Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Reviewed by Greg Beets, Fri., Dec. 31, 1999
Jack Kerouac Reads "On the Road" (Rykodisc)
A Coney Island of the Mind (Rykodisc)Having witnessed Bird, Gillespie, and Monk improvise the birth of bebop in Upper Manhattan, Jack Kerouac devised a free-flowing wordplay that borrowed both the textures and the rhythms of jazz. You can see the riffs jumping off the page in Kerouac's writing, but the connection becomes even clearer in his readings. The centerpiece of Jack Kerouac Reads "On the Road" is a recently discovered acetate of Kerouac reading "Jazz of the Beat Generation," a section of On the Road originally published in the journal New World Writing in 1955. The scratchy, 28-minute reading transports you to a rambunctious San Francisco juke joint circa 1949 with Kerouac and Neil Cassady (Dean Moriarty) as your guides. Kerouac's well-metered enthusiasm captures the rapture of stumbling onto a supreme form of expression that serves as the omnipotent articulator for the human condition. Every syllable is succulent with the love of being. The previously unpublished long poem "Washington D.C. Blues" is structured quilt-like in 35 choruses, each given distinct musical backing by composer David Amram. The album also features a few numbers sung by Kerouac, including a downright goofy rendition of "Ain't We Got Fun," which he dedicates to Sue Evans, "the girl with the beautiful box." Nor will Tom Waits and Primus fans want to miss their gravelly take on Kerouac's song "On the Road." Although "Jazz of the Beat Generation" is what makes this album historically significant, the lesser-known material casts deserved light on Kerouac's versatility as a performing artist. Lawrence Ferlinghetti's carnival-like set of poems also lends itself to the music/poetry medium in an uncommonly rich way. The 29 poems that comprise A Coney Island of the Mind read at times ranging from 30 seconds to four minutes -- perfect lengths for ad jingles or pop songs. And what better way to offer an eloquent, often-hilarious critique of the emerging plastic culture than to bastardize the tools of commerce in the name of "a new rebirth of wonder"? Dana Colley of Morphine has composed an evocative musical background that adds fuel to Ferlinghetti's savory phrasing. Whether he's recalling the "screendoor summers" of childhood or using overcooked beatnik speak to satirize those who pray for the I-told-you-so exoneration of rapture, Ferlinghetti's poems depict a man acutely aware of his surroundings and the hidden connections therein. His recurring focus on the American tragedy of abandoning wonder for security is as timely now as it was in the mid-Fifties. Yet it's Ferlinghetti's ever-flowing well of words and phrasings that make his work truly stand the test of time. To hear him read these poems aloud is a remarkably telling glance into the evolution of the modern poetry slam.