Monday, February 1, 2010

Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty, aka The Holy Goof

The Holy Goof by the late William Plummer is a biography of one of the greatest literary figures to never write anything substantial--his best-known work is a fragment of a letter. But Sherlock Holmes' words to Watson might also describe Neal Cassady's relationship to Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Jerry Garcia (leader of the Grateful Dead): "Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it."

Cassady was, in simplest terms, an amiable flake in the right place at the right time. He was a poor boy from Denver with a quick mind and a taste for the drug of the moment (marijuana in the 40s and 50s, LSD and benzedrine in the 60s). He is "Dean Moriarty" in On the Road, and the after-the-fact template (as Plummer puts it, "Kesey had dreamed Cassady first, had imagined him into being--with the usual distortions of dreamwork, of course") for McMurphy, protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He is the "secret hero" of the landmark poem Howl. Garcia is quoted as saying, "Until I met Neal, I was headed toward being a graphic artist...he helped us be the kind of band we are, a concert not a studio band."

Here's a film clip of Allen Ginsberg; Cassady shows up at the 3:15 point.

What Cassady had that these other, more accomplished men lacked was a sure sense of his own affect on people: a natural grace. Despite a taste for brutally rough sex, he never lacked for female company. He could talk himself out of most conflicts with authority (although not all: he spent two notable stretches in prison for drugs). He was vastly well-read and self-educated. In other words, he mirrored things that Kerouac, Kesey, Garcia and especially Ginsberg could never manage for themselves.

It's fascinating to read about an era where the idea that poetry could change the world wasn't automatically absurd, and where a guy like Kerouac could mimic our modern ease of computer-aided composition by simply threading one end of a roll of paper into his typewriter and writing until the paper ran out. And who wouldn't love to be part of a time when subsequently world-class poets, musicians, painters and prose writers all knew, influenced and inspired each other? The Holy Goof sets up the context for that time, and shows both the shiny nostalgia and the far less desirable underbelly.

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