Friday, June 17, 2011

The Last Word - Jack Kerouac

The Last Word
Jack Kerouac
Rhino RI 70939-D

This is the fourth album in Rhino's "Jack Kerouac Collection" box set.  It consists of outtakes and unreleased recordings.  Side one features two 1958 outtakes from "Blues and Haikus."  The first track is "Old Western Movies" which was unpublished.  It is very slight, it is easy to see why it didn't make it on the original album.  The most interesting aspect to it is the patter between Kerouac, the musicians Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and producer Bob Thiele.  There are a couple of false takes before the master.  In take one Cohn and Sims jam a little which prompts some scat vocalizing from Kerouac.  Take two breaks down when the musicians overshadow Kerouac who is apparently too far from the mike.  Thiele tries to instruct Cohn about how he should play, but Kerouac tells the musician to play whatever he wants.  Thiele mentions in the booklet that accompanies the box set, that he didn't think the musicians actually paid any attention to what Kerouac was reading, they just played whatever they felt like and listening to these outtakes I'm inclined to agree.  Kerouac sometimes responds to the music, but the musicians never respond to his work.  On the master take Cohn simply tells Kerouac where to come in and starts playing the piano.  Kerouac sings the beginning of the poem, it is more musical than any of the takes actually used on the original record.  I like it, he's not a great singer, but it is effective and it swings.  Overall it is a nice performance albeit a bit sloppy, too bad the poem is so weak.  I like when Kerouac sings the beginning of the other track, which is "Conclusion of the Railroad Earth," but then it is all downhill from there.  From a literary standpoint this is a strong piece, but Kerouac doesn't read it very well.  He sounds like he's drunk to me.  It is kind of fun but kind of annoying too, like a drunk at a party.  The track could have easily fit on the original "Blues And Haikus" album which is only about 30 minutes long.  I presume that the performance was considered unacceptable, but there is also a little static on the track that might have led to the decision to omit it as well.  Side two opens with Kerouac at the Hunter College Playhouse in 1958 giving a presentation at the "Is There a Beat Generation" forum.  Kerouac is in great form, the audience seems to inspire him.  He tells jokes, impersonates Ben Hecht and reads a rollicking poem about Harpo Marx.  I think he is more charismatic here than on any of the original records.  Not only is Kerouac very entertaining, but the speech itself is extremely interesting.  When he's really on he doesn't need music, he swings on his own.  The final track is from Steve Allen's television show in 1959.  Kerouac reads from "On The Road" and "Visions of Cody" with Allen accompanying him on piano in a very similar manner to the album they did together, "Poetry for the Beat Generation."  The reading here is arguably the smoothest and most disciplined on any of the albums perhaps the giant television audience intimidated Kerouac.  I enjoy it but he seems a bit stifled.  This is a really worthwhile album despite the marginal nature of the recordings.  I think it is just as interesting and revealing as any of the three original albums.  I've read a few biographies and oral histories about Kerouac and this record seems to capture the man the way his associates viewed him.  Recommended to anyone who ever wondered what it would be like to hang out with Jack Kerouac. 

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