And The Beat Goes On

 Just spent a day with Carolyn and John Cassady. Carolyn is the widow of Neal, John his son. John’s full name is John Allen Cassady so he’s named after Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady.

Carolyn is pretty much the last living link to the Beat Generation. In her eighties now, she lives a quiet life in Bracknell (?!), receiving letters and emails from all over the globe asking about the Beats. As she says, she’s “half-famous” because of her connection to the Beats but she was “of them” not “in them”.

OK. Quick history lesson. Neal Cassady was Kerouac’s best friend and sometime lover of Allen Ginsberg. He was the muse, the spark, the catalyst. Kerouac hit upon the idea of writing it liked Neal talked it: spontaneous prose. In the NOW, looking for IT. Cassady is Dean Moriaty in Kerouac’s “On The Road”, the book that pretty much started the counter-culture. Before the book brought fame, Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and Burroughs were a close knit band of like minded soul-seekers. Neal lived his life like a movie but he also raised a family and had a straight job. Neal famously drove Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters’ bus in the 1960s and attended the Acid Tests, from which grew modern rock and the hippy culture. He also did 2 years at San Quentin on a drugs charge from 1958-60. Neal died a broken man in 1968. He ran out of road. Kerouac died a year later to alcoholism

Carolyn was a blue blooded gal who went to Bennington. Neal grew up in Denver flop-houses with an alcoholic father during the Depression. Opposites attract. She had an affair with Kerouac, who said she was the only woman for him. Her book, “Off The Road”, is a great memoir of the period and puts a level-eyed gaze over the myths and legends that have grown up around the Beats. 

I’ve known Carolyn 9 years now and she’s great company. Sharp as a tack, educated and funny. Her book case is full of Beat literature. She despairs at the adulation and stories surrounding Neal and the Beats. Always has. Neal by the end was like a “dancing bear”: too far gone from drugs and a life lived too fast. Her happiest memories of him are the family man, the man who tried to do right by his kids. That’s all he ever wanted, deep down. A normal life.

John was old/young enough to enjoy the 1960s as a California teenager and loved hanging out with the Grateful Dead and the like. His dad’s name opened doors then and still does. He’s still providing for his brood even after his death. There’s not much money in the pot though. Carolyn over the years has had to sell personal items to pay the rent. In recent years the recession has hit John. He bought a house only to lose his job the very next day and after a year lost the house too.

Hanging out with them was lovely. They’re like a double act, reminiscing and adding bits to each other’s stories. John is classic California cool; laid back and gentle. His mantra is, “kill ‘em with kindness”. He’s a great musician too and he loves that I know about the bands of the past, most of whom he’s met. Carolyn can deliver a great one-liner and remembers it all. Her own life story, even without the Beat bit, is fascinating. Again, read her book.

I feel protective towards them. They’re not rich. John lost his Dad too young. Carolyn has been done over. For example, she took the famous snap of Jack and Neal together with their arms around each other. She doesn’t have the money for lawyers to chase people who use the image without permission, let alone paying her. The 1980 film “Heart Beat”, based on her memoirs, makes it look like they were all drugged up swingers. Her book was largely rewritten for republication recently because the Kerouac Estate said she had to pay royalties for quoting from letters that Jack wrote to her 50 years ago. And they wanted back royalties from when the book was first published 20 years ago! The new book has to paraphrase those letters.

Hey, I’m Fan Boy, but I know them well enough now that the Beat-ness is secondary. They’re both Primary Sources but I like them as people. Dig.


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