Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The new and old Beatnicks celebrate Neal Cassady's birthday

Posted by Tom Foremski - February 9, 2006

By Tom Foremski, Silicon Valley Watcher

img_first_third.gifIt's a warm Wednesday evening in North Beach San Francisco and it is Neal Cassady's 80th birthday and the remnants of the Beat generation, Jack Kerouac's remaining drinking buddies, are inside a small storefront.

It is also the opening of the Beat Museum, and I'm there with my buddy Paul Hrisko to chat with Neal Cassady's son John, and visit with a slice of San Francisco's history from the late 1950s.

I've become very interested in the Beat generation, the mostly East Coast/New York intellectuals that came to San Francisco, and were chosen by the media to represent the rebellious youth of those times.

From Wikipedia: "The members of the beat generation were new bohemian libertines, who engaged in a spontaneous, sometimes messy, creativity. The beat writers produced a body of written work controversial both for its advocacy of non-conformity and for its non-conforming style...

. . . Echoes of the Beat Generation run throughout all the forms of alternative/counter culture that have existed since then (e.g. "hippies", "punks", etc). The Beat Generation can be seen as the first modern "subculture"."

The Beat Generation created a literature that was passionate, raw and emotional. This was a time when a poem, Allen Ginsberg's Howl could spark arrest, and trials for obscenity. The poet Czeslaw Milosz said of Ginsberg: "Your blasphemous howl still resounds in a neon desert where the human tribe wanders, sentenced to unreality".

I've become interested in Neal Cassady, who was somewhat of a mysterious character to some degree, because his writings are rare. Yet Neal Cassady became the muse, an influencing force on the writers, poets, and cultural icons of those days. People such as Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and later, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and many, many more.

What makes him even more interesting is that Neal Cassady was not of their world. He was a working class kid, or rather a skid row kid. When he was six he came under the care of his alcoholic father, a part-time barber and lived with him in Denver's skid row, during depression times that were brutal to families already living on the edge.

I'm reading a book written by Neal Cassady, called the "The First Third." I'm about a third of the way through it, so it was great to get a chance to go to his 80th birthday celebration and chat with his son John.

I asked him about the book. "That was something we found in the corner of his closet, very little of his writing survived. And I'll tell you what happened to his writings, I don't think this story has been published yet..."

Brilliant. This is why I love my job. John looks to be in his 50s, lots of energy, talks a mile a second just as his father, and I'm hearing new stories about a time in America that was in the midst of a cold war and a very rigid post-war Fifties society.

John tells me that most of his father's written work was lost when he parked his car for two weeks at a friends place, then took off for two or so weeks of carousing in the very North Beach neighborhood that we were standing. When he returned to pick up his car it was gone. And so was about 500 pages of his fathers literary work.

Wow, I wonder if they still exist in some garage, attic or gully. We should send out cultural archeologists to try and track down what happened, who stole the car, where it was found, comb the area for clues and the manuscripts. Even if the pages are weathered, magnetic resonance technology can render the ink visible. That would be a very interesting project.

John Cassady goes on to tell about how the term "Beatnicks" was hated by his father and the others. "The bongo playing dressed in black and wearing berets was a complete invention of the media. The closest they got to bongos was one time at a rent party just around the corner...[at a rent party you pay 50 cents for the wine so the hosts can pay the rent]. Jack (Kerouac) was handed some bongos and he noticed the skins needed tightening so he went to the kitchen and lit the gas burner to heat and tighten the skins. He was distracted and he burnt right through the skins."

So more stories followed, and then Wavy Gravy shows up and holds court, and tells his stories, and then it's hot and crowded and I wander outside and chat to many more people.

Then we meet many more characters from the neighborhood, and those times, in a bar just around the corner...but more on that at another time :-)

Later...why I think the Beat generation and the Blogging generation have common ground.

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