Monday, June 13, 2011

Good Beat

It's useful to remember that Jack Kerouac's "Beat Generation" phrase in the beginning meant "street people Beat down to the bricks"; only later did he redefine those words as "Beatific and free-spirited." Despite all his whooping exuberance and popular acclaim, Kerouac was a sad cat--a brooding, miserable drunk living with his Memere, haunted by his dead brother Gerard, too busy observing and taking notes and writing in his mind to enjoy fully and freely all the wild and crazy experiences he went on and on about. (On the Road was nearly a decade in the making and remaking.)

Jack penned his literary hopes on hustling, hitchhiking, and having a ball, then tried exZentrick Buddhist tantras when the close focus on his car-thief, country-hound buddy Cassady didn't seem to be sellable--when that All-Americana Road kept going nowhere...

Yet he kept writing. Usually revved up on coffee or blasted on demon weed, Jack occasionally needed Bennies to help him pound out his Jazz poetry and "spontaneous Bop prose," and then rivers of booze to help him escape the clamoring sycophants, unwanted daughter, ex-friends, and excess fame he fled from when they all finally came knocking. His spirit and his liver gave out in 1969, long before the astonishing breadth of his worldwide success became apparent.

Much as the Kerouac Estate (administered by the Sampas family via Jack's last wife Stella) has overseen the gradual publication, since Jack packed it in, of two dozen previously unknown texts (some of them edited from larger works), with more and more academic studies of Kerouac's sprawling Duluoz saga appearing as well, so too is there a growing industry in recordings by, or in tribute to, Ti-Jean/Jack. Setting aside the audiobook versions of On the Road (two of the best are read by rock musician Graham Parker and actor Matt Dillon), there must be eight or ten widely varied releases worth acknowledging.

First, of course, are the three LP records issued in the late Fifties with Jack reading his own works. Poetry for the Beat Generation came first, a rare album initially issued by Dot, then quickly withdrawn and transferred to obscure Hanover Records, which most fans had no way of hearing until 1990 when Rhino Records issued a terrific box set housing Kerouac's official three (Poetry, plus Blues and Haikus and Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation) as well as a fourth LP of other uncollected readings. This set can still be found in some formats, but the major three also exist individually on CD now--the first with improvisational piano background courtesy of multi-tasker Steve Allen (who featured Jack on his television show), B&H graced with the waxing-and-wailing, counterpoint saxes of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn (some folks claim the duo ignored or, alternatively, sneered at the sad poet), and Readings, which presents Jack's solo voice only. That last is actually my favorite, mostly due to the variety of texts he drolly recites, chants, or reads.

Over the next 40 or 50 years, the albums that namechecked Kerouac were mostly minor acknowledgments of the influence of Jack's "spontaneous Bop prose" and presumed Beatific attitude on songwriters and performers ranging from Dylan and Tom Waits (A Beat cat if ever there was one!), to Patti Smith and Nick Cage, to Johnny Depp and Joe Strummer. Some examples of Jack's influence would be Patti Smith's poetic LP Horses; the casually titled album Beat by King Crimson; Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner (to name just one among many); and Ramblin' Jack Elliott's 1980 return to the recording studio, Kerouac's Last Dream... all of them dating from the Seventies and Eighties.

More recent examples include several Estate-backed CDs. Two are featured later in this post, so I'll just quickly mention two others--the truly bizarre Doctor Sax and the Great World Snake, a 2CD dramatization of Kerouac's unproduced screenplay, here more like an episode of radio-show thriller The Shadow, with music by John Medeski and the cheerful participation of poets Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jim Carroll, Rock maverick Graham Parker, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and others. (A thick, cartoon-illustrated book of the screenplay completes the package; issued in 2003, the set quickly became a rare collectible.) And in 2009 appeared the compelling film One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur (discussed here), which documents the 1960 events that led to Jack's end-of-his-tether novel of the same name--the set containing one DVD and a separate CD of the excellent Jay Farrar/Benjamin Gibbard song-score.

Jazz musicians have occasionally remembered Kerouac too, from the early Fifties Esoteric LPs issuing Jerry Newman's Forties' club recordings of Monk, Gillespie, Charlie Christian, and others--some tunes given names referencing jam-session fan Jack--to last year's 2CD set devoted to the Fifties BeBop records of tenor sax man Brew Moore, titled The Kerouac Connection merely because Jack wrote about him in On the Road.

