So what have you been up to lately? Where do you work, what do you do for fun, etc.?
Let’s start at the beginning. First, the Earth cooled …
No, we’ll skip to my birth in San Francisco, 9/9/51. By about age three we had settled in Los Gatos, a small town in the foothills 50 miles south of SF, which I’ve gravitated back to ever since. While living in the coastal resort town of Santa Cruz for most of the ’70’s, what I lacked in career motivation I made up for in life experience and having fun. Along the way I harvested a son, Jamie Neal, born 8/18/75, who still lives with me while attending a local community college, and I also tried my hand at marriage on two occasions in different decades.
I moved back to Los Gatos and Silicon Valley in 1983 to pursue a career in (what else?) electronics and computers. The field wasn’t my first choice, preferring to play guitar in rock bands, but, as they say, “when in Rome.” My music career certainly couldn’t be counted upon to pay the bills. So I’ve been fairly settled since then, having lived in the same house in south San Jose for the past seven years.
My ’90s lifestyle is much more stable and less crazy than in years past. For the past 12 years I’ve been with Caere Corporation, producer of page-reading software and scanner systems, in (where else?) Los Gatos. It’s a good gig and I’m reasonably comfortable.
And for fun? Sorry, no time. Actually, I like to hang out with my girlfriend Pat and read, watch flicks or whatnot. Occasionally I’ll dust off the guitars to play with friends at open mike nights or recording sessions. Then there’s always the unabashed self-promotion on the Net! (This is my first, honest). So that about sums it up in one, long paragraph. Pretty frigging boring, eh?
Tell me more about your music.
I listened to KEWB, Channel 91, out of San Francisco as a little kid. I dug stuff like Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” and all the novelty songs like “The Flying Purple People Eater” and “Monster Mash.” Everything by Ray Stevens and the Coasters. My parents were into cool jazz, of course, which was a great influence later. “Sketches of Spain” by Miles is permanently imprinted in my brain, after so many nights falling asleep to that album drifting in from the party in the living room.
At age 13, three pals and I bought Beatle wigs, put up posters around the neighborhood, and put on a “show.” We set up a picnic table with Hi-fi speakers hidden underneath, and actually climbed up there and played tennis rackets (and a wash tub) while lip synching to the Beatles “Second Album”. Dweeb city. The girls loved us. I had found my calling.
I met a blues-harp player in college, an ex-Marine just out of Vietnam named Matt Shaw. He learned blues harp by hiding in the ammo bunker under his fire base near Laos and playing Paul Butterfield’s classic “East/West” album over and over. What a killer harmonica player Matt was by the time I met him. He lived in a little house out in the middle of this huge orchard where we made big noise without complaints.
We got pretty good and eventually quit college and moved to a little town called Felton in the San Lorenzo Valley of the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by redwood trees and hippies. We named our new band The Feltones. Actually, “Those” Fabulous Feltones is what we decided on because it had a more notorious ring to it. And notorious we were. The drummer was a madman. Triple Scorpio coke dealer; need I say more? The girls loved him. He even stole my old lady for a while, but we were all friends. We played venues like the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, the Chateau Liberte and the Town & Country Lodge in Ben Lomond, all legendary bars back when SC was wild. I could write volumes. Someday I will; “The Adventures of The Fabulous Feltones.”
What were some of your favorite Dead songs?
I saw them a lot in the Sixties, and then our paths didn’t cross for many years, so I missed most of their later albums. In fact, I couldn’t win any trivia contests after “American Beauty,” although I listened to “Europe ’72” quite a bit at the time. I loved their first album, and figured out every Dexedrine-propelled Jerry lick on it that I could as a wanna-be guitarist. “Viola Lee Blues,” etc. I loved Pig Pen’s version of “Love Light.” We’d stand under him stoned at the Avalon Ballroom in SF and not even notice that he’d drag it out to 45 minutes sometimes. Every track on “Workingman’s Dead.” Of course “Casey Jones.” “Dire Wolf” especially reminds me of Jerry now (since August 9th). Dead standards like “Ripple,” “Birdsong” and many I can’t recall right now are great. I leaned toward the Garcia/Hunter compositions.
Do you have kids?
I’m a single parent with my twenty-year-old son living with me. I’ve been married and divorced twice. Pat and I have been an item for exactly one year now, the proverbial office romance. My son’s name is Jamie, named for one of my sisters, and he is working and attending a local community college. He turned out pretty good, although I don’t see much of him. He and his girlfriend come up for air every few days and I catch sight of him then. I was going to name him Cody, after the character Pomerey in Jack’s Visions of. His middle name is Neal.
