Three years ago, I planned a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It was due to take place in my working city of Leeds and in the University’s School of Music where I am based, a commemoration, in words and images, music and performance, of the arrival of this ground-breaking novel.
Among those who were slated to take part was the timeless and tireless Carolyn Cassady, a legendary figure herself in the story of the American Beat writers. But then I revealed that an unreleased movie simply titled Neal Cassady, a dramatic portrait of her husband, was to also form part of the programme.
Carolyn was very far from happy. In fact, she was quite disparaging of the new bio-pic, suggesting that if that screening remained in the schedule, she would have to seriously consider withdrawing from the event. For me, as organiser, the Sword of Damocles was briefly poised over my head.
Whatever the ins and outs of the matter – and, significantly, my event was maddeningly scuppered by a fire that ravaged my office just weeks before the celebration was due – there is no question that Neal Cassady remains a controversial and contested figure in the discourse of Beat history.
The reaction of his long-time partner was indicative that there is certainly no unanimity in the way we should make sense of this mercurial individual who, from his young life on the streets of Denver to his curious death by the tracks of a Mexican railroad, led an existence that was rich in experience, riddled with paradox, concluded in tragedy.
Lothario and tea-head, car-thief and raconteur, faithful friend and unfaithful partner, orphan and father, speed-king and spiritualist, literary inspiration and would-be novelist himself, Cassady is hero and villain, saint and sinner, toiling brakeman and reckless bum.
The fact that his fame – or infamy – stretched across some 20 years in the rise of the post-war cultural revolution and he was a principal player in the theatre of both Beat and hippie, from the late 1940s to the end of the Sixties, made him an iconic figure, a symbol of liberation in a world that was only just wriggling from the straitjacket of social conformity and sexual repression.
Cast as Dean Moriarty in On the Road, Cassady appeared on the page as a fast-talking, jazz-loving, ever-optimistic magician of the roads, a supreme master of the steering wheel, his childlike wonder at the possibilities before them balanced by his rapacious sexual marauding.
By the time the writer Ken Kesey employed him to be the driver of his travelling troupe on the bus dubbed Furthur, the line where the fictional character ended and the actual man began had been largely eroded by the mind-shaking effects of psychedelics and the harsh realities of jail after a set-up drugs bust.
Thus Cassady became a star of the emerging Beat fiction, as Kerouac immortalised him as free-wheeling wanderer and one of Norman Mailer’s ‘white negroes’, and then a guru to the hippies as the new journalism of Tom Wolfe recounted later, LSD-fuelled adventures in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, a book published in 1968, the same year that Neal met his end.
Next month, the city where Cassady grew up will pay tribute to one of its more interesting sons, when the premiere Annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash takes place in Denver, Colorado, on Sunday, February 7th, close to, just one day before, the man of the moment would have chalked up his 84th year.
The occasion, staged in a well-loved and historic drinking haunt called My Brother’s Bar, at 15th and Platte, promises an entertaining mixture of songs and readings and even attendance by members of the Cassady family, including an in-person appearance by the matriarch of the clan.
Resident in London for many years, Carolyn, whose own autobiographical take on these lives and times was provided by her acclaimed 1990 memoir Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, will join the festivities.
The bar even has clear evidence that Neal Cassady had at least an occasional beer there: a prized and framed note, written from the state reformatory, which asks a friend if he’ll cover a drinks tab he had built up there, is on display. “I believe I owe them 3 or 4 dollars…please drop in and pay it, will you,” it pleads.
Cassady lived life to the full – his hobo instincts delivered extraordinary adventures and also the carnage of relationships de-railed by that constant urge to seek more – and somewhere else. Even he and Kerouac had fall-outs and the powerful kinship they felt in the late 1940s was tarnished by the early 1960s.
But Kerouac believed that Cassady was more than just an untameable livewire and irresponsible hedonist. He saw great qualities in his writing style and claimed to learn from his expression in letters, as electric and loose-limbed as his speech. But little survived the peripatetic rampaging and only The First Third, an autobiographical novella published in 1971 after the author’s death, has really seen the light of the day.
However, the legacy of this larger-than-life figure will be considered and applauded when My Brother’s Bar unveils what promises to be merely the first of a yearly acknowledgement of Cassady’s idiosyncratic contribution to a period of great change in the artistic and political consciousness of the USA.
Taken from this post:
All Neal: Cassady celebrated in downtown Denver