Perfect Sound Forever

Kerouac's Voice Loud And Clear: Still Touching New Hearts
"Pencil traceries of our faintest wish"

CD cover

Kicks, Joy, Darkness review
by John Grady

Jack Kerouac's voice, his be-bop, imaginative musings, keep touching new readers - and listeners - all the time. The latest manifestation is the Ryko CD Kerouac - Kicks, Joy, Darkness". While there's plenty of "star" power, including movie actor Johnny Depp, poet/singer Patti Smith, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, REM's Michael Stipe and Aerosmith's Steve Tyler all bringing their own spins to the material, the center of the disk is definitely Kerouac. In typical Kerouac style, the poetry-music material here is startling, abstract, moody and, in the best be-bop jazz tradition the writer aspired to, difficult, way out there on the edge.

When Kerouac first rejected white, middle-class materialism and terrified America's conformist society with his eager, honest, radical bestseller ON THE ROAD in 1957, he was labelled a goofy, scattered rebel. But, despite that lingering charge, Kerouac's work won't stop pushing fresh generations onto the same spiritual quest for an ecstatic, spontaneous life that he espoused. Kerouac purposely mimicked the impulses, surprises and rhythms of jazz. His words fly into new territories, sometimes turning into non-words, un-words or sounds. Plus, he loved to invent new words. Unruly, jazzy, impressionistic, emotional, confessional - Kerouac's work is all these things, which can make it difficult to follow. But when his word-jams click into focus, they hammer readers like emotional battering rams.

The material on this disk is true to Kerouac's range of expression, from the fierce and harshly cacophonous, to the quietly sensitive, filled with love, lyrically beautiful. "A lot of poeple don't know Kerouac as a poet," says Jim Sampas, the disk's producer. "We wanted to get people to discover the poetry, the other dimensions in Kerouac's his writing." Interest in Kerouac and all things Beat keeps increasing. With readings, art shows, concerts and seminars on the subject taking place coast to coast, Sampas felt the need for this Kerouac project growing (see accompanying article).

The CD opens with a sizzling, ka-thumping, drum-rolling solo driving a reverbed reading of an original poem by Morphine entitled "Kerouac," one of only two pieces on the disk not penned by Jack. The jazzy flavor of the stripped-down track, recited low, evokes a Beat sensibility: "His words... like a mirror and you're invisible... Kerouac.... passion, photographic love, vulnerable, his memories pull shades up and down..."

Constantly scribbling in small notebooks, Kerouac produced what he called "pomes," snatches of description and emotions modelled after jazz player solos, written quickly, as "choruses" in series he called "blues." "Kerouac's poems lend themselves to this project because they are often self-contained, like songs, or little dramatic pieces, it helps with the flow," says Sampas.

Writer/performance artist Lydia Lunch gives a charged reading from Kerouac's "Bowery Blues." Sounding like she's outside, surrounded by chirping insects, Lunch combines her gruff, "beat" approach with transcendent, or "beatific," aspects of the spirituality Kerouac aspired to: "I am hurt, I am scared, I want to live, I want to die, I dont know, where to turn, In the Void, And when, to cut, Out, For no Church told me, no Guru holds me..."

"The piece I chose spoke directly to my duality," says Lunch, author of INCRIMINATING EVIDENCE, a collection of stories, rants, and scripts and ADULTERER'S ANONYMOUS, a collaborative book of poetry with Exene Cervenka. "Kerouac's life was more of an inspiration to me than any of his writing. Both he and Burroughs lived out their wanderlust, explored their desires, travelled extensively and documented their experiences... setting a liberating example." Like many others, Lunch emulated these artists. "I started wandering as a very young teenager, scribbling poems, tomes and random notes on ragged pieces of paper, on napkins and in filthy notebooks. I knew my urgency should and would be documented."

NOTE: Lunch has a new double CD of "Illustrated Word," spoken word set to music, available through Atavistic. Hubert Selby wrote the introduction for her new book PARADOXIA, A PREDATOR'S DIARY, true memoirs of sexual misadventure and the psychic repercussions by Creation Press.

We hear Kerouac's own voice in "MacDougal Street Blues" by Joe Strummer. Against a sinewy beat, the ex-Clash member plays with the sounds of Kerouac's own moody reading. Jack pushes English into unknown, strange evocations with different chanting emotions: "Here is our Sweet Mahameru/Who will coo/To You Too..." His voice reverberates against the ominous beatbox mix, electronically enhanced for vivid effect. Kerouac himself speaks across time: "And I said, wilt thou protect me for 'ver?"

