7 out of 10
An?audio drama?adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s beat love letter to the Shadow, crusader of dimestore novels and old time radio.? If you share Kerouac?s love for the?dark corners?of boyhood fantasy, you could do worse than meander through?the alleys of Lowell?with his jazz angel, Dr. Sax.?
Mwee Hee Hee Ha Ha Ha!
Written by:? Jack Kerouac
Produced by:? Jim Sampas
Music by:? John Medeski
Illustrated by:? Richard Sala
Gallery Six, 2003
2 CDs and an illustrated screenplay in a handsomely designed fold-out box.
Availability:? Out of print, but easy to find at heavily discounted prices at the time of this writing.? Try Amazon or Abebooks.
Try before you buy:? On October 31, 2003 NPR ran a?Bob Edwards feature?on Dr. Sax that featured excerpts from the production.? You can listen to it here:? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1486389.
I’ll be dingblasted – the universe disposes of its own evil!
– Dr. Sax
The back cover of the 1994 Grove Press edition of Dr. Sax quotes?this line from a?1959 New York Times review:? “Kerouac’s peculiar genius infects every page.”? Here’s another?line from?that review they didn’t cite:? “Dr. Sax is not only bad Kerouac; it is a bad book.”??There’s a nice lesson in selective quoting.? Critics never?embraced Dr. Sax with the same enthusiasm as On the Road, dismissing it as garbled juvenalia.? But the book has its fans, including Kerouac’s nephew Jim Sampas, who discovered an unpublished screenplay version of the story and decided to publish it as an audio drama.? And why not???Deeply inspired by?the Shadow and dime-store adventures, Dr. Sax is rooted in the era and ethos of old time radio.
The story of Dr. Sax is a phantasmagoric mish-mash of syrupy childhood memoir and wild romp through pulp apocalypse.? Kerouac?s youthful alter-ego Jacky Duluoz prowls the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts as the ?Black Thief?, stealing his friends? toys and leaving?cryptic calling cards.? The enigmatic Dr. Sax skirts the boundaries of Jacky?s imagination, blessing the boy?s mischief.??After Jacky is exposed and his masquerade as the Black Thief brought to an end, Dr. Sax?steps from the shadows?to pull Jacky into his phantasmagoric realm.??It’s?a world?filled with?vampires, wizards, gnomes, and the embodiment of evil itself, the Great World Snake that sleeps beneath nearby Snake Castle.? The Wizard Faustus intends to awaken the Great World Snake from its slumber and plunge the world into darkness, and only the heroic alchemist Dr. Sax stands in his way.? Although the story veers sharply from golden childhood memoir to the end of the world, Kerouac?s jangling, rhythmic prose somehow weaves it all together.? As Kerouac writes, ?Memory and dream are intermixed in this mad universe.???So Jacky?s happy childhood is strangely haunted, and Dr. Sax?s Gothic realm is at once perilous and innocent.?
That’s not to say the story is entirely coherent.? Portions of the?tale and many of the characters seem pointless:? there is a subplot involving “Dovist reformers”, for example, that goes nowhere.??But Dr. Sax sweeps you through?the cul-de-sacs?of its?meandering plotline with?an infectious,?boyish?verve, transforming narrative?dead ends into picaresque escapades.?
At it’s best, Kerouac’s prose?channels the beginnings of philosophy through?Jacky’s young and grasping mind.? Consider?his complaint?in the face of?mortality:? “Why can’t we have another, why can’t we have some more, why do we have to go through all this?”?These half-formed thoughts from a child?run as true and deep as Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick!”.
Jim Sampas? cast is unlikely, imperfect, and uniquely fitting.? Poets and musicians, many of whom knew Kerouac in life,?make up its core, supported by actors in minor roles.? Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead performs Dr. Sax with noble gusto and a touch of humor, bellowing fractured wisdom.? He plays this more philosophical version of the Shadow to perfection and gives his ultimate failure touching humanity.? Rock musician Graham Parker and singer Kate Pierson (the B-52?s) each steal the show in all-too-short appearances as merrily sly Oscar Wilde clone Amadeus Baroque and effusively sinister Vamp Contessa, respectively.? Baroque has my favorite line from the play – and there are many, many good ones:? “Simply . . . Divine!? It’s so refreshing . . . We need any kind of revival, my dear, because you know it’s got great yoiky elements of Coney Island Christian in it . . . “? The late poet Robert Creeley?smoothes over?Kerouac’s choppy?stage directions and scene descriptions with his grandfatherly voice.? Since Creeley’s lines were intended to provide stage direction for a film?rather than be spoken as narration in an audio drama, be warned that?they take some getting used to.? Ultimately it is poet / musician Jim Carroll who breathes life into the play as Jacky Duluoz past and present, savoring the rhythm of Kerouac?s words as he rolls them off his tongue.? The swoops and dives of his riffing tie the story together and unleash its beat texture.?
