Neal Cassady would have been 85 years old today, and some people in Denver remembered. We happened into the Mercury Cafe looking for vegetarian dinner before the Denver’s RiNo first friday art walk on Feb. 3, just as a celebration of Cassady was going on upstairs in the ballroom. After dinner we headed up for readings and music inspired by Cassady, and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people remembered a figure who died back in 1968 but was hugely influential to the beat generation writers.
Cassady’s name probably either means nothing at all to you, or it conjures up images of the mad, passionate soul who was the basis for fictional character Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road (as well as Kerouac’s Visions of Cody and other works). Cassady was also a subject in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Coolaid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey’s band of merry pranksters. Cassady’s influence over the beat writers, flower children and the generations that followed was huge, even though Cassady did not complete a single book himself.
Cassady was raised by his drunk and semi-homeless father in the Five Points area of Denver, and as a youth he stole cars and generally got into trouble. Cassady fell in with the beats in the late 1940s and was Kerouac’s companion for a series of crazy road trips, all real, that found there way into the fictionalized On the Road.
Cassady wrote stream-of-conscience letters to his friends and started writing a book about his own life, which was published after his death as a incomplete biography titled The First Third. Cassady’s spontaneous, unfettered style does a great job of capturing the feeling of a moment, and it’s clear to see the influence his writing and way of talking had on the beats.
Besides Neal Cassady, the Denver area has other beat generation connections, including the formation of Naropa University in Boulder by poet Allen Ginsberg. Today you’ll still see some remnant beat influences in Boulder, including a bookstore on Pearl Street in Boulder dedicated to beat authors, and other reminders like the Jack Kerouac poster hanging visibly near the front counter at Trident Booksellers and Cafe. And in Denver stencil street art with Jack Kerouac’s face and the caption “Jack was here” can be found from time to time.