The Brooklyn Cowboy just turned 90 years old on August the 1st ’21. He is still playing shows, heading out to Big Sur, that retreat of the beats, chasing the ghosts of Guthrie, his peer and friend; and of Hunke, Ginsburg, Kerouac and Cassady, following the road, picking on down the highway. “If you pick it, it won’t ever heal” or so the old flatpickin’ guitarist’s saying goes, but who needs healing when the bleeding sounds so grand?
Ramblin’ Jack might well be the last of those connections to the beats, now that Ferlinghetti has passed away, leaving City Lights to become just another capitalist operation in the creative shell of former glory that is San Francisco. There is something beautifully languid about Jack’s style. Guthrie, Jack’s mentor and friend, once said of Jack that “Jack sounds more like me than I do.” While Jack has Guthrie’s passion and compassion, a facsimile of Guthrie’s Okie drawl paving over Elliots’ Brooklyn vowels, and that sweet hiccup in his delivery, Jack has something that Woody never developed – a sense of the dramatic, transmitted through the songs he covered, the squeak of the strings and the gentle sensitive delivery. Jack’s beat was slower than Woody’s, more considered, more thoughtful, perhaps, but Jack’s heart beats with a rhythmic softness that draws us in and hypnotizing us, getting us stoned on his drawl, and drunk on his delivery.
912 Greens, one of the few songs that Jack actually composed himself – (he is more famous for his covers than his original material, and was never much one for commercial strivings) – first released on his 1968 album Young Brigham, is a masterclass in talking beat blues. It captures the search for five string banjo player, Billy Faier, that Jack and his friends took in 1953. The details change upon each telling, sometimes adding brushstrokes, sometimes taking pieces away. Collating these tellings, adding together the sum of their treasures, is a rare pleasure.
We are moving closer to Kerouac and the beats and the road: America’s past glories and the humanity of our shared oral history. “Jack Kerouac had sat in that chair only a month before down in Mexico…I sat in that chair…composed a ballad about Jack Kerouac sittin’ in that chair” Jack speaks over his beautifully evocative flatpicked guitar. Ramblin’ Jack claims his place, only a month ahead of Kerouac, close enough to feel the warmth of his body in the Mexican wood of the chair, and Kerouac’s Mexican ramblings. Jack is the bridge between the past that is planted in the dead creative ground of our shared pasts, of the dust bowl dances and the box car hoppers. The heroes of the road who rejected America’s bloody inception, aligned themselves to the crossroads and the beat, the song and the love of other humans – no matter the position in life they find themselves in, no matter the color of their skin or their politics and poverty. These are the great writers of America’s revolutionary, creative freewheelin’ history.
These are the stories from the bars of Kerouac’s brother in law, from the Colorado bookstore independent free thinkers who smell capitalist pig and throw them out the doors, the darkened moments of the holy altar of creativity. In finding the late great Billy Faier, Ramblin’ Jack found himself and his place on the road. 912 Greens is the story of a man claiming his heritage, pinning his colors to the flag of freedom, and ‘never seeing the light of day’ in New Orleans. Populated by banana trees in concrete poured yards, three legged cats who guard the heart of the beat, ballerinas who take their clothes off, and “Frank and Guy”, the two best buddies a boy who ran away from his rich Brooklyn family to join the rodeo could ever have. 912 Tolouse Street, the only entry to the hallowed halls of Beat, “the only entrance I knew to this place was over a back fence and up an alley, by some garbage cans, look out for that rusty nail. Now you are up! Now you are over” sings Jack. The road, the Beat, the creative spark is not easily tracked down, not accessed through the front door. You have to approach it like a flock of wild turkey – carefully, sideways, not straight on, not head first. Mind that ‘rusty nail’ whiskey trap, careful of that fence, get a boost from your friends and peers, and not be repelled by the fact that once you get there, the spark is guarded by a three legged cat that keeps falling down because he had had a stroke and didn’t run too good on those three legs, but boy could he play the geetar and write a song. Jack found Billy to be fair – beautiful, hospitable and just in his dispensing of comradeship and inspiration.
As Jack sings the words, “And the rain…came..” the single syllable lingering solid lyrical punctuation of the sound of the words, perfectly invoking the experience of watching a perfect rain fall on a hot southern day, in a way that goes on forever, seemingly stopping time itself. We are left waiting for the ‘down’ that never comes. I feel those words so deep in my soul, so absolutely perfectly that I want to go searching for Ramblin’ Jack, and pay my own respects to the wind and the rain and the road and his fragile and gentle beauty. The beauty of a group of people who run inside when the rain stops, and flee over back alley fences when the sun comes up, the sadness of splitting and not being able to exist forever in that bubble of perfect comradeship, the perfection of the beat, and the magnetic drag towards this place and that looking and looking and never finding, but realizing that in the end of the things, the journey was the destination, and it is this that is preserved in the delicate free verse of 912 Greens.
The perfect group drinking the wine of their host and the object of their searching, that link to the songlike writings of Kerouac who captured the road and the experience of living and loving and chasing down the dreams. Elliot named one of the best of his 41 albums Kerouac’s Last Dream. If Kerouac had a final dream, it would have been of Ramblin’ Jack, the upstart kid, and friend of Guthrie, sitting in that Mexican chair and writing a ballad for him, in the attitude of quiet devotion to the road and the creative sparks that fly off it as the wheels and the boot leather hit that blacktop and head for the horizon.
“Frigate! We’ll build our own ship!” exclaims Ramblin’ Jack, bitching about the bureaucracy of trying to get his seaman’s papers, one of these sweet little plays on words that the old folk tradition peddlers and door-to-ear purveyors of Truth, are fond of pushing out into the world, launching like a boat on a river of song. That Big Muddy sound.
“Did you ever stand and shiver” sings Elliot sweetly, “Just because you were looking at a river”.
And the rain came
https://www.ramblinjackelliott.com/tour-dates-1 Jack is playing quite a few shows over the next couple of months, which at the age of 90 and in a pandemic is either charmingly reckless or beautifully brave. Go see him, I can’t think of a show that is more important to attend.
…As a small postscript, I had to fight the urge to go ‘looking for Billy Faier’, or at least hitchhiking up to Big Sur to go pay my respects to the living legend that is Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and listen to him spin his tales of love and life and laughter and sadness. If anyone is going to the shows he is playing, please could you tell him there is a paltry sum who thinks he is a genius and falls asleep every night dreaming of 912 Toulouse and that Mexican chair that Kerouac once sat in.