LIKE JACK KEROUAC, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a veritable cornerstone of Beat literature. When he founded San Francisco's landmark City Lights bookstore in 1953, he created Beat culture's ground zero. After publishing Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems from City Lights Press, Ferlinghetti was arrested for producing and selling an "obscene" work. In the summer of 1957, he was cleared of all charges, and the allegedly obscene "Howl" and its author went on to take their rightful place in America's literary canon.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti with music by Dana Colley
A Coney Island of the Mind (Ryko)
With lines like "even in heaven they don't sing all the time," Ferlinghetti etched out his own place in the canon, demonstrating an amazing ability to encapsulate life's bittersweet balance in poetry. His new collaboration with Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley, recorded earlier this year in San Francisco, is a master adaptation of one of Beat literature's greatest treasures.
A Coney Island of the Mind articulates Ferlinghetti's anger at America, his distrust of religion, and his philosophy of wonder with sprawling, surreal poems that slide past the spinning lights of the amusements and into the elegant skeletons under the rides. Amidst Colley's rolling, jazzy soundtrack, Ferlinghetti's celebrated collection of poems leaps off the page and takes the listener on a journey as colorful as the title's iconic amusement park.
The first 29 tracks don't have individual titles and are referred to only by number. This speaks to Ferlinghetti's belief that these pieces are not stand-alone works but fragments of a whole experience; each one is an integral note in the opus that makes up his distinct American song. Both the liner notes and paperback release of poems explain that A Coney Island of the Mind is a quote from Henry Miller's Into the Night Life and that the untitled poems are to be "taken together" as "a kind of circus for the soul." The odyssey begins with a reference to Spanish painter Francisco de Goya: "In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see/the people of the world/exactly at the moment when/they first attained the title of/'suffering humanity.'" In his reference to the expressionist painter, Ferlinghetti gives the listener a visceral appetizer for the portrait of America's "mindless prairies/supermarket suburbs/steamheated cemeteries/cinerama holy days/and protesting cathedrals." Colley's brooding melodies meld wonderfully with Ferlinghetti's urgent voice, the long, slow strains of his saxophone laying a perfect blue background for the poet's images. While mostly understated, the music adds tempo and depth to the pieces, pushing them along with billowing horns, twinkling piano, and drums marching along the bottom of the mix.
Included at the end of the album are several pieces originally written for jazz orchestration. These "oral messages," as Ferlinghetti calls them, contain many of the collection's musical and poetic highlights. "I Am Waiting" stands out as classic Ferlinghetti, expressing his disgust for the dehumanizing rituals of modern life yet still communicating his unbridled optimism as he waits for "a renaissance of wonder." "Autobiography" is also excellent, with its light-hearted score and lines like: "I got caught stealing pencils/from the Five and Ten Cent Store/the same month I made Eagle Scout." Like so much else here, it conveys both humor and the poet's subversive tendencies. With their collaboration on A Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti and Colley have reinvigorated a classic and set a benchmark for performance poetry.