If you read Louis Menand’s great article on Kerouac and the Beats in The New Yorker a couple months ago (“Drive, He Wrote”), and you read this passage:
In his final appearance on television, a falling-down-drunk performance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” he insisted that his idea of beatness had nothing to do with the hippies (whom he despised).
and this one:
In 1959, he appeared on television, on “The Steve Allen Show.” Steverino was a jazz buff who used to noodle around on a piano while he interviewed his guests (an unbelievably annoying routine). He liked Kerouac, and Kerouac seemed less than usually guarded with him. After they chatted, a little awkwardly, two men in jackets, Kerouac read the last paragraph of “On the Road,” while Allen contributed background riffs on the piano […]. It is sensitive and it is earnest, a performance of one of the most difficult emotions to express, male vulnerability.
and you really, really wanted to see both of these things, then you should definitely rent What Happened to Kerouac? (Netflix has it.) It’s an imperfect documentary, but it has what seem to be fairly substantial outtakes from both of these television appearances, both of which are heartbreaking to watch. Among many other amazing details, the Buckley show also had, in the lineup that night—as an ostensible spokesman for the hippies, I think—Ed Sanders, founder and editor of the best-named literary journal ever, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts; and the Steve Allen clips make you wish, if not specifically for jazz improv, man, then for more talk-show hosts that spontaneous, and more writers as their guests.
The movie also has interviews with just about every member of their gang who was still alive in the mid-eighties—Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg, Huncke, et al.—which alone are worth the price of the ticket.
One detail from the Steve Allen show performance: Kerouac is reading from what looks like a hardcover copy of On the Road, and he’s definitely reading the very end of the novel, but the book is cracked open not to the last page, but to somewhere in the middle. Was he reading a ripped-out page? Was he performing from memory? I’m guessing this question might be completely unanswerable, but it’s probably for the best for at least some details of the lives of the Beats to be unknown.