Neal Cassady won’t go away. The wild young man dashing madly down the highways of experience, liberated from conventional restraints and searching for sex and salvation in the American night, sent chills of horror down the spine of respectable society in 1957, when Kerouac immortalized him as Dean Moriarty in On the Road. A few years later, just when America thought it was safe to drive again, he came roaring back, in the flesh this time and crazier than ever, as the pilot of the bus Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters” took cross-country in the psychedelic 60s. His mad appetite for pleasure and his speed-crazed monologues, recounted faithfully by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, made him a counterculture folk hero. Survivors of that era still speak and write of him with reverence.
Cassady has insinuated himself into the popular imagination beyond the wildest dreams of even his most ardent admirers. Think of the mythologized passions and highway death of James Dean, the apocalyptic persona and imagery of Jim Morrison, and the more recent road-to-the-promised-land visions of Springsteen and his various clones. Several generations of movie and TV roadrunners, from the adventure seekers on Route 66 through the postapocalyptic mutants of Road Warrior, have gotten much of their fuel from Neal at the wheel of his endless succession of gas-guzzling chariots.
Yet the “real” Cassady has remained elusive. As powerful as his personality was, he’s come to seem ephemeral, an empty mirror in which everyone saw images of his or her own choosing. Even Cassady’s most devoted disciples remember him selectively. Allen Ginsberg has said that Ken Babbs, a Kesey associate and an editor at Kesey’s journal Spit in the Ocean, once turned down a manuscript Ginsberg submitted describing the first time he and Cassady slept together. Babbs apparently wanted nothing to interfere with his cherished image of Cassady as heroic heterosexual.
Most of the Cassady legend has consisted of fictionalized or anecdotal accounts, set in a romanticized Beat or hippie era and usually related by adoring acolytes, mostly men. Women–whether Cassady’s innumerable girlfriends and three wives or female critics unimpressed by his exploits as cocksman extraordinaire–have by and large remained pointedly silent.
That silence has now been broken by Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s long-suffering second wife. Her memoirs, Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, offer a loving, penetrating portrait of a man possessed by both angels and demons, one who spread joy and pain with equal recklessness, driven by his insatiable appetites. These, combined with a compulsive need to be everything to everyone, eventually destroyed him.
In 1947, Carolyn was a recent Bennington College graduate living in Denver. Introduced to him by a friend, she was immediately drawn to Cassady by his sparkling wit and suave courtliness. She soon moved to San Francisco, where he joined her, promising that he was about to obtain a divorce from his teenaged wife, LuAnne. In fact the divorce was quite long in coming, and he maintained an on-again, off-again relationship with LuAnne for some time after he married Carolyn. Carolyn’s story from this point fills in the gaps of On the Road and later Cassady tales–this is what was going on back home while cowboy angel Neal was haunting the highways of America expanding his buddies’ consciousness in his search for kicks.
Carolyn tells of blissful periods of dazzling romance and mind-expanding conversation interspersed with Neal’s gut-wrenching departures, betrayals, infidelities, and an apparent callousness that brought a new dimension to the term “mental cruelty.” After a while there seem to be no words to describe such a man; Kerouac’s brusquely affectionate “mindless cad” barely begins to suffice. When Cassady finally names himself, in a letter written to his wife from prison, as “Neal, the REAL heel,” one can only nod one’s head in dazed agreement.
Between all these ecstasies and heartaches, Carolyn became acquainted with various Beat luminaries–Kerouac, with whom she had a deeply romantic love affair; Ginsberg; a loutishly punky Gregory Corso. And despite the constant gnawing doubts about her relationship with Cassady, she found this new bohemian world intriguing. Her memories of that world and how she gradually accepted its mores and philosophies are alone worth the price of the book.
There’s a darkly hilarious account of the sordid paradise William Burroughs constructed for himself in the late 40s in a ranch house in Algiers, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans. Kerouac’s tragic decline from visionary young novelist to babbling drunk is likewise drawn with heartbreaking clarity. Ginsberg emerges as a saintly figure, kindly and nurturing, distributing gifts to the Cassady kids and gently prodding his friends in a vain attempt to get them to abandon their sorrowful self-absorption and experience the joys of being.
