Neal Cassady and the Denver Pot Scene

by Zack Kopp

On the Road author Jack Kerouac once said, “War will be impossible when marijuana becomes legal.” The Beat Generation was a rootless gang, but no matter how far they rambled, in what frenetic cross country zigzags or South American adventures in search of psychotropic vines, most writers so-called were profoundly affected in one way or another by a young man from Denver named Neal Cassady (1926 –1968). Neal came from the west to Columbia U seeking knowledge in the winter of 1946 only to thrill and inspire the New York crowd with his untutored zest. From his first fictionalized appearance, as Hart Kennedy in John Clellon Holmes’s Go, Neal Cassady was characterized as someone full of conversational zing and seemingly possessed of a superhuman ability to manage interpersonal interaction. In On the Road, Jack gave him the name Dean Moriarty, taking note of Neal’s momentous urgency as a personality driven to constant progress—“because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars . . .” Cassady is also an example of a noteworthy American citizen prosecuted under unfair laws prohibiting cannabis use.

Neal, who grew up partly in a flophouse on Larimer Street as the “unnatural son of a few score beaten men” left Denver in 1946, eventually settling in California, where he got a job working as a brakeman on the SP Depot Railroad. One afternoon in 1958, he traded two sticks of pot to two narcs posing as fellow brakies for a ride home from work. The agents knew Neal was the inspiration for the character from On the Road who’d come to symbolize nonconformity—it was a setup—and he ended up serving a couple of years in San Quentin. Adding insult to injury, Neal’s pot bust occurred during a time when he was trying earnestly to be a good husband and father to his wife and three children after the first rush of notoriety and effectively prevented this ambition, making him an early martyr for sensible cannabis laws in the United States. Shortly after getting out of prison, Neal fell in with a crowd of Stanford students and grads including One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest author and self-made superhero Ken Kesey, and remained at the forefront of countercultural activity in the United States as designated driver of Kesey’s Magic Bus Furthur (sic). Cassady drove Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters from Acid Test to Acid Test beginning in 1964, yakking incessantly through a loudspeaker, flipping sledgehammers shirtless at all the pit-stops, embodying a living bridge from the previous hip scene to the current.

After leaving Denver in 1947, Neal never returned beyond brief visits to his dad, Neal Sr. and his stepbrothers, Jack and Ralph Daly, but the genes are still jumping. I talked about Neal’s status as a martyr for pot smokers via his set up and imprisonment this summer with his “illegitimate” granddaughter and grandson, Vera and Henry Hyatt. Regarding Colorado’s recent legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use, Vera said, “I wonder how he’d feel, if Neal were here today. I don’t think he would have liked it . . . the legalization, I mean.”

“I’d like to think that Neal’s perspective on things is irrespective of anyone else’s,” commented Henry.

“Yeah, he didn’t get hooked into things,” agreed Vera.

The recent legalization of cannabis use in Colorado and Washington, with several other states primed for inclusion in the trend, allows users to differentiate among strains as to their likely effect, be it calming or invigorating. As one emulating the French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s edict to disarrange the senses in search of the holy IT of True Art, at a time in United States cultural history when this pragmatic skill set was unavailable to the layperson, Neal may have chalked the difference in sensation down to mood or circumstance. After settling down to the earnest effort of homesteading in Los Gatos, California, presumably T played the role of an emollient, something to soothe him after work at the depot. His aspirations to familyhood effectively dashed after being targeted and jailed for his alter ego’s counter-establishment infamy, after getting busted, Neal gave up the effort to elude his typecasting and went all the way as a spokesman for sensory derangement, driving the Merry Pranksters’ multicolored bus. This reporter hopes the trend toward sensible legislation will continue unabated, thus preventing further flame-outs for the uninstructed.

Author Zack Kopp’s The Denver Beat Scene was published in February of this year by The History Press. After New York and San Francisco, Denver is one of the most important cities in the Beat movement. From Cassady’s childhood home on Larimer and Elbert Elementary, which Neal reminisced about in his posthumously published The First Third, to My Brother’s Bar (formerly Paul’s Place) on 15th and Platte, to the short-lived former Kerouac residence in Lakewood, Beat Historian and published novelist Zack Kopp pairs narrative history of the era and movement with a stop-by-stop guide to Beat hot spots in and around Denver as a nerve center for cultural change as reflected in its literary scene and spoken word community.

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