Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Neal Cassady’s death. The Beat Generation icon is best-known as the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. However, although that portrayal of him will forever remain the definitive one, there was more to this man than Kerouac’s classic presents. Even a cursory glance at Kerouac’s other books show a more complex individual, and that’s before we get into recollections by his ex-wife Carolyn, or other friends and acquaintances like Allen Ginsberg, who knew both the man and the myth.
Cassady was born on February 8th, 1926, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He grew up in Denver, mostly, but also saw California with his unemployed train-hopping father. Rumors abound about Cassady’s difficult upbringing. He supposedly stole five hundred cars, slept with as many women, and certainly spent time behind bars for his juvenile delinquency. However, like other Beat figures with tough backgrounds, he yearned for knowledge as much as chaos, and set about educating himself in more than car-theft.
This thirst for intellectual companionship brought him into the lives of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. He was immensely influential over the lives of the first two. In Cassady, Kerouac found not only a muse but a brother, and Ginsberg somehow convinced himself that Cassady – devout heterosexual – would somehow switch teams and spend his life as Allen’s lover.
For years, Cassady’s life was a thread joining together stories from the Beat Generation, and when that movement dissipated and the countercultural movement evolved into the hippie scene of the 1960s, Cassady found himself sought after by the generation. He was soon driving Ken Kesey’s Prankster bus, Furthur, and inspiring the Grateful Dead’s music.
Infamy brought Cassady unwanted and destructive attention, and like his “brother,” Kerouac, his life went rapidly downhill during the sixties. He died of exposure on a railway track in Mexico on February 4th, 1968, a year and a half before Kerouac succumbed to alcohol. They both died tragically young, pushed to the edge by notoriety.