July 27, 2016

Blowing Mad: Neal Cassady and Music

“Dean Moriarty roars into the Opus One at 3:30 a.m…. ‘Ron! How you been? Crazy! Look Jack, we got a lookin’ all so clean gig goin’ over Hunter’s Point so let’s splee this one an’ make that!’ That cat Moriarty…is just about so crazy as a man can be.”
– Pigpen (1) 

In February 1949, the writer Jack Kerouac visited his friend Neal Cassady in San Francisco, and they went out to the Fillmore district to hear some music:

 “We went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco nightclub… In Frisco great eager crowds of young semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar, and bongo drums… Dean stands in the back, saying, ‘God! Yes!’ – and clasping his hands in prayer and sweating… That same night I dug Lampshade on Fillmore and Geary. Lampshade is a big colored guy who comes into musical Frisco saloons with coat, hat, and scarf and jumps on the bandstand and starts singing; the veins pop out in his forehead; he heaves back and blows a big foghorn blues out of every muscle in his soul… His voice booms over everything. He grimaces, he writhes, he does everything. He came over to our table and leaned over to us and said, ‘Yes!’ And then he staggered out to the street to hit another saloon. Then there’s Connie Jordan, a madman who sings and flips his arms and ends up splashing sweat on everybody and kicking over the mike and screaming like a woman; and you see him late at night, exhausted, listening to wild jazz sessions at Jamson’s Nook with big round eyes and limp shoulders, a big gooky stare into space, and a drink in front of him. I never saw such crazy musicians. Everybody in Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent; they didn’t give a damn.” (2)

The two young travelers found themselves in the midst of a musical paradise. The Fillmore district in the 1940s-‘50s was known as the “Harlem of the West,” a jazz and R&B hotspot with a couple dozen music clubs crammed into the neighborhood. (Due to segregation, blacks hadn’t been allowed in most Fillmore clubs & ballrooms during the ‘30s, but it became a black district during the war, when the Japanese were evacuated and tens of thousands of blacks moved to San Francisco.)
Musicians remembered, “There were two or three nightclubs on each block… You’d go in one club…and they’d be doing blues and jazz. You’d go down the street, and they’d be doing jazz… You could just go from one end of the neighborhood to the other, and every block had a club. If you were a musician and needed a gig, you just went to the Fillmore.” (3) So it was quite possible, as Kerouac described, to walk down the street and hear musicians playing on every corner: “You could walk down Fillmore Street and see all kinds of clubs lined up one behind the other, and the musicians could gig all the time. I mean, just music out of the doors, windows, people’s houses…there would be doo-wop groups on the street.” (4) Visiting jazz players from around the country with shows in the area would come to the Fillmore to sit in at jam sessions at various clubs. (By the mid-‘60s, almost all of these places had closed as the neighborhood was redeveloped.)

The Fillmore & Geary location would become famous in later years for the Fillmore Auditorium – but that’s not where Cassady & Kerouac went. What would become the Fillmore Ballroom had opened in 1912 as the Majestic Hall & Academy of Dancing – during the ‘40s it was a roller-skating rink, the Ambassador Roller Rink, for whites only. The rink closed in ’52, and dances started being held again. Black promoter Charles Sullivan took over in 1954, called it the Fillmore Auditorium, and started booking black bands.
Big bands had played the Majestic in the ‘30s, including some black musicians, but they remembered, “People of color were not allowed in the audience,” and through the ‘40s, “the dance-hall owners would not allow minorities in to see bands, or to roller-skate when it was a rink, until Charles Sullivan took it over in the ‘50s and began booking bands again.” (5) Through the ‘50s to mid-‘60s, the Fillmore was primarily for black bands playing to black audiences – some ‘60s acts included Bobby Bland, James Brown, Little Richard, Ike & Tina Turner, and the Temptations. (Neal Cassady may well have seen music there during this era too – he lived in various places around the Bay Area during the ‘50s-60s, spending a lot of time in San Francisco – but it’s unknown.)
At any rate, on that night in ’49 Cassady & Kerouac certainly didn’t go roller-skating, so where on Fillmore & Geary would they have gone? At the time there were a couple other music clubs just up the block, including the famous Long Bar, which might have been where they went and saw Lampshade. Jamson’s Nook may be Kerouac’s term for Jackson’s Nook over on Post & Buchanan, a club that often held jam sessions. They could have seen Slim Gaillard in any number of clubs since he was quite popular; possibly in a club right next to Jackson’s that he ran in ’49 called Vout City, which later became the famous Jimbo’s Bop City – in ’49 already notorious for its constant jam sessions.

