Neal CassadyAlthough his name is unrecognizable to many, Neal Cassady is one of those rare individuals whose existence changed the culture of a nation. In fact he was such an integral part of the cultural revolution birthed with the Beats and set ablaze by the Hippies that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was to later describe Cassady as “a tool of the cosmos.” Born February 8, 1926, Neal Cassady entered this world the way he would one day be immortalized – on a road trip. He was born by the side of the road, in Salt Lake City Utah, a quick stop over on his family's journey to Hollywood in search of better prospects. Some 20 years later, a series of road trips with writer Jack Kerouac would more fully birth his place in history.
Cassady met Kerouac in 1946 on a trip from Denver, Colorado to visit hometown pal Hal Chase, then attending Columbia University. There Cassady was also introduced to a young poet named Allen Ginsberg. While only Ginsburg would chase Cassady for his bed, both young writers were equally enamored of the charismatic and utterly uninhibited Cassady who was like nothing they – or anyone else – had ever seen before. Later to be called “The Fastest Man Alive”, Cassady would become the driving force that inspired both men in their ground breaking literary works, "On The Road" and "Howl".
It was his "continuous chain of undisciplined thought", as Cassady called it, expressed in his letters to Kerouac and Ginsberg that became the unselfconscious, raw style adopted by the Beats. But it was also Cassady himself that they sought to capture. Kerouac acknowledged that his friend was the model for Dean Moriarity in "On The Road" and Cody in “Visions of Cody”. Ginsberg was to call “N.C” the secret hero of his poem “Howl”.
In fact, Kerouac too styled his friend a hero, specifically the “new American Hero”. Recall that in the 50s and 60s, many young people felt smothered by the American Dream. Adult America was obsessed with living the Good Life, and with protecting the American way of lifeâ€”rescued from the teeth of the depression, fought for in World War IIâ€”from communism. The role model they held up to their kids was basically: get a good job, get lots of stuff, impress the neighbors, have kids, drop dead. That was it.
Normal people just weren’t supposed to deviate from this goose-stepping road to nirvana. So it took an abnormal person like Neal Cassady to give young Americans a sense that life could actually be something worth staying awake for. Cassady’s rip, rolling ride through life, following the beat of his own inner impulses (captured in literature in “On The Road”), inspired young people to set aside their inherited mental programming and set out on a path of exploration – first calling themselves the Beat generation, and later the Hippies.
While the kids he inspired often came from stiflingly conventional homes, Cassady himself grew up on Denver’s skid row, the darling child of homeless drunks and bums. Leaving behind his mother, little sister, and older stepbrother at age six, he went with his father to live in a condemned building at 16th and Market Streets. There they shared a tiny, filthy room with a legless bum who scooted himself around town like the Eddie Murphy character in "Trading Places". The bum used his meager earnings from panhandling to booze himself to sleep each night. And when there wasn't enough cash to buy drink, there was always masturbation. Reflecting back on the white goo that was often found drying on the floor, Cassady said, “I thought it was fried eggs!” But in people such as these the young Neal discovered kindness, humor, inventiveness, and sparks of wisdom. He also learned from them drinking, swearing, hustling and a zest for life built on appetites frowned on by polite society.
Sexual intercourse was introduced to Neal at age nine. His father had taken him along to visit a friend, a German farmer of low intelligence who had several strapping sons. The men set to drinking and playing cards, but unlike the congenial poker nights of his skid row flop house, the situation soon became increasingly violent as swearing turned to brawling and brawling turned to raping all the sisters small enough to hold down. Cassady joined in.
After a brief hiccup as an altar boy at age 10 and a fascination with the Catholic saints, Cassady spent his youth hustling, stealing cars (he claimed to have “borrowed” 500 of them by age 21), and seducing women. At least as early as age 12 he was screwing older women to get his breakfast or other favors. Not a problem for Neal whose ample sex drive later led him to seek intercourse three times a day, with masturbation thrown in as an “in between meal” treat.
Cassady’s appetite for sex was to get him in more than one pretty pickle. Still married to teen wife LuAnne Henderson in 1947, he seduced his soon to be second wife, the beautiful and classy Carolyn Robinson. As if things weren’t interesting enough, in between secretly screwing both LuAnne and Carolyn, he still had time to climb in the sack with gay pal Allen Ginsberg. And later, while still married to Carolyn, he seduced and bigamously married third wife, model Diana Hansen in 1950. And then there were the legions of women met in passing whom Cassady screwed on park benches and anywhere else that was handy.
When not dodging angry wives, Cassady could also be a real exhibitionist. Explicit photos taken of him with lover Ann Murphy, were displayed in the 2002 showing of the Brand New Beats Roadshow. And Beat era author John Clellon Holmes notes “I remember going up there. The shades were always drawn, and they had a red light, or something. Neal wore a short kimono with his dork showing underneath it – just the tip.“ In fact, he became rather well known for answering the door half naked. Lover Ann Murphy also tells the story of being “joyously gang-banged” by a group of Hell’s Angels, while Neal stood by and watched, taking his turn at the last – a scene reminiscent of his 9 year old sex initiation.
