b. Feb. 8, 1926
d. Feb. 4, 1968
Blessed with beauty, intelligence, magnetism and a huge supply of life force, Neal Cassady was the real-life inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the 1957 novel that set the beat generation in motion. He is also the "N.C., secret hero of these poems" mentioned in Alan Ginsberg's Howl.
Cassady went to Columbia University with Kerouac and Ginsberg, inspiring lifelong love and devotion in the two and in many others, including his second wife Carolyn. In Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg (William Morris, 1990) she recounts how Neal turned her on to marijuana, telling her:
"Now darling, listen to me. You must have no fear, hear me? It is completely harmless, I promise you. All the tales you're doubtless heard are entirely false, perpetrated by Anslinger and his boys to keep up employment in the narcotic squads. All this does is heighten your sensory perception, awaken your own true awareness and speed up your thought processes while giving the impression that time has immeasurably slowed. You'll see more and see betterÉcolorsÉpatternsÉyou'll hear every note of every instrument, simultaneously. You'll be amazed at how much you usually missÉYou think you've heard music? You've never heard it until you hear it on teaÉ.Then, after a while, we'll dig into that delicious pie you've made and which we were too full to eat, and you'll taste as you never have beforeÉpure ambrosia, you'll see."
He put her on a program of smoking "Tea" every night for a week, so that she could see get accustomed to the effects and wouldn't have to worry about getting paranoid. He taught her how to inhale it and to stop after a few "respectable puffs." Carolyn writes, "Everything he had described proved true, my favorite being the sense of extended time. After savoring the pie, we lay flat on our backs by the phonograph, the music vibrating every cell. . . .I enjoyed the time extension and the second-by-second awareness, as well as the physical feeling of well-being, but I never got over the fear of being caught in an illegal act."
Cassady worked for 10 years as a brakeman on Southern Pacific Railroad to support Carolyn and the three children they had together, but he never tamed his wild ways, cheating on her with other women and men (namely, Ginsberg), and taking off to Mexico and elsewhere to score weed. She had an understandable and sanctioned affair with the more gentle Kerouac while he lived with them in San Francisco, and the three shared many nights of Tea and conversation. But after getting too "stoned" (feeling immobilized) at an event, she gave it up, saying she resented "control of my mind by an outside agent."
Neal himself was a unique intellect, often encouraged by Ginsburg, Kerouac and others to write himself. He was the only one of the three to have children, or keep a wife. Kerouac married briefly, an elegant blonde like Carolyn, but sent her back to her family when he couldn't support her. By the time he achieved success as a writer, he was a raging alcoholic.
While hugely popular, On the Road ignited a firestorm of criticism. Art Cohn in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article titled, "Sick Little Bums" which ended, "This then is the new religionÉThou shalt deny thy birthright and resign from the human race. Thou shalt contribute nothing to the world except scornÉThou shalt make a mockery of morality, justice, law, common fairness, and, most of all, love. Thou shalt dishonor thy father and mother and curse them for giving thee birth. Amen, you pathetic, self-pitying, degenerate bums, amen!" The review in Time magazine speculated Moriarity (and thus, Cassady) was mentally ill.
When On the Road was published Cassady had just been promoted to conductor at the railroad and was not pleased with the depiction of his weaker side in the book. Months after it was published, Neal was approached by some acquaintances asking him to buy them $40 worth of marijuana. He took the money, but never gave them any pot, suspecting they were "agents." In February 1958, he gave a few joints to a couple of men he'd met at a party in North Beach and was soon arrested at his home and taken to stand trial. Because he refused to admit to smoking marijuana or--despite being beaten--give police the names of people he knew who smoked it and where they got it, Cassady was sentenced as a dealer and served two years in prison.
After prison, Cassady took a job at a tire factory and escaped more frequently into smoking pot and taking benzedrine and morphine as well as "anything else available," said Carolyn. "In the next four short years I saw him pursue death with every breath of life." He joined the Merry Pranksters on some of their LSD escapades, and it's interesting to read the account of that self indulgence from the point of view of the wife left behind. On his way to getting his old job back at the railroad, he was re-arrested and ended up back with the Pranksters instead.
On February 4, 1968 he was found collapsed beside a railroad track in Mexico, after he had taken narcotics and alcohol at a wedding and went to retrieve his luggage at the train station. He died there at the age of 43. Kerouac, who told Carolyn he would be joining Neal soon, died the following year, after drinking himself to death.
Despite the obvious overindulgences of the beats and the hippies to follow them, it's a shame there is such little tolerance in our society for plant-guided spiritual exploration or even just enjoying a legal joint after a hard day's work. The young people who re-discovered the Eleusinian mysteries and their cognates all those centuries later can't be fully blamed for not knowing how to handle them. Ram Dass said the best thing we could do with psychedelics would be to re-ritualize them somehow. Amen.
Myths About Marijuana
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