Jul 27, 2016

The Dead on Neal Cassady

This collection of quotes is an appendix to the Neal Cassady article here:

Jerry Garcia:
“Neal Cassady, meeting him was tremendously thrilling. He was a huge influence on me in ways I can't really describe...lots of things, though, kind of musical things in a way — rhythm, you know, motion, timing. I mean Neal was a master of timing. He was like a 12th-dimensional Lenny Bruce in a way, some kind of cross between a great stand-up comedian like Lenny Bruce and somebody like Buster Keaton. He had this great combination of physical poetry and an incredible mind. He was a model for the idea that a person can become art by himself, that you don't necessarily even need a forum.”

“It wasn’t as if he said, ‘Jerry, my boy, the whole ball of wax happens here and now.’ It was watching him move, having my mind blown by how deep he was, how much he could take into account in any given moment and be really in time with it. He helped us be the kind of band we are, a concert not a studio band… He presented a model of how far you could take yourself with the most minimal resources. Neal had no tools. He didn’t even have work. He had no focus, really. His focus was just himself and time.”  
(Plummer, Holy Fool, p.144-45)   

“The reality of Cassady was so much more incredible [than in On the Road]. He was so much more than anybody could get down on paper. As incredible as he was as a fictional character, the reality was more incredible.
There's no experience in my life yet that equals riding with Cassady in like a '56 Plymouth or a Cadillac through San Francisco or from San Jose to Santa Rosa. He was like...the ultimate person as art. Not only did he play into his own myth, but he also played into you specifically.
He knew your trips — he knew who you were, like a person in a book. He had this uncanny ability to pick up a conversation where it stopped, even if it had been six months before. I mean right where it stopped. And he could do it with like a half dozen people at the same time. He was just incredible — there is really nothing like Cassady.
Plus, he was the ultimate sight gag. The most incredible wit and rap. And the most incredible physical body — I saw him do things that were at the level of like Buster Keaton, in terms of physicality and timing. Only in the real world.
He was so much larger than life. You know, he used to have this thing where you'd take a dollar bill out and he would holler out the serial number on it. And every once in a while he'd get it right. No shit. Your mind would be so blown. There was nothing like him.
Just the privilege of seeing him talk to a cop: There were times when we got pulled over in the bus and a cop would talk to Cassady. And Cassady had this incredible ability to mind-fuck the police. He'd instantly turn into this humble guy — "Hey, I'm just taking these college kids around. I'm a working man myself." And he'd have his wallet out, and they were asking him for a driver's license. He'd have his life story out. You know, a wallet this thick with stuff — little clippings and pictures and all kinds of shit. And pretty soon the cops would say, "Oh, fuck it!" A lot of people couldn't handle him, and a lot of people were scared to death of him. They thought he was totally crazy. And a lot of people would dismiss him because he didn't cop center stage. He would have a little side show going on over here. You'd ignore it as long as possible, but you'd sort of get sucked in, and pretty soon, wham! — there you are in this world. If you went for it, it was incredible. But he'd never lay it on you. It was one of those things you sort of had to volunteer for. I had incredible experiences with him. He blew my mind hundreds and thousands of times.”

“It’s hard to even know what to say about Cassady. He had an incredible mind. You might not see him for months and he would pick up exactly where he left off the last time he saw you; like in the middle of a sentence! You’d go, ‘What? What the…’ and then you’d realize, ‘Oh yeah, this is that story he was telling me last time.’ It was so mind-boggling you couldn’t believe that he was doing it…
If you’d go for a drive with him it was like the ultimate fear experience. You knew you were going to die, there was no question about it. He loved big Detroit irons – big cars. Driving in San Francisco he would go down those hills like at 50 or 60 miles an hour and do blind corners, disregarding anything – stop signs, signals, all the time talking to you and maybe fumbling around with a little teeny roach, trying to put it in a matchbook, and also tuning the radio maybe, and also talking to whoever else was in the car. And seeming to never put his eyes on the road. You’d just be dying. It would effectively take you past that cold fear of death thing. It was so incredible…
He was the first person I met who he himself was the art. He was an artist and he was the art also. He was doing it consciously, as well. He worked with the world… He scared a lot of people. A lot of people thought he was crazy. A lot of people were afraid of him. Most people I know didn’t understand him at all. But he was like a musician in a way.” 
(Jackson, Garcia, p.93)