BEING NEAL’S SON
Do you get a lot of recognition in your everyday life for being Neal’s son?
Naw. There’s always been the occasional letter or call.
Has the interest increased recently, or not? And does it bug you?
I love it. Who else gets to garner attention and strokes for something they had nothing whatsoever to do with? The only thing that’s a little scary is having to carry the torch someday. My mother’s got so many stories and knowledge that hasn’t been shared. I don’t think I can adequately represent the legend with authority, so most of the good stuff will be lost with her passing.
I’ve bragged to all my friends about getting e-mail from you already
— but I’m keeping your email address to myself, or else god knows what kind of weirdos you’d start hearing from (and that’s just my friends …)
But it must be a funny thing being Neal Cassady’s son, because while he is so well-known and beloved in some circles, I would guess that most people in America have never heard of him. Just how much has being ‘Neal’s son’ colored your identity in life?
Being the son of an infamous “legend” is a constant source of surprise, amazement and pride. Surprise and amazement because, to this day, I can’t believe how many people HAVE heard of him. Pride because, although I had nothing to do with the legend’s conception, I agree with those that regard the man as something special on this planet. Of course, my perspective is somewhat biased, having loved him as a father as well as a hip icon. I feel fortunate that I was in the unique position to do both.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet so many fascinating individuals who operate on levels of art and wisdom that I admire and to which I long to aspire. Doors of opportunity have been opened, most of which I haven’t taken advantage of, I guess for fear of exploiting something intangible that I don’t think is mine to abuse. But the outpouring of friends and fans has always been a pleasant surprise over the years and is something I still think is great.
Beat aficionados like me have heard ‘Visions of Neal’ from many people — Jack Kerouac (of course), Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Charles Bukowski, John Perry Barlow, your mother, etc. How about your visions — can you give us a memory or two we haven’t heard before?
By far the number one question asked re: Neal is: “Did you ever know/see/remember your father?” And a good question it is, too, because he was everywhere else at once. The more I learn about his life from other sources, the more I’m amazed that I ever did see him, much less how much. It’s simply astounding. He really was everywhere at the same time. How he pulled it off, we’ll never know.
To me he was Dad, although admittedly he was absent more than I would have liked. But my memories are almost as plentiful as if I had been brought up by “normal” parents.
What was it like being a kid in the back seat with “the fastest man alive” behind the wheel?
Those are images I’ll never forget. On Friday nights he would take me, and sometimes one or two of my best buddies, to the quarter-mile oval race track called San Jose Speedway out in the dusty fields about 10 miles from our home in Los Gatos. Driving there and back was most of the adventure, especially on the return trip, after he’d watch his heroes slide the midget racers sideways around the track all night. I can still smell the tire dust and fuel fumes that would drive Dad into a frenzy. He’d get so excited that he’d elbow me in the ribs and point till I was bruised, but I loved every minute of it. Of course, at the age of 10 or so, I was usually more interested in crawling around under the bleachers or going for an ice cream sandwich. I was always getting lost, especially when my friends came along.
While driving, he was fond of jerking the steering wheel to the beat of the rock and roll on the car radio. Chuck Berry was one of his favorites, and songs like “Maybelline” and “Nadine” fit him to a T. Two pals and I would be in the back seat and knock heads every time he jerked the car onto two wheels side to side going down the freeway, and we’d giggle uncontrollably and hold our sides. My friends thought he was about the coolest dad on the planet. Their parents probably didn’t agree.
There was a guy named Roy who owned Los Gatos Tire Service who gave Dad a job when no one else would after he was released from San Quentin. Neal had the drug rap on his record which was, in 1960, tantamount to being an ax murderer. No one asked if he’d been sent up for two sticks of tea. Old Roy could have cared less.
Roy was known to have a drink or two, and died sometime in the ’70s, but not before repeating some of his favorite Neal stories to a young man who worked there starting in about ’72. I ran into this guy by coincidence when I had some tire work done at the present location of the shop, and after seeing my last name on the work order, he was glad to share some of Roy’s stories with me. Roy’s favorite was how Neal would drive his car down from our house, which was two miles up a hill from the tire shop, without the benefit of brakes, an almost obsessive pastime of Dad’s. I believe this would have been the ’49 Pontiac. Anyway, he would time it perfectly every morning so the car would bump up into the driveway (after having slowed it by rubbing curbs when necessary), he would then hop out in front of the garage doors, and the car would continue along the flat driveway, the door flapping shut, and on out to the back dirt parking lot, where it would nudge over a small mound so the front wheels would rock back and forth to settle into the dirt trough beyond. It never failed to amaze and delight Roy.