But the most lasting Jazz tribute came from an unlikely source; in 1981, ever-hip vocalist Mark Murphy put out his homage LP, Bop for Kerouac, offering Mark's inimitable versions of standards named in Kerouac's novels--arranged by fine pianist Bill Mays and with wildman Richie Cole adding alto sax--together with wonderful readings of excerpts from Jack's restless prose. "Mellow... mournful... magical" are some of the words I'd use to describe Mark's singing and reciting; highlights include the sung "Be Bop Lives (Boplicity)" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," leading to the talked and sung "Parker's Mood" "(with an excerpt from The Subterraneans) and the final, perfect "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," which segues from the well-regarded sunset-on-the-Hudson ending of On the Road into Murphy's definitive reading of the song.

The album's LP and then CD sales and general critical acclaim led to an '86 sequel called Kerouac, Then and Now. I suppose that less-compelling title suggests the less-astonishing, me-too problem facing sequels in general. But Murphy and arranger Mays work overtime to dispel any doubts. Mark soothes through "If You Could See Me Now" and "Ask Me Now" both, shows his scat chops on Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" and a so-slow bit chipped from Billy's late gem, the chilling tune "Blood Count," but then falters some in the recitations--less-involving, too-brief passages from Big Sur and On the Road, plus a not-so-funny take on hipster comedian Lord Buckley.

Still, Murphy's pair of aces went unchallenged until the late Nineties, when the Sampas folks stepped forward to unveil some "new" Kerouac to revitalize his rep among Rockers and Jazz cats. Following tribute events in NYC and Lowell, Mass., Jim Sampas and Rykodisc Records invited a host of young and older performers to contribute their versions of Kerouac "pomes" or prose passages. The resulting album, Kerouac--kicks joy darkness, is bracing and boring, wacky and wasted and wonderful in about equal measure. Joe Strummer of the Clash plays guitar and more behind a tape of Jack reciting excerpts from "MacDougal Street Blues," and Allen Ginsburg works easily through nine-tenths of "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues," with the final tenth supplied later by folkie Eric Anderson actually standing on the bridge with traffic noise for accompaniment. Hunter S. Thompson goofs around, and William Burroughs goes cowboy-straight for "Old Western Movies." (Backing duo "tomandandy" don't.) Soon-to-be-dead singer Warren Zevon tackles Death head-on in Jack's excellent "Running Through--Chinese Poem Song," and the group Morphine provides a great original called "Kerouac" that outdoes the Beatman.

Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, Johnny Depp, John Cale, Matt Dillon... they're all here; some making new-Jack swing, others just phoning it in. There are 25 tracks in all and only a handful that flop. But oddly enough, it's the longer prose chunks and excerpts from Visions of Cody that seem less interesting than Jack's odds-'n'-ends pomes-with-music-attached.

A separate venture, and a wonderful one, came two years later: Jack Kerouac reads On the Road. This one was and is a major addition to the Kerouac biblio(disco)graphy--late Fifties tapes of Jack reading, reciting, even singing, or goofing on a few Jazz songs anyway; some cuts with music present on the original, some with music added (courtesy of keyboards whiz John Medeski and Jack's friend, composer and player David Amram), and one left blessedly unimproved, allowing Jack to sink or swim alone. And, man, does he--freestyle, at a 29-minute pace!

The songs are Kerouacker Jack croonerisms, surprisingly funny and fine ("Come Rain or Come Shine," "Ain't We Got Fun," a pair of bluesier tunes), and a terrific two minutes of On the Road made musical by Jack and Medeski. Amram's accompaniments to the 9-minute "Orizaba 210 Blues" and double-that "Washington D.C. Blues" (previously unpublished) are rich and strange, lightly packed with ever-changing flute, conga, ocarina, piano, oboe, viola, French horn, shanai, dumbek, and the rest of the World Music kitchen sink. Between Jack's focused performances and David's madcap mellifluities, a grand time can be had by all.