“We all saw different aspects in Neal. He’d show different aspects of himself to everybody. He was able to refer to lots and lots of different things in one conversation. He had lots of levels going. Some of them you knew about, some of them you didn’t know about, but there was continuity there... He filled the role of the person you go to for advice… We were all malleable. He was the guy speaking to us from the pages of Kerouac. He was a breeze, some kind of incredible super-American mythos personality blasting through the highways of 1947 America.” 
(This Is All A Dream We Dreamed, p.29)

“A guy like Neal Cassady would leave writers or speakers or literal thinkers or rationalists really crazy and they would say, 'He's crazy' - they would dismiss him as crazy. [But] in my mind, Neal Cassady was the complete communicator - he was the 100% communicator. The guy always had it, always had a stream going, and you could always jump right on it and be right in it. And he would always take into account that you were there. He was a model of a completely far-out guy.”
Mountain Girl:
"And he was personally responsible for a lot of people getting high, and ripping girls out of their suburban homes - boldly going in and plucking them off of the street and putting them in his car and taking them off and completely blowing their minds, changing their minds totally, and from that day on they'd be different people. He had a fantastic power over people, and it was all benign."
(Signpost to New Space, p.31-32)

Phil Lesh: 
“He was the only person I ever knew who resembled what they used to call a saint, someone who could be a role model for the real spiritual life. It may seem incongruous… He was a saint for us; he was a saint for me. He showed by example how to live in the weirdest possible way. He inspired weirdness, among many other things… It wasn’t so much the energy he represented – it was the articulation of that energy into meaning. It was like he had a field around him that reached far away from him and made things happen before he got there physically… Neal [in a] car full of people, feelin’ up a chick in the back, drivin’ with one hand, playin’ the radio, going through this traffic. Everybody else was doing three miles an hour, and Neal was doing twenty. He knew they’d get out of his way, just like he always knew whether or not there was a car around the corner when he went around it on the wrong side of the street with two wheels up on the sidewalk…
It wasn’t just his rap, which was incredibly funny, and it wasn’t just how interesting he was. When Neal was rapping, not only was he talking to everybody in the car at once – four or five people – but he was also driving the car and playing what we used to call ‘Radio I Ching.’ Every time he hit the button, whatever came out of the radio made sense with what he was saying or was otherwise complementary to what was going on.
There was nothing facile about him. Neal was always full on, and there was never any bullshit. He had the least bullshit coming out of him of anybody I’ve ever seen. Even in my wildest dreams I don’t believe that everybody’s supposed to live like that, but I’d say he defined the cultural phenomenon that started in the fifties and is still reverberating now. He just personified it. He was like a great artist whose art form was his life.” 
(Gans, Playing in the Band, p.42-44) 

Bob Weir: 
“He seemed to live in another dimension, and in that dimension time as we know it was transparent.” “Neal used to be able to drive through downtown San Francisco at rush hour at around 55 miles an hour, never stopping for a stoplight or a stop sign or anything like that. Nobody could figure out how he could do it. He was an amazing man.” “He could see around corners – I don’t know how to better describe it… He was one of our teachers, as well as a playmate... If there was something on your mind, if you had a problem or an observation...you'd bring it to Neal...you'd bounce it off him; and it sure as hell would bounce.” “We’re all siblings, we’re all underlings to this guy Neal Cassady. He had a guiding hand…”  
(Gans, Playing in the Band, p.43 / This Is A Dream We All Dreamed, p.29 / McNally, Long Strange Trip, p.108, 357)

