Neal Cassady, or Cowboy Neal at the wheel, is a character that defies definition, or rather, comes hard to define. Neal was a freewheeling, jack-ballin’, rubber tramping, vagabond of the American highway. He was Dean Moriarty from the monumental Kerouac novel On The Road. He was the man behind the wheel of the Furthur bus. He was the man rapping and raving about life on stage at the acid tests. Truly, he was a patron saint of those on the road, and those simply free-wheelin’ and living life in the moment, and being absolutely fascinated by all of it’s ins and outs. He sweated profusely as he talked, excited about the intricacies of other’s lives. Cars and lovers were often stolen from men, and regularly returned in better condition than found..
Cassady was born in Salt Lake City in 1926, literally being born ‘on the road’ as his mother gave birth to the child in a taxi-cab. His mother passed away when he was ten, leaving him with an alcoholic father that often spent what little money he had on booze. The pair moved on to Denver, Colorado, living in hobo jungles, skid rows, and slums. Cassady found his first run in with the law at the age of fourteen when he was caught attempting to steal a car. He continued to be arrested for shoplifting, fencing stolen property, and a miasma of other crimes before he turned eighteen.
At the spry age of seventeen, and being released from a stint in prison, Cassady moved to New York to visit some friends. At that time in NYC the Beat Generation was in full flourish. While visiting his friend at Columbia University, he came upon two characters that became intertwined with him for the rest of his life; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Though not attending the same school as the pair, Cassady became drawn to them, and soon found himself amongst the pair. Cassady spent years on and off having a sexual relationship with Allen Ginsberg, between the many wives he had over time.
A lot of Cassady’s exploits have been detailed in Kerouac's loving memoir of Cassady from On The Road. Cassady was a womanizer and lusted for, "getting his kicks". And to Cassady life was but a giant game for, "chasing kicks". The pair spent time riding from one end of the continent to the other, with wild rides in cars pushing well over the speed limit. They spent times in post-war America, a time when many didn’t know what the next ‘move’ was, so his was to keep on moving. They spent times in black bars, jazz music screaming and hollering through the trumpets of the nighttime sky.
Cassady spoke in a prose that was sharp, quick, and fast, jumping from one falling star to another. Cassady wrote a letter to Kerouac in 1953, a few years after all the trivialities of the events of On The Road occurring, and it perhaps best describes the quick, rapid-fire prose in which Neal speaks in:
“Well it's about time you wrote, I was fearing you farted out on top that mean mountain or slid under while pissing in Pismo, beach of flowers, food and foolishness, but I knew the fear was ill-founded for balancing it in my thoughts of you, much stronger and valid if you weren't dead, was a realization of the experiences you would be having down there, rail, home, and the most important, climate, by a remembrance of my own feelings and thoughts (former low, or more exactly, nostalgic and unreal; latter hi) as, for example, I too seemed to spend time looking out upper floor windows at sparse, especially night times, traffic in females—old or young.”
Those that have read On The Road will understand wholeheartedly how this came later to inspire Kerouac's writing. The run on sentences are no mistakes at all, but rather, a stream of consciousness that creates a unique writing style unlike any other, and perhaps, the only way to describe the wild, phantasmal adventures of the American night.
Following the publication of On The Road, Cassady enjoyed the fame. For a bit. He was getting burnt out now, a life spent living on the road was beginning to wear on him as time rolled on, all the alcohol, the woman, the fast cars, the drugs all catching up to him. On the outside, he absolutely encouraged people to live life to their fullest, to do what they wanted, to inspire to keep moving on down the road and to not stop for a single breath. Those closer to him knew better.
In 1962, Kerouac met Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which was released earlier that year and to great reception from the public. A short two years later, Cassady was doing what he was doing best; ballin’ that jack down the highways of America once more in the famed ‘Furthur’ bus. The bus, colored in all kinds of writing, artwork, bells and whistles, tore across America, with no better man to drive the absolutely mad thing than cowboy Neal at the wheel.
1967 found Cassady in Mexico with a few other pranksters, most notably George Walker. They spent time eating LSD, taking Walker’s Lotus for a spin through the streets, and told stories all night on the beachside home in Puerto Vallarta. However, the thread of life was unravelling for this man of the night. At one point, pulling Walter Cox, a friend of Walker’s to the side, he told him in private, that “twenty years of fast living - there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”
Cassady spent a while longer travelling across the continent of North America. He travelled to Denver, New York City, San Francisco, small places here and there, and Mexico. He was growing madder and madder every year, and the strains of life continued to pile on and stress him out. In 1968, he attended a wedding party down in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato in Mexico. After the party, he was found in a coma by the side of some railroad tracks. Some say he died of a mix of drugs in his system, mainly alcohol and benzedrine. Other’s say exposure, from the cold and rain that was present that night. Regardless, he seemed to died as he had lived; freely, and at his own whim.
Cassady is survived by five known children, and is forever immortalized in the many books Kerouac wrote with him, and of the poems that Ginsberg about Cassady, most notably Howl. He is a hero of vagabonds everywhere, and a testament that life on the road is feasible, a hoot, and a riot all at once.
Link: Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Link: Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, along with some acid test audio.