"Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’" –Jack Kerouac, "On the Road" Kerouac’s now famous riffs of "spontaneous bop prosody," where he would hunker down at his Underwood typewriter and bang away for hours on end while allowing his tales of hobos and barflies and road-weary saints to flow with nary an edit or second thought were not exactly born of whole cloth. Buddhism and benzedrine also played leading roles. The intervening variable that most stuck to his well-read ribs, however, was an outlaw influence and muse-without-portfolio by the name of Neal Cassady. Brandishing a lifestyle flaunting more freedom than fear, Cassady — who had been born alongside a road in Salt Lake City as his family migrated west — actually lived the life the "beats" only imagined. It would be the arrival of his skid-row, pool-hall, street-smart sensibility that would most shuffle their creative deck – that would inspire and instigate a series of adventures that would be fictionalized in Kerouac’s "On the Road." Jack and Neal became a pairing for the ages. Not only did Jack become totally smitten with the physical shenanigans of the incorrigible Cassady, but the letters he received over the years from Neal totally reshaped the technique he would employ in the published version of "On the Road" and all subsequent novels. Cassady wrote the way he spoke — in a mad rush of ecstasy that was always raw but never hesitant or self-conscious. His voice, a "continuous chain of undisciplined thought" as he would later refer to it, would cause Kerouac to toss-out his Thomas Wolfe trappings and go on to define "beat" prose and poetry for decades to come. "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up." With that now famous opening sentence to "On the Road," Kerouac introduces a generation of paperback-reading, hungry-hearted hipsters to the epic hero of his groundbreaking road yarn — one Dean Moriarity — a character modeled, in the purest sense, after Neal Cassady. Jack is along for the ride in the guise of narrator Sal Paradise, Dean’s road buddy and comrade in arms. "With the coming of Dean Moriarity began the part of my life you could call my life on the road," is how Sal lays it down. He goes on to cement the Cassady-Moriarity connection with "Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he was actually born on the road when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles." That auspicious occasion actually transpired on Feb. 8, 1926 — 80 years ago today. Happy birthday Neal, and, for that matter, Dean. Not that he’s around to celebrate the anniversary of his birth, or anything. You can’t live a Neal Cassady kind of life and expect that sort of longevity. There were too many barrooms and bedrooms and back-alley brouhahas for that. And then there were the hard-travelin’ freight trains and the lost highways and byways spent behind the wheel of the "Merry Prankster" bus. No one said it was easy being an icon. Cassady was truly one of the "mad ones," the biggest "holy goof" of them all. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead saw him as a "tool of the cosmos." His influence stuck like "velcro" to all with whom he crossed paths. Everyone from Allen Ginsberg, who referred to him as the "secret hero" of "Howl," to latter-day road buddy Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion," came under his spell. His very "being" changed the culture of the nation. What he inspired mostly in the bohemian literary artists of his time was the vision of high art amidst an almost total lack of inhibition — a sensibility that was unlike any they had experienced before. It has been said that without Neal Cassady, the Beat Generation would never have happened. With an education mostly provided in the skid-row flophouses of Denver’s Larimer Street – now the oh-so-trendy "LoDo" section of town — he learned how to steal cars and enchant strangers. But the process wasn’t exactly seamless. Reform schools and juvenile detention centers became almost "de rigueur." He was one of those prototypical con artists with a big heart who never took anybody for more than a sawbuck or a roll in the hay or a bit of enlightened dialogue. He was a suave, silver-tongued devil who flowed as freely as they come. It was when he brought his shtick back East when a friend enrolled at Columbia University that he would meet Ginsberg and Kerouac. The pedal would soon hit the metal and Jack and Neal would soon hit the road. They crisscrossed America and Mexico with Cassady careening at the controls. It was his pace and his agenda and Jack couldn’t get enough. Stepping over and through the absurd notions of the day, the two cool and crazy sidekicks stalked thrills and adventure at every turn. They were full of buzz and bang and joy — and as "beat" as all get-out. They did it for grins and redemption and instant gratification. They dug jazz and cheap wine and boxcars and the poetry of night. They would do Denver and L.A. and "Frisco" on a whim and a prayer and they would laugh ’til they cried. Neither Neal nor Jack would survive the ’60s. The art colony of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Gunaguato in Mexico and the lure of a railroad track as the most civilized way to wander to a town 15 miles away after some hard partying is what done Cassady in. They found him along the tracks the next morning clad in T-shirt and jeans with not even a smirk to keep him warm. It was 1968 and the holiest goof of all was gone. Rolling Stone magazine screamed, "Dean Moriarity is dead!" He had given up his body for the team. Those whose lives he touched will be raising glasses in his honor tonight.
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