(As an aside: I’ve wondered whether Joe Garcia (Jerry’s father) ever played dances at Majestic Hall in its first incarnation. Neal Cassady moved to San Francisco in November 1947 – he could never have seen Garcia, who died that August; and in any case Garcia had not played in jazz bands since 1937, when he’d been suspended from the musicians’ union and decided to open up a bar instead. During the ‘20s-‘30s Garcia had played clarinet and saxophone in jazz orchestras (probably in the popular sweet style of the time), and became the bandleader of a big orchestra. I don’t know whether he ever played the Majestic, but he’s said to have played in other theaters that his son would later play: the Orpheum, the Warfield, and possibly the nightclub Topsy’s Roost at Playland, a building which in ’69 would briefly become the Family Dog.)

Kerouac came back to San Francisco in August ’49 to take Cassady on a road trip to New York. They decided to celebrate (“two days of kicks in San Francisco before starting off”) and this time headed to “the little Harlem on Folsom Street,” then back to Jamson’s Nook, to see some more jazz – a night described at length in On The Road. It’s a famous musical passage with a wailing horn, a mad crowd, and Cassady (Dean) in ecstasy:
“Dean was already racing across the street with his thumb in the air, yelling, ‘Blow, man, blow!’… ‘Whoo!’ said Dean. He was rubbing his chest, his belly; the sweat splashed down from his face… Dean was directly in front of [the horn player] with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys… Dean was in a trance.” (6)

Kerouac also wrote about this experience in his tribute to Cassady (now named Cody), Visions of Cody:
“We started off the voyage by dedicating two nights of jazz to it. At that time Frisco jazz was at its rawest peak, for some reason the age of the wild tenorman was piercing up through the regular-course developments of bop…the wild tenormen blew with an honest frenzy because nobody appreciated or cared (except isolated hipsters running in screaming ‘Go! Go! Go!’)…friends and hepcats and they didn’t care anyway and the ‘public,’ the customers in the bar, liked it as jazz; but it wasn’t jazz they were blowing, it was the frantic ‘It.’
‘What’s the IT, Cody?’ I asked him that night.
‘We’ll all know when he hits it – there it is! he’s got it! – hear? – see everybody rock? It’s the big moment of rapport all around that’s making him rock; that’s jazz; dig him, dig her, dig this place, dig these cats, this is all that’s left, where else can you go Jack?’ It was absolutely true. We stood side by side sweating and jumpin in front of wild be-hatted tenormen blowing from their shoetops at the brown ceiling, shipyard workers; altos too, singers; drummers like Cozy Cole mixed with Max Roach; a kid cornet of sixteen…a cool bebop hepcat who stood slumped with his horn and no lapels and blew like Wardell; but best of all the workingman tenors, the cats who worked and got their horns out of hock and blew and had their women troubles, they seemed to come on in their horns with a will, saying things, a lot to say, talkative horns, you could almost hear the words and better than that the harmony, made you hear the way to fill up blank spaces of time with the tune and consequence of your hands and breath and soul; and wild women dancing, the ceiling roaring, people falling in from the street, from the door, no cops to bother anybody because it was summer, August 1949, and Frisco was blowing mad…” (7)

Kerouac & Cassady seem to live in a permanent jazz soundtrack in On The Road, and even more in Visions of Cody, which has one long section where they rap while listening to one jazz record after another – a couple times Cassady puts on Coleman Hawkins' ‘Crazy Rhythm’ and tells Kerouac to listen carefully, narrating the solos: “Listen to it, you’re gonna hear the different things they play…listen to the man play the horn…did you hear that riff?...listen to Coleman, real open tone…here comes the alto again, now listen to the alto…hear him?...real sweet but he rocks…he’ll play the same phrase again…watch him hang on it…here comes Coleman real low…” and so on til the record ends. (7)
During one of Cassady’s visits in On The Road, he “stood bowed and jumping before the big phonograph, listening to a wild bop record I had just bought called ‘The Hunt,’ with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.” (8) Later in the summer ’49 trip, they go to a jazz club in Chicago and watch a bebop band, carefully described by Kerouac, who pauses to give an erudite little history of the major bop players. They’re surprised when the British cool-jazz pianist George Shearing shows up to play – “God has arrived,” Cassady announces. (They’d seen him before at Birdland, in another closely described performance – “those were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial… Dean was popeyed with awe” and kept shouting at the pianist, “That’s right! Yes!”) (9)
“He played innumerable choruses with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed all over the piano and everybody listened in awe and fright… [The band] sought to find new phrases after Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned – and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go, go go.” (10)

Cassady had a primal reaction to jazz music, or the raw freedom it represented. For instance, once Cassady took his girlfriend Carolyn to a record store to listen to records; and she later described him listening to Benny Goodman’s 1937 swing hit ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ much like he did with Kerouac: “He was passionately involved in every instrument, every note, every phrase. He shared his delight by insisting that I, too, become as engrossed as he, repeating nuances I might have missed, calling my attention to an impending riff, while – his face glowing in a wide grin – he exuded, ‘Aaaah…hear that?’ or, with his eyes closed, ‘Listen…now listen, hear it? WhooooweeeEEE!’ followed by gleeful giggling and shaking of his head while he clapped his hands on his bouncing knees in time to the beat.” (11)

