'Blues and Haikus' Captures Jack Kerouac at a Transitional Phase in His Career
Blues and Haikus captures Jack Kerouac at a high point even when he was already starting to slip away from us.
Blues and Haikus
Real Gone Music
6 April 2018
Jack Kerouac, along with Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, William S. Burroughs, Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman, Brion Gysin, Gary Snyder, and many more, was part of a group of writers and artists known as the Beats. While they had a variety of approaches and aesthetics, they all pushed against the boundaries and definitions of normal in America. Many of the Beats are still writing and working today. The Beats were and are a major force in American literature and culture.
In addition to the Beat Museum with readings and events in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, ongoing events and yearly celebrations pay tribute to the Beats such as Fleeting Moments, Floating Worlds, and the Beat Generation: The Photography of Allen Ginsberg at the University of Toronto from January 29, 2018 to April 27, 2018, The Dream Machine: The Beat Generation & The Counterculture, 1940-1975 at Emory University from September 28, 2017 through May 15, 2018, and the annual Kerouac festival. Opened in 1974, the fully accredited Naropa University in Colorado offers writing programs collected within the Jack Kerouac School of disembodied poetics.
After writing for years, traveling around with unpublished manuscripts in his rucksack that would later be worth millions, releasing a first novel that gained no attention, Kerouac found himself suddenly and uncomfortably in the spotlight with Gilbert Millstein's September 5, 1957 review in the New York Times of On the Road, Kerouac's second published novel. Heaping on the praise, Millstein said that in places "the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking". Millstein also wrote that "finally there is some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction either for insight, style, or technical virtuosity". On the Road "is a major novel", he concluded. Kerouac's life changed overnight.
Recorded just a couple of year later, Blues and Haikus captures Kerouac during a transitional time in his life and career, full of energy and dealing/struggling with fame. Despite the title, jazz is more the musical style of the album than blues. Nonetheless, it is an engaging fusion of two unique styles of expression. Al Cohn and Zoot Sims are jazz musicians who supply saxophone and piano.
Kerouac's use of the haiku form keeps the original core of brief, deep images of nature expressed in three short lines. Two examples from the record are "Useless! useless! / —heavy rain driving / Into the sea" and "The bottoms of my shoes / are clean / From walking in the rain." The lengthy "American Haikus" track is a collection of Kerouac haiku accompanied by music. The basic format is that Kerouac reads a haiku and then the saxophone plays, reinforcing moments of sustained contemplation and bursts of energy while offering additional sounds that complement the action of each poem. This track is the standout of the collection, and the one listeners should try first.
Charming in its intimacy, the piano-driven "Hard Hearted Old Farmer" begins with laughter and studio banter before the formal track kicks in. This time Kerouac's voice and the instruments play together. Instead of reading, Kerouac sings. The performance is not enough to wonder why Kerouac didn't pick up a singing career, but it's not bad either. Seamlessly connecting both tracks, the piano spills over into "The Last Hotel / Some of the Dharma" with Kerouac reading and the sax catching up a little later. Kerouac's excitement picks up in the second half before dropping out and letting the instruments finish out the final minute.
"Poems from the Unpublished Book of Blues" begins with some explanations and questions from Kerouac to the musicians before he begins reading the first of 21 choruses from San Francisco Blues (there are 80 total). Kerouac brings life to the page and adds details like imitating the sound of a train in the 19th chorus. Appropriately the track ends after the first of two stanzas in the 21st chorus; "all wrapt up", proclaims Kerouac, ending with a final shout out to "Zoot!" Dig up Kerouac's words for each track, follow along on the page while listening to the album, and you will appreciate it more.
The second of three records recorded in just a couple of years, Blues and Haikus captures Kerouac at a high point even when he was already starting to slip away from us. The album was first released in 1959. He finished the majority of his writing and most of his best writing before then. Kerouac's life over the next decade was mostly a gradual descent as he guzzled himself into alcoholism, lived with his mother and his third wife, cut off many of his former associates, turned conservative, and died at just 47.
Blues and Haikus is also a vital, living artifact of a time before everyone started filming and recording every reading, concert, appearance, and utterance and then Pro Tooling it all to a pristine death. Turn off the television, turn off the cell phone, close the laptop, flip the tablet over, and lay a towel on the Echo. Turn everything off. Turn it all off. Put the world on pause. Put the album on, sit still, and just listen.