Friday, December 08, 2006

Cowboy Neal Was At The Wheel

In The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, one of my favorite chapters is from philosopher Gary Ciocco and deals with the relation between the rise of the Beats in the 50s and the hippie culture surrounding the Grateful Dead in the 60s. Gary argues that the progression from the Beats to the scene around the Dead come directly out of the broader trends in American thought, particularly the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the pragmatism of William James.

While I'll leave the philosophy to Gary in the book, there was certainly more than a tenuous intellectual-heritage based link between the Beats and Dead; there was, in fact, deep personal contact. Many of the Beats were living in San Francisco and figures like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg were not strangers to those there at the start of the hippie movement. Indeed, they had a direct causal influence on the band. "I" and I were lucky enough to talk with both Bob Weir and Dennis McNally (Grateful Dead publicist, biographer of Jack Kerouac and Jerry Garcia, and a Ph.D. in history) about this connection.

In Dennis' words,

The essential fact biographically and historically is that Jerry Garcia at the age of 15 started attending Saturday classes at the San Francisco Art Institute which brought him into North Beach. This was 1957, which is to say the year when On The Road was on the best sellers list. Now, his teacher was a man named Wally Heider who was by any measure a bohemian/Beatnik, who said to himself and to them -- them being Jerry and a friend of his -- "You know, you're more Beat than I am. You ought to go down to City Lights bookstore and read this book On the Road and check out things." He was the role model that Jerry Garcia, who was this fatherless young man, was looking for, whether he was conscious of it or not and an architect that he embraced for the rest of his life.

The reason he selected me as his biographer is that he liked my approach to Kerouac. He was very conscious of the historical progression. You have this group of disaffected artists in the 50s, the so-called Beats, and he's part of the next wave in the 60s. He was always more of a Beatnik than a hippie in a lot of ways, despite people thinking of him as the ultimate hippie.

The most obvious distinction between the groups is that the people in the Beatnik scene were more literary. There are a few books that can be associated with hippies, but by in large, it is not a literary culture, it is a visual and electronic culture. It was more literary and more small group oriented. So much of what happened in the hippie scene was associated with large groups, particularly concerts. The Beat scene was geared to jazz and only later rock and roll.
But the strongest link between the two groups was Neal Cassady, the man who was Kerouac's model for Dean Moriarity in On the Road appearing also in Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. The man who served as the muse for the Beats, went on to join Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters which is where he became a close friend and intellectual inspiration for the next generation of young rebelliousus artists thinking about loosing the strict bonds of puritanical American culture. Where many at the time were metaphorically "on the bus," it was Neal Cassady who quite literally drove the bus.

Again, Dennis McNally,
What made the Grateful Dead unique, always, and oddly enough this folds back on Neal, too, was that they brought the improvisational sensibility of jazz to rock and roll which had always been three minutes, theatrical entertainment music. They stretched it out and added a level of intellectualism in terms of playing in the same way that Dylan intellectualized lyric writing.

It is said of Neal that he could hold separate and on-going conversations with a whole circle of people, seven or eight people, almost like spinning the dial on a television set. He would literally talk his way around the circle and in some case resume conversations that he had been having with them a year before, never missing a beat.

His consciousness was a most unusual and peculiar thing. To many people, he was a madman. You needed to get where he was to appreciate it.

His great practice, in the sense of a Zen of a practice, a spiritual practice, was driving a car. Phil Lesh swears that one time they were driving from Palo Alto to San Francisco just as a ballgame was getting let out at Candlestick Park which is about not about halfway, but right on the highway. And when the game lets out, traffic is gridlocked around the Park. Neil somehow drove through the gridlock, simply morphed the cars around him. These things all sound slightly mad and yet they were so.

Neal was an example of how far you could take it. If you see consciousness as an on and off thing, Neal's schtick was to take consciousness to a point where it was on all the time, to understand that there are multiple layers to reality and to engage in all of them. Not only as a driver, he was Jack's example of someone who had taken the energy of the American west, the essential energy of America and taken it all the way.
When asked about his remembrances of "Cowboy Neal," Bob Weir put it this way,
Neal was easily the most amazing human being I've ever met. But it goes well beyond that. Neal taught me to drive, for instance.

Neal could drive 60 miles per hour through rush hour traffic in San Francisco, never stopping for a stop sign or red light. He was on the wrong side of the road a lot, but he could see around corners. Or, at least he knew what was happening around those corners and it was no problem for him. At the same time he had one hand on the wheel, one hand in his girlfriend's pants, and one hand playing with the buttons on the radio...and having a dialogue with whatever you were thinking. I've never met anyone else who could do that.

It made you ready for about anything; which was Neal's deal, he was ready for anything. That did rub off. The Grateful Dead took up and carried that banner.

I'm not sure that Neal was typical of all Beats, for that matter. He was completely singular. He hung with a lot of Beats because they could hear the music there, but really, he was one of a kind. I met a lot of Beats, Allen Ginsberg, for instance, but I don't know if they were typical of the Beats either because they were guys who got conscripted by the psychedelic movement and that was different. They came from the Beat background and they spoke the language. We all learned the language and learned the approach -- the open minded approach -- but, then the psychedelic movement came by and it was open minded squared or cubed.
Taught to drive by Neal Cassady? Remind me not to put Bob Weir behind the wheel...probably safest if one were "lost now on the country miles," I suppose.