Kesey on Cassady
Of all the figures of the so-called Beat literary movement, few are more of an enigma than Neal Cassady. That's pretty strange, because no Beat figure was more written about, since it seems nearly every writer who ever met Cassady in person felt compelled to write something about him. The one who wrote the most about him was his sometimes best friend Jack Kerouac, who fictionalized Cassady slightly as the hero of his classic novel On the Road and in a lesser known stream of consciousness novel called Visions of Cody. The other best known work about Cassady is Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a biography of author Ken Kesey which shows Cassady twenty years after On the Road in the wild years of his final decline, when he was a leading figure of the American psychedelic movement.
The Beats revered Cassady in part because they saw him as the embodiment of their bohemian philosophy. Many of the Beats were grad school drop-outs and cafe intellectuals who had great theories of what constituted the liberated life, but who themselves led a bookish, alcoholic existence. In Cassady they felt they had the real-life example of what the truly liberated person should be like. When asked to demonstrate what their theories of life meant, the Beats could point to Cassady and say, "We mean someone like him!"
Not everyone was impressed with what they saw. By the end of his life Cassady was a full blown speed-freak whose amphetamine fueled monologues were considered to have mystical significance by his fans but which others have dismissed as gibberish. He neglected his devoted wife Carolyn and his kids, and for someone whom everyone else wanted to write about, he wrote very little himself. William S. Burroughs called Cassady "a con-man" who was redeemed only by the fact that what he most wanted to con you into doing (besides supplying him with money, drugs and sex) was showing him your best self. His great gift appeared to have been his ability to get people to let down their walls of defensiveness and inhibition and become the person they really wanted to be. Therefore many people who interacted with Cassady described the encounter as liberating and even permanently life-changing. "Neal had a fantastic power over people," Jerry Garcia once said, "and it was all benign."
Ken Kesey's first novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was an instant classic of American literature and the movie version was showered with Academy Awards. A second novel Sometimes a Great Notion was praised for its extremely original and creative style, but the complicated plot and murky theme made the book much less successful commercially than its predecessor. Kesey was unfazed by the inability to match his previous success, since by that time he had declared that he was abandoning writing as an outdated artistic form. He announced that he intended to create a revolutionary new art form called "happenings" that were designed to help transform society into a culture of liberated individuals - people who would be like Neal Cassady.
The main tool for this liberation was to be the powerfully mind-altering drug LSD. Kesey believed that if large numbers of people had the psychedelic experience, then revolutionary changes would begin to occur in society as a whole. The way Kesey and his followers (who called themselves The Merry Pranksters) intended to get the then legal drug into wide usage was to pass it out to people freely, sometimes whether they knew what they were taking or not. The first of these experiments was to take a bus on a cross-country trip with Kesey, his friends and a heavy dose of LSD onboard, and see what kinds of encounters they could have. It was all filmed, and the driver on this often outrageous bus ride was Neal Cassady.
After the bus trip, further LSD spreading experiments were conducted at public events disguised as common dance parties (and featuring a band that would become the Grateful Dead) but where the non-alcoholic refreshments (usually the powdered soft-drink Kool-Aid) would be spiked with LSD. The authorities at first thought these "Acid Tests" were simple, booze free dances, but it didn't take them long to figure out what was really going on.
Not surprisingly, the authorities frowned on Kesey's new role as a psychedelic pied piper. Emergency legislation was enacted making LSD illegal, and soon after Kesey himself was arrested on drug charges. He fled the country, but returned and was captured and sent to prison. Alarmed by Kesey's imprisonment and fearful for his own safety, Cassady fled to Mexico, where fellow Beat William Burroughs was living in exile to escape charges of killing his wife. There Cassady died in 1968 of an accidental drug overdose; he was cremated and his ashes were later sprinkled from an airplane flying over the San Francisco Bay.
Fast forward to 1980. By that time the American psychedelic movement had pretty much collapsed under government repression and the movement's own excesses. Ken Kesey was out of jail and he and his followers had abandoned San Francisco, previously the capitol of psychedelia, and relocated to Oregon, where Kesey's family had for generations been prominent in the dairy business. There Kesey spent most of his time farming, but slowly he began reconsidering his decision to abandon writing. The result was the occasional release of largely unpublicized self-published books called Spit in The Ocean, each of which had a different theme. For example book number three featured Kesey's fellow psychedelic pioneer Dr. Timothy Leary. All of the Spit in the Ocean books are out of print except the last one, which was about Ken Kesey himself and published after his death in 2001.