Another amazing story, which I can’t verify but is great, has it that one night Roy passed Neal going the other way through town and waved. Neal threw the car into reverse and caught up with Roy, the transmission screaming, and chatted with him door to door while driving backwards, glancing back occasionally for oncoming traffic. Dad had a penchant for driving in reverse, probably because the steering is so squirrely, like driving a fork lift. He was proud of his downhill-in-reverse speed record on Lombard Street, the twisty tourist trap in SF.
You were Jack Kerouac’s godson, and there are several references to you and your sisters in the Kerouac/Cassady letters. What do you remember of him?
My memories of Jack are few and sketchy; mostly just images of him rather than conversations. My sisters would remember more. The images are hazy from when he was around a lot at the new Los Gatos house because I was under five.
I better recall being around age ten and going to Big Sur when he was living in Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Bixby Canyon, driving down in Dad’s new (to us) Willys jeep wagon, what a ride! Jack took time to instruct me on the nuances of packing a proper rucksack and keeping my socks dry. I confused him with Jack London when he was in his plaid-wool-shirt-in-the-woods phase. We would wander down the creek trail to the beach and stand in front of the immense surf which seemed to tower over us like a wall of water as in “The Ten Commandments.” He would yell into the din with arms outstretched; I’d explore an old wrecked car resting on its top at the foot of the cliff, looking for skeletons. I had no idea he was loaded on wine and/or pot the whole time, and wouldn’t have cared less.
He was funny and kind and gentle and took a goofy interest in our kid stuff that parents might find tedious. At least that’s my impression after all these years.
Ginsberg, of course, was around a lot more in years to come, and I still see him whenever possible.
What was the first Kerouac book that you read? What did you think of it, and what do you think of him as a writer now?
I first read “On the Road” at about age 15. I dug it but forgot most of it until just this year when I read it again and really enjoyed it. I also read “Dharma Bums” as a teenager and thought it pretty good, but I was never much of a reader, being too busy goofing off, which I now regret. I made a stab at the rest of Jack’s stuff and couldn’t make sense of it. I frankly think it reads like drunken ramblings that one must struggle to comprehend. Such blasphemy from his Godson!
Was it obvious to you as a child that Jack had romantic feelings for your mother?
I had no clue about an intimate relationship between Jack and my mom until I was grown. By that time I thought it was far out, to use the vernacular of the times. I was a baby when all this was going on, but I think Jack always carried the torch. Toward the end, he would call at like 3:00 AM drunk and ramble and rave, my mom trying to politely get him off the phone. I answered one night and only vaguely remember him crying “Johnny!” and “I have to speak to Carolyn!” I handed her the phone with a “whoa!” as she looked worried. We were more sad than surprised upon his demise.
(I asked John about the new Coppola movie of “On The Road,” and this led to a discussion of a previous, less-than-satisfying attempt at translating the Kerouac/Cassady legend onto film. ‘Heart Beat’ was based on the book of the same title by John’s mother, Carolyn Cassady. I mentioned that I’d never seen a copy of this book, though I’d read and enjoyed her later book, “Off The Road.”)
“Heart Beat” has been out of print for twenty years, so don’t bother. It’s actually only an excerpt of “Off the Road,” anyway. A publisher in Berkeley chopped the juicy chapters out of her original manuscript, the menage a trois parts, and sold that, a travesty taken out of context. Then, as you know, Orion picked up the movie rights and made an even worse film of it. Nolte, I thought, wasn’t as bad as the script and director. We were disgusted, especially since they promised some creative control.
But did you think Nolte captured your father at all? Obviously you would know best … as I said in my review of the movie in Literary Kicks, though, Nolte’s schtick seems to be the surly, snarling kinda-deep-and-sad tough guy, which is not at all my image of your father.
An astute observation. Nolte’s whole persona is the antithesis of Neal’s. Every film Nick is in, that’s Nick. He talks and acts the same off the set. He certainly tried hard on “Heart Beat”, though. He told me he had studied Neal a lot and based his previous movie’s character on him. It was a war flick called “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” Looked like Nick to me. The only time he came at all close in HB was the last scene when he calls Carolyn from the phone booth burned out. He sounded sad enough for that stage of life.
