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[whitespace] On the Beat

New CD spotlights Jack Kerouac

By Greg Cahill

HE WAS THE ultimate beat-era figure, a freewheeling hip cat who infused his footloose prose with the soaring scat-sung spirit of bebop jazz. So it's no surprise to hear Jack Kerouac in a musical setting--the 1990 three-CD box set Poetry for the Beat Generation (Rhino) compiled his three official recordings and dished up lots of Kerouac set to the jazzy sounds of pianist Steve Allen and saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. And plenty of contemporary musicians have been inspired to pay homage to this modern literary giant; in 1997, Morphine and a host of other alt-rockers worshipped Kerouac on the adventurous tribute CD Kerouac Kicks Joy Darkness (Rykodisc).

But there's nothing quite like the melancholy voice of the master. And that's what you get in spades on Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road (Ryko/Voices), a newly released CD that contains a recently discovered recording of the fallen angel himself reading passages from one of the sacred books of the beat generation. This long-lost recording session has been the stuff of legend. It's been written about, searched for, and long thought destroyed.

It is, as historian Douglas Brinkley says in the liner notes, a "showcase for the writer as romantic crooner, lonely vagabond, prose stylist, Tin Pan Alley cut-up, hobo poet, and scat innovator."

Recently discovered in the Kerouac archives on mislabeled acetates, the recording of Kerouac's 1957 masterwork On the Road has been digitally remastered. It is packaged here with two poems read by Kerouac, "Orizaba 210 Blues" from the Book of Blues, and the previously unpublished "Washington D.C. Blues," with original music composed by jazz pianist David Aram (who teamed up four years ago with British rocker Graham Parker on a stunning reading of Kerouac's 1950 opus The Town and the City, which was included on A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus, a CD-ROM overview on the writer).

The new disc also features musical tracks recorded by Kerouac, including a couple of Chet Baker-like renderings of the standards "Ain't We Got Fun," "Come Rain or Shine," "When a Woman Loves a Man," and "Leavin' Town," all sung in a mostly (sometimes excruciatingly) wispy, gin-soaked style.

The choice musical track is "On the Road," a wistful Kerouac original that gets a garagy reprise by dada crooner Tom Waits backed by the members of Primus.

But the real gem here is Kerouac. As with much of his best writing, the On the Road disc evokes a relaxed comfort, a quiet charm that has endeared the writer to a new generation in search of the quintessential traveling companion.

For restless souls, the king of the road is someone you can always come home to.

Random note: A companion to the new Kerouac release on the Ryko/Voices imprint also is on the market. San Francisco beat icon, celebrated publisher, and City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti reads his 1958 classic A Coney Island of the Mind--actually a series of 29 poems--along with four additional works, all set to the accompaniment of Dana Colley of Morphine and others. Recorded earlier this year at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studio, the new CD serves as a reawakening as it warns against the perils of hyperindustrialization, unrestricted capitalism, and Big Brother fascism, often delivered with wry wit.

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From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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