The tenderness between Carolyn and the doomed, brooding Kerouac stands in marked contrast to the piercing intensity of her relationship with Cassady. Even at his kindest–between escapades, he was a loving husband and father–Cassady seems to have been overwhelming and sometimes frightening. It doesn’t surprise us that a psychiatric examination produced this verdict: “a sociopathic personality with schizophrenic and manic-depressive tendencies that could develop into psychosis.” It’s grimly reminiscent of the diagnosis of Dean Moriarty rendered by Burroughs as Old Bull Lee in On the Road: “. . . compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence.”
Cassady seemed manic even in Kerouac’s adoring descriptions. His were desperate acts to satisfy an appetite out of control, and he never seemed to understand how anything he did could hurt anyone until it was all over. Then his remorse seemed shatteringly genuine, and he’d put himself through heroic convolutions to rectify everything, to somehow balance his “wives and woes,” as Kerouac put it, in a coherent whole that would run smoothly and cause no one pain.
Cassady’s blessing and curse was the brilliant radiance of his desires. Almost everyone he wronged forgave him as a holy con man abrim with love of life and benevolence of spirit. Psychics claimed to see a halo around him and called him a “saint”; the jury-rigged spiritualism of bohemia made it easy to visualize him as a kind of carnal Buddha, teaching joy and live-in-the-moment enlightenment. He went unpunished for deeds that would have made social lepers of most men.
But “con man,” holy or otherwise, can be part of the definition of a sociopath, and a manic-depressive in a manic state might also dash across the country without warning, talking incessantly and remembering places and events with near-photographic accuracy. Even Carolyn Cassady doesn’t seem to grasp the full implication of that diagnosis, which haunts the soul in these days of conservative smugness and the constriction of possibility in nearly every facet of life: after all this time, are we to learn that the fabled social revolutions fueled by Cassady and his contemporaries were merely manifestations of a madman’s pathology?
Surprisingly, Cassady himself hinted as much. It’s somewhat shocking to discover that the very things for which he’s usually venerated–his sexuality, his shedding of society’s conventions, his frenzied hunting for trips and kicks at whatever cost–apparently made him shudder in his calmer moments. Carolyn says that fan letters from Kerouac’s readers made Cassady “flinch with guilt”; Kerouac’s “glorification of his antics in print . . . made him uneasy. He wasn’t proud of this side of his nature; he had tried very hard to overcome it.”
But without that, what’s left? It’s one thing to say that he wanted to settle down as he got older; his protestations on that point seemed sincere, and one can understand both his and Carolyn’s frustration when he got sidetracked by the Pranksters and his own uncontrollable drives. But a Neal Cassady devoid of “this side of his nature” would be merely another bohemian intellectual, toking away in the living room discussing Edgar Cayce and jazz, writing and philosophizing while minding the kids and flipping through the TV channels–hardly the outlaw Moses of our literature and fantasies.
Nor is it the Neal whom Carolyn seemed to remember when she wrote a memoir, back in 1981, for The Cassady Issue (issue six) of Spit in the Ocean. The Cassady Issue is a collection of remembrances, mostly from the Prankster era, edited by Ken Babbs to “show Neal in action: talking and driving; none of your psychological analyzations of why he was so great; instead, a recounting of the things he did that were great.”