I flew down to watch them film, and fell in love with Sissy Spacek, what a doll she was. (Her husband agrees.) I was also very fond of Nick and his party materials, especially at the all-night wrap party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where we hid at a corner table and blabbed for hours. We’re both clean nowadays (this was 1977), but that was way fun. He wanted me to come up to his ranch in Malibu and ride dirt bikes and play some more, and like an idiot I declined and flew home, fool. I think I hurt his feelings. Never heard from him again. Well, we all have regrets. I just have more than others! I could write volumes.
Sissy also did her best to save the rotten script, and read the entire 1100-page manuscript of my mother’s book to get into the role. Those two really hit it off, and during filming Sissy used the same approach with Loretta Lynn, studying for her next film, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” She’s a pro. The thing about “Heart Beat” was they just bought the names and made up their own story, with just some highlights based in fact. John Byrum (writer/director) didn’t do his homework and it showed. They could have made it authentic, almost a documentary, and still had all the stuff that sells: sex, drugs, violence, and it would have been the real thing. Stupid waste. My mother was so disappointed in the script that she wrote her own screenplay. Of course they didn’t use it because they had already paid off Byrum. Oh well.
Who would be the ideal movie “Neal”?
The only actor I’ve seen that came close was Paul Newman in 1957’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” the Rocky Marciano bio. When he wore a tight t-shirt and smiled, he was a dead ringer. Too bad he’s too old for the part now. There’s a couple unknowns that my mother likes.
(John told me about a business trip to Denver, the city where Neal grew up.)
I flew to Denver on the 7th on business and wound up on Larimer Street among the gloomy brick ruins of my father’s past, hoping for a glimpse of the ghosts of little Neal and Neal Sr. down an alley off the dark street. We took some clients to a downtown restaurant for dinner, one of whom was a Kerouac fan, and my colleague and I took a wrong turn trying to find the freeway out of town and to the airport. Suddenly we were in the worst part of town, amid old abandoned buildings and railway depots, but with rickety wood houses, shops and bars wedged in-between, still occupied. Then there it was, Larimer Street, as well as several other street names familiar from “On the Road” and “The First Third.” Unlike the modern Larimer Square and other tourist traps up the road, this section didn’t invite exploration that late at night, but I finally got to see it and get its feel, even from behind a rental car window. It was an unexpected treat.
THE HAMMER, AND SILLY STUFF IN GENERAL
(During the period that John and I were conducting this interview I received an e-mail asking if I knew anything about the myth about “Cassidy’s” habit of flipping a hammer and catching it, which Tom Wolfe wrote about in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The person wrote: “Somewhere, sometime, somebody said that Cassidy used the hammer as a practice to sharpen his perseption. Something about that it took about 1/30 th of a second to percieve something happpening in the world and that he used the hammer as an exercise to shorten the recognition time.” I thought this seemed a bit silly, but forwarded the mail to John to see what he’d say, asking if he wanted me to keep sending him stuff like this.)
Sure, I like to be bothered by silly stuff. Keeps me current.
As far as this guy’s search, why anyone would look for meaning in this hammer thing is beyond me, but that theory sounds vaguely familiar. First we must correct his spelling on “Cassady” and “perception.” I guess you receive mail from scholars and otherwise.
My take on the hammer is that by that stage of the game Neal was, sadly, so loaded up on crank that he simply needed something to fiddle with. He retained massive arm strength, and the hammer suited his ancient wheel karma railroad/car/tool trip. Tim Allen on steroids.
Also, he always had a penchant for juggling and sight gags a la W.C. Fields. Inept at real juggling, he would flip objects (pencils, etc.) and catch them on the same “handle” end. The game was to count how many flips he could go before missing and starting over at “1.” He would frequently get into double digits, to the delight of us kids (we were easily entertained). He would also do this trick, a lot when we were young, where he’d balance on one leg, grab his ankle and leap over his other leg, nearly knocking his chin with his knee, and land upright again on one foot. He couldn’t do it as well after his various railroad accidents stiffened his legs, so he’d go careening across the room on landing, YAAAA, and we’d giggle all the more.
But I guess this stuff isn’t nearly as mystically legendary or mysterious as his trying to shorten his recognition time to 1/30th of a second or whatever. People can believe whatever they like if it helps get them through the night, right?
