"11 THINGS WE DIDN'T ALREADY KNOW ABOUT
To help promote the 3rd annual Neal Cassady Birthday
Bash, John was asked to write something for the San
Francisco Chronicle’s Thursday edition magazine "96
Hours". It would be in the "11 Things" column written and
edited by Tim Sullivan. And boy, was it edited! We are
sharing John’s original writing and then following up with the Chronicle’s version which was printed on Feb. 7th.
1. Contrary to popular myth and legend regarding his wild reputation, my father did, indeed, have a family, and he strove to be a good husband, father and provider for that family (but of course that image is not nearly as sensational or interesting as most readers of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Holmes, Kesey and Wolfe would like to embrace). Nonetheless, he was a "family-man" at heart--a side of him that few knew--and I was lucky enough to experience that side.
2. His mind was so highly evolved to the point that it was beyond the limits of this planet, but he never bragged or put others down. He was a chess master! (who knew?), but no one would play him after a while, except for my mother Carolyn (who claims she actually could BEAT him, but only when he was distracted by a sports contest on the TV), or other masters via snail-mail, the game of which would take weeks to finish for just one match! He taught me the game at an early age, and I cried when I was old enough to realize that he was letting me win, just so that he could have a "warm body" as an opponent. That disappointment didn't last long as I treasured our time together over the chess board. He would give me fatherly advice about how the World works and such (I wish I'd had a mini-cassette recorder under the table!) and he would occasionally relinquish some of his chess secrets in between moves. I would keep my finger on the piece played and look up at him, when invariably he would shake his head slowly and stroke his chin, as if to say, "that's not the move I would make," so I would take it back in search of a better one. He was virtually playing HIMSELF, but I loved the camaraderie we shared on those nights.
3. He also let me "win" at foot races in the back yard after his horrific leg-breaking accident while working for the Southern Pacific Railroad when the doctors told him he would never walk again. Six months later he was running with me, but, again, I knew he was just faking it for my benefit. He ran just like in a slow-motion film clip of today, and I thought it was hilarious--no tears this time. I was starting to understand his remarkable magic of compassion and self-less caring for other people.
4. In my teens I started to realize that my father and his friends were something special, but not just the "counter-culture" icons that they have become. I knew even then that they weren't out to create some kind of "movement," but (as I say now to those who will listen) that they were merely "free thinkers" in an oppressed post-war society. They loved and appreciated art of any kind, whether it be prose, poetry or music, but also painting, dance, whatever. And they also tended to put each other's characters into their writing, which caught on. They never intended to create "The Beat Generation," the "Hippies" or the "Anti-War Movement," but I'm glad for the seeds that they planted. Personally, I think that no matter how much the Eisenhower and McCarthy eras were oppressive and suppressive in '50s society, that was "a day at the beach" compared to what's going on now, and their spirit of tolerance, compassion and love of the arts is needed now more than ever before! (Just my humble opinion).
5. I was a teen-aged wanna-be hippie, and by the age of 15. I already worshiped my father's friends such as the Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. However, what with all his connections, it wasn't a slam-dunk for me to hang with them all. In fact, when they went on the infamous bus trip to New York in 1964, my mother (having no sense of humor, ha ha) insisted that I go to high school instead! She rightly asked Neal not to glorify that life-style every time he came by, as I was going down the same path as an impressionable teenager. Of course I disagreed at the time, but at my age now, I know she was right-on.
6. There were some fun moments, however, provided by Dad. I recall the time he and Kesey rescued me and my sister Jami from high school one day to go to a Dead concert across town. They were leaning against the counter in the principal's office in white jump-suits, crazy hats and day-go orange Beatle boots when the evil principal said, "this man claims to be your father!" We said, "hey, what's up dad?" They had to let us go, after some signatures, and it was the best Friday ever, bless his heart. He knew what a fan I was, and that was the first time I met Jerry and the band.
