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Jack's Back

Various artists
Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness

Talk about timing.
Kicks Joy Darkness, an inventive take on selected Jack Kerouac poems and prose, hit the bins less than a day before Kerouac's onetime cohort, Allen Ginsberg, trocheed his last couplet and joined his old Beat-buddy in the sky. Ginsberg's passing adds a couple of twisted hooks to Kicks Joy Darkness, especially since Ginsberg is one of the 25 performers who put voice and music to Kerouac's words.

But Ginsberg's shiny new ghost is also notable for the way it pales amid the CD's overall muse. Kicks Joy Darkness isn't a history lesson, or some condescending excuse to trot out aging hipsters for a backward glance at a trend gone by. This is a contemporary CD. It gives life to a distinctive voice from the 1950s as rendered by latter-day actors, poets and musicians. It's an ambitious project--sometimes overly so--and the self-anointed carriers of Kerouac's torch will no doubt denounce the disc as irreverent. But pissing off purists helped make Kerouac an icon. His legacy could use another shot of controversy.

Kicks Joy Darkness starts with a jazzy, mostly instrumental piece by Morphine. The sax-bass-drums combo plays a bopped-up, hip-smart homage that sets the CD's tone by bridging postmodern detachment with the original Beat movement's passion. Morphine's "song" also makes it clear that what follows will be far from the typical collection of histrionic, cotton-mouthed spoken-word performances. Indeed, the disc's most impressive moments come when subtle snatches of music catch up and ride alongside the legendary writer's words. Performance artist Maggie Estep, for instance, leads a New York band called the Spitters in a postpunk assault that gives Kerouac's "Skid Row Wine" a nicely buffered angst. The Boston band Come joins surprise performer Johnny Depp in a captivating take on "Visions of Cody," which, along with the music, features Depp's manipulated vocals effectively wrenched by what sounds like two packs of recently chain-smoked cigarettes. Another unlikely presence, Eddie Vedder, is equally expressive on "Hymn," his sullen, reflective voice mumbling hesitantly over shards of ambient noise put out by guitarist Cambell 2000 and bassist Sadie. Also nice is the way John Cale's instantly dramatic voice drifts under moving clouds of synth chords on "The Moon." And Juliana Hatfield is an inspired choice for "Silly Goofball Poems." Her little-girl voice combines with folky guitar chords to emote the necessary measure of naivete.

On cuts where musical accompaniment is either nonexistent or supplanted by other noises, the results are mixed. On the high side--very high--is Hunter S. Thompson, who needs little more than his genuinely bizarre persona to turn a brief excerpt from "Letter to William S. Burroughs" into a weird and compelling read. Thompson follows by reciting his own "Ode to Jack," a piece he seems to have composed and titled on the spot: "Jack was not innocent; he ran over dogs," Thompson pronounces with his rambling rasp, before concluding, "Jack was an artist in every way. I admire the dog thing most of all."

More substantive--if not nearly as effective--is Ginsberg's dry read of "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues (Choruses 1-9)" recorded last year before a fawning audience at a Kerouac tribute in New York. It's noted in the CD's press release that Ginsberg would have read the 10th chorus of the unpublished piece, but the page it was printed on got lost when the piece was faxed to Ginsberg's home the day of the show. As for the performance, it's an old-fashioned, no-frills, yawn-inducing read. Ginsberg's status as a Beat Generation elder is unquestionable, but here, alongside the more inventive sounds and expressive voices riffing on the CD's other cuts, the Beat vet comes off like the embodiment of the word "venerable." Maybe he should have told the story of the fax faux pas instead.

Other familiar names are similarly unspectacular. William Burroughs assumes a tedious, unconvincing drawl on "Old Western Movies," and Patti Smith's hipper-than-thou rendition of "The Last Hotel," backed by guitarists Lenny Kaye and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, feels purposely exclusive. Compare Smith's condescending tone with the CD's preceding cut, Rob Buck and Danny Chauvin's take on "Mexico Rooftop," with its subtle recitation backed by a gripping soundtrack of linear, ambient guitars. Here, as throughout the CD, it's the unknown or more unlikely names that take chances, leaving the "hip-wazee" back in the past, stuck in staid expectations.

Thus, a heretofore artificially hip actor like Matt Dillon, reading "Mexican Loneliness" in a low-key but evocative manner, can outshine a Robert Hunter, the better pedigreed Grateful Dead lyricist, who recites an excerpt from "Visions of Cody" as he drives in his car with a tape of a scat-singing Kerouac spitting from the speakers. The Hunter piece, loaded with authenticity, is slowed by its been-there-done-that feel; Dillon sounds like he discovered Kerouac last week.

Not all of the choices work. Only God and producer Jim Sampas know why the perpetually anxious comedian Richard Lewis was chosen to perform the longest piece on the disc, the unpublished "America's New Trinity of Love: Dean, Brando, Presley." The overeager Lewis reportedly did his homework in preparing for the role, going so far as to watch old film clips of Kerouac. Lewis should have spent the time either finding some musicians to help him out or finding himself a new agent.

Still, most of the CD's surprises work. The results make Kicks Joy Darkness a revelation, an often invigorating venture into an otherwise exhausted art form. The disc also makes it clear that with fresh interpretations and an open mind, the Beat will go on--even as its early champions die off, literally and figuratively.

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Ted Simons