WHO WAS COWBOY NEAL?
The Life and Myth of Neal Cassady
Some families go to the country on Sunday afternoons, or to the zoo. When I was a kid, my parents took my sister and me to “the Village” – Greenwich Village.
We drove from Queens in a white Dodge Dart along the Long Island Expressway, past the Bagel Oasis, the three radio towers with red blinking lights, the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park, and the rolling graveyards behind which glittered the skyscrapers of Manhattan, into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and down streets where men with the faces of demons spat on your windshield and wiped it off for a quarter.
The grown-ups walking purposefully past the huge monuments with briefcases, smoking cigarettes, full of worldly knowledge and sophisticated desires, seemed also doomed somehow, acting out stilted roles and robot fates, like the TV newscaster reciting the nightly body count from Vietnam who was part of a strange conspiracy that didn’t allow him to scream or sob.
I vowed I would never grow up to be like that. I would tell the truth, not forget, and stay true to my feelings.
The Village in those years was changing over from Beat to Hippie, from jazz and hootenannies to music that screeched and thundered out of electric instruments, as if whole new technologies were needed to express this new – more than a feeling – new way of seeing; and the party was open to everyone, that is, you could invite yourself, if you were young enough, un-hung-up enough: if you knew.
I put up posters in my room with the new colors on the, and my room became a shrine, or an outpost, with Three Roses incense burning and the red Chinese candles that flickered like strobe lights and could maybe make you high just looking. I wanted to know.
I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and instead of Superman or the Lone Ranger, I had Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters – superheroes of the it, the way of seeing. Instead of in-human powers they had had something better, something you could actually, if you knew, get a hold of – LSD! – and the mysteries of the stars and time would open up to you in your own backyard, your own skull. And the most super hero of them all was Cassady, the driver of the Bus on its mission to proclaim the sanctity of the human soul and set up a Day-Glo freak flag over the Kingdom of the Robots.
I found Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” seeing there a reflection of my own yearning for the it, and Ginsberg’s spirit in the poem seemed to speak directly and particularly to me. I figured out that the “secret hero” of “Howl,” N.C., was the younger Neal. The Village blossomed and changed, but my naïve vision of an earthly paradise – of a life lived fearlessly and spontaneously and lovingly from the inside out, in a community of lovers – remained.
At Dead shows, I discovered a community that shared a vision and practiced that human magic – community being the most powerful magic of all. And I found Neal had been there too, and had left his footprint by the silver stream flowing through the music.
It occurred to me that many Deadheads who could sing the words to “Cassidy” and “The Other One” by heart might not even know both songs were, in part, inspired my the same man – or if they had heard of him, might not know much more about Neal than that he drove the Bus, a long time ago.
It is difficult to live up to a legend, and Neal inspired several, in books by Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, and Kesey himself, as well as many songs. Luckily Neal’s spirit can’t be trapped or contained by any idea of what or who he was, and this is just one version, my version, of the untellable story of a man’s life. He’s still out there, wheeling and flying through the storm.
Neal Cassady was the son of an alcoholic, an ill-fortuned August West also named Neal, whose own mother died giving him birth. Neal Sr. ran away from home at sixteen to escape his bothers’ whippings, becoming the apprentice and surrogate son of an old German barber who struck up a conversation with him on a park bench.
Neal’s mother, Maude, was a farm girl and maid who had first married a man who was elected mayor of Sioux City, Iowa, but died suddenly leaving Maude with seven children. Neal Sr. saw Maude one night after the First World War at a dance in Des Moines Country Club, and proposed to her on a Sunday drive in his new Star automobile. She accepted.
Soon after the marriage, Neal Sr. bought a two-ton Ford truck, and in a burst of what Neal called “unaccountable constructiveness, neither anticipated nor repeated,” built a house with a sloping roof on the truckbed. In this road home the newlyweds and Maude’s children by her first marriage set off for Hollywood in the middle of winter.
Maude went into labor outside Salt Lake City, and at 2:05 A.M. in the morning of February 8, 1926, at a hospital near the Tabernacle, Neal Jr. was born. After resting up a few weeks, the Cassadys continued west, discovering a barbershop on the corner of Hollywood and Vine that was for sale, which Neal Sr. bought with the last of the family savings.
The shop didn’t do well, as Neal Sr. had a theory that the place could only be open when he was there; since he was often too drunk to work, he’d fire his helpers and hire more when he sobered up. Finally, he sold the shop and took the family to Denver, where he leased a two-chair barbering stall and shoe-repair store, and moved his family into the rear.
The family ate dinner in shifts, and doubled up in the beds. Soon the older boys struck out on their own. Oldest brother Bill married a young widow who had inherited a swank dine-and-dance joint outside Denver, and Ralph and Jack made deliveries for various bootleggers, including the infamous Blackie Barlow.
Then the stock market crashed, and, as Neal recalled, “everyone in Denver seemed to go broke at once.” Neal Sr. rented a tiny shop near a pie factory, and cut employees’ hair behind drawn shades on Sundays in exchange for pies, until his drinking caused him to lose the shop, his last. Maude left him, and Neal Sr. and little Neal began their journey through the mission soup lines, blue-light hotels, and railyard hobo jungles of Denver’s desolation row.
Neal Sr. was known among Denver’s bums as the Barber, while little Neal was called, of course, the Barber’s Son. Father and son slept side by side in a bed without sheets in an enormous transient hotel called the Metropolitan, which offered sleeping space in high-ceilinged cubicles for a quarter a night.
While the barber drank wine or “canned heat” or barbershop bay rum, little Neal listened to the bums’ rap, already weighing the import ant sincerity of their words, and sensitive to the ways speech, even empty speech, can bind people together:
Their conversation had many general statements about Truth and Life, which contained the collective intelligence of all America’s bums…said in such a way as to be instantly recognizable by the listener, who had heard it all before, and whose prime concern was to nod at everything said, then continue his conversation with a remark of his own, equally transparent and loaded with generalities, The simplicity of this pattern was marvelous, and there was no limit to what they could agree on in this fashion, to say nothing of the abstract ends that could be reached.
(from The First Third,
Occasionally one of the men would ask the Barber if he should offer his son a little nip, to which the Barber replied, “You’ll have to ask him.” Neal – six years old then – always declined, but felt he had become like a son to many of these broken-down men who had no other means of expressing their affection.
In the dim cashier’s cage of the Citizens Mission, Neal took the book where the lodgers signed their names and birthplaces into his lap and contemplated its hundreds of pages, sounding the names to himself and guessing which were aliases, pondering the web of destinies. Wondering about the names, and where all the places these men had come from were, Neal, through the strange dreaming power of words, had an insight of the vastness of human possibility.
