Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen: Poetry for the Beat Generation

Facts and Stats: Poetry for the Beat Generation is the debut spoken word album of American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). It was originally released in 1959 in the US in mono by Dot Records (in a highly limited number) then “re-issued” three times in the same year by Hanover (co-founded by Bob Thiele and Steve Allen so they could release Kerouac on vinyl).

It languished in the wilderness until a US re-issue on CD in 1990 (with extra bonus audio from the Steve Allen Plymouth Show, November 1959 “Readings from On the Road and Visions of Cody”, Rhino Records) and finally for Europe in 2008 (Zonophone). In 2012 it was re-issued yet again on CD for the US market (twice by Rockbeat Records), and then it was back to vinyl (“Beatnik smoke” and red gold marbled variants) for 2017’s re-issue by Real Gone Music. The album is also included in the CD box set The Jack Kerouac Collection (Rhino, 1990) and has no doubt been bootlegged countless times over the years.

This re-release on milky clear vinyl (along with Blues and Haikus on tobacco tan vinyl) is to celebrate Kerouac’s 100th birthday.

Kerouac first performed with TV personality, comedian, and musician Steve Allen (1921-2000) in December 1957 at the Village Vanguard in New York; Kerouac was struggling during his first set, drunk and barely standing, but was rescued by the last-minute intervention of Allen who joined him to add a relaxed piano accompaniment. Bob Thiele, vice president at Dot Records, suggested Kerouac and Allen repeat their performance in a recording studio; Kerouac may have been competitively inspired by Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s recent spoken word album Poetry Readings in the Cellar (1957) to put his voice down on tape for posterity.

The precise date of the session is unknown, although the booklet to The Jack Kerouac Collection (1990) suggests it was possibly recorded in March 1958. According to Steve Allen there was no rehearsal; Kerouac arrived with a suitcase and removed a roll of long white paper with other pages and gradually assembled what he was to read from a music stand. This contradicts Kerouac’s account, who suggested he was picking things to read at random “as if blindfolded”, which was part of “the goof”.

They recorded 14 tracks in an hour; at the close, one of the engineers announced “that was a great first take”, for Kerouac to reply “it’s the only take”.

When the album was ready for release some 15 months later, Randy Wood, the president of Dot Records, was concerned by the language and subject matter, cancelling the release and denouncing the recording in the trade papers as tasteless and questionable, but still 100 promo copies escaped [as of writing, Discogs has one listed for sale at $3,999.99, and an accompanying comment says there are thought to be less than 50 in existence]. Thiele left the record company over the dispute and received the master tape in the parting deal, the album finally officially released in June 1959.

Pat Thomas wrote liner notes for this new vinyl edition, although they haven’t ended up on the release; Rock and the Beat Generation made them available to read on Substack. Thomas comments that Kerouac’s voice on the record reminded why he has captured the imagination of so many musicians – “because it’s 20th Century ‘Wild West’ Americana, it’s sex and drugs and music (jazz), it’s a life without rules or restrictions. It’s simply ‘feeling free’!”

Dot Records (1959)

Our Review: although there is no new material, this re-issue will undoubtedly appeal to collectors due to the new colour vinyl.

If you haven’t heard the album before, these are relaxed recordings of Kerouac reading to the backing of Steve Allen’s “cocktail” piano. The standout of the fourteen tracks is the longest – “October in the Railroad Earth”, an evocative prose poem recalling Kerouac’s experience as a “student brakeman” on the Southern Pacific Railroad, which clacks along as Kerouac hoped – like a steam engine pulling a “one-hundred-car freight”.

Those familiar with Kerouac will spot some favourite concerns, from the Oedipal falling in love of “One Mother”, to his strong interest and connection with jazz. “Deadbelly”, musically more of a slow blues than jazz, references “old man Mo, early American jazz pianist, [who] had a grandson called Deadbelly. There’s express reference to jazz musicians in the sprightly “Dave Brubeck” and the sketch of “Charlie Parker” (who “looked like Buddha” and was called a “perfect musician”). “Goofing at the Table” [the 80th chorus of Mexico City Blues (1959] is an upbeat bebop ode to café culture and hanging around with friends, showing off Kerouac’s versatility with language.

Kerouac is best known for his “spontaneous prose” witnessed in well-known novels like On The Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958) but he was also an accomplished poet, with various collections of his poetry published in his lifetime and post-humorously. Here at times he reads excerpts of poems, including the engaging “I Had a Slouch Hat Too One Time” [a section from his poem “Orizaba 210 Blues” from his collection Book of Blues (1995)] and “The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception” [from the 211th chorus of Mexico City Blues (1959)].

Kerouac’s voice is warm and melodious, and he turns in some charming performances: “The Sounds of the Universe Coming in My Window” and “McDougal Street Blues” are brought alive by Kerouac’s fine descriptions of daily life. “I’d Rather Be Thin Than Famous” is full of good humour, a reminder that there is more to Kerouac than “tortured genius”.

Further Reading

“Jack Kerouac Goes Vinyl: a Sonic Journey into Kerouac’s Three LPs – Poetry for the Beat Generation; Blues and Haikus; and Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin, from Kerouac on Record, a Literary Soundtrack (2018).

New Kerouac sleeve notes #1: Pat Thomas (“Rock and the Beat Generation” Substack).





Label: Real Gone Music
Release Date: 09 DEC 2022