There are two other excerpts from On the Road included here. (And the fold-out liner notes are laid out sideways, using very small print, designed to resemble the infamous typed Road scroll.) The concluding track is a potent, patently percussive, Waitsian-wasted warble that ends the album not so much on a high note as on a blasted baritone croak. Yes, it's Tom of the Beaten voice, for whom neither Time nor tide has Waited. And for a taste... well, a whole meal... of the real thing we turn to the album's centerpiece, Jack's half-hour reading of the well-loved portion of On the Road, separately printed, early on, as "Jazz of the Beat Generation"--a sterling-silver (Beaten-gold?) sample of spontaneus Bop prose in motion: the Beat set but changeable, Beaten down but unBeaten, Beatific and comic too, Beatitudinous and yet with attitude. Much of the best of Jack captured on a tape that almost no one knew existed, a performance full of piss, vinegar, "Dean Moriarty," saxmen Lester Young and Charlie Parker, good drinks, better women, and the best of Jazz morphed by spontaneous Bop prosody into a new variety of literature. (One that's got a good Beat you can even dance to!)

Release into the moment, Jack (blue) noted elsewhere, and "so he said it and sang it and blew it through to the stars and on out."


all ways 11 o'clock said...

this is a great bit of writing full information i didn't know about Kerouac. also didn't know there were so many albums out surounding him.

great stuff man.


Steve Provizer said...

Thanks for this terrific delineation of Kerouac. To me, a classic example of dig the art, not the artist.

A few years ago, a recently deceased friend, Jon Lipsky, turned Kerouac's novel Maggie Cassidy into a moving play called "Maggie's Riff," which was produced at the Merrimac (Lowell) Repertory Theatre.

IWitnessEd said...

thanks. happy to help spread the Visions of Jack. but, i'll tell ya what, after all this readin' and writin' and listenin', i'm Beat.

IWitnessEd said...

I wrote the previous before finding Steve's comment, so...

Sounds like a good idea for a one- or two-person play. Did you attend? So much of his writing is a solo-filtered soliloquy anyway.

Last night I ordered a recent Penguin/Sampas addition to Kerouactive research--pomes assembled from character studies penned in his breast-pocket notebooks--the idea sounding potentially wonderful, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I've forgotten the title already!

Alan Kurtz said...

"Dig the art, not the artist," Mr. Provizer advises. That might be possible if the artist in question had somehow detached himself during the creative process. But then we might as well attend to art produced by robots.

And in any case, detachment does not describe Kerouac, a solipsist who put himself front and center in his writing. Jack didn't merely invite readers to consider the artist, he insisted on it, like a petulant child demanding attention. And like the petulant child, once he got the attention, Jack discovered he had nothing to say after all.

IWitnessEd said...

Oh, c'mon, Allen, don't Beat around the bush; tell us what you really think. I don't much favor political compromise, but in The Case of the Kerouacked Canon, I'd say that for naysayers like you and Bloom and most academicians, Jack has more impact and influence, here and abroad, than you want to accept. But by the same token (one of those Mass.Transit ones), his influence on poets and actors, on songwriters and social rebels in general, certainly has not been all salutary. Maybe he had less to say, but the how of his saying has proved mightier than his own pen. Or those raised against him.

Steve Provizer said...

Yes, I saw the production and my memory of it is of a play denser with subtext than action, with occasional bursts of repressed-emotion-fueled conflict...

Self-mythologizing probably began as soon as people began to tell stories. I don't think Kerouac is any more guilty than many-simply among the more effective. It is hard not to fault him for probably pushing us along the road (ahem) to the era of Reality TV.

The question of robotic writing, especially of music, is much under discussion these days. Tests of new software show us that "experts" can't pick the computer-generated music out of a crowd.

IWitnessEd said...

Dadblastit, I owe a big apology to Alan (Kurtz) for carelessly thinking of Allen (Ginsberg) as I wrote a response to the actual Alan. Kurtz is a toughminded social critic, not really to be lumped in with the ivory tower types who still feel threatened by the ghost of Jack. I just don't get why they feel compelled to break some boisterous French-Canuck flutterby on the wheel of the quivering meat conception. But, then, I haven't really been myself lately... (So who have I been? Beats me.)

It's the Beat, Beat, Beat of the High-Jack, and the Pound, Pound, Pound of the Ezra. Day and night, night and day, I hear a voice keep whispering, "The pressure. The pressure!" My only response to all can be no more than this: "Mr. Kerouac--he dead."

IWitnessEd said...

hi. thanks for kind words. Library of America has issued a Complete Poems. I took a quick look, didn't spot Wa DC, but it may be present under another name or by first line. good hunting!