Soon after moving into the Metropolitan, the Barber signed Neal up for first grade, and got a Saturday job at the barbershop next to the Zaza Theater. Each Saturday morning Neal sat beside his father as he worked, reading Liberty magazine and waiting for the theater to open for the matinee.
The Zaza catered to a down-and-out clientele, but for a nickel, young Neal could sit behind the balcony railing, breathing through his mouth to minimize the stench, and lose himself in the shoot-‘em-ups, thriller-dillers, and romances of the day, which he turned into stories to tell his father and the other barbers in the afternoon…
It was also at the Zaza that Neal was introduced to literature, by watching The Count of Monte Cristo “pulsating with every scene in an intoxication of joy,” actually eager to get to school on Monday so he could search the library shelves for the Dumas novel.
The book put a fire under Neal’s eager imagination, and from then on he often got lost walking home from school, his mind spinning out threads of wild plot and cliff-hanging adventure. These kid-contemplations were elaborated on long walks along the Platte River, skipping stones over the black water and counting the splashes, pulling beer bottles from old tires, padding through the white-dusted interior of the defunct Pride of the Rockies flour mill, under railroad bridges and past whirring dynamos that transfixed young Neal for hours. Neal, who ran four miles to school every morning, vowed never to walk unless he had to.
Neal was initiated into sex by the time he was nine, playing discovery games with his girl cousins in Aunt Eva’s barn, and another time, beside an uninhabited house, Neal was kissed by an older boy.
The Barber taught Neal to hitchhike and hop freights, eating Mulligan stews suspended on bent coathangers over sputtering flames by the railroad track and cultivating what Neal called a “trust-in-Providence” hitchhiking philosophy: Any ride was better than none.
In 1933, Neal moved with his mother into a huge Victorian residence now called Snowden, a broken-down bootleggers’ palace on Denver’s East Side populated by jazz musicians, whores, homosexuals, ex-cons, and other interesting characters, with continuous poker games – “strip and otherwise” – going on in the basement apartments.
Neal’s older brother Jimmy’s idea of an afternoon well spent was throwing cats up by their tails, and shooting them down with a .22. Jimmy also terrorized scared-of-the-dark Neal by locking him into the wall crevice their Murphy bed folded into – sometimes keeping him there for hours. In that fearful position, Neal experienced a sensation of the Wheel of Time in his head speeding up to about triple its ordinary speed, which was frightening but somehow pleasant. Neal got a similar feeling twenty years later when he smoked grass and took amphetamine, and found that he could, by holding himself absolutely still, turn it off and on again, as he described it in The First Third, “an increase of time’s torrent that received in kaleidoscopic change searing images, clear as the hurry of thought could make them.”
Neal estimated he stole 500 cars in four years while he was a teenager, scoping out parked cars for keys or hot-wiring them, and roaring up to secret love-nests in the mountains with girls. Neal’s adventures in “autoeroticism,” as he called them, resulted in his being sent to reform school.
There Neal had a dream of being in his forties, beer-belly protruding from his dirty T-shirt, missing teeth, trying to barter his filthy mattress for wine. His father appeared, wearing Neal’s baseball cap and demanding in on the take. Neal woke sick and horrified, determined to change his life, drawing up a self-improvement schedule that included hours daily at the Public Library reading Marcel Proust, Lives of the Saints, and Schopenhauer.
After his morning paper route, lovemaking with an amour, and the library, Neal went to his car-washing and parking gig at the Rocky Mountain Garage, then took a five-mile bike ride, paid another visit to the library, finally ending up at Peterson’s Pool Hall.
In the atmosphere of smoke an great excitement of the Denver pool halls, where even Jelly Roll Morton had crooked an elbow to make his living, Neal was just another poor kid hanging around as the balls clicked and spun and ashes fell from glowing cigar-tips in snowy drifts.
But soon Neal picked out someone who had what he needed – that is, who could teach him how to play pool – and was perhaps open to what he had to give, which was his earnest friendship. That was John Holmes, slump-backed snooker and rotation king, sad-eyed cardshark, and ace handicapper at the track, who never left Denver.
“Neal used to come in and watch me play,” Jim recalled to Kerouac biographer Barry Gifford, “and I thought he didn’t have any money, which I found out latter was usually the case, so I bought him something to eat. The man was very, very energetic and he would actually flatter you in such a way that he would almost immediately be liked. I don’t think it was a put-on. It was a technique, however. But it wasn’t a con. He really respected the individual.”
Neal moved in with Jim, and Jim bought Neal his first suit and taught him how to pick horses, though Neal’s approach to gambling unnerved Jim:
“Neal didn’t care whether he won the pool game or he lost it. It was the fact that he went through this process and played pool.
“He had a theory that the third favorite, and it would come in at the track every day. So he would play the third favorite, and it would come in, and then he would continue to play until it came in the next time…and he would lose all the money he made – plus. But to him it was living an event. The fact he’d been losing for three days didn’t make any difference. He was interested in the thing happening. He was a natural Buddhist.”
Justin Brierly was an influential Denver lawyer, a high school counselor, a Columbia University alumnus, and a patron of the Center City Opera, but his calling and delight was that of recognizing attractive, intelligent young men and easing their passage into adulthood by sending them to Columbia.
One day Brierly was visiting one of his family’s houses, and came Neal, naked, and with a hard-on by virtue of the fact that he had been interrupted in his daily lovemaking with the maid. “How did you get in here?” Neal demanded. “I’m sorry,” Brierly replied politely, holding up the key, “this is my house.”
In 1944 Brierly was in New York visiting Hal Chase, one of his old students, and he met one of Chase’s roommates, recently expelled from Columbia after being called as a witness in a front-page murder. This young man with a frank, open gaze had a theory and practice of writing that resulted in his typing the same scene over and over at a hundred words a minute, searching for the final right word that would resolve the tensions in the language like a tonic note in music. His name was Jack Kerouac.
The other roommates were Vicki Russell, a six-foot redhead prostitute and ex-gun moll; author-to-be William Burroughs, then apprenticing himself to pickpockets who specialized in lifting the last few bills off drunks passed out in the subway who hated Roosevelt so much he wanted to hire a plane in New Jersey, fill it with horseshit, and pitchfork it over the White House; Joan Vollmer, the woman who would marry Burroughs and be shot by him in a drunken game of William Tell in Mexico; and, occasionally, a young man from New Jersey with thick glasses and protruding ears named Allen Ginsberg.
“They looked like criminals,” said Jack to a Playboy interviewer, “but they kept talking about the same things I liked, long outlines of personal experience and visions, nightlong confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by war, stirring, rumblings of a new soul.”
