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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