Neal Cassady: Saint of the Holy Road

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After the second world war, things changed fast in America. Legions of middle-class families abandoned the big cities and built comfortable lives in the suburbs. Few individuals seem prepared to break the chrome-clad, dollar-stamped mould. But one that did was Neal Cassady.

And ironically he sought freedom in two things as American as cherry pie: the road and the automobile.

Cassady’s 1940s exploits with cars have been immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, On The Road, whose hero, Dean Moriarty, is a thinly disguised portrait of a working-class kid from Denver. Cassady was later recruited to drive writer Ken Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ bus, ‘Further’. That day-glo painted 1939 International Harvester, as recorded in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, took off around America’s west coast in the mid-sixties introducing the world to the then-legal LSD insurgency. It was fitting: a man considered to be a central inspiration of the hippy movement had won himself a place behind the wheel of its primary automotive symbol.

He has been remembered as spontaneity itself and never more so than when he was behind the wheel. “When you went riding with him,” said Jerry Garcia of the Merry Pranksters’ house band, The Grateful Dead, “it was to be afraid as you could be, to be in fear for your life. You’d be racing around San Francisco at 50 or 60 miles per 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. He could see round corners. And while he was doing this he’d be talking to everyone in the car at once and dialling in the radio and fumbling with a roach.”

Kerouac used the frantic kinesis of his road-buddy as an extended metaphor: “The most fantastic parking lot attendant in the world, Cassady could back a car 40 miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it 50 miles an hour into a narrow space, back swiftly into a tight spot, snap the car to a stop so that you could see it bounce as he flies out, then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, ticket in hand, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner’s half out, start the car with the door flapping and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run; working like that without pause eight hours a night – in greasy wino pants with a frayed fur-lined jacket and beat shoes that flap.”

Cassady’s art was his life, which made it all the more poignant that he was remembered primarily as a driver. Neal ended up rejecting his literary depiction, that of a sexually ferocious, motormouthed überhuman who could hold three conversations at once, orgasm 20 times a day and predict the serial number of a hidden dollar bill up to the 10th digit. Wavy Gravy, one of the Pranksters in chief, summed up the tragedy that was the Cassady myth: “All along the roadside you see the charred remains of people who, in a effort to emulate Cassady, burned themselves out. And we’re not talking about 10 or 20 people here, we’re talking about the hundreds, perhaps thousands who read On The Road and wanted nothing more than to be Neal Cassady.”

In 1968 at the age of 41, Cassady died after collapsing by the side of a Mexican railroad track following an amphetamine-and acid-fuelled final performance. Amongst the last acts was a series of drunken midnight speed runs in a Lotus Elan. According to Ken Kesey who was there that night, Cassady’s last words were “sixtyfour thousand, nine hundred and twenty eight”. Apparently he had been counting ties in the aforementioned railroad track that cold night whilst attempting to reach the next town.

Who knows what legends would have been written if the man in the driving seat of a generation hadn’t finally run out of gas?

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