Vicki had taught them all how to unscrew the Benzedrine-soaked wadding from asthma inhalers, which they chewed up with gum or drank with coffee. The apartment was like a laboratory for a life-style that wouldn’t become popular in the mainstream for twenty years; instead of rock n’ roll, they had a new sound roaring out of uptown clubs like the Royal Roost, played by young cats like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, called bebop.
They were very serious about writing. They read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake aloud to each other to dig the sounds; they turned each other on to books, insights, the fruits of their own creativity; but even the production of interesting or successful new literature was not the desired end of their mission.
Walking through Times Square, which they experienced as a giant room glowing with red neons open to the heavens, the cornices and gargoyles, the handiwork of craftsmen who had passed out the world leaving behind these visible signs of their once-presence, even the whores and kid-hustlers and junkies stirring sugar in their coffee cups were fellow travelers on this strange road of impermanence; the whole panorama, with its miniscule dramas of life and death, acted out hanging in space…
They were after a vision, waiting and working for a miracle.
And Jack’s intensity and spiritual earnestness and even his looks reminded Brierly of someone else – of Neal, writing letters full of philosophy from the reformatory. Brierly read the letters, and Hal mentioned to Jack that Neal might be a good character for Jack to write about.
Hal went back to Denver on a summer vacation and told Neal about the poets he was hanging out with in New York, and also said to Neal that the poet is superior to the philosopher, a statement that, as Ginsberg put it “immediately clicked in Neal’s mind. It suddenly delivered him from bondage to rationalistic thinking, and to the realization of creative humor, romance.”
Neal, then nineteen, knew his own future was with this community of writers who turned their meditations into art and lived their philosophy, but he had concerns hat kept him in Denver a little while longer – namely his new bride, a blue-eyed fifteen-year-old named Luanne Harrison.
Neal had decided to marry Luanne before he ever got to talk to her, seeing her in a Walgreens near the pool hall. The moment of truth came at a bowling alley, when Neal slipped Luanne a note that read “I’ll call you in the morning.”
After the wedding, Neal’s ex-girlfriend refused to surrender Neal’s clothes and books, so while she was out Neal sneaked up on the roof and threw his things down to Luanne, waiting in the alley. They hitchhiked to Nebraska, where Neal got a job as a dishwasher and Luanne got a gig as a live-in maid for a blind lawyer – fourteen hours a day, six days a week, for twelve dollars a month. Luanne smuggled food downstairs to Neal, and at night Neal read Shakespeare and Proust, going over passages with Luanne for hours.
One day during a squalling blizzard Neal came home to find Luanne scrubbing the front porch on her hands and knees, turning blue. “That’s it,” he told Luanne, “we’re going.” Luanne stole $300 from the strongbox, and Neal hot-wired Luanne’s uncle’s car.
The windshield kept icing over, so Neal had to drive leaning out the open window with a handkerchief over his eyes, finally switching to the passenger side to shield himself from the wind, with one hand on the wheel, and Luanne watching out the window for cops.
The car conked out on the North Platte, so they got on a bus for New York. They arrived at the Greyhound Terminal and walked to Times Square, where the Camel billboard man puffed Hula Hoop-size steam smoke rings over the Pokerino, teenage newlyweds on the lam.
The next day they met Hal at Columbia, who took them to the West End Bar to meet Ginsberg. Hal had cautioned Neal about Allen’s “homosexuality and its disastrous effects.” And Neal had formulated an overwrought image of Allen (as he recalled in The First Third) as “a young college Jew, whose amazing mind had the germ of decay in it and whose sterility had produced a blasé, yet fascinating mask.” But when Allen stuck his head into the booth, he was just – Allen.
Their true meeting of spirits had happened a month later at Vicki Russell’s. Allen was smoking a hookah on a stool; Neal got high for the first time; then, as Jack tells it in On the Road, “A tremendous thing happened…two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes – the holy con-man with the dark mind” recognized each other in the middle of Time. They began talking, each amazed and relieved to find a mind as keen and a heart as sacred-knowing as his own, and even Jack felt a little left out: “Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them.”
A couple of weeks later, Neal and Allen found themselves at an all-night party in Harlem. With not enough beds, Allen volunteered for the cot, dressed chastely in his boxer shorts. When Neal lay down beside him, Allen eased over to the far edge of the bed trembling, until Neal “stretched out his arm, and put it around my breast saying ‘Draw near me’ and gathered me in upon him…my soul melted, secrecy departed, I became thenceforth open to his nature as a flower in the shining sun” – as Allen remembered in the dark bunk of a ship crossing the Arctic Circle a decade later.
Jack and Neal’s friendship proceeded more hesitantly after a Neal-style first meeting: Neal answered the door naked as Luanne dived off the couch, and asked Jack to wait a moment while he finished.
Jack’s first impression of Neal “was of a young Gene Autry – trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent – a sideburned hero of the snowy West.” Neal asked Jack to teach him how to write. Jack’s first bit of experienced advice was “you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.” Jack was working on his first novel, The Town and the City, piling up pages of memories of his childhood in the Massachusetts textile mill town of Lowell.
Neal hovered lovingly around Jack as he typed, the line-end bell ringing so often Jack’s roommates thought an alarm clock was going off. Neal punctuated jack’s riffing with his “yesses” and “that’s rights,” head bobbing on his neck like a novice prizefighter’s. After four years of New York nihilism and intellection, Neal – wiping Jack’s face with his handkerchief – Neal – who looked so much like Jack himself, an athlete like Jack – celebrated lover of women and sharer of Allen’s passionate dark soul – finally the long-lost brother who said, “Go ahead, everything you do is great” – “a Western kinsmen of the sun” – “a wild yea-saying over-burst of American joy.”
And out of Jack’s love for Neal, and Neal’s for Jack, Jack crafted a character who was not Neal but was the Neal in Jack’s heart, Jack’s dream of an American hero, and the name of the character was Dean Moriarty, and the book was On the Road.
Yes, and it wasn’t only because I was a writer and needed new experiences that I wanted to know Dean more…the sight of his suffering bony face with the long sideburns and his straining muscular sweating neck made me remember my boyhood in those dye-dumps and swim holes and riversides of Paterson and the Passaic. His workclothes 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…
On the Road spread its message of Natural Joy – that “life is holy and every moment is precious” – through a late-Fifties America that encouraged in its citizens insidious paranoia, distrust of one’s neighbors (who might be Communist spies or perverts or beatnik drug addicts), and fear of one’s own heart’s desire.
His specialty was stealing cars, gunning for girls coming out of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, making them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bathtub in town…Dean had the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint.
Dean Moriarty was the Adam in Jack’s Paradise on Earth: Paradise found on the back roads of the very America that Allen said, in his poem “Howl,” “coughs all night and won’t let us sleep” – America under the spell of the soul-destroying unconsciousness of governments and men Allen named Moloch: “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”
And the “secret hero” of “Howl,” the secret nemesis of Moloch was “N.C., cocksman and Adonis of Denver.”