Kerouac, more reserved, was a deep follower of jazz, familiar with its history and the players, and often reading poetry and scat-singing in clubs to jazz accompaniment; and his winding, in-the-moment improvisational prose was inspired as much by the music as by Cassady’s letters to him. After the success of On The Road in 1957, he also recorded some spoken-word “Beat Generation” albums (initially with music backings) which, like his books, are full of jazz references – a couple examples, ‘The San Francisco Scene’ and ‘The History of Bop.’ 

Jerry Garcia was then in high school and becoming attracted to the bohemian North Beach scene. He read On The Road after a teacher recommended it to him, and called it “a germinal moment:” “As soon as On The Road came out, I read it and fell in love with it, the adventure, the romance of it, everything.” (12)
A Kerouac album also made a big impression on him: “I recall in '59 hanging out with a friend who had a Kerouac record, and I remember being impressed – I'd read this stuff, but I hadn't heard it, the cadences, the flow, the kind of endlessness of the prose, the way it just poured off. It was really stunning to me. His way of perceiving music – the way he wrote about music and America – and the road, the romance of the American highway, it struck me. It struck a primal chord. It felt familiar, something I wanted to join in. It wasn't like a club, it was a way of seeing. It became so much a part of me that it's hard to measure; I can't separate who I am now from what I got from Kerouac. I don't know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision to do something outside with my life – or even suspected the possibilities existed – if it weren't for Kerouac opening those doors.” (13)

*

On January 8, 1966, Neal Cassady was back on Fillmore & Geary, not to see music this time but to take part in an “acid test” at the Fillmore Auditorium, where he was one of the main attractions. No longer just a freak in the audience, he was now something of a celebrity in his own right, listed on the acid test posters and encouraged to rave on a microphone to the crowd.

The Fillmore was about to undergo a major change – Bill Graham had rented the Fillmore and used Charles Sullivan’s dance-hall permit to hold a couple of benefits for the Mime Troupe there. Graham saw the possibilities for the venue, and in February ’66 started booking weekly rock shows at the Fillmore. (Graham got the lease from Sullivan, who was killed in August ’66).
Abruptly, the Fillmore became a venue mostly used for white rock groups, in an area that was by then considered a run-down black slum, much of which was being closed, torn down and demolished in a flurry of redevelopment that turned the Fillmore district into blocks of vacant bulldozed lots. Thousands of residents were displaced, and much of the neighborhood was wiped out, including most of the black music clubs that had been there. (For instance, Bop City closed in 1965; other clubs like Jackson’s Nook and the Long Bar had closed years earlier.)

Cassady had met Ken Kesey in 1962, seeking him out in Palo Alto after reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, to Kesey’s surprise. Kesey later recalled, “Everybody already knew Cassady before they ever met him. A lot of people were there in that area because of him. I had read On The Road; I’d also read Visions of Cody. All of the action was swirling around Cassady. The writers all wrote about him, the hangers-on all hung around with him. His presence was known to me soon after we moved to the San Francisco area… He came swirling into my yard there at Perry Lane… He just took over that whole neighborhood.” (14)
Cassady hung out in Kesey’s scene for the next few years, partying at La Honda and famously driving the bus on the 1964 road trip to New York, rapping to the passengers and playing music on his earphones: “Roland Kirk blasting away on those tapes and me jumping up and down with the music.” (15) (Though he’d been rather estranged from Jack Kerouac for years, he introduced Kerouac to Kesey & the Pranksters when they arrived, but the withdrawn & disgruntled Kerouac did not get along with them.)
After the trip, he also discovered Carolyn Adams, finding her in a Palo Alto cafe, taking her back to Kesey’s place, and renaming her Mountain Girl. She recalled, “I ran into Neal Cassady [and his friend] at St. Michael’s. They had just come back from the Prankster bus trip. They came up to my table and said, ‘Do you want to go for a ride and smoke a joint?’ and I said ‘Yeah!’… I knew who Neal was, of course. Plus he had all his clippings in his wallet!… He was a celebrity and I thought he was a weird old guy… I decided these guys looked interesting and I went for a ride with them and [we] ended up at Kesey’s and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, look at these people!’… I felt instantly at home with them.” (16)

Naturally Cassady would be a fixture at all the acid tests as well, usually surrounded by admiring girls; and he ended up handing out the diplomas at the Acid Test Graduation in October ’66. (Cassady had a run-in with Bill Graham when the Pranksters were trying to persuade Graham to hold the Graduation at Winterland, but Graham only viewed him & Kesey with suspicion and the meeting didn’t go well. Cassady summed up Bill Graham on sight: “He was out on the street checking tire treads to see if they’d picked up any nickels.”) (17)
Despite his long association with the Pranksters, Cassady wasn’t known to have been especially into acid (though at the Watts acid test it’s said he “drank about a gallon” of the Kool-aid, becoming pretty disoriented). In general he was more a pot & speed man, living on a diet of amphetamines.

