On the road
One-time local poet/songwriter Nick Jaina wheels back through his former hometown
Jack Kerouac streaked across the country a couple
of times, by thumb, by rail and by beater automobile. Then he holed up somewhere—perhaps all hopped up on the long-haul truck driver’s best friend, those little white pills—and cranked out On the Road.
Now, whether or not you think Kerouac was a brilliant writer or merely a pretty quick typist, you’ve gotta admit that the hit-the-road-Jack dream is pretty well ingrained in the American fantasy life. When the wolverines start snarling outside the door, why not toss some rags in a suitcase and head for the nearest state line?
Not that Nick Jaina had the weasels nipping at his heels when he left town two years ago for a more famous river city. The 23-year-old Carmichael native just happened to know a friend with a van who was driving to New Orleans, and it seemed like a pretty good idea to ride along.
“I’d written this story about New Orleans before I’d ever been there,” he says, laughing in retrospect. “It was a musical, actually, about my thoughts about what New Orleans would be like, ’cause I’d never been there. So when I had the chance to see what it was like, I went. It was a lot different, but it opened a lot of opportunities for me.”
Jaina’s pre-Big Easy play was titled The Hole in the Coffin, which he says he and a friend in New York are now working on developing into a puppet show. “I called it a ‘jazz opera’—which was kind of pretentious, because it wasn’t really jazz or an opera,” he says. “I got my friends to sing parts; it had characters, and it was like this two-hour-long story about this jazz funeral in New Orleans.”
A tape exists. “I was just listening to it yesterday,” Jaina says, brushing it off as a low-fi example of bottom-of-the-learning-curve recording.
He’s improved a lot since then. Jaina’s new self-released CD, his second, is titled Snakes & Umbrellas. He recorded it in different cities on a digital eight-track while criss-crossing his way around North America in a Ford Tempo bequeathed to him by his grandfather. It is a remarkable aural document.
To pinpoint Jaina’s musical references, think of a square—with Nick Drake, Ani di Franco, Tom Waits and former Pavement front man Steve Malkmus occupying the corners. Then stand in the center. Jaina’s vocals won’t get him compared to Jeff Buckley; they’re offhand, almost conversational, yet they come out of a similar post-rock/post-folk open-mic-night sensibility.
Jaina’s strong suit, however, is his lyrics. They come in torrents, a scattershot of images that target his subject matter in an oblique, impressionist fashion. No, he’s not a candidate to write the great American novel, but he does paint intriguing word pictures—laced with the darker hues of death, drunkenness and ennui.
“I’ve always been more into poetry,” he says. “I’ve always had trouble following a story. I’ve always liked the sounds of words, and imagery. I mean, I always get lost in movies; I can never follow the plot. Or a novel, I can’t stay with it. I guess I just have … trouble,” he trails off, then laughs.
“I go for imagery over stories,” he adds.
Take “Topps Player of the Month June 1978,” a song triggered by a wristwatch engraved with the title, which came into Jaina’s possession: “God is not for us kids / God is carved into coins / God is what we did when we listened to our loins.” Or, from “Capitalism Is Violence,” which begins: “Drink one down for Mary Jane / She lives at the bottom of the drain / She lives on vegan pancake mix / She dreams of the crooked dicks.”
Yes, they rhyme, and cool poets don’t rhyme or pay heed to meter. Ergo, Nick Jaina may not be cool. Still, you’ve gotta admit he can turn a nice phrase.