On the Road and “Howl,” brought to those who read them what Neal gave to their authors – a life-affirmation, a profound yes that calls forth vision. Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and a young trumpet player in the College of San Mateo jazz band named Phil Lesh (who set “Howl” to his own music) were all inspired by one or both books, setting out on their own roads of creative effort and quest for illumination, “angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”
Dean Moriarty is the Neal most of the world knows, one of “the mad ones…mad to talk, mad to be saved…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”
The Neal that only Neal and his friends knew suffered the life of a man.
In March of 1948, Neal drove to Denver to annul his marriage to Luanne. Neal had fallen in love with Carolyn Robinson, a blond graduate student, and Carolyn was pregnant. A month earlier, on his twenty-second birthday, Neal had sat for fourteen hours with a revolver in the back seat of his car, finally deciding not the shoot himself. Neal made the trip through the mountains to Denver in a sub-zero blizzard without chains or antifreeze, which he must have known was suicidal. The car gave out, but for seven hours later the road was plowed behind him and a bus pick him up.
Neal married Carolyn on April Fool’s Day. “Her chief quality,” Neal wrote to Allen, “lies in the same sort of awareness or intuitive sense of understanding which is ours…She is just a bit too straight for my temperament; however, that is the challenge in our affair…the only reason, really, she affects me so is the sense of peace which she produces in me when we are together.”
Neal and Carolyn moved to the Bay Area and had three children, Cathy, Jami and John Allen – named for Jack and Allen. Neal did his best to be a good provider.
He got a job as a “brakie” – a brakeman – on the Southern Pacific Railroad, a job he was very proud of. “He was a family man,” explains John Allen, now working for a computer company in Los Gatos, south of San Francisco. “He was everywhere at once, but at least he knew that his wife and three kids had a roof over their heads. He just drove us to school and stuff like that and went shopping like any other normal dad would.”
He also grew six-foot pot plants in a lot beside the family house. “The heightened sensibility that one experiences after a good bomber,” Neal advised in another letter to Allen, “is so delightful that it is absolutely imperative for one to really take it slow.”
The letters Neal wrote to Jack and Allen while high on grass and Benzedrine – free as they were from inhibitions of syntax and “grammatical fears,” allowing the confident, funny pool-hall rhythms of Neal’s actual rap to tickle the reader’s ear – were the major inspiration for Jack’s newfound supercharged voice in On the Road. Jack had been writing long exfoliating evocations of Neal’s pool-hall years in Denver on pot – waiting until his mother went to bed, “blasting” as he called it, and then staying up all night writing; but he still hadn’t found the way in. Meanwhile, Neal was sending twenty- and thirty-page letters that blew Jack and Allen away with their hopped-up energy and humor and inclusiveness and sincerity and natural grace, especially a 23,000-word blockbuster Jack called “the Great Sex Letter,” written in three days and nights on Benzedrine. Finally, in 1951, according to Jack’s friend and fellow novelist John Clellon Holmes, Jack “literally said ‘Fuck it! I’m just going to sit down and tell the truth.’ And that’s what he did.”
Jack was unable to find a publisher for On the Road until 1957. By the end of the decade, the media had begun its inevitable uncomprehending attack on the “know-nothing bohemian” Beats, typified by a Life magazine hit piece, complete with “bongo drums…dreary ‘pads’…mom-haters…drugs and debauchery…homosexuality…fleabag hotels…cheap Mexican tarts…the dregs of a half-dozen races.”
Neal was disturbed by both the shallow sanctification of Dean Moriarty’s impulsiveness by weekend beatniks, and the caricaturing of Neal and his friends in magazines and on television as dangerous delinquents; after all, Beal had been one of Southern Pacific’s best brakies for ten years and was, in fact, a loving, responsible suburban father to his children.
Another side of Neal’s personality was enjoying his new status as a cultural hero in the coffeehouses and saloons of San Francisco’s North Beach, where he earned a new nickname: Johnny Potseed.
In early 1958, two narcs posing as friends of friends gave Neal $40 to buy them some pot. Neal smelled a rat and blew the money at the track. Soon after that Neal made the mistake of offering some narcs two joints in exchange for a ride to work. He was arrested, set free, then rearrested the next day and sent before a judge who, as he put it, didn’t like Neal’s attitude, and sentenced him to San Quentin for two years to life.
In prison, Neal turned his attention to religion, especially the Bible and the reincarnation theories of the trance-healer Edgar Cayce. In his letter to Carolyn that made it past the prison censor, Neal describes his strategies to maintain his spirit: “To overcome eardrum-bursting racket made by the cotton textile mill’s 4-million-dollars’ worth of 1745 rpm 68 x 72” hi-speed looms, whose constantly collecting flug is my weary job to sweep all day from beside & beneath, I…incessantly shout into the accompanying roar every prayer known…saying them hurriedly it takes just one hour to complete their entirety…Don’t demurmer, it at least eliminates clockwatching.”
“To imagine what being so encaged is like,” wrote Neal, “you might put car mattress in the bathtub, thereby making it softer, and if not as long at least much cleaner than is my bug-ridden bunk; the bring in your 200 lb. friend, Edna, or the more negatively aggressive, Pam. Lock the door, &, after dragging 11 rowdy kids into our bedroom to parallel the 1,100 noisy ones housed in this particular cellblock…remain almost motionless so as not to inadvertently irritate armed-robber Edna, ponder past mistakes, present agonies & future defeats in the light of whatever insights your thus disturbed condition allows.”
The morning after his “787th straight nite behind bars,” Neal was paroled. The Southern Pacific refused to rehire a convicted felon, so Neal got a job busting tires for the Los Gatos Tire Company. “I remember riding my bike down there to watch him,” recalls John Allen. “He’d race out to cars and change their wheels and then run back to the recapping machine and sling these hot truck tires back and forth and race back out. Nobody could believe he had that much energy and speed for this low-paying gig.”
I could hear Dean, blissful and blabbering and frantically rocking. Only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes…This is the result of years of looking at sexy pictures behind bars…evaluating the hardness of the steel halls and the softness of the woman who is not there. Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live.
Escaping through a lily field,
I came across an empty space –
It trembled and exploded,
Left a bus stop in its place.
The bus came by and I got on,
That’s when it all began.
There was cowboy Neal at the wheel,
Of a bus to Never Ever Land.
Ken Kesey, like Jack and Neal, was a high school athlete from a working-class home. He had been voted Most Likely to Succeed by his senior class, and was the first member of his family to go to college – the University of Oregon, where he wrestled his way to the top of his weight class, acted some, and even went to Hollywood after college to try to be in the movies.