(Pat, who was on the cc: list for much of these conversations, chimes in here)
PAT: Hey, at the least the guy has something to keep him busy. Kesey rambled on and on in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about 1/30 of a second being the least amount of time in which a human could perceive something. He said most humans took much longer with the exception of Neal Cassady, the fastest man alive. It’s something along those lines. He also said that Cassady never dropped the hammer unless he wanted to make a point that something was happening and that people should pay attention to it. ‘Course, Kesey was tripping his ass off quite a lot then and that’s conducive to theories. I had friends who believed Jerry Garcia communicated with them at concerts by reflecting the light off his glasses into their eyes.
JOHN: Would that we all could make mistakes and have people go “oooh, aaaah, it’s cosmic!”
KESEY AND BABBS
(The above led me to ask about Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs, the leaders (if there was any such thing) as The Merry Pranksters.)
I consider Kesey and Babbs friends. I saw neither of them for about 15 years, although I kept track of them. Kesey was at my first wedding in 1975, then I didn’t run into him again until around 1990. I’ve seen them both at various functions quite a bit since then. They’re being more visible as of late. I took 8mm movies of Kesey and Neal, along with Ginsberg and others, when they’d visit our house in Los Gatos. They were an already infamous bunch that I wanted to record for posterity. Alas, those films have been lost. I next went to visit Ken on his farm in Eugene in ’72 with another 8mm camera. Those films I still have and plan to transfer them to video someday.
THE KEROUAC CD-ROM
Penguin sent me the new Kerouac CD-Rom last night (free stuff, about the only perk I get for doing LitKicks) and in the Gallery section I was pleased to see a photo of a bearded Neal surrounded by three nice-looking kids including a cute and pudgy tousle-haired tyke … John, that was you!
I haven’t seen this CD-Rom yet, although it’s all I heard about for months from my mother while they were working on it. They solicited a lot of material from her, and she was enthusiastic about helping them because they seemed genuine and they paid well for pictures and stuff. But in the end they used only a fraction of the stuff she’d sent, a typical disappointment.
“Pops” grew the beard after one of his railroad accidents when he was home for months recuperating. If it’s the picture I’m thinking of, I was only months old. That picture has been in several books. I was so “pudgy” (read: fat) that it looks like they have rubber bands around the joints on my arms and legs, and I’m puffing my cheeks out. There’s a later one with beard in our back yard in San Jose where I’m about two and have a buzz cut on my massive head. So flattering.
Neal looks great in a beard — how the hell did he stay so fit? Did he ever eat? Did he work out? Somehow I can’t picture him in a Soloflex, so it must have been his work and all that legendary hammer-flipping — but then I know a lot of people who do physical work, and they don’t look so great.
He worked out on free weights a lot as a teenager, probably at reform school and in Denver skid row gyms. He was born with a great physique and developed it early. Later it was work that kept it tight, sprinting in parking lots, walking miles in the rail yards, tossing truck tires in and out of the retreader. He didn’t start the hammer schtick until shortly before his death.
JAMMING WITH ALLEN GINSBERG
(One day John wrote me about an event in England.)
I called mum Tuesday, October 17, to ask how the big poetry festival at the Albert Hall went the night before at which Ginsberg was supposed to perform. She said he called her that day and was really chummy but had declined comp tickets because it was a benefit (jeez), but luckily a couple of her fans insisted on escorting her and bought seats at seventh row center. Allen comes out and after some “one-liners,” one about Neal, he introduces his accompanist for the evening, a job I used to do on guitar when he’d be in the Bay Area. Out walks Paul McCartney, as you may have heard by now, and of course everyone is shocked that there was no media leaks beforehand and the place was half empty (only holds 4500). Did she go backstage afterwards to snarf an autograph for her Beatle-fan son? Noooooooooo! Oh well. “I told Allen I’d go to a book signing of his later in the week, so I left early, knowing I’d see him then.” Christ. Anyway, she said they rocked the house and that I was in good company as one of Allen’s accompanists. I wish I shared Paul’s bank balance as well!
So you jammed with Allen Ginsberg? Believe it or not, I actually find his music very pleasant. He has a voice like an operatic frog, but there’s some strange lilting-ness to it that I find very contradictory and interesting. When did you play with him, and what did you play?
Allen was kind enough to invite me along on gigs he did during the seventies while visiting the Bay Area. I was living in Santa Cruz at the time. We only performed together a few times, but a couple shows stand out in my memory.
