Arts: To Be-bop or not to be?

On The Road, the album, finds Jack Kerouac flexing his vocal muscles, too.
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The Independent Culture
That Jack Kerouac could make a typewriter swing, rattling the Remington with staccato bop rhythms as he punched out the endless teletype- roll manuscript of On The Road, is an essential part of Beat legend. That he could also sing like Louis Prima - or at least tried to - is less well known, and perhaps should remain so. However, the discovery of previously lost acetate and tape recordings in the Kerouac archives, and their release on a new CD as Jack Kerouac Reads On The Road, means that "Beat" scholars can now groove to Jack's vocal inventions, whether the author would have wanted them to or not.

Inspired by the metrically adventurous bop he had heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play at Minton's Playhouse, and by the spoken-word albums of the poets Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, and Carl Sandburg, Kerouac began to record his voice on his own reel-to-reel system from 1949 onwards. By the time On The Road was published in 1957, he evidently envisaged a parallel recording career and embarked on a series of commercial albums, encouraged by Allen Ginsberg's praise for his "verve of pronunciation, deep colour of vowels and consonantal bite, exquisite intelligent consciousness in crossing T's and tonguing D's against the teeth with open lips".

The results as collected on the album are of variable quality, but they mostly make for fascinating listening (although sometimes you wouldn't want to listen to them more than once). And Kerouac really could sing. The opening Prima pastiche on the corny standard "Ain't We Got Fun", recorded "circa late 1950s", is little more than an entertaining bagatelle crooned perhaps rather drunkenly against the accompaniment of a cheesy lounge combo, but elsewhere there's some very effective bop vocalise.

The centrepiece of the album, a recently rediscovered tape of Kerouac reading from On The Road at Sterling Sound recording studio in the Fifties, was never released because the producer, Bill Randle, thought that Kerouac was stoned on pot and kept muffing his lines. Whatever the cause of the admittedly eccentric delivery, Kerouac is captured with perfect fidelity on an episode dramatising an impromptu jam session, and when he comes to the moment where the band are playing the standard "Close Your Eyes', he starts to sing the refrain quite superbly. Later on, there's a version of "Come Rain or Come Shine" where, to the backing of a quite serviceable jazz band, Kerouac scat-sings the vocal with considerable panache.

To give the old recordings a more contemporary stamp, the producers have commissioned new musical settings from the composer David Amram - a friend of Kerouac who wrote the original music for Robert Frank's film Pull My Daisy - and Tom Waits, who performs the closing version of the "On The Road" song with the band Primus. Far more Tom Waits than Jack Kerouac - and sounding more like Captain Beefheart than either - the track doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the album and, but for its dubious commercial value, could safely have been left out. As it is, it helps make what is already an extreme case of the curate's egg become eggier still. But as far as history is concerned the singing alone makes the album a valuable, and all-too-human, document.

"Jack Kerouac Reads On The Road" by Rykodisc Records