But inside all of that was another kind of spirit, one strengthened and tried by his father’s physical contests, hunting and running and wrestling and whitewater – initiations really, with younger brother Chuck, for the greater and ultimate test we all come to in our own way. And the kid-spirit knew that the stories Ken loved in comic books, about Superman and Captain Marvel and mortals turned into super-mortals in secret caverns, Oriental rituals, magic stones conveying super strength or fatal weakness, were somehow true, that is truer than the accidentals of school and the drive-in and even one’s own parents, because they were the story of the spirit-body on its road through changing matter: the Test.
And the spirit guided young Kesey to one possible means of its expression – as it guides us through various means – looking for a Way, a path, to realize its own nature and the nature of its home, the Universe; and Kesey began to write, following, as Joseph Campbell would have said, his bliss. And he was granted – O accidental means, O great and hidden end! – a scholarship to the Stanford University creative writing graduate program.
There Kesey was adopted by a circle of traditional bohemians living in Penny Lane, a bungalow arrangement housing graduate students, with dinners and discussions and contemplations over alcohol. They recognized in Kesey a certain…earnest spirit…but Kesey was not drawn so much to the award-winning novelists, but to a psychology grad student named Vik Lovell. Lovell told Kesey about these experiments at the Veterans’ Hospital nearby in Menlo Park, where they were testing some new drugs and looking for volunteers; seventy-five bucks a day to sit in a white-walled room where a nurse technician would bring you a capsule that would contain maybe nothing, maybe…(What the volunteers didn’t know what that the shadow-authority behind these and other similar experiments all over the country and in Canada was the CIA, which was very interested in these “mind-manifesting” compounds as possible truth serums, or insanity serums, or amnesia serums.) Sometimes the little capsule would give you what would later be called a really bum trip. Other times – even in the antiseptic room with the nurse coming in every twenty minutes to scope out your pupils, hiding her secret sadness behind a repertoire of mannerisms that were suddenly very transparent – the experience would be very beautiful, spiritual, though that word hardly expresses the sea of…not only thoughts or only feelings or only sensation…being:
And in that capsule would be LSD.
LSD quickly became the magic amulet around Perry Lane, and the prototype of electric Kool-Aid was not anything as campy and kidlike as Kool-Aid, but fiery venison chili, like shamans eating the flesh of the totem for a vision – and you could still mail-order peyote from Laredo, as the Beats had done.
Kesey was working up a novel about North Beach called Zoo, and Lovell suggested he take the night attendant’s job on the psych ward where he would be left alone and could write; but Kesey took the magic amulet onto the ward, and found that simply by looking into the faces of the residents he could see – behind the drooling or tics or mannerisms of dis-ease: Spirit. And through this literal seeing Kesey dreamed himself into the character of a schizophrenic Indian the fictional ward lackeys called, mockingly, Chief Broom: the narrator and muse of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Kesey called the Moloch shadow-authority in his armed madhouse the Combine, and the Combine’s agent – a repressed, emasculating, lobotomizing pillar of soul-destroying efficiency – was called Nurse Ratched, or just Big Nurse. Though Big Nurse’s ultimate nemesis is Chief Broom’s faith is his own undependable subjectivity, her obvious enemy on the ward is a drinkin’, fornicatin’, and insubordinizin’ rabble-rouser named Randle McMurphy, who disrupts the robot routine of the ward, allowing the residents to see, for a while, themselves as men again. McMurphy was a street brawler, gambler, disreputable menace, and a lover of teenage girls. If this character profile is beginning to sound familiar, well, Neal read the book too, and knew McMurphy was, if not actually based on, a chip-off-the-old-block of – His Bad Self.
So, the story goes, one day Ken and his wife, Faye, came back from a trip to Oregon, and there in Perry Lane – head bobbing on his taut-sinewed neck, handsomest man you ever saw and talking a blue-white streak – was Neal, who had felt summoned by the book. By this time Perry Lane had become a node of the New Thing – nothing so self-conscious as that, surely, but the venison chili parties were happening and attracting hipsters from the surrounding landscape, as scenes do when they get going, drawing energy in, and soon everybody finds themselves with more energy than they knew they had on their own: tribal magic. And one of the habitués of the Perry Lane scene was the hot young banjo-and-guitar player around the Palo Alto coffeehouses at the time, named Jerry Garcia. “We were playing around in this house,” he recalled, “we had a couple of Day-Glo super balls and we bounced them around and we were just reading comic books, doodling, strumming guitars…All of a sudden you realize that you are free to play.”
And after Perry Lane was plowed under by a developer’s bulldozer, the scene moved into the hills to La Honda, to Kesey’s cabin, with redwood trees and a footbridge over a stream, like summer camp for big kids – kids who had gotten a hold of the magic amulet, members of the tribe that would call itself the Merry Pranksters.
One day the idea was there:
“Why don’t we have a big party? You guys bring your instruments and play, and us Pranksters will set up all your tape recorders and stuff, and we’ll all get stoned. And that was the first Acid Test.”
<![if !supportLists]>- <![endif]>Bob Weir
“Test,” because acid brought you to that…edge…psychic whitewater; to pass it was to stay in the moment, the beautiful or fierce or ecstatic or terrifying or peaceful moment that is the only golden road.
The idea of the Bus grew out of a modest intention to drive to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Early on, the Pranksters became fascinated the electronics as a way of both amping up the trip and documenting the scene. Also, Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, was to be published in New York in early July, so the idea was to bring along a few cameras and tape recorders, shoot some footage, and bring the Perry Lane/La Honda “free-to-play” spirit to the Fair. Then somebody saw a classified ad for a 1939 International Harvester school bus, with bunks and a sink and storage and other amenities for a comfortable life on the road – which Kesey bought for $1,500.
The Bus! That Grandfather of All Tourbuses, with a destination sign that read FURTHER, a sign on the back that said WEIRD LOAD, and on the side, the Pranksters’ contribution to presidential politics: A VOTE FOR BARRY IS A VOTE FOR FUN. And Neal at the wheel.
Neal. Long-lashed eyes in the rectangular rear-view mirror, cannonball muscles popping under a too-small black-and-white striped shirt, with a penny whistle in his left hand and a big bomber in his right and both hands on the wheel, or one, or none, tootling and toking and navigating faultlessly and all the while keeping up an unbroken rap drawing into it the names of the Indy 500 winners, Love Potion Number 9, Edgar Cayce, memories of Denver, philosophical bits, thermodynamics – the minutiae of a lifetime of fact-seeking by Neal’s triple-seeded brain – intermingled with pure sounds, like tires screeching or pistons blowing up, as well as what Neal was seeing or hearing at the moment, road signs or the car in the other lane, and all rhyming and sparking in a way that, if you weren’t really listening, could sound like nonsense. But if you were, you’d realize Neal was jamming like the jazz musicians he and Jack dug in New York – taking themes and elaborating and suspending and altering them in a flow the course of which was not determined by what you thought you’d do before you started, but by which you were hearing and feeling now, at the moment of composition.
