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David Amram
(Thunders Mouth Press)

For a substantial number of non-aficionados, David Amram's name is familiar today only from a line in a Raffi song for small children. But Amram has an impressive resume that includes entries as a classical composer of concert and film music (his score for The Manchurian Candidate has been justly praised) and as a bop French hornist who played with Mingus, Gillespie, Taylor and many others. I have long admired Amram's touching and understated violin sonata, of which there is, lamentably, no recording available at present. Furthermore, his "Holocaust opera", The Final Ingredient, though brief, seems to me far superior to several more celebrated recent works, such as John Harbison's Gatsby and Anthony Davis's X. Amram was also a good buddy and frequent collaborator of Jack Kerouac's, and his new memoir Offbeat (Thunder's Mouth Press-$22.95) is a good natured-if highly repetitive and self-congratulatory-record of a number of Thunderbird wine-soaked experiences among "the beats".

My placement within scare quotes of the common term for beret-covered, bongo-carrying, scat-singing, goatee-wearing bohemians is highly advised, since Amram repeatedly insists that there never were any such animals. In fact, it is perhaps the main tenet of this book that Kerouac was a writer, pure and simple, and that the only part of the beat mythology with any grain of truth is that Kerouac and his friends Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso and David Amram, were precursors of flower children in being particularly gentle and constitutionally opposed to formality or exclusivity. That's it. In all other respects, at least according to Amram, Kerouac was just a slightly tipsy version of Melville or Emerson who is finally receiving from critics and academia his long-denied coronation as a towering genius of American Literature.

Offbeat contains a number of incongruities that are common to this type of work. Each of the dozen ingredients of a certain (now 50-year-old) omelet is recounted with precision, while there is no recollection whatever of the first meeting between Amram and his subject. Entire conversations and minor details of late night jazz-poetry events from the 50's are set forth in detail, but where, when or exactly how Amram became Kerouac's collaborator/muse never comes to light.

In addition, there seems an almost painful desperation for Mr. Amram to get his "creds" into public view. Apparently sensing that he could tell us only so many times (three, I believe) that his prior book, Vibrations, contains 465 pages, and that he has written over 100 orchestral works, he frequently puts this sort of information in the mouths of others. At one point, poet Frank O'Hara, who is trying to ease Amram's disappointment at failing to get a Kerouac/Amram improv gig at the Museum of Modern Art in 1957, provides the following consoling remarks:
Do it downtown where you're already loved. It was a mistake for me to try to break down the walls of pretension here at the Museum. When you get better known, they'll fawn and grovel over you…at least until you fall out of fashion. Do it downtown. Let's try the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. You've already played for their art openings, David. [so maybe I don't really need to tell you the address?] The artists all remember you from your stint this past winter at the Five Spot with your quartet. They know your scores for the Free Shakespeare in the Park you just started composing [because they're precognitive when it comes to their adoration of your work?], and they've heard you with Mingus. [p. 13]
This kind of kiss-kiss dialogue is repeated endlessly throughout Offbeat-both in the pages of reminiscences of his performances and conversations with Kerouac and in the later sections, which deal with more contemporary events-mostly undertaken in the writer's honor. In their tête-à-têtes, Kerouac and Amram constantly compare their work favorably with "Bach, Bird and Berlioz" who they seem to feel were also wronged by their contemporaries. And they alternately berate those Philistines who don't apprehend the consummate beauty of Kerouac's scrolls and Amram's scores and remind themselves how often the real cognoscenti have assured them of the visionary magnificence of each improvised rhyme and horn ditty. An unwelcome pathos accompanies Amram's successive pleas that the reader engage in something akin to this mantra: "They were smart! They read Shakespeare! They were serious about our art and could discuss it intelligently! They weren't anything like Maynard G. Krebs!"

