Sunday, June 26, 2011

Always Beat 2

Writing a blog is hazardous to my health... oh, not in the sense of physical trauma; rather, my financial health, the pain in my wallet from enticements I don't resist, acquisitions that come fraught with financial finagling and expenses overspent.

In one-syllable words: I spend too much. I pick a subject, do some newer research to bolster my "old" knowledge, et voila! Money mailed out to pick up (cheaply but adding up fast) too many items that I don't already own, but that now seem essential to a greater understanding. The cost of getting totally hooked on Cajun and Zydeco, for example? Oy. Don't ask.

Revisiting my Beat youth is/was much less expensive. I had bought a copy of Howl right at City Lights Books in San Francisco in the summer of 1959, and then the signed limited edition of Kerouac's Visions of Cody a year or so later. I reveled, briefly, in the local Washington State aspects of Desolation Angels, and I fantasized becoming a fire lookout during the back-from-college summers, but found jobs in ROTC Camp kitchens and grocery produce sections instead. My fledgling-Beatnik fascination tailed off after the emotional pain of Big Sur and the rise of S.F. as the epicenter of hippiedom and the new Rock music. But I did keep apprised of Gary Snyder because he was a strange and fascinating source of rugged poetry combined with some sort of wiser, gentler Buddhist/Gaiaist/Native American thinking.

Only when the bookstore I ran in the Nineties also coincided with the release of new Kerouac texts, in a carefully orchestrated campaign by Jack's Estate and Viking/Penguin, did I reconnect with the haunts and the haunting residue of Beatdom--Pomes All Sizes, Book of Blues, the forbidding giant that should have been titled All of the Dharma and Then Some, Good Blonde & Others (excellent collection from a different publisher), two volumes of Selected Letters, the journal extracts published as Windblown World, even the holy grail of Kerouac texts: the much-vaunted and not-quite-mythic, railroad-dispatch-paper, taped-continuous-roll, typed-'round-the-clock, gleeful-and-genially-mad, overloaded-sentences, mid-revisions draft of On the Road simply known as "The Scroll." (C'mon, baby, let's do the Scroll!)

Thinking and writing about the Beat Scene again earlier this month made me realize I'd mostly stopped paying attention a decade ago, so I checked some Internet sites and discovered I absolutely "had" to acquire copies of the Kerouac CDs I mentioned last post, plus a fancy-package, 1997 reissue of Jack's '59 Readings album (I'd had an original version in the Rhino box set but sold that to an eager collector). I reached out too for the Jack Elliott album, Kerouac's Last Dream; a used copy of the supposedly straightforward bio, Kerouac: His Life and Work; and by Jack himself, the recent Penguin publication called Book of Sketches. (None of the four had arrived when I wrote the Good Beat piece, but they have since been trickling in.)

Man, talk about "Beat"... I bought used copies of the two CDs and definitely got what I paid for, fine-enough discs but Beat-up (Beat-down?) outer containers. Ramblin' Jack's set of folk tunes and Dylan covers--recorded in Germany in 1980, but never issued here till 1997--is easily one of his best-ever albums (even minus the original plastic jewel case). Elliott was at the top of his game 30 years ago, his guitar-picking sweet and solid, the twang of his voice just about perfect, and the familiar songs not yet become rotely or remotely "automatic Jack." Moreover, any album with a 10-minute performance of Elliott's "912 Greens," his great Talking Blues classic, belongs in every household in America. And seven or eight minutes in, by the way, comes the album's sole Kerouac reference, to a Mexican chair he sat in, transported now to New Orleans where the other Jack could plop down on it... Even so, the album's title doesn't really relate.

Also slightly trashed is the cardboard package housing cool Fifties-style postcards, a Ginsberg tribute to Kerouac, and a slightly worn CD of his excellent 1959 album, Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation. But all's right with the world, nonetheless, because Jack is in fine fettle--alcohol-sober but loose and funny, occasionally dramatic, boppin' his cheery spontaneous prosepomes till the streetlights come up and the Beat cowboys come home. Jack's favorite subjects get plenty of mention--old bums, good-looking women, weird sounds, strong tea (as in pot, smoked rather than steeped), and Jazz circa 1949 (Diz and Pres, Monk and Bird)--short lyrics and longer set-pieces both, Bluesy San Francisco pomes, a slice of The Subterraneans, and the perennial Kerouac-style favorites known as "History of Bop" and "Neal and the Three Stooges."

Off the Road, busy taking notes, watching the world pass... Happy Jack, Kerouac at his peak... before the long, resentful, sorry slide into soul-Beaten drunkenness and stars-gone-out death. Best to remember Wild Jack criss-crossing America, with and without Dean/Neal; read that fun and funky Scroll. Poet Jack jotting his impressions, writing, always writing, fashioning hundreds of skinny Sketches; see the brilliant Book so named, its short-line prosepome shapes dictated by the tiny notebooks Kerouac carried everywhere. And Soul-full Jack, confused, sentimental, loving, unable to escape his mother and dead brother, sexually struggling and maybe less masculine than he looked--and no way bold and bearish enough to assume the "King of the Beat Generation" spokesman role American society thrust on him. (Drawing on newly available journals and letters, Paul Mayer's Kerouac bio is solid on the day-to-day chronology of his life, less interested in psychoanalysis and speculation.)

That was Kerouac, many things but finally just one thing: all ways Beat.

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