Neal Cassady is one of the most fascinating and mysterious figures in American history. An intellectual and a bigamist, a drug-taker and a spiritual visionary, a poet and the muse of an entire literary genre. Immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, no one has been able to accurately paint a portrait of the cryptic changeling that was Neal Cassady.
A progenitor to the counterculture movement, the Beat Generation has inspired many a despondent writer staring insipidly into their coffee for Nietzsche quotes or themes of Eastern mysticism. Yet, a new wave of interest has risen in the 21st Century as fascination continues to grow around the drug-fuelled, bebop soundtracked folklore.
On what would be his 94th birthday, here are 5 amazing facts about the pill-popping, bohemian outsider, and unlikely genius behind the Beat movement that is Neal Cassady.
Neal Cassady was a highly evolved intellectual who planted the seeds for the Beats, hippies and the anti-war movements of the Eisenhower Era.
1. On The Road wouldn’t exist without Cassady
I know this may seem obvious but hear me out. In New York, in 1946, is where Neal Cassady first met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He immediately befriended the writers and taught Kerouac how to write fiction.
They soon began a series of cross-country adventures racing aimlessly across the U.S.A and Mexico, with Cassady setting the agenda. Kerouac was writing their adventures as they took place however he could not find a style that fit and boxed up the project in frustration.
It wasn’t until a few years later that Cassady wrote Kerouac a series of letters wherein Cassady outlined the idea to write in a rush of mad ecstasy, without self-consciousness or mental hesitation, much like Cassady himself. It worked: On The Road became a sensation by capturing Cassady’s voice.
2. Merry Pranskers Electric Acid
In 1963 Neal Cassady met 29-year-old author Ken Kesey who was flush with funds from the success of his debut novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The plan was to drive an exotically painted 1939 Harvester school bus called Further across the country with a jar of orange juice laced with acid and a band of misfits called the ‘Merry Pranksters’.
The journey was immortalised in Tom Woolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One particular scene describes Cassady high on amphetamines speaking in his rambling hipster jive while he drove the bus through Phoenix backwards as the Pranksters blew trumpets and horn in mock support of the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
After Cassady drove the bus off the road in Arizona, Kesey dosed the party with LSD. They begun tipping model paint into a stream then dipping T-shirts into the swirling colours. At that moment, they invented the tie-dyed effect that later became synonymous with San Francisco’s incipient Haight-Ashbury scene.
Carolyn Garcia, aka Mountain Girl, prankster, and future wife of Jerry Garcia said of the experiment, “They didn’t know they were starting the 60s, obviously, but they knew they had a big secret and they were going to exploit it to the full.”
3. Romantic with Allen Ginsberg
“The holy conman with a shining mind,” as Kerouac puts it, was also the inspiration of various Allen Ginsberg poems. More so, the two shared an on and off sexual relationship that last nearly twenty years. Cassady even appears in Ginsberg’s most famous work, Howl, marked as “N.C”.
The two eccentrics lived together in San Francisco in 1963 after Cassady’s second divorce. Ginsberg also published several posthumous poems about Cassady including On Neal’s Ashes and Elegies for Neal Cassady.
4. Bigamous Womaniser
Throughout his life, Cassady enjoyed numerous romantic relationships with both men and women. Though no matter who it was, Cassady always found a reason to be completely infatuated by them.
After being released from prison in 1945, Cassady married the 16-year-old LuAnne Henderson, whose travels are documented in On The Road. Two years later, Cassidy met Carolyn Robinson while she was studying for her Masters in Theatre Arts at the University of Denver. Neal soon got an annulment from LuAnne and married Carolyn on 1 April 1948.
In Carolyn’s book, Off The Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, she describes him as “the archetype of the American man” even though she found him in bed with Allen Ginsberg twice.
Their marriage led to the couple settling down on a ranch house in Monte Sereno, California, and having three children. In 1950, however, Cassady entered a bigamous marriage with Diane Hansen, a young model who was pregnant with his child. The following year Cassady, Kerouac, Ginsberg would embark on their adventures on the road and engage in far more debauchery and destitution.
5. Grateful Dead muse
In his later years, Neal Cassady fell in with rock pioneers the Grateful Dead and commandeered their tour bus for several years. He also inspired one of their greatest works, The Other One. This psychedelic free jam was one of the outfit’s first masterpieces and was the moment the band knew they would make it.
In a strange twist of fate, the lyrics became a self-fulfilling prophecy. On 3 February 1968, Bob Weir solidified the verses with an iconic performance at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. That night he concluded the second verse with: “The bus came by and I got on, that’s when it all began/
There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to never ever land.”
In the early hours of Feb 4, the following morning, Neal Cassady mysteriously passed away after attending a wedding party in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Just four days short of his 42nd birthday.
As an instrumental figure in one of America’s most defining decades of literature, Neal Cassady remains the Beat of all Beats. He may not have done the writing but he was certainly the muse. Thus it seems fitting that Cassady himself should have the last word: “Sometimes I sits and thinks. Other times I sits and drinks, but mostly I just sits.”