Neal helped us be the kind of band we are, a concert not a studio band…It wasn’t as if he said, “Jerry, my boy, the whole ball of wax happens here and now.” It was watching him move, having my mind blown by how deep he was, how much he could take into account in any given moment and be really in time with it.
- Jerry Garcia
“In time” – Neal’s old buddy Jack had seen that too, and wrote that Dean “knew time.” The Dead took that spark into their music, that time-knowing, that knowledge that in each moment a beauty is possible as intensely itself and newly created as the surface of the sun: radiance that still shines in the music, so that young Deadheads hearing it for the first time open their hands to the stage as around a warming fire.
And Neal knew his own body, which embodied his knowing by being taut and supple and beautiful. Watching Neal in the loving eye of the Prankster cameras is like watching Harold Lloyd, or W.C. Fields’ fluid dance with a pool cue or a sheet of flypaper; rolling a straw boater off his head and down his arm to charm a girl, every moment – even when he drops the hat – lit from the inside with attention and wit.
Neal was a legendary lover, often choosing women who were thought unattractive by others, or even retarded or psychotic, to delight them with his lovemaking prowess natural gifts. The first time he met Anne Murphy, his combative sidekick of the Prankster years, she was sick with hepatitis. “Hoping, I guess, to perk me up, he unveiled his mighty endowment while my eyes popped. We made a date for the following weekend.”
Neal carried a hammer, a 4-pound jack, tossing and catching and flipping it, a mass dance with his energy, keeping his muscles toned and his time sharp. “At his purest,” Garcia said, “Cassady was a tool of the cosmos.”
And Neal pushed that to the limit, hurtling around blind curves daring it to throw a vehicle in his path; or the time Neal guided the Bus down a hairpin-winding mountain highway in Virginia, everybody wooooossssssshhhhhhhing on the magic amulet – the edge! – without touching the brakes; or the snowy night in the Tehachapi Pass – with young Stewart Brand of eventual Whole Earth Catalog fame rolling his bombers – when Neal experimented with seeing how close he could come to the roadside telephone poles without actually clobbering into one, skidding from one side of the road to the other, all the while raping about how God is in control…Brand abandoned ship at the Big Sur turnoff feeling he’d been taught a lesson, and decided to get married and father children.
There was no space on him for other stuff – he did his trip, and he left no room between the sinews for other juices. Everybody who ever dealt with him felt this – this guy has a vision of the truth. “Oh my God! Is that what the truth is?”
<![if !supportLists]>- <![endif]>Ken Kesey
Kesey used to say there were no accidents around Neal – even when he dropped his hammer he was showing you something. Talking with Prankster Ken Babbs in 1981, Garcia recollected one Neal-lesson that changed the course of his life, the morning after the Watts Acid Test: “He’d been on the road all night, driving back from San Francisco. That was the night everybody was terribly overdosed. Neal must have caught up fast. By dawn he didn’t have his shirt on. No shoes. Just those shapeless gray pants. And for some reason he wasn’t speaking. Sometimes he’d get to that place where he was beyond speaking.
“He was motioning George [Prankster George Walker] into a parking place, giving him signals, a little to the left, a little to the right, all with gestures. Neal directed him into a stop sign and the bus knocked it over and shaved it clean off.
“Neal immediately picked it up and tried to stick it back in the hole. Down the street come two little old ladies on their way to church. Neal’s meanwhile walking away from the sign real fast, and it hung for a minute and started to topple and just before it hit the ground he caught it and put it back up. Then the ladies see him: Is it a disreputable drunk or what? He decides to clean up his act and hide the stop sign behind him until the ladies pass by. It was like an elegant physical Buster Keaton ballet.
“I hit him for a ride back to our house and it was just me and him in an old Ford sedan we used for a go-fer car, and most of the time when you got behind the wheel with Neal it was an adventure, at least, but this time we left the place at a speed of maybe eight, twelve miles an hour all the way without either of us saying a word. He’d look over at me every once in a while and we were strangely close. There was nobody out, the streets were bare and when you don’t have to talk to the person next to you, that’s real clean. Takes a certain thing not to try to keep anything up, having to entertain one another.
“I remember flashing on Neal as he was driving, that he is one of these guys that has a solitary kind of existence, like the guy who built the Watts Towers, one person fulfilling a work. I made a decision: to be involved in something that didn’t end up being work that you died and left behind, and that they couldn’t tear down.
“Neal represented a model to me of how far you could take it in the individual way. In the sense that you weren’t going to have a work, you were going to be the work. Work in real time, which is a lot like musician’s work.
“I had originally been an art student and was wavering between one man work or being involved in something that was dynamic and ongoing and didn’t necessarily stay any one way. Something in which you weren’t the only contributing factor. I decided to go with what was dynamic and with what more than one mind was involved with.
“The decision I came to was to be involved in a group thing, namely the Grateful Dead.”
Wavy Gravy met Kerouac behind a strawberry tart at an after-hours cafeteria on the Bowery called Sagamore’s, a hangout for drag queens, poets, beatniks, musicians – “the whole mélange of wooga-wooga,” as Wavy recalls over coffee in my kitchen in the Haight Ashbury in 1989. Wavy had read On the Road while at Boston University, and started a jazz-and-poetry series after reading a Time spread on poet Kenneth Rexroth, who intoned his “Married Blues” over Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” at a club in San Francisco called the Blackhawk.
Wavy – who still was Hugh Romney in those days – became the poetry director of the Gaslight Café in the Village, integrating folk music into the poetry readings there. “In between poems I started talking about the bizarre things that happened in my life,” Wavy explains, “and some guy saw me and said skip the poems, and put me in a suit and started mailing me around the country, and the next thing you know I was opening for John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.”
Wavy was turned on to psychedelics by his conga drummer, whose hobby was synthesizing mescaline – he had all these tubes snaking around his apartment with black goo coming out of them. Wavy ate the crystallized Flesh of the Gods at Coney Island, and spent $50 on roller-coaster tickets: “It actually got scary when it stopped.”
He got a gig with the Committee, a renowned San Francisco improvisational comedy troupe, while taking care of the “street biz” for Owsley with John Brent, who ran for mayor of San Francisco on the platform ANYTHING YOU WANT. Wavy and John’s franchise was called Goon King Brothers Dimensional Creemo, and Wavy’s nom de commerce was Al Dente – “a name I got off a Buitoni wrapper.”
