Jello Biafra, David Amram, Heather Dalton, Nancy Weil and many others converged on Denver to honor the city’s self-proclaimed “unnatural son,” Neal Cassady, the man—immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—who drove the Beat Generation into existence before driving Ken Kesey’s magic bus into the Sixties.
DAY 1: February 8, 2019, Brains Splatter
The Mercury Café in Denver, festooned with colored lights and reflective red Valentine’s hearts, was filled with people of all ages from a variety of backgrounds. They had all converged on Denver, to honor the city’s self-proclaimed “unnatural son,” Neal Leon Cassady, the man—immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—who drove the Beat Generation into existence before driving Ken Kesey’s magic bus into the Sixties.
The organizer of the Neal Cassady Birthday Bash, Mark Bliesener, had a connection to this year’s headliner, Jello Biafra. Years ago, Bliesener provided the Dead Kennedys vocalist and frontman with the name for the band at a time when Jello was optioning suggestions designed to excite mainstream distaste after moving to San Francisco in early 1978. Biafra came this year because of this connection.
I was late, but I managed to wrangle a couple of tables for book sales from staff, one for me and one for Neal Cassady’s son, Robert Hyatt, yet to arrive. I said hello to Heather Dalton, producer and director of the award-winning film, Neal Cassady: The Denver Years, set for another public screening at Denver’s Alamo Drafthouse Tavern on West Colfax the following evening. Narrated in part by local poet Paulie Lipman, based on interviews with Neal’s relatives—from his widow and amanuensis, Carolyn Cassady, to his sons John Allen in California, Bob Hyatt in Denver, and old friends like Al Hinkle and David Amram—hers is the first film to focus specifically on Neal’s roots in Denver, and—until sculptor Sutton Betti builds his statue commemorating Jack and Neal—the sole existing local tribute of any significance to this counterclockwise cultural superhero.
“I wish Kerouac didn’t have to be part of it,” said a bystander, while Betti made his appeal to the crowd. “Yes, I was just thinking that,” responded her companion.
Cassady would seem to have more of a local connection, having grown up in flophouses here with an alcoholic barber father as “the unnatural son of a few score beaten men,” before moving to a slightly better neighborhood a few blocks away to join his mother’s new family when he reached his early teens. He was born in Salt Lake City, though, and he died in Mexico in 1968.
Bliesener welcomed everyone by microphone. I got up to say a few words about “Last Man Standing” Al Hinkle’s passing the day after Christmas last year. Young Hinkle met young Neal Cassady at the YMCA in downtown Denver circa 1940, where the teens performed together in a trapeze act, him catching Neal after he made his leap. Apt symbolism, since it was Al who put up $100 for the famous ’49 Hudson in which they made that aimless trip of many destinations chronicled in Jack’s famous book. Likewise, Al moved to California first, got Neal a job on the Southern Pacific Railroad despite his total lack of experience, gave him a ride to court after his pot bust and a ride home after being paroled from San Quentin State Prison in 1960. “Big Ed Dunkel” (as he was called by Kerouac in On the Road) and his fiancée “Galatea” (later his wife) were present in that timeless car ricocheting back and forth across America. Their presence humanized and gave readers access to the futurism embodied by frenetic hipster Dean Moriarty (Neal) and brooding writer Sal Paradise (Jack) in that novel. For many years, Al was the last surviving passenger of that 1947 trip fictionalized therein, and now he was gone. Al and Galatea’s model, Helen Argee Hinkle remained married until her death in 1994. They had two children, Mark, born in 1951, and Dawn, born in 1953.
“I love having lived my life with liberty and freedom,” Al Hinkle said. “I am honored to be a part of it all.”
Longtime Denver poetry host Edwin Forrest Ward read his remembrance of Venice Beat Frankie T. Rios accompanied by Dean Roquentin on acoustic guitar.
Brian Trembath, special collections librarian specializing in Western History & Genealogy, read an uncommonly graphic selection from Neal’s partial autobiography, The First Third, concerning Neal’s perception of his stepbrothers’ unmerciful nature, as he saw it: “Particularly did Jimmy abhor black cats, and on this day, when a rather brash one casually passed before us, Jimmy dashed after it in murderous pursuit. Catching it quickly, he swung it overhead by the convenient tail-handle to fling it against Freddy’s ashpit with all possible strength . . . the hapless creature refused to die easily, and the exposed brains were spattered through the bloodied mess of his crushed face.”
