Johnny Depp accepts Beat Laureate prize
Haunted recently by controversy and dogged by lurid media headlines, the Hollywood actor pays a modest and gracious tribute to the writers who have shaped his professional philosophy
THE WEEKEND saw Johnny Depp, that movie legend with the rock swagger, appear at the National & International Beat Poetry Festival at Barkhamsted, Connecticut, if only via a video hook-up, as poets, some in-person, others via Zoom, connected to celebrate the new generations of wordsmiths who look to the Beats as a major inspiration to their post-millennium work.
Under the direction and leadership Debbie Tosun Kilday and with the key supporting efforts of poet and musician Ron Whitehead, the annual festival, which has grown out of the efforts of the National Beat Poetry Foundation, left behind most of its restricting pandemic handicaps of recent years to commemorate writers from across the US and around the world.
Most attention was cast in the direction of Depp but also towards a woman with intimate connections to the original Beat Generation – Jami Cassady, second daughter of Neal and Carolyn Cassady, two of the crucial figures in shaping that vibrant and radical literary community on both coasts of the USA in the 1950s.
Jami Cassady Ratto received a Lifetime Beat Laureate Award for her lifelong and continuing work to promote the legacy of her father, Jack Kerouac’s best friend in the years after the Second World War and his travelling companion on those American journeys which formed the framework of his most famous novel On the Road.
Pictured above: Jami Cassady Ratto
She told the festival how she has been working to keep the legacy of the Cassadys alive, stressing, ‘I don’t want people to forget how important they were’. She added that their aim was to ‘keep alive the inspiration of Neal Cassady, the man and the myth, and celebrate the muse that brought the Beats to San Francisco, which was my Mom.’
Cassady Ratto explained: ‘She met Dad in Denver, 1947, and then she moved to San Francisco and then Dad followed her and then, of course, Allen [Ginsberg] followed Dad, and Jack [Kerouac] followed them, so Mom was a very important person.’
Depp, meanwhile who was also recipient of a Lifetime Beat Laureate award, was introduced by Whitehead, who paid tribute to the honoree. He recalled: ‘In December 1996 in Louisville, Kentucky, I had the great honour of presenting a young man his Kentucky Colonelship at the official Hunter S. Thompson tribute.
‘We happen to have been born in the same town of Owensboro, Kentucky. Years later, in this beautiful valley in Connecticut, it is my great honour to, on behalf of Debbie Tosun Kilday and the National Beat Poetry Foundation, help present Johnny Depp with [this] award. Congratulations, Johnny.’
Depp responded with this address to Saturday’s gathering, real and virtual, in a voice calm and quiet:
‘Hi, good evening, I don’t, I can’t, consider myself certainly not a poet. I can’t consider myself an artist because I think, well I imagine, that is for others to decide. I just put lines and shapes and words and stuff and I do it on any surface that I can lay my hands on, whatever is available.
‘Because of my early exposure to the Beats, the Beat writers, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Huncke and, you know, John Clellon Holmes, once I had a good taste of them I was sort of forced almost, it was if they were in me, their spirit was in me.
‘So I’ve travelled with the spirit of the Beat for many, many years, from the very moment my brother handed me the treasure that is On the Road, which very quickly became a Bible to me. I was gone, I was in there hook, line and sinker.
‘Because for me, it had presented me with a very new and different way to look at what we all see everyday, which is the beauty of life and the tragedy of life, very simply.
‘Jack Kerouac once said that about writing simply. He said, “First thought, best thought”. So, that having been, you know, kind of drilled into my skull, that always kind of reverberated around and then, when I ended up becoming an actor, I applied that very method.
‘I thank you all deeply for this remarkable and most certainly undeserved honour.’
Pictured above: Debbie Tosun Kilday, founder of the National Beat Poetry Foundation, with poet Ron Whitehead, himself a Lifetime Beat Poet Laureate. Image by Ohio's new Beat Poet Laureate Sandra Feen
See also: ‘Depp scoops prestige Beat award’, Rock and the Beat Generation, August 2nd, 2022