material from the unpublished manuscript, The Third World, is quoted by permission of the author, Carolyn Cassady.

John C. Holmes: Excerpts from the letters of John C. Holmes are quoted by permission of the author.

Humanities Research Center: University of Texas at Austin.

Michael McClure: A previously unpublished poem is reprinted by permission of the author.


History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

—Hunter Thompson

Though Thompson’s comments were meant for another era, they seem to apply as well to the activities of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John C. Holmes, and William S. Burroughs—the members of the so-called “Beat Generation.” This small group of writers and poets created a body of profoundly significant art that deserves study if only for aesthetic reasons. But even more to the point of this work, their art and their lives are dramatic reflections of the historical changes of the United States in the period following World War II, and it is to that end that I undertook this labor, working more as an historian than as a literary critic.

The truth of a book entails far more than the accurate rendition of facts; I do not think it is a breach of my respect for scholastic accuracy to acknowledge that I regard these alienated American prophets as my spiritual and intellectual ancestors. In a world that faces a potential ecological and spiritual apocalypse, I respectfully submit that the legend of these psychic pioneers is necessary in order that we might understand our present reality. Within my personal limits, I have attempted to act as a channel for something very like wisdom.

This work has spanned madness and death and love, and ineradicably altered my life. Quite often, I gained most not from what I read, however illuminating, but from the people I met.

I enjoy saying thank you, and after six years, the time has come at last. Christopher Byrnes, a student of Jack Kerouac before me, suggested this book. Henry Hays Crimmel, my St. Lawrence University professor of philosophy and the greatest teacher I have ever known, introduced me to the rigors of serious intellectual inquiry. His St. Lawrence colleagues Robert B. Carlisle, Jack Culpepper, Jonathan G. Rossie, and Robert S. Schwartz nourished my interest in the study of history.

At the University of Massachusetts, Mrs. Ann Langevin, the custodian of Herter Hall, fed me cake, tea, and sympathy, in the late and difficult hours of research. Mrs. Paula Mark made that university’s library work for me. Philip Swenson, Jules Chametzky, and especially Bob Griffith read this manuscript and added considerably to it.

A book about a wanderer requires travel. On the road I encountered a plethora of generous people—friends of Kerouac even when they did not know him—who made my work possible. In Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Greg Zahos introduced me to the world of Nicky’s Café, and Jay Pendergast got me drunk enough to understand the vortex that is that eerie village. Above all, Tony Sampas made a thousand things possible, and I am endlessly indebted to him. Tony is a good person, one of the finest men I will ever know, and having his friendship is one of this project’s greatest benisons.

In New York City I met Lucien Carr, another very special man, and Alfred G. Aronowitz, with whom I was to work for three years, in the process learning something of how to write. The Columbia University Archives are managed by Mimi Bowling and Henry Rosen, and I bless them. During my visits to the city, I stayed with four people who became friends: Ed D’Alessandro, John Hurley, Gerry Mooney, and Steve Buc-cieri. Their hospitality was gracious, unstinting, and crucial to this project. Last of all in Manhattan I found Marshall Clements, in many ways Kerouac’s greatest guardian, and another man I am honored to call friend. In San Francisco I was made a guest of Travis and Bobbi Absher, truly kind hosts.

Two of Kerouac’s most intimate comrades have enriched me beyond measure with loving fellowship, gentle criticism, and unfailing generosity: John Clellon Holmes and Carolyn Cassady. It is perhaps their love for Kerouac and their own beauty that taught me most of the man.

My extended family of friends and loved ones cherished me through the hard times and forced me to a higher and clearer perspective: Ed and Corinna Smith, who fed me and gave me refuge when I most needed it; my sister Maggie McNally, who loved me when I didn’t deserve it; Jack Murphy, Suzanne Wilson, Kathy Berson, and Kate Carlson of Amherst; Georgie Feltz of Berkeley, who helped in the crunch; my road companion Jeff “Bear” Briss; my dear friends Sarah Grambs, Joe Poplaski, Meredith Manning, and Joe Cotter; Mary Carmen Driscoll, who taught me how to love; my brother Robert E. Stokes—no man ever had a finer one; my sister Eileen Geoghegan, who is an artist of life and perception.

Stephen B. Oates accepted an unusual topic with the encouragement I needed, endured my misplaced modifiers and multiple gerunds with charitable patience, gave me the freedom I needed, and made, all-in-all, this work possible. My agent Robert Lescher guided me and this work through the thickets of Manhattan commerce, and Kathy Matthews of Random House applied the last, crucial editing that has I hope focused my often prolix vision.

This book is dedicated to my three parents: my late mother, Mrs. Adeline Jacobson McNally, my late father, Reverend John FJ McNally Jr., and my mother, Mrs. Gertrude Homans McNally.

