Jazz poet Roger Singer shares a vision of Kerouac on occasion of his 89th birthday
The first book I read by Jack Kerouac was The Town and the City. It was his first novel in a long succession of works that followed and numerous books of poems. While reading this first published work by Kerouac I intimately related to his neighborhood, friends and school. Within a couple of days of dedicated reading I finished the book; my appetite was set on the hook of Kerouac writings.
Within a short period of time I had several Kerouac books on my desk waiting to be read. While researching his life on the internet, I came across a 1959 interview he consented to on The Steve Allen Show. Steve Allen, for those of you unfamiliar with that name, was the quintessential host; softly playing the piano while he interviewed his guest. I remember watching the show as a child, being impressed at the confidence Steve Allen gained from the interview.
I was nine years old in 1959. I didn’t see the interview until 2008, but the decorum, the sound of the piano and the unwinding of the guest were all familiar to me.
Steve Allen opened with a short explanation of his next guest, while touching out a jazzy tune; his fingers moved with precision over the keys as if he were wiping off water droplets. He casually looked down at the piano and then at the audience, reassuring both that all was in control. He mentioned that a social movement in the 1950’s called the ‘Beat Generation’ had a significant influence on young people. Steve pads the wires of the piano a few more times and then introduces the author of On The Road, Jack Kerouac.
Stiffly onto the stage, from the chiaroscuro of images behind long flowing curtains walks Jack to a stool at the side of the piano. He sits with a fighters smirk on his face; his Canadian inheritance of toughness. He wiggles into place as if he were reporting to the principle’s office. He is wearing a suit coat with a white shirt; the top buttons are undone. He appears to be recovering from a long whiskey night and chain smoking. His face is full. His hair brushed neatly back. Steve plays softly as Jack enters a sandbox where he is the only child. Steve asks him to read an excerpt from his book. Jack opens to the last page and begins. The music, the overhead lights, the audience, they all disappear … Jack Kerouac is, once again, On The Road.
Kerouac and his friends, Burroughs, Ginsburg and Cassidy, transcend the decades. Like water, the simplest of fluids, they are impervious to change. They are trains in motion. Tides before and after storms, consistent and strong, deep and light, open and in many ways closed.
One cannot avoid the obvious impact the 1959 interview possesses. It is a meal to be ingested, a theme for acceptance. For poets like myself, who write jazz poems, I draw myself to the table as words capture the pain of song, the loss of human time, the image of red dirt roads, children without shoes, horn players under magnolias, rambling night trains, city diners and neon lights pointing towards whispers. I draw it from places I’ve been and the voices still there, walking in my head.
He touched the music
with fingers of jazz. Long notes
rise like summer sidewalk heat;
his forehead creases at the high sounds.
His head and shoulders lift heavily
like an approaching wave, crushing
onto a people shoreline, breaking boundaries
from his past.
Little children see the truth on his face.
His smile opens deep corners;
face colors drain into common streams,
merging to a neutral flesh.
The medicine of jazz removes the hurt
into river deep.
Her fire burns me.
Doors open to the color of her
onto a canvas of song
where iron and grease remains
walking miles in paths
not knowing the day
while the stomach
cries louder than her voice
and the coat of misery
is a hat
and her arms
swim hard in fields
roll past everyone’s
to city’s with
whiskey and promise
where love has no
and people forget
fail to hold
the preaching and blood
but the jazz
owns the steps I take;
I find my way
You can find more poetry by Roger Singer at The Outlaw Poetry Network