Probably better known than anything Jack Kerouac ever wrote is Truman Capote's brushoff of "On the Road": "It isn't writing at all," he said, "it's typing." What, however, if it's neither? What if it's music?
That's the question raised (again) by three albums of Kerouac reading his work, all originally released in 1959 and now re-available as a boxed set of CDs called "The Jack Kerouac Collection" (Rhino Word/Beat). The albums, long valuable in record-collector circles, offer three different approaches to recitation: with piano (by Steve Allen!) in "Poetry for the Beat Generation," dueling with saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn (who plays piano on some tracks) in "Blues and Haikus," and unaccompanied in "On the Beat Generation."
The most curious, albeit least rewarding, of the trio is "Blues and Haikus," which features such curiosities as the author delivering some 35 "American haikus" between bursts of saxophone dithering (Sims and Cohn traded off). Kerouac was hardly a master of terseness, and these little poems (which are short, but don't actually follow haiku form) seem mostly empty and arbitrary. Little better, though much shorter, is "Hard Hearted Old Farmer," in which the author sings, although not interestingly. Kerouac reportedly wept when Sims and Cohn left immediately, without listening to the playback. You may not blame them.
The other two discs are quite similar. Allen's adequate piano noodlings neither add to nor detract significantly from the "Poetry" readings. The major difference between the two is that the Kerouac of "On the Beat Generation," the last of three to be recorded, sounds more confident and, hence, more musical. He seems to have realized that his tributes to jazz ("Dave Brubeck," "Charlie Parker," "Fantasy: The Early History of Bop") don't need actual jazz accompaniment to be effective.
Most of the best tracks here are picaresque tales ("I Had a Slouch Hat Too One Time") or crackerbarrel-philosophy meditations that attempt to mate high and low culture in a way that at the time was profoundly threatening ("Visions of Neal: Neal and the Three Stooges"). Kerouac's language, and his joy in it, frequently upstage what he has to say, but some- times he strikes a balance. "The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception," for example, is a rare case in which Kerouac's Buddhist dabblings seem more than merely decorative; its revulsion at physical existence is as fierce as the grimmest of Tibetan Buddhist death imagery.
You can tell these are real CD reissues because they feature the sine qua non of the genre: bonus tracks. The Kerouac/Allen disc includes some readings the former did on the latter's TV show, while "Blues and Haikus" adds two outtakes from the same sessions. The real find, however, is the addendum to the third disc, Kerouac's presentation at a 1958 Brandeis-sponsored panel that was titled "Is There a Beat Generation?" (and was strongly inclined to answer "no").
The "father of the beat generation" had been invited to speak for that generation. Kerouac wasn't very comfortable with the role, and for good reason: He wasn't good at it. This is not the sort of presentation that would have won points at the debate club. Considering the sort of wild Blake/zen/Three Stooges synthesis he's going for, though, his ability to put it into logical form would be suspicious anyway.
Allen Ginsberg: 'The Lion for Real' Kerouac rose to prominence at the same time as rock-and-roll, but he never got it. Indeed, in his final years, the author who's been saluted and emulated by scores of rockers was quite crabby on the subject of the '60s counterculture. His colleague Allen Ginsberg, however, has always stayed current; from the Beatles and Dylan to the Clash, the beat poet has kept the company of the age's most interesting rockers.
In his liner notes for "The Lion for Real" (Great Jones/Island), Ginsberg admits he conceived the album as a showcase for his singing but that producer Hal Willner and others "had the sense to curb rocknroll ambitions." Instead, Ginsberg reads, but to the accompaniment of rockers both avant (Ambitious Lover Arto Lindsay, ex-Tin Huey Ralph Carney) and mainstream (the Tubes' Prairie Prince, "Saturday Night Live" bandleader G.E. Smith). Not quite the best minds of their generation, but better than union-scale, surely.
With this wide range of accompanists, and a producer who specializes in genre-busting, the musical results are appropriately diverse and sophisticated. Most of it sounds like fairly good movie music, using the techniques of both rock and "serious" minimalism to create eerie, jumpy settings. Only occasionally, as on guitarist Marc Ribot's chugging framework for "The Shrouded Stranger," does the music seem capable of standing on its own, but then that's not the purpose of these compositions.
Besides, no music could rival the rampaging ego (and id) of Allen Ginsberg, a man who some 20 years after Kerouac's death can still recite with enthusiasm such lines as "I ended up masturbating in his jeep, parked in the street, moaning, 'lion!' " Kerouac's Whitmanesque narcissism can be hard to take, but it's nothing compared with that of his old friend. When he really starts singing of himself -- as in "Kral Majales" or the title track -- neither Sims nor Allen nor Willner could do much. Ginsberg was probably best matched when he recorded with the Clash, high-octane self-mythologizers as shameless as himself.
Langston Hughes, Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather: 'Weary Blues' This reissue offers an example of a poet whose work need not be shoehorned into a musical format. Langston Hughes's poems, many of them based on blues or gospel forms, have a straightforward musicality. Indeed, with their clear rhymes and rhythms, many of these poems could have been sung rather than merely set to music, though it's hard to argue with Hughes's own readings of his alternately light-hearted and poignant work.
Appropriately, the simpler, blues-based material (the first seven of the 15 tracks, inconveniently read by a CD player as one continuous track) was set to music by Leonard Feather, while the more complex sentiments (including the famous "dream deferred ... like a raisin in the sun" lines) were entrusted to Charles Mingus. Both sections seem dated in places, occasionally in unattractive ways -- "I beats my wife/ And I beats my side-gal too," Hughes reads blithely in "Testament" -- but Hughes's spirit has held up well.
Though it does include a brief "postscript" by Feather, who produced the original recording, this reissue hasn't been put together with much care: The date of the original release is not listed, and no one even proofread the reprinted liner notes to discover that portions of them are pasted up out of order.
Conjure: 'Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon' This album by Conjure, a jazz-soul-rock band whose most prominent member is classic New Orleans rock composer/producer Allen Toussaint, ends with a version of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," but the connection between that track, the album title and the other 12 tracks on "Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon" (American Clave) is obscure. No doubt it's there in the lyrics, which are taken from the poetry of Ishmael Reed, but this smooth, pleasant music doesn't spotlight the words. Without a lyric sheet, one doesn't get much of Reed except his prestige and his picture, just above singers Bobby Womack and Clare Bathe, on the CD foldout.
Reed gets one track, "St. Louis Women (excerpts)" to himself, but his contributions to the other 12 are effectively submerged. Producer Kip Hanrahan, who wrote several of the songs, explains that the poet's words are "reintegrating themselves into the verbal, griot tradition from which they come," but the griot tradition doesn't have anything to do with being drowned out by the horn section. Some of these tracks are quite attractive -- fans of New Orleans funk will hardly be able to refuse " 'Sputin" -- but this is more Toussaint's album than Reed's.