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Revisit:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

A Coney Island of the Mind

1999

Like baseball, bebop and blue jeans, the Beat Generation is entwined in the consciousness and identity of America, its influence transcending its relatively brief heyday and continuing to impact American culture. In this recurring series, we take a second look at the best spoken word albums to emerge from this collection of supremely gifted writers, poets, icons and madmen. These are the records that most poignantly mesh literature and music, shining new light and offering fresh perspectives on timeless material while also bridging the gap between the written word and recorded sound. This final installment takes a closer look at perhaps the most unheralded yet essential Beat figure: the brilliant poet, painter, activist and enabler, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Some Beat enthusiasts may find Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 30-poem cycle A Coney Island of the Mind a peculiar choice for the last entry in this feature. Ferlinghetti, after all, may have published some of the collective’s most infamous works, but in terms of content and style, he’s often been a far cry from the likes of Ginsberg et al. A self-labeled anti-establishment bohemian from a previous generation, his relatively quiet life has been void of the vices – adventures on the open road, drug abuse and madness – that typically characterize the Beat lifestyle.

In many other ways, though, it’s only fitting that this feature should end with Ferlinghetti. Without his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco publishing everything from Howl and Other Poems to works by Kerouac, Snyder and Corso, the Beat Generation may not have endured throughout the decades, and it certainly wouldn’t have grown to such mythical proportion. And until 1999, when A Coney Island of the Mind was finally recorded in studio, over 40 years after its conception, the anthology of Beat recordings remained glaringly incomplete.

Ferlinghetti’s subject matter, despite what some critics have claimed, is not completely singular among Beat Generation poets. Sexual longing, religious ponderings and youthful meditations on archaic Americana appear throughout A Coney Island of the Mind, often conveyed through the eyes of the same type of saintly miscreants that frequently populate the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Ferlinghetti is, for lack of a better term, a proper poet; rather than recite, explain, repeat and even ramble, he leaves his words hanging in the air, allowing the listener an extra measure of interpretation. He’s certainly not a highbrow, and you don’t need a master’s degree in English literature to appreciate Ferlinghetti – hell, you don’t even need to like poetry to appreciate the wordsmith’s use of alliteration – but there’s a degree of complexity and surrealism to his poetry that’s unique among Beat writers. Listening to Ferlinghetti is like watching Chagall paint a picture of Kafka writing about Picasso: sometimes, you may not even be sure of what the hell is going on, but you’re inexplicably, hopelessly, drawn in anyway.

But what’s most charming about A Coney Island of the Mind is not the subject matter, but instead the sound. Ferlinghetti may have the most diverse and far-reaching voice of any Beat figure. Depending on the tone and content of the track, his vocals range from wide-eyed, impressionistic New Yawker to sagely narrator to gravelly old-timer, creating the feeling of multiple narrators taking a turn throughout the record. And then there’s the music: composed by Dana Colley of Morphine, the jazz arrangements similarly alternate between soothing, mournful and upbeat, as each composition mirrors the general atmospherics of the tracks without ever sounding overbearing or unnecessary. After the 30 poems that constitute Ferlinghetti’s magnum opus, listeners are treated to five additional tracks, including “I am Waiting,” which the poet allegedly created specifically for jazz accompaniment. Like the bulk of this album, these tracks don’t just sound like spoken word bits with musical accompaniments, but instead like fully realized songs in their own right.

Whether Ferlinghetti can officially be considered a member of the Beat Generation remains irrelevant. A strict liberal idealist, literati and self-described political anarchist, his life has in many ways transcended the bebop and Benzedrine that’s become synonymous – perhaps unfairly – with the Beat lifestyle. A Coney Island of the Mind finds eternity battling creation, doldrums meeting surrealism and immigrant idealism discovering the harshness of American reality – topics that transcend the limits of any timeframe or generation. Coupled with Colley’s nearly flawless jazz-inflected accompaniment, the result is arguably the most dynamic record to emerge from any Beat writer, and a most fitting way to close this feature on the spoken word albums of the Beat Generation.

by Marcus David

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