You?re going to have to suffer to get to the good stuff though, as the first half of Dr. Sax showcases its weakest performances.? It isn?t easy for grown men to play young boys convincingly (contrary to popular belief in the animation industry, women don’t do it well either), and Bill Janovitz (Dicky), John Keegan (GJ), and Ellis Paul (Lousy) don?t pull it off?with their falsettos.? As difficult as it is to find decent child actors, I think Sampas made a real mistake in not casting actual children?for these roles.? And amidst the rich?hues of the children?s Lowell accents the voice of Ma, played by Kristina Wacome, has all the colorless,?sweet neutrality?of a television advertisement.? It doesn?t help that Kerouac gave?her the most insipid lines of the play.
In many ways, this production stands and falls more as a reading or ?poetry slam? than a dramatic performance.? In the accompanying screenplay Sampas writes,??To record readings and music we seldom went beyond the second or third take, and in fact used mainly first and warm-up takes for the final cut.?? Like it or not, this is fully evident.? Several players stumble through lines, seemingly encountering them for the first time.? Poet and long time Kerouac defender Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a cackling?delight as the reedy, scheming Dr. Faustus, and?his final tirade against Dr. Sax is hilarious.? But he trips over so many words that the brio of his performance is muted.? Granted, there is an argument to be made that this rough quality suits Kerouac?s improvisational style.? Listeners will have to decide for themselves whether?it works, but those expecting polished delivery?are going to?be disappointed.? Despite all the lost opportunities, however, there are moments when everything clicks and the text soars.?
Many of those moments happen when jazz musician John Medeski?s accompanying score kicks into high gear.? Whether?drumming the surging Merrimack river?into?life with a frantic trap-set or?breathing period spookiness into?a graveyard with a warbling organ, Medeski?s score plays alongside Kerouac?s words as an equal partner.? Best of all are the scenes where Medeski?s bluesy saxophone plays counterpoint to Jim Carroll?s rapping, telling its own syncopated story.? The effect is magical, like hearing two separate tales told at once that somehow jive into?simultaneous clarity.
The CDs come with Kerouac?s unabridged screenplay of Dr. Sax, lavishly illustrated by alternative comics artist Richard Sala.? Sala has an impressive body of neo-pulp Gothic graphic novels to his name, including the phantasmagoric Mad Night and The Chuckling Whatsit, both of which I highly recommend.? He?s currently working on Delphine, a creepy re-visioning of?Snow White which boasts some of his strongest work to date.? In the Dr. Sax screenplay Sala?s pen and ink drawings use Caligari angles and sly wit to bring out Kerouac?s playfully haunted sensibilities, arguably outshining the audio production.? All in all, for lovers of Kerouac or just good illustration, Sala makes the screenplay worth the price of admission all by itself.? Sala illustrated the CD box as well and did a damn fine job:? this is one of the most atmospheric, alluring?packages I’ve seen in awhile.? The curious can check out Sala’s work at www.richardsala.com.
There?s no denying the passion or intelligence producer Jim Sampas brought to this project.? Even if the final product is uneven, many of his casting, music, and design choices were frankly brilliant.? If he?d had an extra day to rehearse and record, this production would be a modern?beat classic.? As it stands, those willing to listen through the frequent incoherence of Kerouac?s baroque script and its sometimes stilted execution will start to hear the?music in it.? If you share Kerouac?s love for the shadows of boyhood fantasy, you could do worse than meander through Lowell?s alleys with his jazz angel, Dr. Sax.?
Next week:? Learn the secrets of syzygy in Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater’s The Buoy, a frightening maritime tribute to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.? (English)