Friday, February 8, 2008

Neal Cassady

Happy Birthday today to Neal Cassady. I'm a huge fan of all things from the Beats and the Hippies and Neal was one of the few who was an icon in both camps. I wish I could have been there for the madness.

Neal Cassady (February 8, 1926 – February 4, 1968) was an icon of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, perhaps best known for being characterized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's classic On the Road.

and raised by an alcoholic father in Denver, Cassady spent much of his youth bouncing between skid-row hotels with his father and reform schools for car theft. In 1946 Cassady met Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University in New York and quickly became friends with them and the circle of artists and writers there. He had a sexual relationship with Ginsberg that lasted off and on for the next twenty years, and he later traveled cross-country with Kerouac.

Cassady proved to be the catalyst for the Beat Movement, appearing as the characters Dean Moriarty and Cody Pomeray in many of Kerouac's novels. Ginsberg mentioned him as well in his ground-breaking poem, Howl ("N.C., secret hero of these poems..."). Additionally, he is commonly credited for helping Kerouac break ties with his Thomas Wolfe-inspired sentimental style and discover his own unique voice through "spontaneous prose", a stream of consciousness approach to writing.

After a brief marriage to the teenage LuAnne Henderson, Cassady married Carolyn Robinson in 1948. The couple eventually had three children and settled down in a Monte Sereno ranch house, 50 miles south of San Francisco, California, where Kerouac and Ginsberg sometimes visited. Cassady worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad and kept in touch with his Beat counterparts even as they drifted apart philosophically.

Following a 1958 arrest for offering to share a small amount of marijuana with an undercover agent at a San Francisco night club, Cassady served a difficult prison sentence at San Quentin. After his release in June, 1960 he struggled to meet family obligations, and Carolyn divorced him when his parole period expired in 1963. Cassady first met Ken Kesey during the summer of 1962, eventually becoming one of the Merry Pranksters. In 1964 he served as the driver of the bus Furthur, which was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He later played a prominent role in the explosive California psychedelic scene of the 1960s.

Cassady makes an appearance in Hunter S. Thompson's book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, in which he is described as "the worldly inspiration for the protagonist of two recent novels," drunkenly yelling at police at the famed Hells Angels parties at Ken Kesey's residence in La Honda, an event also chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Although his name was removed at the insistence of Thompson's publisher, the description is clearly a reference to Cassady's appearances in Jack Kerouac's works, On the Road and Visions of Cody. His name appears explicitly in the 50th anniversary edition of the original scroll of On the Road (On the Road - the original scroll, Viking 2007).

In January, 1967 Cassady traveled to Mexico with fellow prankster George "Barely Visible" Walker and longtime girlfriend Anne Murphy. Holding court at a beachside house just south of Puerto Vallarta, they were joined by Berkeley folk Barbara Wilson and Walter Cox. All-night storytelling, speed runs in George's psychedelic Lotus Elan and plenty of LSD for everyone made for a classic Cassady performance – "like a trained bear," Carolyn Cassady once said. At one point Cassady took Cox, then 19, aside and told him, "Twenty years of fast living – there's just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don't do what I have done."

During the next year, Cassady's life became increasingly peripatetic. He left Mexico in May, traveling to San Francisco, Denver, New York and points in between; then went back to Mexico in September and October (stopping in San Antonio on the way to visit his oldest daughter who had just given birth to his first grandchild); visited Kesey's Oregon farm in December; and spent New Year's with Carolyn at a friend's house near San Francisco. Finally, in late January, 1968, Cassady returned to Mexico once again.

On Saturday, February 3, 1968, Cassady attended a wedding party in San Miguel de Allende. After the party he went walking along a railroad track to reach the next town, but passed out in the cold and rainy night wearing nothing but a T-shirt and jeans. In the morning, he was found in a coma by the track and taken to the closest hospital, where he died a few hours later on February 4, four days short of his forty-second birthday.

The exact cause of Cassady's death remains uncertain. Those who attended the wedding party confirm that he took an unknown quantity of Secobarbital, a powerful barbiturate sold under the brand name of Seconal, that can easily lead to overdose. Cassady was not a heavy drinker, though he may have participated in a toast to the bride and groom. The physician who performed the autopsy wrote simply "general congestion in all systems;" when interviewed later he stated that he was unable to give an accurate report, because Cassady was a foreigner and there were drugs involved.

Kesey wrote a fictional account of Cassady's death in a short story named The Day After Superman Died (in his collected short stories published as Demon Box), where Cassady is quoted mumbling the number of ties he had counted on the railroad line (sixty-four thousand nine-hundred and twenty-eight) as his last words before dying.

Cassady lived briefly with the Grateful Dead and is immortalized in the Dead song "The Other One" as the bus driver "Cowboy Neal." . A later version of the same tune, "That's It For the Other One," includes specific references to Cassady's death. A third Grateful Dead song, "Cassidy," might seem to be a misspelling of Cassady's name; in fact the song primarily celebrates the 1970 birth of baby girl Cassidy Law into the Grateful Dead family, though the lyrics also include references to Neal Cassady himself.

The film The Last Time I Committed Suicide, released in 1997, is based on the "Joan Anderson letter" written by Cassady to Jack Kerouac in December, 1950. Although much of this letter had been lost, a surviving remnant was originally published in an early 1964 edition of John Bryan's magazine, "Notes From Underground".

An upcoming film, Luz Del Mundo, will deal with Cassady's friendship and adventures with Jack Kerouac. Cassady will be played by Austin Nichols and Kerouac will be played by Will Estes.

Another film, the biopic Neal Cassady, is slated for a 2008 release. This film will focus more on the Prankster years and stars Tate Donovan as Neal, Amy Ryan as Carolyn Cassady, Chris Bauer as Kesey, and Glenn Fitzgerald as Kerouac. Noah Buschel wrote and directed the film. The soundtrack to the movie includes Johnny Horton, Thelonious Monk, Pharoah Sanders, and Don Cherry. In previews the Cassady family has criticized this film as highly inaccurate. The film deals primarily with how Neal became trapped by his fictional alter-ego, Dean Moriarty.

Cassady's autobiography The First Third was published posthumously. His complete surviving letters are published in "Grace Beats Karma: Letters from Prison" (Blast, 1993) and "Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 1944-1967" (Penguin, 2007)

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