Still, as legendary as it was, Cassady’s sexuality was but one aspect of his raw hunger for life. He had a brilliant mind that was as constantly pumping as his penis. He read, talked, and breathed philosophy. (And fucked with it too, as he more than once used his incredible mental vista to overwhelm the psyche of some young desirable.) No surprise then that he was utterly captivated when he accidentally discovered a copy of “Many Mansions”, Gina Cerminara’s book on the famous “sleeping prophet” psychic Edgar Cayce. Cassady and wife Carolyn became deeply enamored of the Cayce teachings – to the point that Neal would always attempt to convert Jehovah’s witnesses who came to his door.
Cassady even had several psychic readings from Edgar Cayce’s son, Hugh Lynn Cayce, exploring his past lives and their supposed karmic aftermath. According to Hugh Lynn, one such past life that was messing with Cassady's current incarnation was a past life castration for the crime of rape. Meanwhile Hugh Lynn advised Carolyn Cassady (fed up with Neal's drugs, philandering, and general unpredictability) that her only real hope of coping with Neal’s strange life was to keep her mouth shut. Before long, Neal ended up in San Quentin, busted on a drug charge. For two years, Carolyn struggled to provide for their three children while Neal contemplated and prayed in San Quentin – a period reminiscent of his stint as a choir boy.
But by 1960 he was out and on to the next thing. Worthy of his nickname “The Fastest Man Alive”, Cassady didn’t slow down as he approached middle age (though this may have been due in part to his dependence on amphetamines). While Kerouac wound down into alcoholism and cranky conservatism, Cassady became the muse of a new generation of counter culture heroes – Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia, Thomas Wolf, and others.
Kesey, author of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest" put “Cowboy Neal” behind the wheel of “Further”, the Pranksters psychedelically painted bus and started an entirely new "on the road" mythology. The Pranksters found Neal to be an amazing character. Nothing seemed to happen “by accident” when they were around Neal. There was always some kind of cosmic synchronicity flowing into and out of him. He could predict the gender or appearance of the next person to walk in the room, as well as what they had come for. He could accurately rattle off the serial numbers of the dollar bills in your pocket, often up to the tenth digit. And he was legendary for his ability to carry on multiple conversations at once or even to resume conversations from days or weeks earlier without missing a beat. Kesey and lover Mountain Girl harnessed Cassady’s high energy and insight during the legendary “acid tests" described by Tom Wolf, even recording his insightful monologues, known as “raps”. A snippet of one such (heavily influenced by the Cayce teachings) runs:
goes thru the Fish Stage
but we didn't enter
until Ape Late.
help us out thru
so the Cyclopses don't win
the Unicorn Brew.
We're here to Experience...
and finally Evolution
the Little Toe
we'll beat it tho-
The Odor of Sanctity.
Always the Holy Goof (he once helped Wavy Gravy kidnap Tiny Tim), Neal was an easy match with the Pranksters and their reality tweaking stunts. But somewhere amidst all the fun and self-evolving mayhem, Cassady began to spiral downward. He began to have huge lapses into mental blankness – “Speed Limit” had finally reached his own limits. Then, as the Pranksters' drug experimentation began attracting far too much negative attention from the fuzz, Cassady, Kesey and pals headed south to Mexico. A young writer, Lynn Rogers, meeting the 42 year old Cassady in the summer of 1966, would later describe him as “gaunt, grizzled”, a man who appeared “at least 60 years old – twitching, talking to himself.” Bear in mind this is the same Cassady that, but a short time before was a sexual Mecca for women in the hippie scene. They’d hop a plane or drive down the coast, just to be balled by the fabulous Neal Cassady.
In February of 1968, Cassady, the man who had given both the Beat and the Hippie movements their dynamic sense of direction, foundered and lost his own way. One evening, after digging a Mexican wedding party, he became seized with the peculiar idea of walking the 15 miles from San Miguel to Celaya to pick up his treasured “magic bag” at the train depot there. He claimed that he would walk along the track so he could count the number of railroad ties between the two towns. The night was cold and rainy. Cassady was lightly dressed in a tee shirt and jeans. He had already consumed a great deal of alcohol at the party, then topped it off with a handful of Seconals (the same combo that would kill musicians Hendrix and Joplin).
The next morning a group of Indians found Cassady lying next to the tracks, comatoseâ€”about a mile and a half from San Miguel. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he died, four days before his 43rd birthday. His body was cremated and the ashes given to his widow, Carolyn. His family was far from shocked. And in fact there was a sense of relief that the downward plunge was finally over. For long time friend Jack Kerouac however, it was another bitter blow. His own downward spiral claimed him the following year in October of 1969. Ginsberg was left to carry the torch of tweaking the establishment without them until his own death in April of 1997.