Bill Kreutzmann:  
“Cassady was famous for his ability to hold seven conversations at once while doing a dozen other things and, like a master juggler, never drop a ball... He was always really wired, juggling conversations, sledgehammers, girls, and drugs – all at once, although nobody could keep count. He was jazz personified… Just watching him, in his everyday life, was like watching an action film – comic, adventurous, frantic… Neal was a true showman and we were his audience. He was always good for a laugh.” 
(Kreutzmann, Deal, p.39, 51, 56)

Sara Garcia: 
“I came to love the man dearly, but at first I found him very intimidating. It wasn’t until the Big Beat Acid Test that I really came to appreciate him. That was the night I saw him do that thing where he could tune into everybody’s reality. He had an extraordinary gift. He really was a ‘Martian policeman,’ as he called himself. Doing his monologue with a hammer – juggling a hammer – and talking. And somehow managing to touch everybody in this circle of people watching him, to call each of them on their trip or let them know what they were thinking and could never say. He was a genius, maybe psychopathic. Probably really psychic and a brilliant psychologist. And a very gentle soul. A very compassionate person, although he would always head for the medicine cabinet and help himself to whatever you had.” 
(Gans/Jackson, This Is All A Dream We Dreamed, p.30) 

Rock Scully: 
“I would liken him to a poet. He was always spouting off quotes from his most recent reading. He did it in a musical way with the rest of the room even if no one was listening. He would also juggle with the sounds of the room and with what other people were doing. He could have several things going on at the same time. He was very off the cuff and very avant-garde. He was a day ahead in any conversation. He never forgot a road he had driven. He could go through these amazing turns and look at you and never look at the road. He had feelings and eyes in back of his head… Driving was his specialty. It was amazing because he rarely had his eyes on the road, but he was a great driver. Driving was just one of the things he did while he was talking and juggling all kinds of stuff.” 
(Troy, One More Saturday Night, p.109-110)

Dave Parker:
"He was a unique individual, for sure, and anybody that was that filled with energy and that much in motion all the time was never easy to be around. You had to balance right there on the edge to stay with it. He came around the house on Waverly a few times and I got to hear his amazing raps on a few occasions, and I had the rare privilege of driving with him around Palo Alto one time. He had this Zen driving technique where he would just fire right on through whatever was in the way. If there was traffic, it didn't matter. I remember one time he drove up on this sidewalk and there was a space between a telephone pole and a building that was wide enough for the car to go through with maybe six inches on either side, and he just whizzed through there. Talk about edge of your seat! But everything with him always happened so fast he'd be onto the next thing by the time you figured out what you'd just experienced. He was a fascinating guy to be around, but a difficult guy to spend a lot of time with because he was so exhausting; who could keep up with that?"

Robert Hunter:
“He used to visit me a lot. He paid me the compliment of saying that when he goes to New York he visits Bill Burroughs, and when he comes out here he hangs out at my house. I don't know; he was probably just trying to get some bennies and some camels off me. That's all Neal ever wanted, was a benny and a pack of camels.
He would sit there and I'd come in and hand him a microphone or something like that, so I had a lot of that on tape. I subsequently lost those tapes, but he did one tape that I would play, and I’d swear that every time I played that tape that there would be a different conversation with me on it. He was flying circles above me. I said, 'I have a book on that subject.' He says, 'he would' - and not in a put-down way, but it was true - I would, you know. Listening to that, I hear myself kind of bumbling around with what appeared to be a seventy-eyed creature. I was Flakey Foont to his Mr. Natural there.
He was Mr. Natural for us. He would say things and if you had him on tape and could listen back, you could hear replies you hadn't heard - multi-faceted replies. The man was phenomenal, a phenomenal brain. He was a wonderful guy...
I tell you, it was hard not to be Neal after he was around. He was such a master of any social situation that you would learn it yourself, and when he was away it would take weeks before you would stop being Neal. This was true of all of us. It was a way of handling a lot of communications. [imitates Neal speech] And you could do it, and it would create the same impression on other people when you were being Neal as Neal would create on you when he was being himself. Bradley Hodgman [one of Neal's friends] was our best stand-in Neal when Neal wasn't around. He and Ann Murphy would go at it just as though he was Neal. He was such a type that you could get him down; an original.
He had a dynamic life, and it was just packed. He just enjoyed the hell out of it. As long as he could get a pack of camels and a benny, he was cool. Never shot any stuff, he was just an all-time benny man.
Driving with him was such an experience. Of course you've heard that story a million times, I'm sure. But it was sooo frightening because he would depend on his radar, and I didn't have that radar and couldn't relax. I finally swore that I'd never drive with that madman again. He'd have your hair standing on end, and destroy your car too! He'd run right through that thing, man.”
(Relix, vol.5 no.2, May 1978)

