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'The Jack Kerouac Collection'

October 21, 1990|JOHN ESPEY

There are classics and classics. One person's classic is another person's cult, just as one age's classic may become the next age's cliche.

So while Jack Kerouac is certainly not everyone's "classic," "On the Road" (1957) is surely "the" novel of the late '50s and the '60s. And the three vinyl recordings made by Kerouac are in one sense already beyond being classics, if that is possible. For years they have been virtually unobtainable. Now, in "The Jack Kerouac Collection," they, and more, can be heard, since material that has never been published has been added.

Thus two readings from "Blues and Haikus" are released here for the first time, and in a handsome accompanying booklet we learn revealing details not only of Kerouac's readings but of the circumstances of some of his productions. Thus his first successful album, with Steve Allen playing "unobtrusive musical accompaniment" to Kerouac's poems, was performed between pulls from Kerouac's pint of Thunderbird--Allen swallowing this rare vintage out of courtesy--and at the end the engineers said, "Great, that was a great first take." "It's the only take," Jack announced and Steve said, "That's right."

The success of this first album prompted the suggestion of a second, to which Jack agreed, saying "I want Zoot Sims and Al Cohn to accompany my readings." This was arranged by Bob Thiele, director of Dot Records, who writes: "At the conclusion of the session, Zoot and Al packed their horns and departed. When it came time for playbacks, I couldn't find Jack. I finally found him squatted in the corner of the studio, crying, 'How could they leave me without listening?' " Thiele undertook to console Kerouac with a few beers in an 8th Street bar, a gesture that ended with Jack throwing empties into the street and Bob flagging down two cabs, putting Jack in one and himself in the other.

One of the most revealing sections in this four-cassette collection is "Is There a Beat Generation?" taken from the forum of the same name sponsored by Brandeis University at the Hunter College Playhouse on Nov. 6, 1958. Just as interesting as Kerouac's statement is Gerald Nicosia's account of the entire event, which turned out essentially to be a debate, with Kerouac's opponents "Ashley Montague, an elderly Princeton anthropologist and the most benign of the lot; James Wechsler, editor of the New York Post, who at one time had been considered a radical; and Kingsley Amis . . ."

Jack, who led off, was only five minutes into his speech when the presiding dean announced that his time was up. "When Jack continued reading, he was repeatedly prodded by the sponsors to hurry up and stop hogging the others' time. . . . The whole suit-and-tie lot were regarding him in his red-and-black-checked shirt as some sort of monster, which only spurred Jack to milk the role."

Another high spot is the section of "On the Road" read on Steve Allen's Plymouth Show of Nov. 16, 1959. Truman Capote's dismissal of Kerouac's writing as mere "typing" is too well known to quote except for the half-truth that it contains. Kerouac wrote for the ear, not the eye. I am not being particularly original when I say that, just as with Gertrude Stein, one has not read Kerouac until one has heard Kerouac. Here is the chance to listen.

Academe has never been kind to Kerouac, to put it at its mildest. But if the day has not already come, it surely will, when some inquiring student raises a hand and asks, "Just who were and what was the Beat Generation?" And when it does, any honest jazz-ignorant instructor in 20th-Century American literature--and some, believe it or not, already exist--can say, "You'll learn far more about it from 'The Jack Kerouac Collection' than from me."


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