Jack Kerouac’s Poems Read by Patti Smith, John Cale & Other Icons (with Music by Joe Strummer)

Jack Kerouac was cool before it was cool.

Kerouac’s breakout novel, On the Road, influenced generations of artists, writers and musicians. His prose was vital and messy and new. He wrote frankly about sex, drugs and spiritual yearning. He was young and movie star good looking. And he was a friend with just about every other literary rock star of the era – William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Neal Cassady — many of whom ended up characters in his books.

Though Kerouac was best known for his novels — Dharma Bums happens to be my personal fave — he also wrote poetry. His poems read like distilled versions of his prose – freeform, flowing and musical, laced with themes of death, drinking and Buddhism. He once wrote that he wanted his poetry “to be considered as a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session on Sunday.”

So it isn’t surprising perhaps that back in 1997 some very cool people like Hunter S. Thompson, John Cale, Joe Strummer and Michael Stipe got together to record the spoken word tribute album Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness (download on Amazon or iTunes), which sets his poems to music. Or hear it below on Spotify.

Patti Smith, the godmother of punk, reads his poem “The Last Hotel” accompanied by music from Thurston Moore and Lenny Kaye. You can listen in the video above and read along below.

The last hotel
I can see the black wall
I can see the silhouette on the window
He’s talking, at a rhythm
He’s talking, at a rhythm
But, I don’t care
I’m not interested in what he’s saying
I’m only interested in the last hotel
I’m only interested in the fact that it’s the last hotel
Deep, discordant, dark, sweet
The last hotel
The last hotel
Ghosts in my bed
The goats I bled
The last hotel

Perhaps Kerouac’s best-known poem is “Bowery Blues,” which combines Buddhist notions of “sansgara” (aka samsara), the karmic cycles of birth and death, with a very Beat-like disgust of contemporary American culture. You can imagine this being absolutely spellbinding when read out loud in a smoky coffee shop. Lydia Lunch’s reading is above. The text below.

The story of man
Makes me sick
Inside, outside,
I do not know why
Something so conditional
And all talk
Should hurt me so.

I am hurt
I am scared
I want to live
I want to die
I do not know
Where to turn
In the Void
And When
To cut

For no Church Told me
No Guru holds me
No advice
Just stone
Of New York
And on the Cafeteria
We hear
The Saxophone
O dead Ruby
Died of Shot
In Thirty Two,
Sounding like old times
And de bombed
Empty decapitated
Murder by the clock.

And I see Shadows
Dancing into Doom
In love, holding
TIght the lovely asses
Of the little girls
In love with sex
Showing Themselves
In white undergarments
At elevated windows
Hoping for the Worst.

I can not take it
If I can not hold
My little behind
To me in my room

Then it’s goodbye
For me
Girls aren’t as good
As They look
And Samadhi
Is better
Than you think
When it starts in
Hitting your head
In with Buzz
Of Glittergold
Heaven’s Angels


We’ve been waiting for you
Since Morning, Jack
Why were you so long
Dallying in the sooty room?
This transcendental Brilliance
Is the better part
(of Nothingness
I sing)


And finally, you can listen to Kerouac read his own poem “MacDougal Street Blues” set to some beats laid down by the late, great Joe Strummer.

Written in Jim Hudson’s window lookin’ out on MacDougal Street
Summer of 1954, when he left me his whole apartment
He went away with his girl someplace:

Parade among Images
Images Images Looking
Looking –
And everybody’s turning around
& pointing –
Nobody looks up
and In
Nor listens to Samantabhadra’s
Unceasing Compassion

No Sound Still
S s s s t t
Of Sea Blue Moon
Holy X-Jack

Night –
Instead yank & yucker
For pits & pops

Look for crashes
I know, sweet hero,
Enlightenment has Come
Rest in Still

In the Sun Think
Think Not
Think no more Lines –
Straw hat, hands a back
He exam in atein distinct
Rome prints –
Trees prurp
and saw

The Chessplayers Wont End
Still they sit
Millions of hats
In underwater foliage
Over marble games
The Greeks of Chess

Plot the Pop
of Mate
King Queen

– I know their game,
their elephant with the pillar
With the pearl in it,
Their gory bishops
And Vital Pawns –
Their devout frontline
Sacrificial pawn shops
Their stately king
Who is so tall
Their Virgin Queens
Pree ing to Knave
The Night Knot
– Their Bhagavad Gitas
of Ignorance,
Krishna’s advice,

The game begins –

Go home, Man

– So tho I am wise
I have to wait like

Lets forget the strollers
Forget the scene
Lets close our eyes
Let me instruct Thee
Here is dark Milk
Here is Sweet Mahameru
Who will Coo
To you Too

As he did to me
One night at three
When I w k e i t
P l e e
Knelt to See
Realit ee
And I said
‘Wilt thou protect me
for ‘ver?’

And he in his throatless
deep mother hole
Replied ‘ H o m ‘

Related Content:

Jack Kerouac Lists 9 Essentials for Writing Spontaneous Prose

Pull My Daisy: 1959 Beatnik Film Stars Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg

Jack Kerouac Reads from On the Road (1959)

Jack Kerouac’s Naval Reserve Enlistment Mugshot, 1943

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

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