Cars moving and sounds of Kerouac himself skat singing high-pitched "hmm-hmms" are used to back up Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter's reading of a description of Neal Cassady from VISIONS OF CODY: "who walks as fast as he can go on the balls of his feet...Something about his tigerish out-jutted raw facebone could be given a woe-down melancholy..."

Even though it is unruly and difficult, Kerouac's "Pencil traceries of our faintest wish" can be touchingly sweet, especially in his road descriptions. He sees "nobone half-banana moons sloping in the tangled night sky, the torments of great formations in mist..." Kerouac makes up some words in the "madroad driving" excerpt from VISIONS OF CODY read by Johnny Depp, backed up by the band Come: "cast your mountains up, bedawze the west, bedight the west..."

Gonzo-journalist Hunter Thompson, who often credits Kerouac for inspiration, departs from Kerouac's text to recite his own "Ode To Jack": "Four dogs went to the wilderness only three came back, two dogs died from guinea worm, the other died from you Jack Kerouac..." As he explains to his attorney: "Kerouac was not innocent, he ran over dogs."

The many facets of Kerouac's talents are presented on the disk. "Different artists give each piece a different beat," says producer Sampas.

Eddie Vedder's eerie rumination on "Hymn" with campbell 2000 includes space sounds and feedback style sound effects, noisy guitar licks distorted. Seeing people slip on the ice by Brooklyn Bridge, Kerouac prays: "That's when you taught me tears, Ah God in the morning,"

With a soft, gentle nearly mystical atmospheric soundtrack, John Cale tenderly recites "The moon her magic be, big sad face/Of infinity..."

Juliana Hatfield in a perky, amusing voice, recites "Silly Goofball Pomes like a children's story:"The Dachshund is a snake full of Love... The Abominable Snowman is not abominable at all, he doesn't hurt anybody.."

The project's associate producer Lee Ranaldo makes his own contribution with "the urgent ride with a blonde while quaffing Mexican benzedrine." Singer Anna Domino offers a scary description of Kerouac's mythical character Doctor Sax. A psychedelic visionary Mexican rooftop piece, "with light holes and pool-puddles" chanting at the end, is performed by Rob Buck & Danny Chauvin as Hitchhiker.

Patti Smith performs the Last Hotel with Thurston Moore and Lenny Kaye, live at the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival in 1995, reciting: "The last hotel/Ghosts in my bed"

Kerouac's Beat pals Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti all appear on the CD. Ferlinghetti evokes a sunny afternoon in an unpublished "Dream," backed up by the soundtrack-like effects of Helium. Ferlinghetti gets a bit of W.C. Fields (whom Kerouac loved) going in his voice, complaining about getting a morphine shot, screaming: "not too much of that stuff 'Doc!!'"

William Burroughs goes for the Old Western Movies, with an abstract backup by tomandandy. In his twang and grizzled voice, Burroughs intones cinematically: "Drive the cattle thru that silver wall, help ladies to their hearse, mouth in the sun..."

Allen Ginsberg, a frequent character in Kerouac's books, appears in a live performance at New York University's Kerouac Tribute concert in 1995 at Town Hall. The poet gets a bit of "bookmovie" going as he read Kerouac's confessions: "My mother had just told a fib, and in the process made me liar..."

One page of the unpublished "Brooklyn Bridge Blues" Ginsberg read at the concert didn't make it through the fax machine, so he added some real life drama to his reading, confessing to only having nine of the ten choruses. He's unable to finish the piece. Writer/singer Eric Andersen completes the CD with his reading the Tenth Chorus, recorded on the Brooklyn Bridge with sounds of traffic going by on the road.

The accompanying booklet includes the texts of each selection -- including three previously unpublished pieces. Plus it is illustrated with Kerouac's own original paintings and watercolors, also previously unpublished. A Ralph Steadman sketch, "Skid Row Wine," completes the package.

My only criticism is the omission of others who could have appeared here. Where are Cecil Taylor, David Amram, Steve Allen, Mark Murphy or other classic jazz performers much more closely in touch with the be-bop world Kerouac drew inspiration from? Poets Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans, Diane DiPrima, Anne Waldman and ex-Fugs member Ed Sanders are just a few of the other artists who could make strong contributions. Beat poet Michael McClure, who tours and records with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, is another logical choice. Not to mention rock stars who have already paid tribute to Kerouac in songs, like Aztec Two-Step, 10,000 Maniacs, Tom Waits, etc. I guess I just want more.

This is a very solid collection of exciting Kerouac material presented in fresh ways by cutting edge artists, sure to keep amplifying Kerouac's voice to younger and wider audiences. The producers and Ryko deserve credit for adding this volume to its VOICES literary series.

Also see: Interviews with Jim Sampas and Lee Ranaldo about Kicks, Joy, Darkness
(or see the main intro to the articles).