Sometimes Cassady would take a microphone at an acid test, but more often he stayed on the perimeter, rapping to those around him, twirling a hammer, dancing in a strobe light, or even analyzing litter on the floor. Wavy Gravy recalled, “Cassady would pick stuff off the floor, cigarette packs or whatever, and he would read it like Native Americans read meaning in natural things… It was the world as I Ching.” (18) (Not a strange concept for Cassady: Garcia said that “before the acid test a lot of times we’d throw a change, the I Ching, and Neal would read the judgment and stuff.”) (19)
Sara Garcia was entranced by Cassady juggling his hammer, “rapping to everyone in the room seemingly about what they were thinking, wrapping everybody’s trip into this whole eloquent bubble.” (20) Mountain Girl remembered Cassady as “the main announcer, the mad commentator… He was beautiful at the Trips Festival and the acid tests. We’d give him the microphone and a spotlight and some brilliant piece of clothing to shred. He’d do weird scat singing if the music wasn’t happening. He’d talk or give commentaries on the girls. Just constant entertainment. He moved fast and loved dancing in the strobe light, babbling all this comic rap stuff.” (21)
Garcia said that "Neal was really good" at the Big Beat acid test in Palo Alto: "This one ended up with Neal Cassady under the strobe light tearing up paper." Mountain Girl added, "Tearing up his shirt! He was ripping up that beautiful fluorescent polka-dot shirt...tearing it into little pieces. And then he got onto the paper after the shirt. He was ripping up anything he could get his hands on." (21.1)

The Fillmore acid test was a big success, with 2400 people attending. Stewart Brand later talked to Charles Perry about his memory of Cassady that night:
“Brand ran into Neal Cassady…standing in the balcony of the Fillmore Auditorium looking down at the welter of self-interfaced microphones and TV circuits, the Grateful Dead playing at one end of the hall and Kesey's own Psychedelic Symphony playing at the other. Brand had never seen Cassady so serene. ‘Total chaos going on on the floor, right? People wailing on Ron Boise's thunder sculpture, taking their shoes off and counting their toes, and television cameras pointing at each other and general weirdness. And he's just sort of nodding. Then he says, ‘Looks like your publicity for the Trips Festival is going pretty well.’” (22)

The Grateful Dead had been hanging out with Kesey’s bunch for some time, and had met Cassady at parties well before they played the acid tests. In these early meetings, one of his roles was as a drug connection – Lesh mentioned, “I met him in 1963, when he was selling methedrine in little vials, and pot.” (23) Kreutzmann also said that the first time he met Cassady, “he hit me up for dexamyl and shook me down for speed.” (24) And on one spring night in 1965, at the party when Lesh told Garcia he was interested in the bass guitar, they were smoking pot that Cassady had sold to Weir’s friends. (Lesh called it “killer dope;” he also noticed that Weir already “did a sidesplitting Neal Cassady impression.”) (25)
They were all in awe of Cassady – as Garcia said, “He was the guy speaking to us from the pages of Kerouac.” Everyone had already read On The Road, and he was something of a living legend to them, a hero of the beat life, an elder teacher and guru pointing to new space by his example. They all agreed on his influence: “the most far-out person ever…a true inspiration” (Jerry) – “beautiful” (Pigpen) – “an amazing man...being around him was like being close to the sun…he seemed to live in another dimension” (Bob) – “one of the most inspiring people I’d ever known…he was a saint for us…poetry in motion” (Phil) – “an inspiration…he was jazz personified…just watching him was like watching an action film.” (Bill)

It wasn’t often that someone who grew up in the big-band and bebop jazz era came to embrace new rock music, but Cassady seems to have made the leap happily. In one 1965 letter he mentions listening to ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ (“that’s true alright!”), and elsewhere he says he “went bar-hopping to hear some great Rock & Roll.” His girlfriend Anne Murphy wrote that Neal liked hearing Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard on the radio. (‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ was a favorite song.) (26) On the ’64 bus trip he was spotted singing along with the Searchers’ ‘Love Potion #9;’ his son also recalled “Neal listening to Chuck Berry on the car radio and cranking up ‘Maybellene’ as he banged the dashboard to the beat.” (27)
Back in the ‘40s, Cassady & Kerouac had also been fans of early big-band rhythm & blues – while passing through San Antonio in On The Road, they listened to some R&B records on the jukebox: Lionel Hampton, and Lucky Millinder, and Wynonie Blues Harris’ ‘I Like My Baby’s Pudding.’ (28) So early rock music wouldn’t have been a huge jump in style for Cassady.

