The New Word Jazz of Ken Nordine : Pop music: The underground icon is equally at home in TV commercials and beat poetry. Now, he’s trying pop with help from the Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
Few names are equally known in the company of Ginsberg and Chevrolet. And few figures would be welcome in both a Greenwich Village coffee house and a Madison Avenue boardroom.
But there is one: The name is Ken Nordine, and the figure is that of a grandfatherly 71-year-old. Since the mid-'50s--when both beat poetry and modern advertising were in their infancy--Nordine has been striking a precarious balance between the two worlds with his distinctive, much-imitated Word Jazz.
Remember that mid-'70s animated Levi’s spot where a guy took the jeans company’s logo for a walk? That was Nordine doing a piece of Word Jazz pretty much straight, not compromising his art, yet still serving the needs of big business.
But the truth is, he’s never really felt at home in either realm.
“The beats, they were more angry; I’ve never been as angry as they were,” he said, his deep, mellifluous voice--familiar to any radio listener or TV viewer--resonating through the phone lines from his Chicago home. “Maybe that’s because I did commercials as well.”
And conversely, his non-linear, soft-sell approach sometimes confounds the very advertising executives who hire him. “Let’s face it,” he said, “most of the commercials on the air are very banal, very safe. You know how conservative some of the companies are.”
Not that Nordine apologizes for making a living.
“The (poets) think it’s demeaning; they think selling stuff on the air is trivial,” he said. “But the nice thing about getting a good commercial is you know it won’t be obnoxious if you say you won’t do certain things. And when I do one, month after month (the royalties) just come in like an annuity. That’s kind of nice.”
But now he has found kindred spirits among a community that also bridges counterculture and commerce: the Grateful Dead, the hippie-originated San Francisco band that was the top-grossing U.S. pop concert attraction last year.
The group’s Grateful Dead Records has just released “Devout Catalyst,” a new album by Nordine featuring musical backing by the Dead’s Jerry Garcia and his sometimes partner, mandolinist David Grisman, and two guest appearances by neo-beat Tom Waits.
The relationship began in December, 1990, when the Dead was looking for someone to anchor the radio broadcast of its annual New Year’s Eve concert in Oakland. Garcia suggested Nordine, whose work he had loved since the early ‘60s. Out of the blue, Nordine got a call from the Dead’s engineer, Dan Healy.
“I thought he was putting me on,” Nordine recalled. “I said, ‘Sure, buddy.’ I said, ‘I’m afraid to fly, or my wife is,’ and all that bull. Finally, he cajoled me. So I went out there and it was the best thing I ever did. It was like having your ego Simonized. So what if I didn’t fit their demographics. I got to fit it. They’re a lovely group of people.”
For the broadcast, Nordine taped some improvisations with guitarist Garcia, Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Egyptian musician Hamza El-Din, and hosted the live concert airing, filling in between songs and during intermissions. The new album grew out of that experience.
“Devout Catalyst” will bring instant recognition of his voice and style, which, in addition to his Word Jazz records and the commercials, had an outlet via a mid-'80s National Public Radio series. His trademarks are all there: a wide-eyed sense of stream-of-consciouness wonder, quirky plays on words, and his sometimes use of multi-tracking on his voice to make it sound like he’s carrying on a dialogue with that little voice in his head.
One typical track is called “Ways of the Meek,” in which he describes a week consisting of “Dumbsday, Bluesday, Endsday, Blursday, Cryday, Shatterday and Stunday.” Another, “The Movie,” is basically Nordine describing a crazy film idea, with a bemused Waits gamely trying to keep up with the elder master’s vivid imagination. It’s as sharp and vibrant as anything in Nordine’s Word Jazz catalogue, early examples of which can be heard on the recent Rhino Records anthology, “The Best of Word Jazz, Vol. 1.”
All in all, it’s amounting to something of a Nordine renaissance, with a whole new audience of Deadheads and young neo-beat coffee house habitues that have no problem with his business side.
“We did a show recently here at a little place called the Beat Kitchen,” he said. “My ears were blushing from the applause. Kids were holding my hand and asking me to sign things, and it was quite a range of people. A stockbroker came down, and a policeman.”
It’s a case, he says, of literally having the last laugh.
“I have never taken myself that seriously,” he said. “I think the world deals lightly with people who take it too seriously, when they’ll take seriously people who have a light-hearted attitude.”