Graded on a Curve:
VA, Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness

Jack Kerouac was framed. He’ll forever be associated primarily with On the Road, his 1957 novel chronicling the days he spent crisscrossing America with his id, Neal Cassady. Written in a simple prose punctuated by flashes of poetic brilliance, it put Kerouac in a box he’s yet to escape. He’s the slightly above average novelist whose written work is judged less by its quality than by the effect it had on an entire generation, which included the likes of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Which does Kerouac a grave disservice, because he was one of the most daring and innovative novelists and poets of his time.

1997’s Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness won’t in and of itself rehabilitate the popular opinion on the Lowell, Massachusetts native’s literary standing, but it will come as a revelation to folks whose only points of reference with the man are On the Road and (maybe) The Dharma Bums. Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness features a variety of artists reading Kerouac’s work (the exception being Morphine’s “Kerouac,” which falls into the realm of tribute). Participants include Kerouac’s contemporaries (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti), as well as an assortment of writers, musicians and actors.

A few will come as no surprise (Johnny Depp, duh and Hunter S. Thompson) but others come completely out of left field. They include comedian Richard Lewis, actor Matt Dillon, and—believe it or not—Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. How Tyler found his way onto the album is beyond me; might he be a world-renowned Kerouac scholar? Or did he simply wander into the studio by coincidence, go into a fugue state, and dredge “Dream: Us Kids Swim off a Gray Pier…” from America’s collective unconscious? Either way he does a whiz-bang job.

There are few things worse than a laundry list, but I’m going to name names in the hope that the appearance of one of your favorite artists will spur you on to give the album a spin. They include Lydia Lunch, Michael Stipe, Warren Zevon, Jim Carroll, Morphine, Joe Strummer, Helium, Eddie Vedder, Juliana Hatfield, Patti Smith, Inger Lorre, Jeff Buckley, John Cale, folkie Eric Anderson, Maggie Estep & the Spitters, Lenny Kaye, and various members of Sonic Youth. Quite a few tracks feature artists in tandem: Lorre and Jeff Buckley show up as a team, Helium backs Ferlinghetti, and Strummer provides backing music for Kerouac himself, whose own recording career includes three studio albums and two posthumous compilations. All are well worth owning.

All of these readings—and in the case of Maggie Estep & the Spitters’ “Skid Row Wine,” songs—will leave you breathless. Tracks like Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter’s “Have You Ever Seen Anyone Like Cody Pomeray?” demonstrate that the true source of Kerouac’s work wasn’t Thomas Wolfe (a writer he’s often compared to) but bebop—Kerouac was as much jazz musician as he was writer. You’ll be swept away by Kerouac’s mad improvisations and crazy rush of words—it’s difficult to imagine him writing in an age without Charlie Parker. The saxophone and bop rhythm of “Letter to John Clellon Holmes” make the link explicit, as do the sax and bongos on Matt Dillon’s “Mexican Loneliness.” And the piano backing of Michael Wolff—one-time sideman of Cannonball Adderly—lends Warren Zevon’s reading of “Running Through–Chinese Poem Song” a Thelonius Monk vibe.

Other excerpts are placed in more contemporary settings. Eddie Vedder (backed by Campbell 200 and Sadie 7) turns “Hymn” into an avant garde noise fest; John Cale unsuccessfully transforms “The Moon” into an incongruous English sound poem backed by orchestra; and Inger Lorre (who shamelessly over emotes) and Jeff Buckley lend “Angel Mine” a Nico feel. In some cases the contemporary touch is perfect; Maggie Estep & the Spitters’ spiky punk edge on “Skid Row Wine” shouldn’t work, but does, despite Estep’s anger—Kerouac was a sad, lonely, and even embittered guy, and rarely if ever expressed anger in his work. His attitude towards life was one of pity, not rage.

I have my favorites. Juliana Hatfield’s take on Kerouac’s playful “Silly Goofball Poems” is enchanting. In the poem Kerouac defines the creatures of the animal world, and the results are lines like “The moose is a noble dolt,” “the sloth is a Chinese poet upside down,” and “the rhinoceros is the biggest bore of them all.” Hunter’s “Have You Ever Seen Anyone Like Cody Pomeray?” is a tour de force character study of Neal Cassady that includes lines describing his long-time running buddy as “a young guy with a boney face that looks like it’s been pressed against iron bars to get that dogged rocky look of suffering.”

On “Running Through–Chinese Poem Song”—Kerouac’s complaint that wine and poetry don’t get their fair due “in this nightmare land”—Zevon has Kerouac’s voice and phrasing down flat as he tosses off lines like “no one respects the cat asleep” and “I’m a fool without a river/And a boat/And a flower suit.” And Johnny Depp and Come capture the nighttime rush of Cassady’s love of acceleration in “Madroad Driving,” this despite the distracting echo effect on Depp’s voice. And Joe Strummer’s beat bop backdrop to Kerouac’s reading of sound poem “MacDougal Street Blues” hits exactly the right note.

If the LP has a shortcoming it’s that the listener has no way to know where these novel excerpts and poems come from. Should you be entranced by, say, Michael Stipe’s “My Gang” and want to read more, good luck finding its source. I’ve read much of Kerouac’s work and suspect it comes from his fantastical novel of his childhood Dr. Sax, but I can’t be sure. While a few are self evident (Lee Renaldo and Dana Colley’s “Letter to John Clellon Holmes” for instance), most will lead you on a wild beatnik chase. (On a side note, I’m also bothered by the fact that women are under-represented, people of color are absent altogether, and Lydia Lunch makes an appearance.)

Jack Kerouac wrote seventeen novels, and only two of them (1966’s Satori in Paris and the posthumous 1971 embarrassment Pic) make worthy reading for anyone interested in 20th Century American literature. Kerouac was more than just the face of the Beat Generation who wrote a novel generally looked upon as a work for late adolescents. He was an innovator—a writer of experimental prose and poetry exploring the limits of pure sound. The close of his 1962 novel Big Sur isn’t prose, or poetry—it doesn’t even have words. It’s Kerouac’s attempt to capture the sound of crashing waves and retreating water, written late at night on a beach on the Northern California coast.

In its own way Kerouac’s work is every bit as daring and innovative as that of James Joyce or William Faulkner. You could argue it’s even better, because while Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece Ulysses marked a revolutionary step forward in the novel form, Steven Tyler never recorded an excerpt from it. And if that isn’t the litmus test for immortal literature, what is? Readers, listeners–walk this way.


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