Trembath was followed by an address by late arrival Robert Hyatt, a mind-bendingly talented graphic artist and Neal Cassady’s eldest known living son, who only learned Neal was his father at 67 years of age. When I met Bob a few years ago, he asked me to tell him all the stories I knew about his dad’s life in Denver. I told him the one about the YMCA act with Hinkle, and he related his own tales of swim class in the same building ten or twelve years later. Then he told me about his years working for Jonas Bros. Furs on Broadway, whose disused tin and steel marquee still stands somewhere near Tenth. Bob read an excerpt from his own “first third,” Beat Bastard: An Adoptee’s Portfolio, concerning target practice with encyclopedias as a youth, complimenting the theme of childish irresponsibility taking form at this year’s Bash.
Jello Biafra took the stage wearing a black judge’s robe and black leather cap. “I am your teacher. I am your boss. I am your counselor,” he announced. He took off the judge’s robe to reveal a black and white polka dot shirt underneath and continued his finely-crafted rant of dissent (with elements of standup routine and oral personal history). He talked about growing up in Boulder as Eric Boucher, gifted with parents who didn’t hide anything from him, about seeing President Kennedy’s brains get blown out on TV—inadvertently reminding of the previous First Third snippet on cat’s brains coming out read by Trembath. He talked about how coming to terms with his country’s hypocrisy had been an inevitable threshold to personal authenticity for him, growing up near Jon Benet Ramsey’s house in Boulder, trying to get dates with hippie chicks “who were all listening to bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Yes.” (the last word emphasized distastefully). “I was gonna be the last hippie, I swore I’d never cut my hair. I’m glad I didn’t stick to that idea of never changing, though. If I had, I wouldn’t be here today.” At the end of his piece he went back to the overmind character, who was also a moose diarrhea soda salesman, the implied point being the authorities can make us pay to poison and degrade ourselves as a treat to ourselves.
Biafra was followed by spry, sprightly jazz genius David Amram, dancing around on the stage in his red jeans and playing piano and ancient West Indian flutes and talking and singing his scats, in his eighties or nineties somewhere, but still as youthful and lively as when he co-wrote “Pull My Daisy” with fellow young Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in 1959, more than a decade after Neal introduced Jack to bop in Denver’s Five Points. Amram led his players in a one-time-only live extended version of that classic, complete with an extended scat intro tailored to the circumstances of that particular night.
Amram was in top form, engaging in spontaneous discourse between the scat sections, at one point recalling a conversation with the late Charlie “Bird” Parker about a track of Bird’s he thought was brand new but had learned was a few years old. “And Bird told me, 1945, 1952—it doesn’t matter, because the time is always now. And that’s the right time.”
David Amram seemed the living ageless embodiment of the careless, caring spirit associated with those late early Beats, his years of close friendship with whom have colored his life ever since. He scat-sung Kerouac’s early history, how he’d gotten a football scholarship and gone to Columbia University, “and almost right away he broke his leg, and like any French-Canadian he was too proud to beg,”—before going into a stretch of fluent French, then translating it to mean that someone had told Jack if he stuck around Lowell, Massachusetts, he’d end up working himself to death in factories, perhaps his first inspiration to travel. Jazz Master Mind flanked by the sweetest trumpeter I’ve ever heard, Hugh Reagan or Ragan, Kevin Smith on drums, and Mister Henley playing bass with vocal accompaniment sounds in a deep voice. That was Friday’s Birthday Bash at the Merc in honor of punk rock and unruly kids, bookended by a tribute to American Giant Al Hinkle’s steadying influence and David Amram’s perfectly timed instructions to “Never let anyone stop you from being creative, if that’s what you want to do. That’s what we always stood for, stood before that open door, that’s all we were trying to say, and it lives on today. Do you, be you, live out what’s true. Go on, be free.”
DAY 2: February 9, 2019, Tables Turn
Jello Biafra used to crash at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment whenever he was in New York City—“It was the most comfortable piano bench I’ve ever slept on,” he recalls—and the stuff he read that night recalled Kerouac’s spontaneous methodology and manner of slipping in and out of autobiography in illustration of points about society and people. In 1987, Biafra released No More Cocoons, the first of nine spoken-word albums, contents written using the cut-up method popularized by William S. Burroughs.
