Saturday, September 21, 2013

R.I.P. Carolyn Cassady

Beat Generation icon Carolyn Cassady passed away yesterday at her home in London.

Back in 2006, I had the honor of meeting and interviewing her in San Francisco for an article about the opening of an exhibit that featured the original scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.”

She was a very humble, down to earth and classy lady, and I had the pleasure of getting to know several members of her family as well, all great people.

In tribute to Carolyn, here is the text of my original articles that were published in March of 2006 by the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“On The Road Manuscript on Display in San Francisco”

Written over the course of three manic weeks back in 1951, Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel “On the Road” became a watershed in American literature, launched the author’s long-fermenting writing career, and helped define a generation of disaffected Americans, later to be dubbed the Beats.

Not published until 1957, the book chronicles the wild travels and exploits of characters Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, which were based in part on the author and his friend Neal Cassady. 

When the original manuscript was pounded out in a New York City apartment at a feverish rate, according to legend the session was fueled by amphetamines along with Kerouac’s naturally racing mind. To enable himself to write without the interruption of constantly changing single sheets of paper, he taped together long strips to create what eventually became a nearly 120-foot long scroll—which has itself become an iconic symbol of artistic rebellion and modern literature.

A 36 foot section of the scroll is currently on display at the San Francisco Public Library, along with an extensive collection of photographs and artifacts that tell the story behind one of the most famous books of the 20th century. 

The scroll was bought at auction in 2001 by Indianapolis Colts owner James Irsay for $2.43 million, and has been on an 18 city tour across the United States since 2004. The opening ceremony for the San Francisco exhibition drew a variety of visitors, including some of the central figures in the Beat world, such as Carolyn Cassady and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

“The exhibition brings back a lot of memories, I think it’s very well done,” said Cassady. “It’s always very strange for me because I just loved two men who were bums, really,” she added, laughing. 

Cassady perhaps knew these men better than anybody else—she was married to Neal Cassady, and had a relationship with Kerouac for a period of time as well. Back then, however, she was often more concerned with the challenging demands of raising three children than thinking about the literary aspirations of the men around her.

“We had no idea anything like this would ever happen, I mean, I wouldn’t have even read Kerouac’s books if I hadn’t known him. I thought he was a brilliant writer, but the subject matter is not my kind. So I really was sort of the mother—‘now don’t you do that!’ I think that’s why they came back all the time, they were nice little Catholic boys who had to be punished, and I served that purpose,” she chuckled.

Cassady published a well-received book of her own in 1990—a collection of memories about her life with the Beats appropriately titled ‘Off the Road’—and she has been at work revising and adding material for an updated edition due out next year. She has also been involved with the long-time coming production of the film version of “On the Road” that is also tentatively set for a 2007 release.

When Irsay took possession of the manuscript, he hired Jim Canary, head conservator at Indiana University’s Lily Library, to look after the scroll. Canary, who specializes in Tibetan scrolls and artifacts, said that the offer was one he couldn’t refuse.

“To me, it’s been like a dream opportunity. I was a big fan of Kerouac and Gary Snyder, and I hitchhiked out here in ’71 for the first time, and it was because of reading ‘Dharma Bums.’”

The scroll, which is unfurled in a long and narrow glass case for protection, is showing signs of it’s age; the edges are tattered in certain sections, it’s color is turning a brown-yellow, and shoddy repairs made by somebody in the past stand out in a few spots. 

But for all it’s physical imperfections, the manuscript is still very much a thing of beauty— the beginning of the novel is slightly different than that of the published book, the handwritten corrections and notes in pencil made by Kerouac glean a look into his thoughts about editing, and the overall feeling of Kerouac attempting to capture in words what joy, kicks, and darkness he saw in life around him practically emanates from the scroll.

Ferlinghetti, who in addition to his own works of poetry helped spread the word of his generation as the owner of City Lights Books, hopes the high profile resurgence of interest in “On the Road” can be a positive force in modern society.

“With the state of America today, the world needs a Beat message more than ever: anti-materialistic, anti-militaristic, anti-consumer culture. If the Beats were alive today they would be totally against this technocratic consciousness. The country could use a touch of Buddhist contemplation.”

“Child of The Beats Embraces Her Legacy.”

As a young child growing up in San Francisco and Los Gatos, Jami Cassady didn’t know anything about her father Neal Cassady other than simply that—that he was her dad. 

He went to work for the railroad during the day, came home to play with her and her siblings, took her to ballet classes, gave her presents for her birthday; all things that a normal father and daughter relationship would have. She had no idea about the side of Neal that would later be canonized in Jack Kerouac’s books and made him a counter-culture hero to the Beat generation and the hippie followers of Ken Kesey—the Neal Cassady that drove across the country in search of adventure, that had multiple lovers, that was in and out of jail—and worked for a short time at the Hip Pocket, the precursor to Bookshop Santa Cruz. To Jami Cassady, who now lives in Capitola, he was just ‘Dad.’

“I knew absolutely nothing,” Cassady says. “Now that I’ve read mom’s book, I go, ‘Oh! That was going on?’”

The book she refers to is “Off The Road,” by her mother, Carolyn Cassady—one that gives a behind the scenes look at the real life events that inspired much of Kerouac’s writing.

“He tried so hard to be our dad, and that’s all we knew, was he was our dad. It wasn’t as romantic or exciting as it seems now,” she laughs. “Reading my mom’s book, I learned way more about it than I ever really knew.”

As for Kerouac, who often visited the Cassady household both before and after the publication of “On the Road,” Jami thought of him as ‘Uncle Jack’ and remembers him often sitting in their living room reading a book.

“He was just always there, and he’d go sleep out in the backyard with a railroad lantern and stuff. You know you don’t even think…my mom never ever wanted us to know anything about any of these people. When I grew up, and when dad was in San Quentin for two years, she told us he was on a railroad trip. I was 10 years old—who are you going to believe? I had no idea.”

Aside from some experiences in the 1960’s with Neal and his associates in the Merry Pranksters, Jami never really delved into her father’s or Kerouac’s legacies until fairly recently, when she was asked to take part in a reading commemorating the fortieth anniversary of “Big Sur” in 2001.

“That was the first time that I actually read one of the books was for this thing. That was the first time that I went, ‘This is part of my legacy, I’d better start getting up on it,’ so then I really started getting into it. We just started saying, ‘Hey, this is a huge, fabulous wonderful thing,’ and it’s just amazing, the legacy of the literature. Now they can’t stop me,” she laughs. “Now my mother writes me and goes, ‘You know more people than I do, what the heck?’”

In addition to reading and learning about her family’s history, and those of their literary friends, Jami also collects as much memorabilia on the subject as she can. Indeed, an entire corner of one room in her house is devoted to the collection; it is a virtual Beat museum in and of itself. Books, pictures, CDs, buttons, videos, posters and other knick knacks fill a large bookcase and line the walls. Some items have been given to her by people she meets at events celebrating the Beats, some she and her husband Randy have picked up on their travels.

Certain pieces are more personal, such as book, “To a Young Dancer” by Agnes De Mille, who was a famous choreographer that Jami looked up to when taking ballet. The tome was a gift to her from her father for her 15th birthday, and on the inside cover, in his unmistakable handwriting is inscribed, “To Jami, 1/26/65. Wishing you a big happy 15th, but more, wishing you a big life long happy.”

Although Neal Cassady, who would have turned 80 on February 8th, struggled with drinking and drugs, and died in 1968 at the early age of 41, Jami was relieved when her father passed on.
“We were really glad that he finally got to go because he was not happy, he was very unhealthy, and it was time. He was tired, very tired. And he had to live up to all this…” pointing to the books chronicling his exploits—or at least a fictionalized version thereof that many people weren’t able to differentiate from the real Neal Cassady.

“He hated that, he hated that he was in “On the Road”—‘That’s not me, I’m not like that.’”
She points to his book “The First Third” as a way to get to know the real person behind the mythical fa├žade.
“This is the book that made me know my father. I’m glad he got to write that.”

Raised in a family that strongly believes in reincarnation, Jami seems certain that the loving spirit of Neal Cassady lives on to this day. A smile comes to her face while she gazes over the assorted pictures of her dad, and she says, “He’s still here.”

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