On the Road, again
Jim Sampas means well. He's a fan of literature and of music, particularly of the '50s variety: bop jazz and beat poets, mainly. So not surprisingly, much of his life revolves around making records with a literary bent. In 1997, he produced kicks joy darkness, a Jack Kerouac tribute album featuring readings and performances by the San Francisco beat legend's contemporaries (Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and spiritual followers both literary (Hunter S. Thompson, Lydia Lunch) and musical (Sonic Youth, Morphine). His current projects include spoken-word albums by British author Paul Auster and neurotic comedian Richard Lewis. Sampas is also a musician in his own right: In 1993, the Boston-based renaissance man released a solo album, Waiting for the Fall, that showcased a serviceable knack for midtempo folk rock.
Sampas, 34, also has family ties to Jack Kerouac. Kerouac's literary archives are administered by the heirs of the writer's third wife, Stella Sampas, which means that Jim, her nephew, gets access to a wealth of Beat Generation materials. So, on October 21, 1994 -- 25 years to the day after Kerouac's death -- Sampas entered a vault in Lowell, Massachusetts, and poked around. He knew that there were a variety of tapes Kerouac had recorded, though he wasn't sure of precisely what. He uncovered a pair of acetates with the cryptic labels of "Charlie Parker" and "Parker Cont." The contents, however, weren't Bird-related. Instead, Sampas found what a lot of beat scholars had spent years searching for: a lengthy passage -- nearly a half-hour -- from On the Road, read by the author himself.
Recorded sometime in the early '60s, the passage comes from "Jazz of the Beat Generation," a segment of the novel proper that Kerouac wrote in 1951. It is also the centerpiece of Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road, released late last year on Rykodisc. The CD also includes a variety of Kerouac ephemera: In a sleepy, husky voice, he sings the jazz standards "Leavin' Town," "When a Woman Loves a Man," and "Ain't We Got Fun" as well as a piece written as a sort of "theme song" to On the Road. The remainder of the album is Kerouac reading his poetry: "Orizaba 210 Blues," published in Book of Blues, and the unpublished "Washington D.C. Blues." Closing out the record, Tom Waits and Primus recast "On the Road" as a jovial blues stomp.
"I think they add a great deal to the Kerouac canon," says Sampas of the newly unearthed recordings. "To hear Jack's voice is to know him better." But if that's the case, Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road allows us to know him as mostly dull and sloppy. Much of the time, Kerouac is muttering, and while he'll occasionally read theatrically, he's more often speaking in a monotone, or rushing through words, or going off on tangents. And while that sort of off-the-cuff, professionalism-be-damned approach is the hallmark of beat writing, it makes for poor listening. The joy of reading On the Road (or, to pick a better example, The Subterraneans) is that the reader gets pushed and pulled by Kerouac's pacing, rushing through frenetic run-on sentences, slowing down, then picking up the pace again. On record, we're stuck with Kerouac being almost uninterested.
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That helps explain why most of the tracks are supported with music recorded specifically for the project. In an effort to punch up the mood, guitarist Victor Juris and Medeski, Martin & Wood's John Medeski perform some light, tasteful jazz for "On the Road." David Amram, who composed and played music behind Kerouac at readings in the 1950s, returns to play an array of instruments on the "Orizaba" and "Washington D.C." tracks.
"That was something that we really thought about a great deal," says Sampas about the decision to add new music to old performances. He says that when the original recordings were made by Kerouac, the writer had a radio playing in the background, and as it would have been difficult to acquire the rights to those songs, it was simpler to just cover them up. In the interest of preserving some semblance of authenticity, however, Sampas notes that "it was important to have somebody like David Amram do it."
He adds, "To be quite frank, it was just something that we felt would definitely enhance the performance. Kerouac singing 'On the Road' with its pops and clicks [from the deteriorating acetate source]...it might be nice for a scholar to go ahead and have just that, but to listen to it repeated times, that required something more."
Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who co-produced the Kerouac disc, is one of those scholars. "I'm sure the purists would rather hear things unembellished," he says over the phone from New York City. "And I would have to agree with that. I'm sort of in that camp." But he acknowledges the differences in creating an album that's archival and scholarly and one that's designed for wider consumption. "The main factor is that we didn't want this record to just be for rabid Kerouac fans," he says.
Regardless of whether that "something more" Sampas speaks of actually illuminates the voice, history, and legacy of Jack Kerouac, a similar approach works perfectly on another Sampas-produced CD of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading his landmark 1958 poem cycle A Coney Island of the Mind. Released simultaneously with the Kerouac disc, the process of recording the work was a straightforward one. Earlier this year, the City Lights Bookstore owner and San Francisco poet laureate entered Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, just down the block from City Lights, and read through the entire set of poems, as well as a handful of additional works. Meanwhile, in Boston, Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley was hunkered down with a copy of Coney Island, reading through Ferlinghetti's rich, funny, and deeply conversational works.
Sampas had approached Colley with the idea of working on a CD almost immediately after kicks joy darkness, though actual recording didn't begin until a year ago. "I was very eager to do something on the side, just to keep the juices flowing," says Colley from his home in Boston. "It was a great opportunity for me to put some of the work I'd been doing with a poet." (With the death of Morphine singer and bassist Mark Sandman onstage in Rome in July, Colley's main musical focus these days is on soundtrack work, though he is finishing work on Morphine's final record, slated for release in January.)
The success of the Coney Island disc has much to do with Ferlinghetti's voice. The poems were originally designed to be read aloud, and Ferlinghetti reads with an engaging, jazzy tone. For "5," which characterizes Jesus Christ as "a kind of carpenter / From some square-type place / Like Galilee," he pulls off a New Jersey accent, sounding like he's speaking conspiratorially and awed, as if chatting to a friend in a bar. Colley, to his credit, composes to keep out of Ferlinghetti's way -- he and a number of additional musicians produced piano- and sax-based bop fragments that circle around the words instead of muting them. "I think once you take on accompaniment mode in terms of poetry," says Colley, "where poetry should be heard on its own, to add anything to it you have to be kind of leery...That was definitely the No. 1 criteria, to try to create a sound and create a mood without overpowering the poetry."
Colley was happy to contribute something. After all, musicians share a lot with the beats, at least in how we like to remember the beat life: long, thrilling travels; nights in clubs filled with ecstatic poetry and music; a learning opportunity on every corner. "Anybody who's spent time on the road can appreciate the mentality and the philosophy of the beats," says Colley. "For me, it was always kind of a beacon. In the darkest hours, when we're sitting and wondering, 'How the hell did we get here,' Route 66 in the middle of Oklahoma, you think about those elements. For me, they were sort of our grandfathers, guiding the way."
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