On Neal's raps: 
Darby Slick: “To listen to him was to be roller-coastered... It was like listening to someone talk improvised poetry, so fast and strong that it...hurt my brain.” (Deadhead's Taping Compendium, p.141)
Paul Foster: “[Neal’s rap was] interesting, voluminous, humorous, often rhyming, and intimidatingly encyclopedic in that he was enormously well read and could handle simultaneously eight channels of audio interchange, including items from all radios and televisions he had turned on, random street noise, conversations within earshot, and several secret thoughts, it would all enter the fabric…of his rap.” (McNally, Long Strange Trip, p.108)

One incident that struck the Dead was after the Watts acid test, when Cassady knocked over a stop sign and tried to prop it back up - it's described in Deal, p.51, Searching for the Sound, p.80-81, and Jerry on Jerry p.133-34, as well as Garcia's "Behind the Wheel with Neal" foreword to Paul Perry & Ken Babbs' book On The Bus.
Riding on a truck with Cassady through a blizzard to the Portland acid test also left a big impression on Lesh & Pigpen - see Searching for the Sound, p.72, and This Is All A Dream We Dreamed, p.31.

See also: 
McNally, Jerry on Jerry, p.128-141 - Garcia's extended musings on Cassady
Lesh, Searching for the Sound, p.30-31 - Phil's more literary memory
http://www.litkicks.com/BarlowOnNeal - John Barlow's reminiscence


  1. I may add to this later on. Garcia spoke the most about Cassady over the years - I wanted to give a more general view of how the Dead saw him and not turn this entirely into a "Jerry on Neal" collection, but the other guys simply said less about him in print.

    It's notable how they all shared the same impressions of Cassady, to the extent that they have almost more of a group memory of him than individual viewpoints. I think partly this is due to their mostly living together at the time they knew him, so Cassady made an impression on them as a group. He doesn't seem to have hung out with any specific member in the group - and of course we don't know what he thought of them - so I suspect it may have been a more distant relationship on his part, with the band as young admirers more than friends.

    One thing to point out is that all of these quotes are from many years (sometimes decades) after they knew Cassady, so there is a lot of hindsight here. It would have been nice to hear more of them talking about him closer to the time he was alive... As it happens, we do have the lengthy Garcia interview from 1973 (with McNally and Al Aronowitz), which shows that Garcia's thoughts on Cassady didn't change much over the years - he said pretty much the same things about Neal in 1993 that he did in 1973.
    There's also the Pigpen interview from 1970, which is striking since they talk about Neal in the present tense, like he's still alive; Hank Harrison considered him an important figure ("he's got a method to his madness," Hank muses), and Pigpen clearly loved and admired Neal.

    The only Dead member I couldn't find talking about Cassady was Mickey Hart, which is understandable since Mickey only knew him briefly. Mountain Girl knew him for some time, since he picked her up in mid-'64 - I don't think she's specifically talked about him much to interviewers, but she has a number of (brief) comments about different aspects of Cassady in the Holy Goof biography.