There's a particularly painful description of an event in 2001 in which Amram convinces a 16-year-old disciple to forget his dreams of meeting a supermodel and concentrate, like Jack did, on creating spontaneous art. Actor E. G. Marshall is brought forth as an effusive fan of Amram's, and Steve Allen (he who demonstrated his own "openness to alternative viewpoints" by once shutting Dalton Trumbo out of a political fundraiser in California) is canonized for both his reportedly unerring memory of the bop era and his pianistic skills (!). Even unambiguous flops, like Kerouac's famous bombing at the Vanguard in December of 1957, was the fault of a "freeze" emanating from the musicians there who "didn't know what he was capable of doing". Interestingly, this conscious chill occurred in spite of Amram's repeated claim that "All musicians loved Jack"—a universal affection reportedly stemming from the writer's unparalleled powers of listening and understanding jazz performance. Celebratory events are judged according to their quotient of the Kerouacian qualities of soulfulness and being "down home". Everyone's wife is beautiful and gracious, everyone's daughter is devoted. Worst of all, each new Amram composition or improv and every Kerouac scat (we are given no transcriptions of these, unfortunately) is said to be a masterpiece of its type. Every performance is hailed as phenomenal, extraordinary, life altering. This sort of thing can grow wearisome, as can the regular pounding of beatnik poseurs and suburban voyeurs. In addition, there is the occasional anachronistic placement of contemporary phrases, like "elevator music" or "baaad", into dialogue ostensibly occurring in the late 50s. In sum, the book suffers significantly from an abundance of blarney and from being a self-made paean to the memoirist as well as to Kerouac and other friends. This aspect is exaggerated by over-the-top cover blurbs from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carolyn Cassady, and Frank McCourt—three individuals who are heaped with garlands within the pages of Offbeat.

In spite of all these shortcomings, however (and the heavy redundancy resulting from Amram's reproduction of several previously published remembrances that differ only slightly from newly minted passages), it's hard not to like both Amram and his portrayal of the so-called beat scene. Amram is obviously a total sweetheart whose hyperbole can be traced in equal parts to a child-like sincerity and to his devotion to a talented friend who was lost to him in tragic fashion. Several recollections in the book are great fun, especially Amram's recounting of the cuckoo creation of the silent film Pull My Daisy, which consisted largely of the trashing of a New York City apartment to the accompaniment of Amram's music and Kerouac's improvised narration. Allen Ginsberg is affectionately portrayed as a bit of a left-wing scold, and Gregory Corso comes off as a horny, wisecracking commentator on contemporary mores, something like a poetic precursor to Seinfeld. Kerouac is described as quite knowledgeable about music, someone who could both improvise on the piano in the style of Beethoven and remember a theme to an Amram cantata years later-after hearing it only once. Amram paints him as shy and diffident about everything except his talents. When filmmaker Alfred Leslie asks Kerouac how he can be sure that his first improvisatory narration to Pull My Daisy can't be improved upon, the novelist answers, "Because I'm touched by the hand of God." He seems to be searching for love not only among barmaids in New York, but at his Lowell home, where his mother always came first. He's sensitive to criticism, but he never responds in kind. He seems seriously to have wanted to do oratorios with Amram based on fantasy baseball and football. He often seems sad or needy, especially at those times we know he must have realized he would never actually be able to stop drinking-in spite of his regular vows. Amram makes a credible case for their joint spontaneous creation of "poetry-and-music" sessions in the mid-50's being the basis not only of rap and hip-hop music but also of spoken word events and poetry slams.

For all the fifties nostalgia, the main feeling one is likely to encounter upon finishing Offbeat is the desire to have been present at several concerts a bit later on. Some of these involved Kerouac directly, but others-particularly the1965 premieres of Amram's cantatas A Year in Our Land and Let Us Remember and the television broadcast of his opera The Final Ingredient-were influenced only by the novelist's text suggestions and persona. (Let Us Remember, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes was premiered at the same concert in which Edward G. Robinson narrated another, unnamed work: after the show, wag Gary Goodrow accosted Robinson with a heavy, fake Irish brougue, and Robinson escaped the scene by doing a Little Caesar imitation.) This was a wonderfully productive period for Amram, during which it became clear that he was a fine composer in his own right and didn't need to lean on Mingus, Taylor, Kerouac, Hughes or anybody else. Now in his seventies, Amram remains a tireless performer, composer and storyteller, but without more recordings of his work, his light could fade. Even so, it will never go completely out, and not just because of some Raffi tune or the steady stream of works on Kerouac and his compatriots that hit the bookstores with each passing year. There's just too much talent, love and chutzpah in both the composer of In Our Land and the author of On the Road for either man to cease to inspire those who will take the time to listen, who will look closely for the diamonds lying deep within the sidewalks of Old Manhattoes.