The Dead were not the first San Francisco rock group that Cassady came into contact with. He wrote in an August ‘65 letter to Ken Kesey: “I forgot to mention that Sunday night…[we] went to see a R&R group that Chan insisted on observing – well, who was it? that’s rite – Signe & The HiWires or the Sextones or the Jefferson Hi Bandits – our pals, ya know; & they sounded great, esp. on one about a Hi Flyin’ Bird.” (29)
The date was Sunday, August 8, 1965. The first Jefferson Airplane concert was always thought to be August 13 at the Matrix, but Cassady is very clear about the date, so it’s possible that friends of the band took him to see a rehearsal. (The writing implies that Cassady’s friends knew the people in the band already.)

“Chan,” who took Cassady to see the group, was probably Chandler Laughlin. Laughlin later told Charles Perry that in March ’65, “Me and a Hell's Angel named Gypsy and Neal Cassady and his old lady Ann Murphy and a bunch of other people drove…out to where Owsley was, picked up [his] acid and went on down to the Cabale Coffee House to hear the Chambers Brothers rock & roll.” (30) (The Chambers Brothers frequently played the Cabale around that time, though they were then more of a gospel-folk group and I doubt they did much “rock & roll” at that point.) So Cassady may have been going to any number of rock shows with friends at the time.
When Annette Flowers (later in the Dead’s office staff) met Cassady in September 1965, he was taking mushrooms and listening to the new Beatles album (Help! was their latest). He later took her to the Big Beat Acid Test, and the next year he’d take her to see Quicksilver and Airplane shows at the Fillmore. Though he was now almost 40, Cassady was just as comfortable in the underground rock scene of the ‘60s as the nightclub jazz scene of the ‘40s-‘50s, equally at home with beats and hippies.

Cassady seems to have attached himself to the Dead in particular, perhaps for several reasons – they were friends of Kesey’s, they were a focus of youthful energy, drugs and girls swirled around them, they admired him and gave him a place to stay, and he probably liked their music too. It’s easy to imagine him dancing intently in front of the stage as in the bop-jazz days, sweating and shouting, “Yes! That’s right! Go, go!” (Which the Dead would have loved.)
Cassady was a prominent visitor at the Dead’s 1966 Olompali parties as well. George Hunter remembered, “The Dead would be playing and Neal Cassady would be doing this strange little dance – it was almost like breakdancing, very fluid… Neal was always in the thick of things.” (31) Rock Scully also described Cassady at Olompali, “dancing in circles all over the lawn, juggling his hammer, talking that talk and making no sense at all.” (32)
Scully remembered Cassady at 710 Ashbury, at the Thanksgiving ’66 dinner: “Cassady never sits down. He’s up on the table, doing a little dance from corner to corner, rapping out his own Dada digest of the news... This is our dinner music. Jerry loves it because you can talk over it or under it, relate to it or ignore it. Jerry and Phil, who are both well read, listen to it like instantaneous poetry and toss lines back to him and feed the frenzy. Cutup conversations pieced together out of…gossip, mental mumbling, song lyrics... You can see why Kerouac and Kesey loved him so much. The guy was a brilliant writer who never stopped long enough to write it down.” (33)

Cassady would also hang out at 710 Ashbury in 1967, sleeping in the attic. Jon McIntire recalled, “Neal Cassady was around a lot, really a lot. He would kind of live up in the attic. There wasn’t really a floor in the attic; there were just boards that were laid down. I remember at one point, Cassady’s foot came through the ceiling. He slipped and his foot came down into Pigpen’s room.” (34) (Pigpen thought this was hilarious, and would tell the story ever afterwards.)
John Barlow visited in the summer of ’67 and remembered Cassady: “Holding court in 710's tiny kitchen, he would carry on five different conversations at once… To log into one of these conversations, despite their multiplicity, was like trying to take a sip from a fire hose… As far as I could tell he never slept. He tossed back green hearts of Mexican dexedrine by the shot-sized bottle, grinned, cackled, and jammed on into the night. Despite such behavior, he seemed, at 41, a paragon of robust health... As Cassady rattled incessantly, Bobby had fallen mostly mute,” silently listening to him. At night, while Weir lay dazed on the couch in the music room, Cassady would put on headphones and listen to bebop jazz, dancing, whooping, sweating, and juggling his hammer in front of the stereo. (35) 