Carolyn Cassady’s contribution to The Cassady Issue consists primarily of a letter she wrote to the producer of the ill-fated film Heart Beat, which was based on her manuscript. She writes that Cassady was admired as “a lovable rogue who dared to do things we’d like to do but are afraid of. We wrap our morality around us . . . letting Neal act out our inner desires. [He was] mentally brilliant, dynamic, intense, and full of an explosive, electric-type energy that shatters old forms in order to make way for new. At the same time he represented a humane, non-judgmental benevolence that seeks the brotherhood of man and promotes brotherly love; that gives everyone the right to experience the “garden of earthly delights.”‘
That’s the Cassady we recognize. He’s all over the place in The Cassady Issue, clowning and fucking and spieling like God’s own court jester. Girlfriend Anne Murphy, another member of the bus family, remembers his mottoes: “You are created for the experience of joy!” “Be oft in joyous prayer!” “Live in the moment!” Babbs seems to feel that the bus experience was the apotheosis not only of his own life but of Cassady’s as well: “The thing we were just barely starting to explore–coming on in a dramatic, meaningful way–was the thing Cassady had been doing for years. Just to get ready for this trip.”
There’s scarcely a hint here of the tormented, disintegrating wretch Carolyn portrays in Off the Road: “I can’t help it anymore [she quotes him as telling her]. I don’t know where else to go. I’m a danger to everyone–to myself most of all. I keep swearing I’m going to stop making an ass of myself, but then I get in a group and everyone stares at me, waiting for me to perform–and my nerves are so shot, I get high–and there I go again. I don’t know what else to do–it’s horrible.”
Carolyn writes further that he fled the Pranksters at least once, unable to tolerate the scene and determined to renew the stability of his home life, although by then he was too far gone. She portrays a quivering, terrified man, vacillating uncontrollably between incoherent rantings (“his one-sided conversation with the Devil”) and dazed disorientation.
Yet with one or two exceptions, his old bus buddies in The Cassady Issue portray him as master of his world and his mind all the way to the end, sometimes sweating under the burden of his mission and his vast capacities but happy and dedicated in his role as superman driver of the cosmic bus. How could even a holy con man reveal such different selves to different people?
Carolyn never really addresses that question. She does describe, however, both her own and Neal’s attempts to receive guidance from the spiritual world. These tales may provide a key to understanding the dizzying array of alternate realities swirling around the Neal Cassady saga. Carolyn and Neal had been consulting various channelers and psychics since the 50s, absorbing the reincarnation theories of Cayce and even becoming fans of Oral Roberts for a while. (Susceptibility to con men was apparently a dominant theme in the Cassady household.)
Carolyn came to believe that Neal had been sent by some higher power to teach her patience and “loving indifference.” She held off divorcing him until after the marriage was dead in everything but name, adhering to the advice of one Elsie Sechrist that “God will make the separation” at the appropriate time. She often castigated herself for insufficient faith and negative thoughts, citing Cayce’s notion that “no one meets a circumstance he hasn’t the power to overcome–if he will.”
Neal fared little better. A psychic reading revealed his past lives and purported to explain his self-destructive impulses. Another praised his “spiritual attributes” with such eloquence that it sounded like “one long mystical prayer,” and the woman doing the channeling wept at its beauty.
The readings even warned him about his chemical imbalances, although they stopped short of prescribing psychiatric help–instead “the conquering light of your soul will bring you back.” One astrologist scolded Neal for refusing to be saved from “that shadowy underworld of racing touts and junkies”–this from a man who was himself a friend of Anton LeVey, leader of the Satanist Church! With all this, and with the seductive lure of the Pranksters and their cornucopia of drugs, adventure, adoring young women, and hero worship, it’s no wonder Cassady lost track of rationality and fell so deeply into his persona that he couldn’t get out.
It seems a lot of people were blinded by faith–Carolyn by her faith in a higher power to save her marriage and her husband’s sanity; Neal by a similar faith in salvation; and both Neal and his followers by their growing belief in his mania as a vehicle for Aquarian vision.
Even his final, lonely collapse, while walking along the railroad tracks early in 1968 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has been understood differently by different people. Kerouac, himself rapidly disintegrating into alcoholic oblivion, first refused to believe Cassady was dead, then resigned himself to a similar fate: “Ah, Neal–I’ll be joining him soon.” (He did, on October 31, 1969.)
