The 2014 Kerouac Literary Festival
came alive with the sounds of singer-guitarist Jolie Holland and her band providing the musical accompaniment to rarely seen Andy Warhol silent films, including one featuring Kerouac. Holland’s recent performance set a perfect tone to celebrate Kerouac and Warhol, two American artists who believed in letting things happen spontaneously.
“It’s so fun to play to this footage,” said singer-guitarist Holland as Warhol’s black-and-white film “Kiss” flickered on a huge screen behind her at Mill No. 5’s Luna Theater in downtown Lowell. “We didn’t plan any of this.”
The free event drew more than 125 people, “students, professors, parents, kids, and many others,” according to Assoc. Prof. Michael Millner, director of the University’s Jack and Stella Kerouac Center. The event was born when Millner was discussing this year’s literary festival with English department colleague Todd Tietchen. The discussion wandered into pop art giant Warhol’s apparent fascination with Kerouac and his Beat brethren. Kerouac shows up restless and smoking in Warhol’s film “Couch,” one of Warhol’s rarely seen silent films.
“Todd noted that this was a very under-studied area of the much-studied Warhol,” notes Millner.
The Oct. 10 multimedia performance connected Kerouac’s literary and cultural legacy to Warhol’s 1960s avant-garde pop art and Holland’s brand of contemporary Americana.
“The Warhol films can be challenging yet at the same time I think they are fascinating,” said Millner. “Seeing the films with Jolie Holland’s wonderfully loud and jagged band made them more accessible. Holland took the studied emotional coolness of Warhol and exploded it.”
The Kerouac Literary Festival, which coincides with the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival, is presented every two years thanks to the university and its Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for the Public Humanities.
Warhol’s silent films, though rarely shown, were available through the Museum of Modern Art and the Warhol Museum, but what to do with them? Bringing the films to Lowell was a “real coup,” says Millner. The next consideration was how to show the movies in an appropriate light.
Live music would be perfect, they thought, noting that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground used to perform with Warhol’s films as backdrop.
Who to ask?
“We came up with Holland,” notes Millner. Her most recent stuff is Velvets-tinged and she is clearly influenced by Kerouac and the Beats.” She accepted, linking three generations of cultural interaction and influence, notes Millner. “Beats-Warhol-Holland.”
The recently opened Luna Theater, an independent film venue on the fourth floor of the Mill No. 5 complex, seemed an ideal site for such an event, so it was booked.
Grants from the Lowell Cultural Council and Massachusetts Cultural Council supported bringing the films to Lowell. John Sampas and the estate of Jack Kerouac also support the festival, which features readings, talks and lectures by a variety of leading writers and poets throughout the month of October.