To all of you, living and dead: L’chaim.


In the Shadow of a Crucifix

CAUGHT BETWEEN the plain and the hills, the Merrimack River bends to create a vortex at Lowell, Massachusetts, a swirling center that draws in human experience the way a crystal focuses light. The water, rushing over the rocks generates simple physical energy, and factory-building Americans came to exploit that energy. But the great liquid arc inscribed below the falls made it a magic place long before the Yankee industrialists arrived. The falls are somehow a center, a place where human experience is intensified in ways beyond the ken of ordinary understanding. And it is a dark place. Near those falls, Henry David Thoreau was moved to exclaim, “If it is not a tragical life we live, then I know not what to call it.” The river is the source, both of the subtleties of mood and perception, and the grosser realities of labor and commerce.

Francis Cabot Lowell understood the river’s power, and cut its curve with a canal and a dam, creating the first industrial town in America, home to dozens of grimy red-brick shoe and textile mills. Long rows of cheap wooden boardinghouses surrounded the red-brick core, sheltering the thousands of workers who fled the boredom of their Vermont and New Hampshire farms for the opportunities of industry. But the tenements were houses, not homes, and that was one of the things that marked Lowell as different; from the beginning, it was a place for the alienated, those disjuncted from a rooted past.

First came Yankee farm women, then hungry refugees from Ireland, then late in the nineteenth century equally ravenous Greeks. But the largest group of immigrants came not by sea but by land, drifting from the frigidly hardscrabble farms of Quebec through the small towns above Lowell before reaching the factories on the Merrimack. One of those towns was Nashua, New Hampshire, and two of those immigrants were Leo Alcide and Gabrielle Levesque Kerouac.

Born in Canada, both Leo and Gabrielle grew up in Nashua, a town which down to its pink suspenders, straw boater hats, and popcorn stands, resembled nothing so much as a Norman Rockwell painting. Daughter of a mill worker who had prospered to the point of owning a small tavern, Gabrielle was orphaned at fourteen and forced into the lonely servitude of New England factory life. She went to work at the local shoe shop, earning along with her wages the permanently blackened fingertips of a skiving machine operator. Short and pudgy, she had rosy-red cheeks and glossy black hair that was usually caught back in a colorful ribbon. Though Mémêre—Gabrielle’s lifelong Québécois nickname—maintained an attractive and serene presence, there was a bitter mass of hurt behind the constant smile and sunny disposition; marriage and family had rescued her from total dependence on the shop, but the long years of dreary work had left her with a gnawing, frustrated desire for higher social standing.

Leo was a squat but muscular man, stood five foot seven and weighed two hundred pounds. A soft beer belly falling over his belt marked him as a typical aging athlete. An insurance salesman, he was a card-playing, whiskey-drinking “man’s man,” jovial and virile, with a great booming laugh, huge gnarled hands, a thick and muscular neck, and a bulbous—and indubitably French—nose. He shared with his wife an easy disposition for both misty-eyed sentimentality and laughter, but his eyes, though the same bright blue as Gabrielle’s, were more striking, perhaps because of his almost solid black bar of eyebrow. It was usually in motion, and when he was startled, it bounced in accent to his surprise, along with the Old Gold cigarette he tucked into one corner of his broad mouth.

It was a strong and happy marriage, and by 1922 they had two children: pretty three-year-old Caroline (“Nin”), and five-year-old Gerard, a pale, sickly victim of rheumatic fever.

On March 12, 1922, Gabrielle gave birth to her third and last child, Jean Louis Kerouac. It was a propitious day to begin a life. A thaw had mellowed the long Lowell winter; the air was soft, and the crusty snowdrifts were beginning to vanish. Secure in her experience, she elected to have this child at home, in their apartment at 9 Lupine Road. Throughout the afternoon she had twisted on the big brass bed underneath the crucifix; at 5 P.M., as a red sun set and the factories emptied out, Gabrielle gave birth to a fat baby boy.

By the time Jean was three, 9 Lupine Road was not big enough for the Kerouacs. It was only the bottom floor of a traditional shingled New England wooden double-decker, and the porches looked straight out on the street, for there was no yard. Besides, Leo was prospering; the year after the birth of his second son, he had opened his own business, a print shop that did job work and published The Lowell Spotlight, a small circular which featured theatrical and political news.

They moved first to a small white cottage at 35 Burnaby Street. Quiet and shady, it was a good place to raise children, but problems with the landlord forced another move that year, this time to 34 Beaulieu Street. While not so bucolic, the new location did eliminate the long walk to school Nin and Gerard had faced. St. Louis parochial school was now only one block away, and in fact they could see the rear of the new school building from their upstairs window.

Beaulieu Street was a rich setting for Jack’s childhood. Though open space was minimal, and the identical two-story frame houses loomed straight out on the street, it was a lively block, a true neighborhood full of talkative people. Sitting on his front steps; Jean could turn left and see the Greenalgh Public School at the end of the block. To his right lay West 6th Street, with stores, bars, a lumberyard, and a firehouse. St. Louis Parish covered the next block over with its school buildings, convent, rectory, and the church itself. Beyond lay fields and a brook.

Centered around warm family suppers, the uproarious entertainment of Papa Leo’s animal noises, and Mémêre’s bedtime stories, Jean’s early years were affectionate and secure. But the peace of the Kerouacs was not to last. Always frail, Gerard began to die a slow, painful death from rheumatic fever.

Now nine, he had weakened dramatically, staying home from school more and more. Years later, Jean remembered his own satisfaction at this turn of events, for now his heroic big brother was free to perch in his sickbed and entertain Jean with animal sketches and Erector set toys. Gerard was more than a young Leonardo da Vinci to his disciple; he was St. Francis of Assisi as well, gifted with an almost supernaturally tender love for all living creatures. Jean’s memory of the time that Gerard saved a mouse from a trap by the local fish store was like a saint’s lesson to the younger boy, an epiphany of virtue that exposed the crude insensitivity of the men spitting and talking on the corner. When St. Gerard followed in St. Francis’ path by spreading crumbs on the window sill and calling to the sparrows, Jean pressed closer to his brother, idolizing him.

But saints are difficult to live next to, day by day. Forced into docile sweetness by his health, Gerard set an impossible standard of behavior for his normal and rambunctious younger brother. Jean could worship his senior as a saint, but he was much too energetically healthy to emulate him, as Mémêre regularly pointed out. Gerard wasted away, his body growing pale and light, almost ghostly; Jean’s robust vitality seemed nearly criminal in contrast.

The house grew quiet. Nin no longer brought her friends home, and their parents’ spirited parties ceased. The family drew together, watching the child suffer. In December of 1925, Gerard came home for the last time. He stayed in bed with swollen legs and tortured lungs. Increasingly, as Jean lay in the big crib on his side of the room, haunting sounds would cut through the darkness. First the sound of Gerard’s breathing; the rasp would grow louder into panting gurgles that ended in a frightening choke. Then Gerard would awaken, and Jean could hear the tears of a Catholic boy who had absolved himself before God. “Why do I hurt?” Gerard whimpered. “I confessed.” As the months passed, the whimpers became shrieks, the sobs screams of agony. Always, Mémêre would scurry in, clad in her old brown bathrobe, and hold her child to her body.

Nothing helped. Jean borrowed Nin’s holy pictures and spread them around Gerard’s bed, but it did no good. The constant visits of the parish priest and Gerard’s teacher-nuns gave authority to Jean’s private certainty that his brother was a saint, but the visits could not save him, and after all the pain, on July 8, 1926, Gerard finally died. Jean was happy, for he knew that “my brother’s gone away to heaven now.”

The little boy was wrong; Gerard never really left at all. It was far more than his portrait on the mantel that haunted the Kerouacs. Their shared misery had been too intense, the blade had cut too deeply, had left wounds that would never truly heal. Leo stopped going to Mass, and took a special pleasure in the scandalous habit of eating hamburgers on Friday. The nervous strain had robbed him of his faith; it snatched the very teeth out of Mémêre’s mouth, and every clack of her dentures served to remind her of their loss. Her desperate frustration spilled over acidlike onto her remaining son. For the rest of Jean’s childhood, tales of Gerard’s goodness would be the staple of Mémêre’s lessons in behavior, lessons that reminded him endlessly of his inferiority and suggested that he was somehow responsible for his brother’s death. Gerard the first-born, Gerard the hero, Gerard the saint; Jean and his family could never forget him. Thirty years later, Jean would write, “there’s no doubt in my mind that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”

From this time on, Jean, later Jacky, then Jack, could never quite see pragmatic adult gradations of gray but only black and white, absolutes of good and evil born of deepest psychic hurt. His glimpse into the abyss that was Gerard’s grave had filled his mind with an apocalyptic sense of life and death, and especially of good and evil. Somehow he felt torn between the moral poles. He tried to be his pure brother, and acquired a neighborhood reputation as an eccentric when he prevented his friends from torturing animals, especially kittens, which in his mind had become reminders of Gerard. His imitation failed to quiet his fears. Night after night, the darkness overcame Jean and he fell into the comforting brown warmth of Mémêre’s bathrobe as Gerard had, but it was mental rather than physical pain that drove him.

The Kerouacs soon moved to 320 Hildreth Street. Ironically, their nearest neighbors included a funeral home on one side and a cemetery on the other. There the first edge of grief dulled; Papa came home in the evening and roared, Mémêre told her stories. Bereft of his brother’s entertainment, Jean was forced to play alone. Through most of his childhood, he would create his own games and his own world.

As he grew a little older, he emerged into the excitement of his father’s world. He and Nin even went out to the movies at the Royal Theater. Leo’s Spotlight Press printed the Royal’s tickets, and some of them went free to Leo Kerouac’s children. Armed with their passes, Nin and Jean would leave their home in Centralville on the east bank of the river, cross the Merrimack into “Little Canada,” and walk down the town’s main avenue into a pink-and-gilt neo-Moorish crystal palace.

In the darkness of the theater, Jean found a reality of the imagination that was free of the strictures of Lowell. Sagebrush and sand, white hats and Colt .45’s, tin lizzies, telephones, and raging stallions; they had passed through the screen into the wonderful world of Hoot Gibson, where Tom Mix incarnated virtue and always emerged victorious. For years Jean stalked his neighborhood mentally armed and ready for Bad Bart or any other desperado.

Sometimes the whole family would benefit from another Spotlight customer, and visit B. F. Keith’s vaudeville theater. Backstage Leo played poker and swigged illegal whiskey with W. C. Fields and other glamorous showpeople, while Jean sat in the audience and fell in love with silent Harpo Marx.

Halfway between the two theaters on Merrimack Street lay the Lowell Public Library. Though its limestone steps and dark mahogany woodwork were not as entrancing as the magic lights and curtains of the shows, the library rapidly assumed equal importance to him. Downstairs the children’s room held delights like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Bobbsey Twins, and for more serious moments, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. It would always be one of his homes.

Though movies and the library stimulated his mind, he had encountered something richer still—the terrible holy majesty of the Roman Catholic Church. Born under the sorrow of the crucifix, his earliest memories the black rustling skirts of the nuns visiting Gerard, Jean was destined to be an initiate of the Church’s mysteries. Extraordinarily sensitized by Gerard’s death, Jean approached the Church with an intensity unusual in his time and place. As he described it twenty-five years later, he had had a vision.

Glowing with some horrible phosphorescent light, Christ or the Virgin Mary had pushed at the foot of his bed one otherwise calm Saturday night. There was no sound; the words froze in his throat. Later that evening he saw a more pleasant spirit, a Santa Claus elf, slam his door. There was no wind, and this time he was able to call out to Mémêre, “Qui a farmé ma porte? (Who slammed my door?)” Peacefully scrubbing Nin’s back in the tub, Mémêre answered with cheery ignorance, “Parsonnes voyons donc.” He told no one. It became merely another twist of guilty confusion turning in his brain, a powerful reminder, as he later put it, that “I was haunted.”

The Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary did not serve the Lord in so dramatic a fashion. In September 1928, Jean had followed in Gerard’s footsteps and begun to attend St. Louis parochial school. Loving as she may have been, the Sister, like the later Brothers, looked to the nervous Jean like a “great big black angel with huge fluttering wings.” Pale and almost wrinkle-free, she was as distant as the chalice upon the altar, as untouchable as the Communion wafers offered by the priest.

A good and happy student who never missed a day, Jean quickly learned the first lesson of the nuns: obedience to authority. Submission was exacted by inexorably swift and painful raps on the knuckles with heavy metal-edged rulers. Hovering about their charges in their flowing habits, the nuns reinforced Jean’s morbid self-accusations of sinfulness with grim lectures on purgatory and an infinity of sins. In so doing, they initiated him into the ancient cult of the virgin-whore, the notion that women were either good—like Mémêre, like the Sisters—or evil. In later years, the cult would entrap him; any woman who could associate with so sinful a man as he must indeed be a whore.

All of this seemed ordinary enough to young Jean, and neither the discipline nor the work differed very greatly from the program at the Greenalgh Public School around the corner. One book and one hour of the day made the crucial difference. At the daily religious hour, the Sister handed Jean the most important book of his young life, The Baltimore Catechism.

Jean’s eyes fell first on the “lamby gray strangeness” of Boucher’s engravings, but soon enough he began to memorize the words, absorbing the meaning without conscious effort. He learned of God, sin, and penance, and of the magnificent crashing rhythm of the Apostle’s Creed, the poetic summing up of the Christian faith.


On Sale
Mar 24, 2020
Page Count
416 pages
Hachette Books

Dennis McNally

About the Author

Dennis McNally is an author, historian, and music publicist. His books include On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation & America. He lives in San Francisco.

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