    Hunter was asked about meeting Cassady (in the Chateau days) in the April 1980 issue of Dark Star:
    "I didn't know much about him at the time. I hadn't read Kerouac's books, so he didn't mean much to me. He just looked like a grease-monkey to me. It wasn't until later that I got to know him very well. What can you say about him? It's all been said before, there's nothing more to say. You can say the same stuff: 'Gee, wow, what a talker!'"

  2. Ken Kesey on meeting Cassady:
    "He showed up at my place on Perry Lane when I was at Stanford. He arrived in a jeep with a blown transmission, and before I was able to get outside and see what was going on, Cassady had already stripped the transmission down into big pieces. He was talking a mile a minute and there was a crowd of people around him. He never explained why he was there, then or later. He always thought of these events as though he was being dealt cards on a table by hands greater than ours. But that was one of my earliest impressions of him as I watched him running around, this frenetic, crazed character speaking in a monologue that sounded like Finnegan's Wake played fast forward. He had just started to get involved in the drug experiments at the hospital in Menlo Park, as I had. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it could lead to this.’
    I realized then that there was a choice. Cassady had gone down one road. I thought to myself, 'Are you going to go down that road with Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac - at that time still unproven crazies - or are you going to take the safer road that leads to John Updike?'"

    "Cassady was a hustler, a wheeler-dealer, a conniver. He was a scuffler. He never had new clothes but was always clean, and so were his clothes. He always had a toothbrush and was always trying to sell us little things and trying to find a place where he could wash up. Cassady was an elder to me and the other Pranksters, and we knew it. He was literally and figuratively behind the wheel of our bus, driving it the way Charlie Parker worked the saxophone. When he was driving he was improvising an endless monologue about what he was seeing and thinking, what we were seeing and thinking, and what we had seen, thought, and remembered. Proust was his literary hero and he would quote long passages from Proust and Melville from memory, lacing his revelations with passages from the Bible. He was a great teacher and we all knew it and were affected by him."

    "Cassady was a hero to all of us who followed the wild road, the hero who moved us all... He truly impressed me not only as a madman, genius, and poet but also as an avatar - someone in contact with other powers."

  3. The Dead Sources site is on hiatus until November. I'm sorry for the wait!

  4. At the start of this 1991 interview, Garcia & Weir talk quite a bit about Neal as a father figure to them:

    This was partly quoted in the book This Is All A Dream We Dreamed (p.29). Garcia refers to Cassady's rap that Ken Babbs annotated:
    "Do you want to hear about the annotated Neal Cassady rap at the Straight Theater when we were playing that time, taking everything that Neal says...and annotating what he refers to... In the space of five minutes, there’s like 50 references  - to Rilke’s poetry, or the Penguin edition of Jack Kerouac that he’s got in his pocket. And he’s got Penguin in his pocket, he says first thing."

    Transcript here: https://ia601007.us.archive.org/32/items/gd1967-07-23.aud.sorochty.125462.flac16/TranscriptOfNealCassadysRap.htm

  5. An article from the June 2, 1967 San Francisco Examiner:

    San Rafael police thought they had a load of hot cargo when they stopped a gaudy station wagon done in hippie decor early today.
    Aboard were such notable Haight-Ashbury denizens as the habitual pot fugitive Ken Kesey, the bearded poet Allen Ginsberg, hippie leader Neal Cassady, two members of the rock band called The Grateful Dead, and a couple of girls.
    The car had been swerving erratically and the officers expected to find a batch of LSD and marijuana and the occupants under the influence thereof.
    All that was wrong was a faulty steering gear and the fact that Cassady, the driver, had no operator's license. He was cited."

    1. "Two members of the Grateful Dead"...6/2/67-The GD were in NYC, playing at Cafe AuGo Go.

    2. One of Cassady's skills, it seems, was teleportation.