Wavy got on the Prankster bus after a marathon viewing of the ongoing Prankster movie – called “Intrepid Traveler and His Merry Pranksters Leave in Search of a Cool Place” or just “The Movie” – at Ken “Intrepid Traveler” Babbs’ place in Capistrano, in Southern California, Soon Wavy and Neal were doing double raps at the Acid Tests.
“He’d say a few words and I’d say a few words, but there was no time to think. The only way it would work is, you couldn’t be there” – that is you couldn’t let the past-and-future-you get in the way of Now. “What used to piss me off about Neal, and I finally called him on it, was he wouldn’t take time out to laugh. He was too busy being three minutes ahead of time.”
A person has all sorts of lags built into him, Kesey is saying. One, the most basic, is the sensory lag, the lag between the time your senses receive something and you are able to react…Cassady is right up against that 1/30th of a second barrier. He is going as fast as a human can go, but even he can’t overcome it…You can’t through sheer speed overcome the lag.
- Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
“Neal was the first person to teach me to trust my instincts,” Wavy says. “To not worry about it – be open to the situation, not be in the past or future. Neal said fretting was the only sin. I’ve tried to take that one to heart.”
Wavy graduated from being assistant tongue-dancer to riding shotgun for Neal on the big bus, “once I got used to the fact that he was doin’ ten things at once and nothin’ twice and wasn’t going to crash…He’d be peeling an orange and rolling a joint and having about four conversations, and there’d be all this traffic…the last thing you want to say is ‘Neal, pay attention to the road,’ ‘cause that would really distract him – next thing you know you’d be heading into a telephone pole.”
Annette Flowers met Neal in September of 1965. She was seventeen, and had read On the Road, and walked into a friend’s house in Los Altos, near Foothill College where she was a student. There was Neal, playing chess and blasting the new Beatles record, Revolver, turning it over and over.
That first day together they took some psilocybin mushrooms ground up in gelatin capsules. Annette felt very comfortable with Neal right away, intuiting the depth and rapidity of his mind and feeling gratified to have met someone who could keep up with her.
Annette is a Libra, and her friend Cathy Mae was a Gemini, and Neal was an Aquarius. The three air-signs came together to form a loving, easygoing family that was, for Neal, an alternative to the ongoing psychedelic guerrilla warfare of the Pranksters and the tension of being with Carolyn, who had asked Neal for a divorce. They called themselves “the Trine” – the aspect of good fortune.
Annette’s nickname in the Tine was either Anita or Mustang Sally, owing to the fact she had a ’65 Mustang, in which they dropped in, often in the middle of the night, on Neal’s friends – like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet-publisher who won the landmark obscenity trial for the right to publish “Howl”; or Gavin Arthur, the eccentric astrologer whose calculations were used to determine an auspicious date for the Human Be-In and had been Neal’s religion instructor in San Quentin; or Robert Hunter, whom Annette met through David Nelson.
Neal also took Annette to her first Acid Test, at the Big Beat in Palo Alto. The entertainment that particular evening was a band Annette had heard about from David Nelson, but had never seen: the Warlocks.
“I spent most of the time under a table,” Annette recalls in her office at the Dead’s headquarters, where she is now in charge of the band’s music publishing company, Ice Nine. Over her desk, in a charcoal sketch, Pigpen looks back at us over his shoulder. “The Warlocks frightened me. I sensed a tremendous amount of power up there, and I wasn’t sure if it was good or evil. I wasn’t immediately comfortable with it.
“Like Deadheads’ll tell you today, I was in one of those situations where I was in the second row dancing, and all of a sudden I thought Jerry looked over and was angry or something – like I’d pissed somebody off – and I crawled all the way to the back and found a table and got under it and waited till Neal came and got me and we went home.”
Neal and Annette went to Quicksilver and Airplane shows at the Fillmore together, and after one of these, Neal carried his little Anita – still a virgin – down the stairs to introduce her to her first love, waiting in the rear of Neal’s big black Cadillac.
Like many others, Annette admired Neal’s ability to carry on simultaneous conversations, or more precisely, to notice the simultaneity in conversations that were already going on, and highlight that synchronicity in his own rap, weaving the threads together. “He wasn’t the motivator or the seed,” Annette explains, “he was just picking it up to make people aware, to open up their ears and feel that three different groups of people, with different words, were essentially talking about the same thing. To see where it came together, what the common bond was.”
Annette remembers one afternoon at a friend’s house in Los Altos, when Neal decided suddenly to redecorate, “starting with the kitchen. He went through all the cupboards, juggling the dishes and silverware – pretty soon the whole house was a tornado. I swear he was twirling the couch on his finger.
“The folks who lived there, and the friends who were visiting, all eventually stepped out to the backyard – a whole group of us looking toward the house with just this flash going in any given window, around and around and around – ‘Oh God, he’s gonna destroy the house!’
“And after a while he came out – ‘Where is everybody?’ – ‘cause he was in there talking to himself, and finally noticed no people were in there any longer. So we all went back in and everything was in perfect order.
“That was like temporarily taking a place and putting it in another dimension. There’s a point where you think the authorities or the brain police are gonna come down and – this house must be Day-Glo! – and the whole town of Los Altos must be on the phone saying ‘What the heck, our electricity’s shorting out, or juicing up’ – are we gonna get away with this?
“But I guess people driving by were just – it’s a regular house in the afternoon, friends hanging out together”
Flight of the sea birds
Scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly
Speed – dull bitter powder that makes the mortal movie seem so…slow…but booted up – the Time-Wheel in the head faster and faster and the body able to keep up, hot stylus pushing forward into the molten wax of the moment and able to turn it into speech, action, now, no time for fretting but only I talking or running or fucking almost too fast for matter to keep it going, and where is it coming from? Not this slow body…but crackling light of – damn –
Peter Coyote was still Peter Cohon in the Diggers, the group he helped found with Emmet Grogan and Peter Berg, that set up milk cans of hot soup under the eucalyptus trees in Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle for the armies of the Summer of Love, and set up a Free Store (“IT’S FREE BECAUSE ITS YOURS”), and carried around a huge empty wooden frame called the Free Frame of Reference that could be placed around anything, reinvesting it with its own natural meaning, which was FREE – FREE was not a schtick, it was a metaphysic: Being is Free.
Peter, now a film actor, remembers one night at a big poetry reading with Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and the Diggers in the audience – “and we were very conscious that the mantle had been passed to us. It was our time now, we were what was happening. It was palpable to everyone in the room – we just had a vision that was appropriate to that moment.”
Peter met Neal hanging out at Paula McCoy’s, across from the Dead’s house at 710 Ashbury. Paula was the ex-wife of a real estate developer, an elegant blonde with an acid tongue who hosted Digger salons, walking around naked under a floor-length mink coat. One night Peter and Emmett were up in the front window when Neal walked out of the Dead house, and they threw some apples at him and called him over. Neal had some speed, they had some “works,” and they all got high.
