To say Jack Kerouac is cool is like saying Queen Elizabeth II owns a certain amount of property. In many ways, he was the original rockstar, speaking openly about his yearning for sex, fulfilment and strategy. He was Bob Dylan before there was Bob Dylan, he was John Lennon before there was John Lennon, he was punk long before The Ramones and The Sex Pistols set about changing the music industry.
In 1997, R.E.M vocalist Michael Stipe participated in an album that melded Kerouac’s poetry to rock beats. The Clash’s frontman Joe Strummer recorded many of the instruments, leaving actors Johnny Depp and Matt Dillon to read excerpts of the author’s catalogue. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler recorded a strangely moving rendition of ‘Dream: Us Kids Swim off a Gray Pier…’, and wisely avoids any unnecessary poses that might have detracted from the words in question. The compilation was tidily named Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness.
Punk starlet Patti Smith participated in the recording, backed by Lenny Kaye. Captivated by Kerouac’s writing, Smith recognised the literary form as one that was close to her heart. “I knew Allen [Ginsberg] since I was quite young,” she recalled. “I met Johnny [Depp]when he came to one of my concerts a few years ago. We talked and then started off on Allen. We both love books and we spent a lot of time talking about [Jack] Kerouac and Dylan Thomas. Johnny has letters of [Antonin] Artaud and Dylan Thomas. We spoke a lot about literature and music and became very good friends. A lot of our friendship is book-based.”
Lydia Lunch performs a scintillating version of ‘Bowery Blues’, Kerouac’s meditation of life in a linear form. “The story of man,” bellows Lunch, her lips pressed for the next syllable, “Makes me sick. Inside, outside,I do not know why. Something so conditional. And all talk, Should hurt me so.”
Kerouac makes an appearance, his voice rising over the mosaic Strummer has laid underneath him. Strummer enjoyed the project immensely. “The funniest thing about that is that Jim Sampas sends a cassette of Kerouac talking at a poetry reading and somebody in the back of the bar is playing Frank Sinatra on the jukebox,” chuckled The Clash leader.
Adding: “So in between Kerouac saying, ‘Nobody looked up,’ you can hear Frank going [sings], ‘Come fly with me….’ So Jim Sampas calls me and says, ‘Can you kind of cover up Sinatra, because we don’t want to get sued.’ So I laid in the music behind Kerouac as best I could, but I could still hear Frank going, ‘Come fly with me.’ So I had to invent this absurd kind of hyena-cum-Shangri-Las ‘oooo-ahhh’ backing part to pop in at obtuse moments to cover Frank whenever he happened to bleed onto Kerouac’s recording. I was laughing to myself all night. It was the most peculiar task I’ve ever had yet.”
And yet this performance ‘MacDougal Street Blues’ is the most assured of the lot, precisely because it comes from the creator himself. Rather than envision “Samantabhadra’s Unceasing Compassion”, the poet simply lunges into the back of his mind to locate the memory that set him on this life course.
The 1990s was a time of revived interest in the Beat movement: Paul McCartney performed with Allen Ginsberg for a rousing ballad ‘Ballad of the Skeletons’. Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher nominated Kerouac’s On The Road as his Desert Island book, with the added caveat that it was the only book he’d ever read. And Northern Irish singer Van Morrison recorded a rabble-rousing rendition of ‘On Hyndford Street’, soaked in Kerouac’s influence and written with great reverence to the American beat poets of yore.