The first was when my rock band at the time was playing as house band at a nightclub called the Sail Inn near the Portola Avenue beach. Ginsberg somehow found us and showed up unannounced with Peter Orlovsky and others in tow. I convinced the band to take a break so I could get Allen up there to do his thing, and I joined him on electric guitar. He played his harmonium and Peter played banjo. I was used to Allen simply reading his poetry and wailing on finger cymbals, so this configuration was new to me. He told me he had learned the blues and jammed with Dylan on three-chord progressions, mostly in the key of “C.” He had recently done local shows accompanied on guitar by Barry Melton of the Fish, and he now needed a new sideman as Barry was busy somewhere else. I said I’d be honored.
That first night we played about a half hour on slow, dirge-like blues chords over which he sang poems. I peered into the audience to see the club’s owner and the few patrons that were left in attendance staring with their mouths agape. They hadn’t a clue and we nearly lost our cush gig there, but Allen liked it and soon called me for others. The best was a benefit for Chet Helms and the Family Dog called the Tribal Stomp held at the Greek Theater in Berkeley in 1978. It was a big thrill for me because I got to meet all my hero bands from the sixties backstage. Allen even paid me; what a deal.
I’m a pretty big Beatles fan too. My favorite is Lennon’s solo albums. I like Yoko’s albums quite a bit as well. McCartney is sometimes good … he had good taste in partners.
I’ve never listened to Yoko’s stuff, but if it’s anything like “Two Virgins,” I’ll pass. I was caught by the Beatles at the perfect age to experience the mania, and I confess that I never got over it. Paul, although more traditional in style, was a great songwriter when with John, but lost it without him. I don’t think Lennon did as well on his own, either. I think as I did in the sixties: Lennon = God.
THE REST OF THE FAMILY
What are your siblings up to?
My two older sisters still live in California and we get together whenever possible.
Cathy, 47, and her husband George live near Sacramento. Their three kids are now grown and off on their own. Cathy’s a health care professional and teacher who moved out of the house as a teenager and got married so I didn’t hang out with her as much as I would have liked as an adult. We’re very close but only see each other on rare visits a couple times a year because of the distance between our homes. She’s got a lot of Neal stories of her own of which I only catch glimpses when we’re able to meet. She’s happy to stay more out of the mainstream Beat lore network.
Jami, 45, and her husband Randy live near Santa Cruz. They have a daughter, Becky, 14. They lived in Los Gatos up until a year ago, so I’ve kept in fairly close contact with Jami over the years. “How’s my sweet little Jami?” Jack would write to Carolyn in the early ’50s. Cathy and I weren’t exactly treated like chopped liver, mind you, but Jami was such a doll and everyone’s favorite. They’re both in Jack’s books a lot (I was the runt of the litter and too young). Jami works in a dental office, and often wonders why she and Cathy rarely get mentioned in these Neal articles (thanks for asking, Levi). Jami has shared some amazing memories of Dad with me on occasion, like the time her boyfriend’s band was playing The Barn in Scotts Valley (infamous psychedelic dance hall/Prankster hangout) and Neal was so high she had to look after him all night in the black-lit, postered catacombs of the place. Someday I’ll record her tales.
Curt Hansen is my half brother by Dad’s short-lived marriage to Diana in New York. Although I’ve only met him twice in person, he’s a great guy and we keep in touch. He and his wife Debbie came out for a weekend visit in ’94 and we had good talks. I couldn’t recall our first meeting at Carolyn’s in 1969, but then again I can’t recall most of that year anyway. Curt is the program manager at radio station WEBE in Connecticut.
Jack and Allen Ginsberg seemed to have felt alienated when your parents become devotees of Edgar Cayce’s mystical philosophy. At the same time, Cayce’s influence seems to have been a good one for Neal, and for your parent’s marriage. What do you think of all this? Did they teach much of it to you? Is your mother still influenced by it, and are you? It almost seems, from what I’ve read, to have been your family “religion.”
Edgar Cayce represented a great alternative to the dogmatic Catholicism in which Neal was raised, and my parents shared his philosophy with us kids at a young age. My mother insists it was not the man, but his “channeled information” that is important. Apparently he was just a farmer from Alabama or somewhere.
They didn’t raise us to be ignorant of the basics, though, and sent us to Sunday school first. That’s us on the way to church on Easter Sunday, 1957, on the cover of “Grace Beats Karma.” I wasn’t fond of going to church, except for getting ice cream cones at Foster’s Freeze next door after the ordeal. After about a year of that they announced they would keep us home Sunday mornings, but we had to listen to them for an hour as if it were school. This news was like being let out of jail when you’re seven years old, and we heartily approved. They would read from different alternative books including Cayce and other metaphysical stuff, and in that context it didn’t seem way out at all. Also, they weren’t fanatics by then on Cayce or anything else, as described earlier by Kerouac when it was fresh.
