THE BEATS GO on. Back in the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and their fellow beat authors reawakened the notion that writing was meant to be heard as well as read, that the "barbaric yawp" of the American language was essential to writing about this country.
This has been a good year for that notion. Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs as well as such disciples as Jim Carroll, Laurie Anderson, Michael Lally and John Giorno have emerged on compact disc, reciting their work -- often with musical accompaniment. Ginsberg and Carroll perform in person at the Birchmere Sunday and Monday.
Jack Kerouac "The Jack Kerouac Collection" (Rhino/Word Beat). This three-CD box set collects all of Kerouac's previous recordings and adds some invaluable new material plus a 36-page booklet crammed with remembrances, photos and a complete bibliography. The most promising disc -- Kerouac reading "Blues and Haikus" with bop saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims -- is the most disappointing; Kerouac did not excel at terseness. Much better are his unaccompanied prose readings, which have a bebop musicality of their own. You can't really understand his eccentric prose style until you hear him read it.
Allen Ginsberg "The Lion for Real" (Island). Ginsberg is a terrible singer -- he has a sense of pitch that makes one wince -- but he's a wonderful speaker: a Buddhist puzzle-poser crossed with a soapbox rabble-rouser. In 1987 Marianne Faithful bravely suggested, "Maybe you shouldn't sing," and the result is this, his best album ever. Producer Hal Willner rounded up his usual gang of avant-rock-jazz players (Steve Swallow, Michael Blair, Bill Frisell, Rob Wasserman, etc.) to make the music, and Ginsberg reads poems from all stages of his career. The music fleshes out the implications of the poet's expansive, questing voice.
William S. Burroughs "Dead City Radio" (Island). Willner also produced this album, taping the novelist at his home in Lawrence, Kan., and later adding music to the edited results. Burroughs's deadpan, sandpaper voice (heard on Laurie Anderson's albums) sounds like the discomfiting scrape of a surgeon's knife, and it provides the perfect tone of understatement for his scatological, cynical view of modern America. Many of the readings are contrasted by the lush, wholesome Americana of the 1950s NBC Symphony Orchestra; others are reinforced by the jagged, scraping sounds of John Cale, Donald Fagen, Chris Stein and Sonic Youth.
Material "Seven Souls" (Virgin). Of all these experimental fusions of spoken recitations and music, this is the boldest and most successful. Material, the New York avant-jazz funk outfit founded by bassist/producer Bill Laswell, creates a powerful worldbeat soundtrack of droning harmonies and insistent rhythms with the help of Jamaican drummer Sly Dunbar, Indian violinist Shankar and African singer Foday Musa Suso. Over this soundtrack Burroughs's brittle voice recites his Saharan/Saturnian musings on the soul and the government plots against it.
Anderson/Burroughs/Giorno "You're the Guy I Want to Share My Money With" (Giorno Poetry Systems/Rough Trade). Originally recorded in 1980-81, this album is divided evenly between Burroughs, performance artist Laurie Anderson and poet John Giorno. Most of Anderson's pieces come from her then-new and unknown "United States" opus. Burroughs is simply taped at live literary readings, reading narrative chunks from his novels; you can hear the rapt audience laughing nervously at his matter-of-fact accounts of atrocities. Giorno tries to jazz up his overly obvious poetry with studio gimmicks and bad synthesizer music.
Various artists "Hollyword" (Rhino/Word Beat). This 96-minute tape, featuring 47 recitations by 49 different writers, is the latest installment from producer/poet Harvey Robert Kubernik's L.A.-area performance/writing series. The contributors include rock stars (Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction, session drummer Jim Keltner, the Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner, Power Station's Michael des Barres, the Minutemen's Mike Watt), obscure actors, scenemakers and even a few published authors (Hubert Selby Jr., Wanda Coleman and ex-D.C. poet Michael Lally). Most of the contributions are truly mediocre -- tepid surrealism, belabored eroticism, political sloganeering -- all delivered by authors greatly impressed with their own cleverness. The few shining exceptions come from Lally, Coleman, Selby, des Barres and Michael O'Keefe.
Various artists "Sound Bites from the Counter Culture" (Atlantic). Unlike the above albums, this isn't a literary effort so much as a political one. Hunter S. Thompson, Eugene McCarthy, Timothy Leary, Henry Rollins and Danny Sugerman attack easy targets like George Bush, the IRS, drug laws and conformity without much wit or style. Abbie Hoffman, though, is in vintage form as a politcal agitator/comic, and Jello Biafra does a funny, low-key bit about the Dead Kennedys' obscenity bust. The one literary effort comes from Jim Carroll, who was a beat novelist before he became a minor rock star; his "Guitar Voodoo" combines spoken recitation and guitar noodling into an eight-minute sci-fi/horror narrative, a so-so imitation of Burroughs.