On this rerelease of his debut spoken-world album from 1959, Jack Kerouac, one of the lead voices of the Beat generation of writers in the 1950s and 1960s, reads selections of his own work over the sympathetic accompaniment of the pianist Steve Allen.It features poems collected in Mexico City Blues, Old Angel Midnight, Heaven & Other Poems and a number of unpublished works, in which the poet tells stories through what he termed "bop prosody".
As with the work of Allen Ginsberg, whose reading of Howl made him an overnight sensation and a figure of some controversy, Kerouac's poetry benefits from being read aloud.
Some of this work is very much of its time, with references to music and society that were in vogue in the late Fifties. Kerouac's talk of "zen magic monks" and "how good this ham 'n' eggs is..." owes more to jazz than it does to Wordsworth, or even to Walt Whitman, a massive influence on the Beat generation of writers.
The rhythms of Kerouac's voice and words often sound like an improvised jazz solo, head-strong and forceful. At other times, such as on "One Mother", the delicate swirl of Allen's piano cushions the more reflective elements of the poet's words. There are essays here about jazz and jazz musicians, such as "Deadbelly", "Dave Brubeck", and "Charlie Parker", that have a suitably effective piano parts. Kerouac also talks of other writers he admires, including William Carlos Williams.
Some of these pieces are less than two minutes long, but "October in the Railroad Earth", which opens the album, racks up more than seven minutes. Much of this material was unpublished in Kerouac's lifetime, and owes a lot to the atmosphere conjured up by the duo on these recordings. "I Had a Slouch Hat Too One Time", "Bowery Blues" and "Abraham" sound improvised, but it is the verve of Kerouac that carries these pieces along.
Long passages of prose are also included on the album. "October in the Railroad Earth" is a tale about life in San Francisco and an impending "commuter frenzy". Kerouac's voice sounds suitably ragged and tired in this assessment of the lives of office workers and commuters. The piece also looks at society and abstract morality, and features Kerouac's warm, baritone scat-singing.
Although he was most widely regarded for his prose, Kerouac was also a talented poet and performer of his own work, as this CD attests to.
Ben Macnair, administrative assistant, Lichfield, Staffordshire