Monday, September 18, 2017

Cassady and The Dead - Part 2

On January 8, 1966, Neal Cassady went back to Fillmore and Geary, this time to take part in an Acid Test at the Fillmore Auditorium, where he was one of the main attractions. No longer just a freak in the audience, Neal was a celebrity listed on the Acid Test posters and flyers. This was Dean Moriarty, after all, though his relationship with Kerouac had faltered. A disgruntled Kerouac would fall into the depths of alcoholism and depression, though Cassady would be dead by then.

The Fillmore had become a rock venue in an area that was a run-down African American ghetto, much of which was being demolished. Most of the familiar clubs had shut down, the livelyhood of the neighborhood dismantled and thousands of residents were displaced, leaving the area looking like Beirut. 

The Merry Pranksters

Cassady met Ken Kesey in 1962, seeking him out after reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey said, "Everybody already knew Cassady before they ever met him. A lot of people were there in that area because of him. I had read On The Road; I’d also read Visions of Cody. All of the action was swirling around Cassady. The writers all wrote about him, the hangers-on all hung around with him. His presence was known to me soon after we moved to the San Francisco area… He came swirling into my yard there at Perry Lane… He just took over that whole neighborhood."

Cassady was a part Kesey's scene for the next several years, partying at La Honda and famously driving Further, the psychedelic school bus of the Merry Pranksters in 1964. Though he'd been rather estranged from Kerouac, he introduced him to Kesey and the Pranksters, but the withdrawn & inebriated Kerouac was year's news.

After the famous roadtrip, Cassady met Carolyn Adams, taking her back to Kesey's place, and her "Mountain Girl." "I ran into Neal Cassady at St. Michael's. They had just come back from the Prankster bus trip. They came up to my table and said, 'Do you want to go for a ride and smoke a joint?' and I said 'Yeah!' I knew who Neal was, of course. Plus he had all his clippings in his wallet! I decided these guys looked interesting and I went for a ride with them and ended up at Kesey's and I was like, 'Oh my goodness, look at these people!' I felt instantly at home with them.”

Cassady would become a fixture at the Acid Tests, surrounded by admiring girls, handing out diplomas at the Acid Test Graduations. Despite his long association with the Pranksters, Cassady wasn't known to have been especially into acid (though at the Watts Acid Test it's said he "drank about a gallon" of the Kool-aid). In general he was more a pot and speed man, living on a diet of amphetamines.

Wavy Gravy recalled, "Cassady would pick stuff off the floor, cigarette packs or whatever, and he would read it like Native Americans read meaning in natural things… It was the world as I Ching." That in itself was enough for this writer to find him a literary genius. Mountain Girl remembered Cassady as "the main announcer, the mad commentator. He was beautiful at the Trips Festival and the Acid Tests."

The Grateful Dead had been hanging out with Kesey's bunch for some time, and met Cassady at parties well before they played the Acid Tests. Everyone was in awe of Cassady. Jerry Garcia said, "He was the guy speaking to us from the pages of Kerouac. Everyone had already read On The Road, and he was something of a living legend to them, a hero of the beat life, an elder teacher and guru pointing to new space by his example."

With Timothy Leary
It wasn't often that someone who grew up in the big-band and bebop jazz era came to embrace rock 'n' roll, but Cassady seemed to have made the transition enthusiastically (contrary to Kerouac). In the '40s, Cassady and Kerouac had been fans of early big-band rhythm & blues. While passing through San Antonio in On The Road, they were listening to R 'n'B on the jukebox: musicians like Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, and Wynonie Blues Harris, so early rock wouldn't have been stretch; it suited his personality.

The Dead, though, were not the first San Francisco rock group that Cassady came into contact with. He wrote in an August '65 letter to Ken Kesey: "I forgot to mention that Sunday night we went to see a R&R group that Chan insisted on observing – well, who was it? that's rite – Signe & The HiWires or the Sextones or the Jefferson Hi Bandits [Airplane] – our pals, ya know; & they sounded great, esp. on one about a Hi Flyin’ Bird." The date was Sunday, August 8, 1965. The first Jefferson Airplane concert was always thought to be August 13 at the Matrix, but Cassady is quite clear about the time, so it's possible that he may have been at a rehearsal. When Annette Flowers (later a part of the Dead's office staff) met Cassady in September 1965, he was taking mushrooms and listening to the new Beatles album (Help! more than likely). He later took her to the Big Beat Acid Test, and the next year he took her to the Quicksilver and Airplane shows at the Fillmore. Though he was now almost 40, Cassady was just as comfortable in the underground rock scene of the '60s as the nightclub jazz scene of the '40s and '50s, equally at ease with beats and hippies.

Kesey and Further
Neal seems to have attached himself to the Dead in particular; indeed they were friends of Kesey's, alt life icons, drugs and girls swirled around them, they were in awe of him and gave him a place to stay. It's easy to imagine him dancing intently in front of the stage as in the bop-jazz days, sweating and shouting, "Yeah, man. Go, go!"

Rock Scully, Grateful Dead manager, remembered Cassady at 710 Ashbury, at the Thanksgiving '66 dinner: "You can see why Kerouac and Kesey loved him so much. The guy was a brilliant writer who never stopped long enough to write it down."

Cassady would also hang out at 710 in 1967, sleeping in the attic. Jon McIntire recalled, "Neal Cassady was around a lot, really a lot. He would kind of live up in the attic. There wasn't really a floor in the attic; there were just boards that were laid down. I remember at one point, Cassady's foot came through the ceiling. He slipped and his foot came down into Pigpen's room." 

Tom Wolfe was struck that "Cassady never stops talking...he doesn't seem to care whether anyone is listening or not. He just goes off on the monologue, by himself if necessary, although anyone is welcome aboard. He will answer all questions...spinning off memories, metaphors, literary, Oriental, hip allusions, all punctuated by the unlikely expression, 'you understand.'"

The band members also experienced the terror of driving with him at top speed through San Francisco traffic, expecting to die at any moment since Cassady didn’t stop for anything. Garcia - who'd already come close to death in one car crash - gave a typical account: "When you went riding with him, it was to be as afraid as you could be, to be in fear for your life... You'd be racing through San Francisco at 50 or 60 miles an hour, up and down those streets with blind corners everywhere and he'd cut around them in the wrong lane and make insane moves in the most intense traffic situations and you'd just be amazed that people weren't getting killed... And while he was doing this he'd be talking to everybody in the car at once and dialing in the radio and fumbling with a roach."

One of the last times Cassady met the Dead was in October '67, just after Mickey Hart joined, when they were rehearsing at the temple next to the Fillmore. Cassady stopped by and rapped to the new member Mickey during the rehearsal (making him nervous), then roughly shook Bill’s arm, asking, “Are you loose, Bill?”  By then, The Dead were already working on Weir's new song, "That's It For The Other One," though the familiar first verse wouldn't appear until February 3, 1968 (the day Cassady died).

Without even meaning too, Cassady's influence essentially created the Dead of the jam and the tapers and the followers, a cult, if you will, that had Jerry not passed would carry on to this day.