Recently a copy of Number Six of Kesey's Spit in the Ocean series "The Cassady Issue" became available to me. I was delighted to read it, since it has become almost completely unavailable, and it is full of little gems of insight into the mysterious Neal Cassady.
Most of the book consists of short memoirs written by people who knew Cassady in various capacities. The collection is edited by Ken Babbs, a close friend of both Cassady and Kesey. Among those remembrances:
Best selling novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) writes that he was never overly impressed by Cassady:
To me he seemed like a rather common Western type: The cowboy, roughneck, dozer-driver or whatever who is enormously capable physically and has added to that capability random scraps of ill-absorbed education.
There are hundreds of such people about the west, boomers mostly. They're all a little crazy. They can do anything with a machine or an animal. They accumulate two or three wives and passels of kids and girlfriends. They run all over the place, drinking, fucking, fighting, talking interestingly at times and boringly at other times.
Most of them don't fall in with a literary crowd at Columbia, of course. It's no wonder that someone like Neal would have affected Ginsberg and Kerouac - particularly if you recall the literary climate in the universities in the late Forties.
One of Cassady's longtime mistresses Anne Murphy writes quite frankly about her sexual adventures with him:
When we came home to Palo Alto, Neal, the angel, traded his halo for horns and made expert use of that main muscle to drive me through undreamed of orgasms. He was a gifted cocksman, though Carolyn doesn't agree. She's more the candlelight-and-wine type, rather than the back seat or filling station type, where for me, many "quickie" fill-ups occurred. Nevertheless, his meat was sweet and such a treat that he became famous for it, at least in underground circles.
He really was a holy man, even as a lover. Sometimes he would expound upon the philosophy of Edgar Cayce during intercourse, or quote from the Bible. Other times he would vent his jealousy and spite at the devil he took me for. "You slut, you! I saw you get into that car with all those men!"
Most of the time, though, sex with him was fun. It often originated from his jealous fantasies, which he used to spice up a performance, but sometimes, too, he went "over the line" and fantasy became reality and he would punish me for imaginary infidelities. Later, these fantasies of his became realities to many of his women; we found ourselves doing exactly what he had accused us of at an earlier time. For instance, I was joyously "gang-banged" by the Hell's Angels right before his eyes. Afterward they handed me a card that read, "You have just been assisted by a member of the Hell's Angels, Oakland Chapter."
John Clellon Holmes, whose book Go marked the literary debut of the Cassady literary personna, offers an account of some parties from Cassady's first visit to New York City, but ends the piece by ruminating on Cassady's death:
And so this mad internal combustion machine, fueled by a manic hunger that was finally mysterious - this cocksman, hipster, conner-of-cars, horizon-chaser left nothing behind, except patient Carolyn and the kids, and -yes! - some of us who loved him because of, and some of us who like him despite, that remorseless hunger, having (as the world does) an ambiguous feeling for those who continually light out for the territory ahead, reminding us uncomfortably that we are self-imprisoned by work and days, trapped in time and its demands, the body finally inadequate to the crazy hopes it houses. I like to think he drifted into rest, lying on his back, looking up. I want to think of it like that.
Also included is a never before published excerpt from Neal's only published work, the never completed autobiography The First Third, but there is little in it that is new or insightful. Counterculture editor Stewart Brand recounts how Cassady helped him decide to get married. Ken Babbs interviews a drunken, joint puffing Jerry Garcia, who says that Cassady inspired him to give up his painting career in favor of music. Cassady's widow writes about how disappointed she is in the many attempts of Hollywood to try to re-create Cassady and herself onscreen, and one of Kesey's best short stories, The Day Superman Died, a reflection on Cassady's death, is also included. Unfortunately another Kesey piece, written in the voice of someone called Grandma Whittier, is hopelessly spacy, which was a recurring flaw of Kesey's later work.
This book is a valuable collection of interesting and insightful sketches of one of American literature's most intriguing and inscrutable characters. No doubt Neal Cassady will be a figure of controversy, debate and inspiration for many years to come.
"One of the methods used by statists to destroy capitalism consists in establishing controls that tie a given industry hand and foot, making it unable to solve its problems, then declaring that freedom has failed and stronger controls are necessary."
—Ayn Rand, 1975
I identify with the exasperation expressed by this Northampton bumpersticker.