Tom Wolfe was struck that "Cassady never stops talking...he doesn't seem to care whether anyone is listening or not. He just goes off on the monologue, by himself if necessary, although anyone is welcome aboard. He will answer all questions...spinning off memories, metaphors, literary, Oriental, hip allusions, all punctuated by the unlikely expression, 'you understand - '" (35.1)
It seems like Cassady must have been exhausting to be around, and even his friends could grow tired of his company. He often initially struck people as crazy, or they didn't know what to make of him, until they realized there was more going on under the constant patter. For instance, Pigpen said, "I thought he was kind of nuts, and then I got to know him better, and...he kind of got me, you know like, 'hey wait a minute, what's this guy up to?' [And then] I talked to him, and got to know him, and got to love him, and got into him more." (35.2)
The band members also experienced the terror of driving with him at top speed through San Francisco traffic, expecting to die at any moment since Cassady didn’t stop for anything. Garcia - who'd already come close to death in one car crash - gave a typical account: "When you went riding with him, it was to be as afraid as you could be, to be in fear for your life. You'd be driving along in some old Pontiac or Buick, one of those cars Neal was always borrowing - with no brakes. You'd be racing through San Francisco at 50 or 60 miles an hour, up and down those streets with blind corners everywhere and he'd cut around them in the wrong lane and make insane moves in the most intense traffic situations and you'd just be amazed that people weren't getting killed. He could see around corners. And while he was doing this he'd be talking to everybody in the car at once and dialing in the radio and fumbling with a roach." (35.3)

Hank Harrison had an apt characterization: "Neal was a dynamo. You thought it was a crowd until it slowed down and it was only Neal." (35.4) According to Harrison, “Neal had a fascination for beer but not really for rock groups. Neal didn’t hang out with rock groups very much. The only reason you could see him with the Grateful Dead was because they were his old friends and they had gotten a band together. Neal was constant energy – trying to tell everybody to loosen up and boogie, but ‘always keep that light lit.’” (36)
But Hank was mistaken about Neal and rock groups. Garcia had a different impression of Cassady: “He liked musicians; he always liked to hang out with musicians. That’s why he sort of picked up on us.” (37) Garcia also told McNally, “Neal really liked musicians. He got off on music. He liked my music. He liked my playing. And he loved to dance and he loved to do that crazy shit to the music. And the Grateful Dead was like his cup of tea for that kind of stuff.” (38)

Cassady would ‘perform’ with rock groups on occasion, too. Back in ’65 the Pranksters had recorded him rapping, intending to make a record with their musical backing; and he also danced and rapped onstage with the Anonymous Artists of America at the Acid Test Graduation. (Things like this were probably a natural extension of the beat-poetry readings over jazz music that had become common in the ‘50s. He may have done this with the Dead at some acid tests too, but I don’t think Cassady is heard on any of the circulating acid test tapes.)
But the most well-known instances came in 1967. Cassady reunited with the Jefferson Airplane that year when he, Kesey, and Allen Ginsberg went to a writers’ conference at Western Washington State College in Bellingham. “While they were there, on May 26, Neal and Allen appeared onstage at the Sam Carver Gymnasium, performing alongside Jefferson Airplane.” (39)
This may have been similar to Cassady’s rap with the Grateful Dead at the Straight Theater a couple months later on July 23, when they brought him on as a guest to do an almost incomprehensible monologue in his scattered style:  
Robert Hunter said this tape “gives you a good idea of his rap. He was like that, except he was not in top form on the [tape] except for a few moments.” (40) Hank Harrison included an excerpt in his Dead book and claimed, “The audience, consisting mostly of young people from Haight Street, did not know who he was and were jeering him from the floor.” (40)
Though Cassady’s not very inspiring on the tape, it’s the only recorded collaboration between him and the Dead – a link between the beat poetry/jazz recitals of the ‘50s and the psychedelic rock of the ‘60s, connecting over the R&B song ‘Turn On Your Lovelight.’

One of the last times Cassady met the Dead was in October ’67, just after Mickey Hart joined, when they were rehearsing at the temple next to the Fillmore. Cassady stopped by and rapped to the new member Mickey during the rehearsal (making him nervous), then roughly shook Bill’s arm, asking, “Are you loose, Bill?” (41)
The Dead were then working on Weir’s new song, ‘The Other One.’ Weir was still working on the words: when they played it live on October 22, the lyrics cryptically referred to the Dead’s bust earlier that month (or possibly another time when Weir threw a water balloon at a cop), and dealing with “the heat” in jail. The familiar first verse with the Spanish lady and her rose wouldn’t appear until February 3, 1968 (the day Cassady died); but by November 10, 1967, Weir already had the final second verse intact:

Well a 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.

