Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen: Poetry for the Beat Generation

Period performances of Jack Kerouac reciting poems to the piano of Steve Allen

Although Jack Kerouac was the “voice of his (beat) generation,” it was his writing – rather than his speaking – voice that became well-known. His three albums of spoken word poetry and prose, two from 1959 and one from 1960, received little circulation or critical notice upon their initial issue, and have only been spottily reissued ever since. Rhino’s 1990 box set The Jack Kerouac Collection included all three albums, as does the recent The Complete Collection, and individual album reissues have been available off and on as imports. Rock Beat now adds domestic reissues of Kerouac’s first two albums (originally released on the indie Hanover-Signature label), Poetry for the Beat Generation and Blues and Haikus.

Poetry for the Beat Generation teams Kerouac with jazz pianist (and television personality) Steve Allen for fourteen poems, several of which were unpublished at the time. The album was inspired by an impromptu pairing of Kerouac and Allen atNew York’s Village Vanguard, and the subsequent single-take studio session lasted only an hour. Allen’s improvised backings are lyrical and nearly sentimental in their melodiousness, more background late-night tinkling than challenging bop. Kerouac’s recitations roam more freely, powered by the strength of his rhythmically riffed words. His poems are percussive stories that break through any regulation of punctuation, paragraph or stanza, and his New England-accented voice is animated and rye.

Originally recorded for Dot, the album was dropped by label-head Randy Wood, reportedly due to concerns about the edginess of the content. But having your counter-culture expression suppressed in the 1950s wasn’t exactly news, and the album quickly found distribution through an independent label. Yet even with Kerouac’s literary fame in full flower (he’d published On the Road in 1957 and The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums in 1958), his debut album was little known, and for many years, a rarity. RockBeat’s reissue includes the album’s original fourteen tracks and liner notes by New York Times reviewer (and early Kerouac proponent) Gilbert Millstein. If you’ve enjoyed reading Kerouac’s writing, you’ll be further enlightened by the voice and rhythm he gives to these readings. [©2012 Hyperbolium]

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