We grew up with an understanding of Karma and reincarnation that I took for granted until I went to public schools and realized this knowledge wasn’t normal among my peers. In that regard it was somewhat of a cruel shock to learn that everyone didn’t believe this stuff, and I had to adjust to other points of view. Still, I don’t regret adopting their perspective. They thought much in organized religion was distorted, except for the basic concepts that started them, like the Golden Rule. My experience since then has resulted in similar thinking.
My mother hasn’t changed her outlook much over the years, but doesn’t “preach” it much anymore. She seems secure in her knowledge of how the universe works. Her basic beliefs remain unchanged, which is comforting, and they still ring true for me.
I think after Jack had embraced Buddhism so desperately he was unwilling to shift gears again when confronted with Neal’s Cayce rap and tuned it out. Just a theory; I was awfully young.
“CHILDREN OF THE BEATS”
(On November 5, the New York Times Magazine printed an article called “Children of the Beats.” Written by Daniel Pinchbeck (son of Jack Kerouac’s one-time girlfriend Joyce Johnson), it featured profiles of John, Neal’s other son (by a different woman, Diana Hansen) Curt Hansen, Jan Kerouac, Parker Kaufman, Lisa Jones and others. This article caused a bit of a stir with its tragic overtones — the thesis seemed to be that all the Beat writers had been despicable parents. I wrote to John that I didn’t think the article captured what I saw as the positive side of his life.)
I agree with you about the article’s overall negative tone. Even I came off sounding like I thought the whole era was trivial. My biggest beefs were that he only mentioned the book “Heart Beat,” not “Off the Road,” as my mother’s principal work. Christ, it’s been out of print for twenty years, and sales of “Off The Road” could have been helped by a mention in a piece with this kind of circulation. Also, no mention of my sisters, who, last I checked, were Neal’s kids as well. And what’s up with this “John Allen?” I don’t recall calling myself that when we talked. I suspect he was trying to allude to the Kerouac/Ginsberg namesakes, but he never mentioned them! And shouldn’t one say “His mother IS Carolyn Cassady,” not “WAS?” At least his spelling was correct.
I think he was out for sensationalism in the Neal stories he recorded, similar to the Beats-suck-as-parents theme in the other interviews. The only story he bothered to print was about Neal’s decline, although I gave him two hours worth of upbeat, funny ones. Pat noticed he wasn’t writing in his notebook during these. Possibly because when he would earlier ask things like “what did you learn from all this?” or “how were you affected?”, I’d blow him off and continue with stories (similar to our interview?) and he might have felt slighted. At least you were compassionate and let me ramble.
All things considered, I’d say it’s about a C+. I’ve had worse showings, but certainly better. The piece in the Metro (San Jose) from about ’88 comes to mind as more accurate (and pages longer). Too bad it was not as widely read.
One other thought I had — since some of the other “children of the Beats” don’t seem like the type to have kids, it would have been nice to mention that you have a son. Speaking of which, what does he think of all this Neal publicity? Did he like the article?
Yeah, that would have been nice if the article had mentioned Neal’s grandson. His name’s Jamie, after my sister, cruel parents that we were. I came home last night and said his picture is in the NY Times so he’s famous. That’s a chalk portrait of him above my head [in the photo of John that accompanies the article] which my mom drew in London in ’92. Jamie hasn’t read much Beat stuff and probably doesn’t understand what the big deal is, but he thinks it’s bitchin’ to have a famous grandfather and to see our name in stuff all the time.
I think Pat early on sent you a description of when I spoke at Jan’s benefit show in SF earlier this year. I got loaded and lost my wallet, which Kesey found and gave to Nicosia to return to me, Jeez. I was given a pretty cool photograph taken of Jan and I sitting together while giving interviews earlier that day which I can try to send to you somehow. An historic meeting. It’s too bad her life’s been rough lately. Makes me not feel so bad about my own life, though. We all have demons to exorcise.
I proposed to her at our first meeting in North Beach in the early ’70s. She was lookin’ good back then, and I thought, “what a perfect match-up!”, historically speaking, at least. What would Jack and Neal have thought? I forget what her response was, but we never married, as I recall.
BILL BURROUGHS JR.