“I might add literally hundreds of bullet points and slivers of information all cut up, spread them on two or three different large tables so I could look at all of them at once, and move them around like I did when I was making visual collage art for the posters on my albums, and then go from there.” In September 1987, Biafra was invited to Burroughs’ longtime hometown. Lawrence, Kansas, to read at the River City Reunion as part of a celebration of the Beats’ cultural explosion. There he convened with Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs, Timothy Leary, John Giorno, Anne Waldman and others. More than any of these connections, he had rock star credentials, with attendant societal presumptions, which led to an unfortunate incident for Heather Dalton the following afternoon, presumably without his knowing anything about it.
Everything went smoothly, notwithstanding; the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema was a warm and welcoming space. Pat Kron read from Life of a Beatnik Boy, Jello Biafra read poetry and answered questions with David Amram, Nancy Weil read from her book, but Dalton experienced what she referred to as “that indescribable feeling” when mistaken by Alamo Drafthouse staff as “Jello’s girlfriend or companion” upon arrival at a public screening of the film she spent over a decade making. Her establishment of a trusting relationship with Carolyn Cassady in the latter’s old age was a huge step in the direction of a more female-friendly perception of Beat history, but she still had to reckon with prehistoric-minded American chauvinism at an event celebrating her accomplishments.
The panel she led that afternoon on “Women and the Beat Legacy,” featuring herself, Denver weekly Westword’s editor Patty Calhoun, Gunslinger author Edward Dorn’s widow, poet Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, and local poet Tameca Coleman, was the centerpiece of the second day’s round of events. Top of FormAmong other events on offer, freelance writer Gregory Daurer read a piece on Charles Bukowski’s meeting with Neal during his Pranksters period (via Open City publisher John Bryan), and there was a panel on Creativity in Difficult Times. The screening room had red walls and black chairs, with a big logo showing on screen, ALAMO, until the opening scenes of Heather’s film began to roll.
“This movie is a great piece of archival Beat Denver,” commented local poet Roseanna Frechette. “I had seen this when it was first released a few years back. I still love it!” After the screening, there was a Q & A session with Dalton and co-producer Jonathan Hassel. “The micro-aggressions yesterday got at me a bit,” Heather said the next day, talking about her misidentification at the door. “It was a ridiculous and far-fetched assumption on behalf of the staff. I had only met Jello briefly, was not in any way associated with him outside of attending the event. I’ll keep my voice strong and remember there’s a long way to go. I’ve been maligned by male filmmakers, historians and Beat purists in the past, felt their contempt: ‘how dare a woman try to tell any part of this story?’. It was my right and guess what? . . . I did it. The true heart of the Beat movement resides with the women who made it possible, who sacrificed their own formidable ambitions to stay at home and raise the children, pay the mortgage, pack the lunches, and explain the absences. Acting not only as the muse but midnight editor, caretaker, friend and lover. A great debt is owed to all of those who kept the home fires burning while the world was set ablaze.” Bottom of Form
Beats and punks are about the same as far as advocation of unrestrained expression, as pointed out over the years by Victor Bockris and others. As with punk, it’s an unfortunate fact that women are severely underrepresented in consensus understanding of that scene, which was far more welcoming to all persuasions than would seem apparent. Some noteworthy Beat women are Diane di Prima, Denise Levertov, Joanne Kyger, Hettie Jones, and hundreds more. Some noteworthy non-white Beats are Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), Bob Kaufman, Ted Joans, and Bataan Faigao, whose daughter, Wendy Woo, is a talented local musician, and there are hundreds more.
The late Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s wife and mother of three of his children, who majored in Theatre Arts and Set Design at Denver University wrote a great book called Off the Road chronicling her side of things during those exciting years, and the Cassady Estate recently released another publication of hers, co-written with her daughter Cathy called Travel Tips for the Timid: Or, What Guidebooks Never Tell detailing their adventures in Europe. I was fortunate to connect Cathy and Neal’s other daughter Jami Cassady with director Maria Giese earlier this year toward production of a film of Carolyn’s life. And now that table’s about to turn with all the other tables turning lately.
Editor’s note: PKM has tried in the past year to redress the oversight of the role of women in both the Beat and punk scenes. Here are some posts that speak directly to this: