Simon Warner: From Beats to Beatles, an Origin Story on Kerouac’s Birthday
Jack Kerouac was born in the Centralville neighborhood in Lowell on March 12, 1922. He pictures his birth in his novel Doctor Sax, one of his “Lowell books.” He would be 101 years old today. His hometown pulled out all the stops last year for a Centennial celebration with a museum exhibit featuring the famous On the Road scroll typescript hosted by the National Park Service, poetry readings, musical performances, walking tours, and more. The streets downtown kept their Kerouac banners through the year and maybe still fly the Kerouac flag. The author’s reach is massive in the form of books in print, college courses, and cultural influence. He’s a household name, quite an accomplishment for a literary figure. Just this week, the daily New York Times crossword puzzle included a clue about him.
Kerouac voyaged to Liverpool in 1943 on a Merchant Marine ship with a cargo of 500-pound bombs for the British air force. When he wrote the novel Vanity of Duluoz about his younger days, Kerouac made a Beatles’ joke, winking about his time on the ground in Liverpool. “The year The Beatles were born there, ha ha ha.” Of course, John, Ringo, and Paul were babies already, and George was due soon. Kerouac wrote portions of the novel while living on Sanders Ave. in the Highlands neighborhood of Lowell where he lived with his wife Stella and ailing mother Gabrielle-Ange.
Of the cultural impacts mentioned above, one is not so well known. Called The King of the Beats, Kerouac and the Beat writers (e.g., Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs) of the 1950s and ’60s had their readers in England. In America, specifically New York City in the 1940s, “beat” was street lingo for being beat down or weary, while in Liverpool “beat” stood for lively music blending early rock, blues, and skiffle (a zippy folk style with basic instruments).
Not long ago, Simon Warner, a scholar of rock-and-roll and Beat literature, made a compelling case for the origin of the name of The Beatles as we know them. Warner is a Visiting Research Fellow in Popular Music Studies in the School of Music, University of Leeds, in England. He has a Substack newsletter about his favorite subjects. In June 2020, he wrote a long article about the source of The Beatles’ band name. They had been the Silver Beetles at one point. A certain young Liverpool poet, Royston Ellis, had a pivotal conversation with John Lennon in 1960. Warner builds a case that Ellis is the key to The Beatles “with an a.”
Here’s the link to the article from website of the Beat Museum in San Francisco.
Thanks to Simon Warner and Beat Museum guy Jerry Cimino for airing this origin story in the first place. We offer it on Kerouac’s birthday as a small Lowell present. — PM
See John Lennon’s quirky take on the name change from 1961 in the Mersey Beat music tabloid. Flaming Pie was a Paul McCartney album of 1997.