*

NOTES

1. Brandelius, Grateful Dead Family Album, p.51
2. Kerouac, On the Road – part 2, chapter 11
3. Elizabeth Pepin/Lewis Watts, Harlem of the West,  p.73
4. Harlem of the West,  p.37
5. Harlem of the West, p.127
6. On The Road – part 3, chapter 4
7. Kerouac, Visions of Cody [p.407, 169-70, 191, Library of America edition]
8. On The Road - part 2, chapter 1
9. On The Road – part 2, chapter 4
10. On the Road – part 3, chapter 10
11. David Sandison/Graham Vickers, Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero, p.94
13. Richardson, No Simple Highway, p.28
14. Neal Cassady, p.277
15. Neal Cassady, p. 288
16. Blair Jackson, Garcia, p.81 (In another telling, Carolyn recalled that "Cassady was on a speed run, looking for bennies... He seemed to be a dangerous kind of guy... Then all of a sudden, [he's] pulling these clippings out of his wallet and he's a Kerouac character. Well, I loved Kerouac." Accounts differ on whether Cassady gave Carolyn the name "Mountain Girl," but that's what most sources say. One interviewer heard that "Cassady had told Kesey that he met this girl who was a little wild, 'like she was kind of a mountain girl.'" See http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/SHE-NEVER-GOT-OFF-THE-BUS-3117809.php )
17. Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, p.344 (see also Greenfield, Bill Graham Presents, p.169-70, for another account)
18. William Plummer, The Holy Goof: A Biography of Neal Cassady, p.139
19. McNally, Jerry on Jerry, p.138
20. McNally, Long Strange Trip, p.115
21. Sandy Troy, One More Saturday Night, p.79
21.1 Signpost to New Space, p.27
23. Gans, Playing in the Band, p.42
24. Kreutzmann, Deal, p.39
25. Lesh, Searching for the Sound, p.43
26. Neal Cassady, p.274
27. Simon Warner, Text & Drugs & Rock & Roll: The Beats & Rock Culture, p.210
28. On The Road – part 4, chapter 4
29. Neal Cassady, p.298 (see also Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 8/30/65)
31. Grateful Dead Family Album, p.33 (from Golden Road)
32. Scully, Living with the Dead, p.54
33. Living with the Dead, p.134 (Misdated Thanksgiving ’67, when Cassady wasn’t in San Francisco. Probably written by Scully's co-author.)
34. Greenfield, Dark Star, p.100
35. http://www.litkicks.com/BarlowOnNeal (See also Browne, So Many Roads, p.108 – Cassady “shirtless and high on speed…listening to jazz with headphones and scat-singing along with the music as he danced around the couch.” – and McNally, Long Strange Trip, p.250 – “Neal had spent some ten days that January [1968] sleeping in the attic of 710, generally hanging out with Weir, who slept on a couch on the second floor… The room with the couch also had the stereo, and Weir would lie there, still silenced...as Neal gobbled speed, juggled his sledgehammer, and raved.” It’s possible that Cassady visited in January ’68 too, before his final trip to Mexico, but Barlow’s account is from a few months earlier.)
35.1 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, p.14
35.2 Hank Harrison interview, 1970
35.3 Holy Goof, p.132
35.4 Hank Harrison, The Dead Book, p.153
36. Harrison, The Dead, p.46 (Amidst the fictions, Harrison has an interesting psychological portrait of Cassady in his books, which might even be partly true.)
37. Jackson, Garcia, p.93
38. Jerry on Jerry, p.129
39. Neal Cassady, p.311 (See also Bill Morgan’s Allen Ginsberg biography, I Celebrate Myself, p.436: “Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady picked Allen up in Portland in their magic school bus, Further, and drove him to Bellingham to teach classes for a few days at Western Washington University. Allen listened to Neal’s nonstop babble and related it to ‘Joycean syntax in 20th century English prose.’ The following evening Ken, Neal, and Allen acted as masters of ceremony for the Jefferson Airplane, who played at the college gym. That would be the last time that Allen and Neal would ever see each other.” See also the 5/26/67 Collegian article on their arrival, which mentions Cassady “[f]renetically keeping up a verbal discourse through a microphone setup inside the bus, with anyone that would listen.” Kesey says, “Cassady figured it out ten years before anyone else,” and it’s announced that “Cassady and Ginsberg will moderate” the Airplane show:  http://content.wwu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/wfront/id/34395 )
40. Deadhead’s Taping Compendium, p.140
41. Long Strange Trip, p.229; also Deal, p.83 (McNally & Kreutzmann clearly place the rehearsal in the synagogue next door to the Fillmore, but since that was apparently still in use, the Dead must have rehearsed in the Geary Temple next door to that. Cassady can't have met Hart for long before dashing off to Mexico.)

