Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady, one of the most enigmatic of the Beat personalities, did not publish a book during his lifetime. Rather he was a driving inspiration to his friends, appearing often in their writings; the character of On the Road’s Dean Moriarity being the outstanding example. He is a cultural icon associated with both the Beats and the Hippies, figuring prominently in Tom Wolf’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Born on the road on February 18, 1926 enroute from Des Moines, Iowa to California, Neal's recently married parents pulled their top-heavy Ford house-truck into Salt Lake City, where Maude Cassady gave birth to her ninth child in a charity hospital. After the Cassady's arrived in Hollywood, Neal Sr. opened a barbershop on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the future looked promising.

But the Cassady's prosperity quickly gave way to Neal Sr’s alcoholism, and the marriage soon followed. When Neal Jr. was six, he and his father moved to Denver and began living in a $1-a-week cubicle, shared with a double amputee named Shorty in a condemned five story flop house called the Metropolitan. Most of the residents were derelict winos who begged on the streets for money to keep them in rotgut liquor ('canned heat') to supplement their meals at the Citizens' Mission.

Each morning Neal made his way to the Metropolitan's communal bathroom, encountering men with the D.T.'s along the way. He dressed himself and went to the mission, where he had his breakfast of oatmeal, toast and coffee. He watched the poker and pinochle games in the lobby of the Metropolitan, and each Saturday he went to the Zaza barbershop, where his father, smelling of pomade and talcum, worked the third chair.

Neal recalled this as the idyllic period of his youth. It ended when he moved into the Snowden Apartments with his mother, his baby sister and his 12 year old half-brother, Jimmy. Although life with his mother in a real home ostensibly offered a more nurturing atmosphere for a child, Jimmy was a sadist. He had previously drowned cats in toilets, and he now saw Neal as his victim - in - residence, incarcerating him in the Murphy bed.

Trapped in the small dark space between the mattress and the wall, Neal never cried out, for fear Jimmy would torture him more aggressively, and screaming could cause suffocation. His mother offered no protection. Neal adapted, transforming his terror into a visionary experience - the deranged sensation he would later summon up again on marijuana and LSD.

Cassady was sexually initiated at the age of nine. He accompanied his father to the home of a drinking buddy, whose oldest son led his brothers and Neal in sexual intercourse with as many sisters as they could hold down. All boundaries of sexual decorum evaporated. Neal 'sneak shared' women with his father; he slept with grandmothers and pre-pubescent girls in abandoned buildings, barns and public toilets.

Cars, theft and sex dominated Cassady's adolescence, all linked in what he called “Adventures in auto-eroticism.” Between the ages of 14 and 21, he stole some 500 cars. Arrested ten times and convicted six, Neal spent 15 months in reform schools, but remained eternally unrepentant, joy-riding through the streets of Denver in a flashy car at any opportunity.

Kerouac would later observe of Neal that 'sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life.' His sex drive was nearly unquenchable, requiring that Neal masturbate six or more times a day as well as having intercourse. He was physically desirable and athletically able: thin-hipped and hard-bellied.

Kerouac compared his face to a young Gene Autrey with green eyes. He couldn't afford good clothes, but as Kerouac recalled, "his dirty work clothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn't buy a better fit from a custom tailor, but only earn it from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy."

Neal's seductions, directed at both men and women, followed naturally from his finely-honed con man skills. Every woman was his darling, about whom he could always find something to sincerely adore, if only for the moment. And every man had the potential to teach him something.

In short, Cassady was a perfect natural sociopath, unrestrained by guilt and fueled by hedonism. If he had been only a sociopath, however, he might have ended like the residents of the Metropolitan. During one of his reform school stints, he dreamed he was a middle-aged loser with thinning hair and bloated face, attempting to sell an old mattress for rotgut liquor. Upon awakening, he began a course of compulsive self-improvement. He used his solitary hours in reform school to read the Great Books, and between his day jobs, he read Schopenhauer and Proust at the Denver Public Library. Knowledge became a higher form of seduction. He talked about philosophy and literature with the same speedball riff that characterized all his conversation.

In December 1946, he traveled to New York City to visit his friend Hal Chase. It was there that he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Cassady became obsessed with the intellectual lifestyle, claiming later to have attended Columbia himself. His association with Kerouac and Ginsberg inspired the desire in him to write as well, which prompted him to ask Kerouac to help him learn. Ginsberg’s relationship with Cassady was intense, but never so easy as Kerouac's, as he had fallen in love with Cassady. This painful and frustrating relationship was the inspiration for many of Ginsberg’s poetic works.

Cassady and Kerouac became close friends, which was further cemented by their series of cross-country adventures, which have become legend. They wandered aimlessly across the U.S. and Mexico, while Kerouac chronicled their adventures, with the intention of using his notes for a future book. When Kerouac first attempted to write the book however, he became frustrated with the project, feeling he was unable to find a voice suitable to the subject. The book project was set aside for some years, to be resurrected again after a series of correspondences with Cassady. Kerouac ultimately settled on a style which depicted the events as they happened, doing his best to capture Cassady's unique personality and manner of speaking. The result became Kerouac's most enduring legacy, On the Road, published in 1957. Cassady's persona appears several more times in Kerouac’s later novels, such as Dharma Bums and Visions of Cody.

Between 1958 and 1960 Cassady was incarcerated at San Quentin for the possession of two joints. Once out of prison, he read Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, finding that he identified strongly with the character Randle McMurphy, whose strong will stirs up the defeated residents in an insane asylum, ultimately leading to his own profound misfortune. Cassady’s powerful reaction to the novel would result in an interesting turn in his life.

In the 1960's, as Kerouac withdrew deeper and deeper into alcoholism, Cassady met Kesey and embarked upon a new series of road adventures, joining Kesey's psychedelic troupe "The Merry Pranksters." When Kesey organized his legendary trip to the New York World's Fair in the psychedelic bus named “Further,” Neal Cassady was the madman behind the wheel. Cassady’s driving habits were so legendary, they have been immortalized in numerous writings as well as the Bob Weir song Cassady.

When the motley troupe arrived in New York, a party was organized with great anticipation of the meeting of Kerouac and Kesey. The meeting was a failure however, as Kerouac was extremely offended by his perceived mistreatment of an American flag by one of the pranksters.

On February 3, 1968, Cassady spent a night of hard drinking in the Mexican town of San Miguel De Allende. In a state of extreme inebriation, he wandered along a deserted railroad track with the intention of walking the fifteen miles to the next town. It was a cold and rainy night, and Cassady eventually passed out wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. He was found beside the tracks the next morning in a coma from the mixture of the inclement weather, alcohol and drugs. He was taken to the nearest hospital, where he passed away the following day. Typical of Cassady, even in death, a legend persists - that he had been counting railroad ties, and his last words were "Sixty-four thousand nine hundred and twenty eight." His death came four days before his 43rd birthday and one year before Jack Kerouac's.

Copyright 2002-2008 Steven Watson and laciefae/

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