The vision – could be seen through different windows, you could say, different sub-scenes in the bigger picture of the Haight – an “urban cosmopolitan universe that went every place from beggars to millionaires, with corresponding differentiations of taste and style and politics and ideology,” remembers Coyote. “The same people who are into channeling now were smoking $3,000-a-pound marijuana then and having these sublime upper-middle-class psychedelic aesthetic experiences.”
And there was this other window, the speed window, that seemed to have no frame at all – “Speed gave you the energy to keep up, and the imaginative excesses to fuel a reality without limits,” says Coyote, “to fuel the invention necessary to keep up with a reality without limits.
And Cassady, whose Prankster name was Speed Limit, who drove cars until they literally exploded, was the perfect driver for a bus whose destination sign read only FURTHER. But after the flash, the body’s heavy meat is Home, after all. Peter gave up amphetamines and took up zazen, the physical practice of sitting body, breath, and mind in one place: here. “I had failed to realize,” Peter reflects, “that the body was the first legitimate limit.”
The last time Kerouac saw Neal was at a Prankster party on Park Avenue Kesey wanted to meet Jack, and Jack had praised Cuckoo’s Nest to his friends. It was the long-awaited meeting of the two minds to whom the appropriate-vision-of-the-moment had occurred, each in his own time. There was the usual Prankster electronic din going on, speakers and wires everywhere and microphones feeding it all back on itself until it became…a crackling…all flood-lit for the Movie; Jack was tired, and wanted to sit down – but where he wanted to sit, there was an American flag.
But Dean’s intelligence was formal and shiny and complete, without the tedious intellectualness. And his “criminality” was not something that skulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy…
Jack believed in America – not the America that dropped its bomb on Hiroshima, not the America of our own age that skulks and sneers and calls itself “kinder,” but the America – America! – that Neal and Jack and Allen discovered in their own living room: An America that is discovered anew each moment with a truthful word spoken, a word of actual trembling tender feeling committed to Art, with the simplest act of looking into your friend’s eyes, when secrecy departs, and you are thenceforth open to his nature as a flower in the shining sun.
So Jack – as he had taught his friends for years, not as a gesture but a physical enactment of respect for the America that is always waiting to be discovered and will find its flag in the Flag, its history waiting for it to realize its own promise entrusted long ago – picked up the flag from the couch, folded it, and sat down, and asked the Pranksters if they were communists.
And when Kesey, wishing to heal a distance of differing mannerism, told Jack his role in history was secure – because Kesey knew Dean’s jalopy and the Bus and any number of unforeseeable future travelers (you and me, reader) were all looking for that one…place…here – Jack said quietly, “I know.”
Just before Neal left for his last trip to Mexico, Wavy and a friend took him to kidnap Tiny Tim from a place in the Village called the Scene, where Tiny was doing his ukulele-and-flowers act. Wavy’s last, best memory of Neal is of Neal driving up West Side Drive toward the Cloisters: “And every now and then Tiny’d go ‘Oh, Mr. Cassady, not so fast!’ and Neal, ‘Well, Tiny, not to worry,’ and Tiny ‘AUUUUUGGHHH!” But then the two of them broke into these Bing Crosby duets as the sun was coming up. It was just the most beautiful, beautiful thing that I ever experienced with Neal – just him and Tiny and the sunrise.”
On February 2nd, 1968, Neal took a train down to Celaya, New Mexico, and took a cab to San Miguel de Allende, where a young friend named J.B. was waiting for him. At noon Neal left J.B.’s house, saying he had to pick up a bag he’d left at the depot containing a Bible and some letters from Jack and Allen. He told J.B, he would walk to the station and then continue on to Celaya, more than fifteen miles away.
At the train station Neal ran into a Mexican family celebrating a wedding with traditional abandon, and drank pulque and tequila with them, along with the potent barbiturate Seconal.
About a quarter of a mile toward Celaya from the station, Neal died by the railroad tracks, wearing nothing but a T-shirt in the cold rain.
The police took Neal’s body to the house of Pierre Delattre, the “street priest” of North Beach who had come to Mexico to avoid paying taxes that would fund the Vietnam War. The police told Delattre they had a body in their truck, the body of a man who had the priest’s address in his wallet, and they told him the man’s name.
Annette had moved to New Jersey that winter, away from the San Francisco scene, and lost touch with Hunter and Nelson and the other friends of her time with Neal. Cathy Mae moved East with Annette and her own new husband, and both the Libra and Gemini aspects of the Trine were pregnant – new lives beginning in every sense of the words.
Very soon after Annette arrived at her parents’ home, there was a knock at the door – a hippie with a message for someone named Anita, that Neal was dead. No one knew how he had found her, “It was just one of those things – ‘I have a message.’ That kind of thing happened all the time,” recalls Annette, “and still does.”
Annette says Neal is still with her. “He has appeared to me more than once in the form of a bird – if I’m thinking about something and I would like some confirmation, and I wonder how Neal would feel about this, a bird will fly by. In Kansas, a sea-bird will fly over…and there’s the answer.”
“Of course, you can just decide that, that that’s what’s happening, and that isn’t what’s happening. But I feel his spirit is very much a part of my life.”
“I trash my friends sometimes. Everybody’s going to sleep and I’m still talking – I find myself in a room with people crashed all around me, and I’m still up, nobody’s listening – and I feel ‘Well, Neal understands, he’s listening.”
“He lived his life, and he didn’t waste time – even sleeping – putting it off. He jammed as much action and energy as he could into everything. My son says, ‘But look – he burned out early,’ and he did. He flashed through. Johnny says, ‘It would be nice for the younger generation of Deadheads if he were alive today’…Yeah, it would be nice for the younger generation of Deadheads if Pigpen, Bobby Peterson, all those guys…He lived hard.
“I think it’s really important to try to communicate with people, and that’s where Neal was at – not building up a big bank account, but communication, getting to know each other. I live fairly hard myself, and I push it right out to the edge, and it feels like the most important thing I could do.
“I feel he shared and imparted to me the okay-ness to just be here, and try not to be too concerned about fitting in with what’s supposedly okay. Being a rebel, a cage-rattler.
“Somebody who doesn’t like it can tell me to leave, or we can get right into talking about stuff that matters.”
Wavy says, “Thelonious Monk once told me, ‘Everyone is a genius just being themselves,’ and most people don’t get that. They want to be someone else, or they want to be Neal. I have spent my life walking down the road seeing the smoldering wrecks of burned-out beings who wanted to be Neal. They should concentrate on being themselves. Kids come up to me and say ‘You’re my idol.’ I say ‘Put your ear to your heart, that’s your idol.’"