Carolyn relates that Neal had gone to Mexico in a desperate attempt to clean up, avoid arrest, and resume work toward his longtime goal of becoming a writer. He left a wedding, where he may or may not have mixed alcohol with reds he’d taken earlier, and headed along the tracks toward the Celaya train station to retrieve his luggage. He collapsed along the way and died. She makes no reference to the story related by Kesey and referred to by John Clellon Holmes in The Cassady Issue, that someone had challenged Neal to count the railroad ties and he’d walked out into the night alone to do so, reaching 60,000-something before he died, performing madly to the last–“done in by downers and a dare,” as Kesey says.
Incredibly, Kesey manages to elevate even that pathetic scenario into a tale of heroic prowess, proof that Cassady’s mind was still going full throttle: “Who’s afraid of the dark now? [Cassady] wasn’t merely making noise: he was counting. He didn’t lose it. We didn’t lose it. We were all counting.”
Were Cassady’s exploits all like this one, meaningless acts of a madman elevated to mythological status by desperate hangers-on lonesome for a hero? Babbs and his colleagues raise much the same point in The Cassady Issue. They attempt to find the answer through a series of rather self-indulgent trips down Prankster memory lane, but they don’t really succeed. The Cassady Issue is good for some vivid images of Neal at his high-octane trippiest, but most of the Prankster stories don’t answer any salient questions about him–a few doubts are raised, but predictably they’re shot down.
The Cassady Issue does include, however, a previously unpublished prologue Cassady wrote for his published autobiography, The First Third; and it’s instructive. In both style and content it evokes the person Carolyn maintains Neal was at his core and struggled most of his life to remain: a reflective man of profound moral convictions, eloquent and perceptive, dedicated to honor and integrity in a way few of his disciples realized. The piece is an island of tranquillity amid the hallucinatory adventures surrounding it, and again one is astounded that this facet of Cassady’s personality goes virtually unacknowledged by the rest of the contributors.
But what of the “other” Neal, the one remembered so fondly? He’s quoted in The Cassady Issue in the midst of one of his manic monologues: “You can always tell by the fear in the belly jest how limited you is.” That aphorism rings more true than ever today–these are frightened times, and this is why “both” Neal Cassadys are still important.
At its best, Cassady’s logorrhea was a kind of verbal bebop, the spoken equivalent of the cascading sonic riot of tone, rhythm, and imagination being pioneered by Charlie Parker, Monk, and the other jazz heroes of the 50s. Later the San Francisco acid rockers attempted a similar musical journey, with less artistic success, but again with Cassady riffing and rocking over the top. That riffing was at the heart of his vision.
As the jazz musicians whom he idolized did in their music, Cassady in his words and actions attempted to break free from arbitrary restrictions and create a new life art, a revolutionary moral order in which the unfettered human spirit, guided by benevolence and respecting all freedoms, could define the limits of possible and permissible behavior. The fact that he himself was unable to locate these new boundaries only reveals the daunting challenge of the task. In a world where, as William Burroughs has written, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” one can search only within oneself for codes of conduct that will allow one to soar without causing harm or impinging on others–in jazz terms, to blow free without stepping on someone else’s riff.
Cassady never quite mastered that last part, but in the wrenching contradictions of his personality lie clues as to how others might succeed. The nurturing lover and the wild-eyed highway child were two halves of the same Cassady whole, even if he never found a way to fuse them. If we’re to fashion lives of both meaning and integrity in a world fraught with danger, where individual freedom and exploration seem increasingly threatened, we’ve got to find a way to reclaim the exhilaration of the now and meld it with dedication to long-term duty–to drink the wine of life with glad appetite and dancing soul, but with both hands on the wheel. As in Cassady’s time,the highway is still there, waiting to teach us what we need to know.
Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg by Carolyn Cassady, William Morrow and Company, $22.95.
The Cassady Issue (Issue No. 6) of Spit in the Ocean edited by Ken Babbs, SITO (85829 Ridgeway Road, Pleasant Hill, Oregon 97401), $5.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter FitzGerald.