Bill showed up at my mother’s house in Los Gatos around 1973. At that time her place was party central, and I recall some crazy times during that era. I had just returned from a year’s travel across the US, and my sister Jami and her husband Randy were living with Carolyn. I had been home about a week, sleeping on the couch because J&R had claimed my old room in my absence, when they threw a giant party in the half-acre dirt back yard. It was a Memorial day party, to celebrate all our gone “gone” friends.
We built a big stage at the back of the lot on a hill. There were three rock bands and Allen Ginsberg did a long set, singing, chanting, and reading poetry. He had a broken leg from slipping on the ice at his place in Cherry Valley, NY, and sat cross-legged on a rug with his cast sticking out in front and incense burning. The police were mellow about the crowds and a good time was had by all. Wait a minute, what does this have to do with Burroughs? He wasn’t even there yet. I know, background color about my mom’s house in those days. I soon moved to Santa Cruz, but the next spring I found they had built a huge vegetable garden in the back yard complete with grass trails through it with benches and bird baths and stuff.
There under a tree toward the back was this short, stocky guy with long hair and a scruffy beard with a gallon of red wine in his lap talking to Jami. They were half lit and laughing a lot, so naturally I joined them. Bill Jr. was only working on his first liver in those days and was quite lucid and witty. Everyone seemed to migrate to Carolyn’s at one time or another. We would have wild all-night discussions in the living room. My mother recently sent me an audio tape she found of one of those nights, but I was so high that poor Bill couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I was talking so much. It’s an embarrassment, except for one stretch where we’re all talking at once, Mom included, while completely ignoring the others. That part’s funny.
Anyway, I didn’t see Bill for a year or two. When he arrived at my house in Santa Cruz he looked thin and wasted. The first thing he did was lift up his shirt to show me the scar, more like a hole, left from his recent liver transplant, a new procedure at the time which he had just received in Denver. I nearly hurled, but helped myself to the jars full of Valium which he spread on the kitchen table. He was understandably tired and our subsequent discussions weren’t nearly as lively as in the past. The great local writer William J. Craddock sought him out and had us over for dinner. Craddock was a big fan of Neal’s and seemed to enjoy having the second generation converge at his house.
The sad day came when Bill was feeling so poorly that I insisted on driving him to the ER at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. They immediately whisked him back to Denver and within days he was dead. Although his father’s money gave him a second chance with a transplant, I think it was too little, too late. He was one of the casualties of the tragic side of these lost artist types. Daniel Pinchbeck was just twenty years too late to interview Bill Jr.
(Ed and Galatea Dunkel were two of the more colorful characters in “On The Road.” Like most of Kerouac’s characters they had their real life equivalents, and Al and Helen Hinkle were still close friends of Carolyn Cassady’s when Helen died last year.)
I ran into Al Hinkle in the supermarket last night. On the way home I flashed on the fact that the suburban ladies pushing shopping carts around us had no clue that Big Ed Dunkel from “On the Road” was chatting with Dean Moriarty Jr. in the frozen food isle (nor would they have cared). He’s in his late 60’s and looks great; just got back from a month in Denver visiting an older sister in Neal’s old neighborhood. He lost his wife Helen to cancer last year which was heavy for all of us.
That blows my mind about Big Ed Dunkel … I didn’t know “Galatea” had died, either. I always enjoyed that part in the book where she chews your father out and he goes and sits on the stoop for a few minutes considering it, then, without a word, gets up and continues with his life. Sometimes you gotta just do that …
Helen Hinkle was an extremely wise woman. I liked that scene, too. It’s almost excruciating to read because she’s so right and Dean is so foolish. Helen called it like it is. I was so grateful that I looked her up in recent years and had long talks with her about them all in the days, not knowing her time would be short. I almost missed her altogether. They’ve lived in the same house for over forty years, and just a few miles from my current address, but I just never got around to seeing them much until about three years ago. The Metro also did an excellent piece on the Hinkles a couple years ago. They were a big part of it all and no one knows. Helen was so funny. She liked to remind me that she used to change my diapers when I was a baby, jeez. She’d sit there and smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and curse during her stories; what a character. Al is more of a mellow talker and a bit long-winded, but has some great stuff from the Denver days.
(I told John I was going to illustrate this interview with a photo his girlfriend Pat had sent me, showing John in a “far-out” Greg-Brady-style shirt at a party. )
Jeez, I look like a dork-o-rama, but go ahead.
This is the second part of the four-part John Cassady Interview.