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Musicians Read, Riff On Kerouac

March 02, 1997|Angie Chuang | Angie Chuang is a Times staff writer

Musician-producer Jim Sampas has always had an inkling that musicians felt a special kinship to his uncle Jack Kerouac's writing. What he didn't know was that a simple idea for a spoken-word reading at a Cambridge, Mass., cafe would evolve three years later into a tribute album featuring the likes of Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, punk-rock priestess Patti Smith and actor Johnny Depp.

"Kerouac--kicks joy darkness," slated for an April 8 release on Rykodisc, features musicians, writers and actors delivering spoken-word interpretations of various Kerouac works, some unpublished. Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo was associate producer of the album and read from Kerouac's letters for one of the tracks.

Several musicians have cited the influence of Kerouac, the legendary Beat writer most famous for his '50s novel "On the Road."

Because Kerouac's writing was influenced by jazz musicians, Sampas said, he "wanted to capture something of the spontaneity, that feeling of just sort of riffing."

That's why the bulk of the readings are performed by artists who do not usually perform spoken word, he says. "There is a freshness to it. All the artists take a poem, piece of prose or letter and make it their own."

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe reads from "My Gang" and accompanies himself on organ. Smith turned "Last Hotel" into a song. Vedder reads a poem titled "Him," with members of the band Hovercraft providing a musical backdrop.

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Juliana Hatfield, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and John Cale also perform tracks, as do actors Matt Dillon and Richard Lewis.

"This was my dream list," Sampas says. "They were artists I admired who I either knew or thought had been influenced by Kerouac's writing."

Ranaldo was able to get him in contact with many of the artists--who didn't require much arm-twisting, Sampas said.

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