See also:

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for making me look up Slim Gaillard!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ3vl4dvI4c

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  2. A couple other points:
    Bob Weir brought up a connection between Neal Cassady and the Dead's music: "He could see around corners... That's useful if you're playing improvisational music; you can build those skills to see around corners, 'cause there are plenty of corners that come up. We gleaned that kind of approach from Cassady." (This Is All A Dream, p.29)
    This strikes me as more of a metaphorical than an actual connection - I think Neal inspired the Dead on a personal level, but it's quite a stretch to say that they became an improvisational band due to his influence.
    Likewise, Garcia said a couple times that to him Neal represented an individual, isolated artist, and it was partly due to Neal's example that he decided to work in a collaborative band with other people, rather than be a solo artist. I think this is kind of a retrospective rationalization, that Garcia had decided to work only in groups long before he really became involved with Cassady.
    But even if I don't agree with these claims by the Dead, it still shows how much importance they ascribed to him, seeing him almost as a father figure influencing everything they did. Perhaps it was hard to put into words anything he did that actually affected their lives (they told surprisingly few stories about any interactions they had with him, except for a couple memorable drives, and not once that I've seen did they ever quote anything he said to them) - easier to see him as a general inspiration on a more cosmic level.

    Allen Ginsberg is barely mentioned here, but he was much more of a public link between the beats and the hippies than Neal Cassady was. Cassady as a person was well-known within a small subculture, but he wasn't in the public eye much, was a muse to Beat writers more than a writer himself, and his personal lifestyle meant he was never really part of a group. Ginsberg, on the other hand, was very much a public figure in the '50s, '60s and beyond, involved with more poets & musicians, made lots of appearances at speaking events & protests, and embraced the hippie community, becoming something of a countercultural figurehead.
    They had a long, close history together (in 'Howl' Ginsberg called Cassady the "secret hero of these poems"), and both of them were at the first Acid Test, but Cassady was almost culturally unknown compared to the famous Ginsberg. Of course, by the time Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published, Cassady was already dead, while Ginsberg was still mid-career; but since Cassady was more privately oriented and didn't leave much published writing behind, he would always be known mainly as a literary figure in other people's writings.

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  3. "and not once that I've seen did they ever quote anything he said to them"

    Not many people do, do they? He's legendary as a kind of rapster with a patter that would blow your mind, but we have little idea about anything he might actually have said.

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    1. Well, we do have some idea - the Pranksters recorded him rapping while he drove the bus, and there's that Straight Theater monologue, as well as some descriptions of his typical patter - but these stream-of-consciousness tapes seem to fall far short of how people remember him. It's hard to tell what they were impressed by, and I suppose you had to be there (even Garcia found it hard to articulate) - apparently he was at his best in conversations & interactions with people, more than when just jabbering to himself nonstop. Things like his timing and speed, quick mind, excellent memory, and ability to read people and charm them (or, conversely, deflect the attentions of cops pulling him over) while zooming through multiple conversations at once didn't get recorded, but they amazed those around him.
      The Dead themselves may have been easily impressed, but Kesey was also somewhat in awe of him, and quite a few people gave similar accounts of him - how he acted was just as striking as anything he said, which probably made little sense to them most of the time anyway.
      For instance, editor Gordon Lish remembered him: "The first time I met Neal in the early sixties, I couldn't figure out why Kesey was so excited about him. He seemed pleasant enough but nothing special. The next time...was at a party. We were talking to him when all of a sudden he started to recapitulate the talk going on around us and to comment on it, even while he was keeping up his end of our conversation. It was breathtaking. I got to know him quite well after that, since he used to stay at my house... He had without doubt one of the greatest minds I've ever known, certainly the quickest intelligence." (Holy Fool p.129)

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    2. Yes, that was kind of a lazy comment as I guess there is stuff on the record, but as you say whatever it was that made him so remarkable gets lost in translation. It seems like you had to know him and experience his presence, and I would guess he had a sort of charisma that accounted for some of it; unlike Garcia's charisma, it couldn't be recorded, I would guess, and we're left with the bare text. Some of the stories about him make him seem psychic, he must have been a remarkably observant guy with an ability to communicate that required more than words but gestures, feelings, significant looks, or whatever...

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    3. In his bus driving rap he appears to be talking about the Kundalini, the juice of change, the giant cobra coming up your back and exploding in your brain. It could have been all the speed talking but he could also have been completely surging with kundalini with all chakras firing and totally in the moment.

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  4. This site is sadly on hiatus until November.

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  5. Glad I just saw that! I came on here to ask if things were OK with you because I've really missed your great articles. Hope you're OK and looking forward to the next one :-)

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    Replies
    1. My hiatuses have been getting longer and more frequent in recent years, which is not by choice and is very frustrating for me. But there will be a new post soon!

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    2. Sad news....I'm still on hiatus, the next post won't be for another month. I'm sorry for the wait!

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    3. We are looking forward to it!

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  6. Tom Wolfe tried interviewing Neal Cassady for the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test book, but didn't get much out of him: "Cassady had this rapid-fire amphetamine-fuelled monologue. You didn’t really get answers. Once I was talking to him when he was not high, which wasn’t very frequent in my experience, and he was very courtly, polite – and depressed, because he wasn’t high."
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/tom-wolfe-interview-i-never-took-lsd---it-was-far-too-dangerous/

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