7. One of my favorite stories that Garcia told me (years later) was about my dad when they were at the Acid Test in LA (1965?) and Neal needed Jerry's help to back the Bus up into a parking spot outside the arena. Jerry said that he was already "ripped to the tits" on LSD and wasn't a good guide, but he wanted to help, saying "C'mon back" until the bus took down a stop sign (the original bus had a big Bertha extension porch on the back with a motorcycle strapped to it and a big yellow sign saying "Weird Load"--classic) and sheared it clean off at the sidewalk level. Jerry said "uh oh" when a police car came around the corner. Neal jumped out of the cockpit and (after giving Jerry an eyebrow as if to say "nice guidance") pulled the stop sign up to its original position and leaned against it with one hand, his other in his pocket, and his legs crossed like Buster Keaton. Jerry laughed so hard that he was down on the sidewalk holding his stomach when the cops pointed at him and asked Neal, "what's wrong with him?" Neal said something like, "oh, he's rehearsing for our show tonight here, do you want some tickets?" The cops left in confusion, and Jerry told me that he would never forget that performance of Neal's, always adaptable to accommodate. Like the time on the infamous bus trip in '64 when he talked the cops into pushing the bus for him. On and on...
8. Another good story is the one that Ken Kesey told me about the night that they were coming back from the "Viet Nam Day" Peace Rally in the North Bay (I forget exactly where) in about 1966 when they painted the bus all green and showed up pointing rifles out the windows (Ken later admitted that it was a bad idea, given the political climate, but he was trying to make some point, of which he didn't exactly remember afterwards) and they had to stop the Bus in Oakland for beer on their way back to La Honda--long trip. Neal walked in to this sleazy bar and encountered about a dozen guys in the back, past the pool table, about to "lower the boom" on some white kid, for God knows what he did, and Neal jumped into the fray saying, "here, have some gum!" procuring a pack of Wrigleys! All the murderous bikers backed off astonished. "Here, have some gum," he kept saying in the middle of the circle, passing around the pack he'd found in his pocket, until the whole situation was defused, and the bikers went back to their pool and beer. Kesey could only watch in amazement, but they were safe and on their way again (and I think he got the beer too!). One of Ken's favorite stories about dad.
9. Jerry Garcia told me once how my father drove him to the City from LA in some beat-up Pontiac and when they got to the section on 101 just South of Candlestick where it's all land-fill, water on both sides (you know the stretch) it was traffic like a parking lot. Without missing a beat in his (monologue) stories to Jerry, Neal somehow managed to bypass all unwanted traffic (I suspect there was some "shoulders" involved) and Jerry said he suddenly found himself on the sidewalk in front of his then-home, 710 Ashbury Street, with suitcase and guitar in hand, and Neal roaring off yelling "see ya" with a flip of his hand. I can just picture it, but Garcia never knew how Neal did it. Bless them both.
10. One of my favorite memories is when I was sitting across from Allen Ginsberg in our home in Los Gatos, California, around 1965, listening to his stories. I was all of 14 years old, and I think mom and pop were in the kitchen making spaghetti. He said, "Johnny, do you want to know a secret?" I said, like "duh! Spill!" Allen looked around conspiratorially and announced that "the Beatles smoke pot!" I was a little too young, and I said, "what's pot?" I'll never forget how crest-fallen he looked when the scoop of the century was lost on me. Of course it wasn't six months later that I knew all about it, but at the time I was still a "virgin." He continued undaunted: "Dylan and I met them in the hotel room after the Sullivan show! We put wet towels under the doors so all the cops in the hallway couldn't smell it (just as we all did years later in high school?) and it was great! I asked, "what happened next?" He said Bob and John sat on the couch nose to nose and talked about music, Bob saying something like "you're writing fluff-- girl/boy crap--write something 'meaningful!'" (The next day John wrote "Norwegian Wood" Need I say more?). Allen said that Paul walked around the suite making sure that everything he said was written down on a legal pad by roadie Mal Evans: it was all too important to miss! I can just picture it. Ah, the '60s...
11. Of course there are a gazillion more stores to tell, but what is sacred to me is my father's life-long dream to be a provider to his family, and for me I think he has succeeded, albeit mostly posthumously. I would have never had the opportunity to meet people like Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia or Ken Kesey without that last name. And one more anecdote about that name: he named me after his two best friends at the time, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. At the last minute, he changed "Jack" to "John." That's what it says on my birth certificate, and I asked my mother Carolyn about that discrepancy years later. She said, "I asked him about that at the time, and he said, "well, if you say it fast, it sounds like "JackAssady" and no one is going to call my son a jack ass all of his life!" Typical Neal. I felt as though I embody the whole "Beat Generation" in one name, and I'll modestly take it.
A final note. Of all the doors that my father has opened to me in this life, I would trade them all to have him back--
John Allen Cassady