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Denver's "On the Road" Icon Celebrated at The Merc

On Sat. Jan. 30, the seventh annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash is at the Mercury Cafe.

Cassady took center stage as a Beat Generation character in Jack Kerouac's novel, "On the Road."

In 2011 and 2013, the City and County of Denver officially declared the date of the event "Neal Cassady Day".

The event celebrates Cassady's legacy through poetry, prose,  personal recollections and music.

On Sat. Jan. 30, the seventh annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash takes place at the Mercury Cafe, celebrating the legacy of the Beat Generation icon through poetry, prose, personal recollections and music.
In 2011 and 2013, the City and County of Denver officially declared the date of the event "Neal Cassady Day" -- even though the poster for 2013's Birthday Bash features what appears to be a Denver police mug shot of a smirking, teenage Cassady.

Neal Cassady: A juvenile delinquent Denver car thief and smooth-tongued, lifelong Lothario. A quick-talking Western figure who inspired some of the most inspirational literature of the mid-20th century, taking center stage as a Beat Generation character within Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road, and as the "secret hero" of Allen Ginsberg's poem, Howl. A California railroad brakeman, who never missed a day of work while supporting his wife and children, before a disastrous marijuana bust sent him to prison in San Quentin for just over two years. A somewhat abrasive, as well as charismatic, cohort of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, famously driving the Pranksters' bus Further across the USA -- a tale told within Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as the documentary film, Magic Trip. Dead in Mexico on February 4, 1968 (if he had live four more days, he would have turned 42). Author of The First Third, a posthumous collection of his writings, first published in 1971.Cassady took center stage as a Beat Generation character in Jack Kerouac's novel, "On the Road."

"Neal's the most influential pop culture figure to ever come out of Colorado," says event organizer Mark Bliesener, citing Cassady's impact on Beat literature, the jazz-inflected writing which would influence the course, as well as scope, of rock music (e.g. influencing Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead). Still Bliesener acknowledges, "A lot of people in Denver are unaware of him."

The 2015 documentary Neal Cassady: The Denver Yearfocuses on how Cassady spent part of his childhood living in flophouses with his father, a Larimer Street barber and skid-row alcoholic. And how, as a young adult, Cassady drew his New York literary friends Kerouac and Ginsberg to our city. (Years later, Ginsberg would co-found Boulder's Naropa University.) The documentary seems especially sensitive to his family's perceptions of him, yet it's an admirable, at times unflinching, telling of Cassady's difficult childhood and how his artistic spirit continues to inspire people at all elevations. A recommended film.

This year's Birthday Bash will once again feature music from jazz and symphonic composer David Amram, who remembers Cassady not as the manic "Dean Moriarty" of On the Road but as "someone who loved writing, loved life, loved people. He said it was hard for him to deal with people having a picture of him that had nothing to do with what he was about."

Cassady's daughter Jami will balance her father's wayward reputation with her own fond, familial remembrances. Bob Hyatt, a Denver man who discovered at age 66 that his biological father was Cassady, will demonstrate how the Cassady genes have surprisingly manifested themselves within his own life. (An evocative profile of Hyatt, as well as scads of local Beat Generation lore, is contained within the book The Denver Beat Scene by Zack Kopp.)The event celebrates Cassady's legacy through poetry, prose, personal recollections and music.

Grateful Dead fans: You won't hear much about Cassady's experiences with the Merry Pranksters at a Birthday Bash. (The band, then The Warlocks, played LSD-saturated, mid-'60s "Acid Tests" attended by Cassady.) One comes away with the distinct impression Cassady's children, who feature prominently at the Birthday Bash events, still have uncomfortable, if not outright hostile, feelings about that psychedelic aspect of their father's life.

Still, the late novelist Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, said about Cassady in Boulder in 1994, "He was the greatest man I ever expect to know." Fellow Merry Prankster Ken Babbs has observed, "He had a great moral compass in terms of trying to do the right thing even though he was constantly screwing up."

There seems to be a tug of war over Cassady's legacy between those closest to him and the world at large: Was he a pot-smoking, acid-head, speedfreak sex fiend or a family man devoted to his wife and children?

Of course, there's no reason the answer can't be both.

And that's no reason for Denver not to officially celebrate its historical icon.

Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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