various artists,
Kerouac: kicks joy darkness
(Rykodisk, 1997)

In the fifty-six years since Jack Kerouac heard the word "beat" and used it to name a generation, tributes have sprung up in various forms in honor of that literary rebellion. Kerouac: kicks joy darkness is one such tribute: a recording of Kerouac's poems and essays by various well-known artists; the result is an entertaining interpretation of a slice of Kerouac's massive body of work, a must-have for any true Kerouac fan.

The disc opens with an original recording by Morphine, a spoken-word musing on Kerouac's linguistic play and lifestyle set to jazzy drums. The music is what one would expect from there on out: drums, saxophones and guitars, most of them imitating the bop rhythms that so inspired Kerouac. There are a few exceptions, however. Lydia Lunch reads a smoky-throated rendition of "Bowery Blues" to the chirping of crickets, sounding like a scratchy phonograph record. Steven Tyler accompanies himself with a cappella background vocals, his expressive voice capturing the need of "Dream: 'Us kids swim off a gray pier....'"

Many of the artists in this tribute were members of the Beat Generation or closely associated with it. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, which published Allen Ginsberg's Howl and was brought up on obscenity charges) reads "Dream: 'On a sunny afternoon...,'" accompanied by Helium. Ginsberg's reading of "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues" was recorded at the New York University Kerouac Tribute in 1995; he reads only nine choruses because, as he explains, the tenth chorus was lost. The most enjoyable reading by the Beats comes from William S. Burroughs, whose raspy, old-man voice perfectly suits the shoot-em-up theme of "Old Western Movies."

Hunter S.Thompson offers an amusing tribute to Kerouac and dogs, once again finding a way around what is expected of him and providing one of the few laughs on the disc. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, Patti Smith and Matt Dillon also read selections from Kerouac's work; many of the artists can be traced to projects or people that were involved with Kerouac and the Beats, proving that the Beat Generation's influence reached more than just the page. However, the spoken-word poets represent well here, too, with Maggie Estep and the Spitters, Jim Carroll and Anna Domino all taking turns with Kerouac's words.

Juliana Hatfield reveals a little of Kerouac's childish side with "Silly Goofball Pomes," lightening the normal "death, Buddha, Catholicism, and Mamere" mood of the CD. Eric Anderson takes a stand on the Brooklyn Bridge to read the lost 10th chorus of "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues," while comedian Richard Lewis shares one of Kerouac's articles entitled "America's New Trinity of Love." Robert S. Hunter's expressive voice brings Neal Cassady to life in "'Have you ever seen anyone like Cody Pomeray?...,'" backed by a recording of Kerouac scat-singing. Kerouac himself makes an appearance on this tribute, in a recording where he reads "MacDougal Sreet Blues."

The selections for this CD were culled from much of Kerouac's unpublished work; selections were also made from Pomes All Sizes, Visions of Cody, Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and Book of Blues. The work here represents a wide variety of Kerouac's work, from his "spontaneous" compositions to dreams recorded in a state of half-waking to published articles and letters. Each of the artists brings a particular tone and mood to the work, creating a variety of interpretations. The CD liner notes also include all the selections, as well as paintings, drawings and photographs of and by Kerouac.

Ultimately, Kerouac: kicks joy darkness captures just what its title claims; Kerouac's musings from On the Road, from which the title is taken, are represented here in their myriad appearances and moods. The variety of the artists who came together to read pieces for this CD show not only the impact Kerouac had on the arts, but also the impact the Beat Generation had on American culture and life. It's a well-known fact that Kerouac was not pleased with the direction the Beat Generation took or the way in which it was portrayed by the media; his death from excessive drinking is proof of that. However, I humbly propose that this recording would have pleased Kerouac: a collection of artists from different backgrounds and mediums, converging to experiment with sound, language, and meaning, which was ultimately what Kerouac was all about.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]