Smoking T with the Beat Generation in Denver

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Address delivered at the Internat’l Church of Cannabis, Denver, 10/19/2018

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was published in 1957, detailing events in the author’s life ten years previously, bringing something called the “Beat Generation” to national awareness.

The Beat Generation was composed of male and female writers from all over the country, expanding out from a nucleus of Columbia University students in the 1940s influenced by the Lost Generation and raised in logo-crazed America who wrote in a variety of different styles. They wanted a brand name for themselves to make their writing stand out as the voice of the hip. That’s a word which has changed drastically in meaning from the 1940s to 2018. These days, it seems to mean up to date with all the coolest luxury items or something like that. Back then it meant perceptive beyond establishment conditioning, living in defiance of straight rules concerning God and law and sex and race.

“When marijuana is legalized, war will become impossible,” wrote Kerouac. The Beats openly smoked pot, enjoyed sex, listened to jazz, and who knows what else in their squalid basement dens. The ennobling of these activities threatened centuries of literal and ethical segregation in the United States, causing much alarm.

In a book called The White Negro, Superficial Reflections on the Hipster published in 1957, the same year as Jack’s On the Road, Norman Mailer calls marijuana the “wedding ring” in the interracial marriage whose “child was the language of Hip.” This includes most of the slang terms for marijuana then current — such as “gauge,” “grass,” “grefa,” “gunga,” “hay,” “hemp,” “muggles,” “muta,” “reefer,” “tea,” and “weed” — that would later become part and parcel of the Beat vocabulary.

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On the Road was promoted as having been written spontaneously, and for years, Jack has been thought of as the “inventor” or “discoverer” of spontaneous prose, but some details got lost in the rush to his acclaim. In fact, his method was a combination of Denverite Ed White’s suggestion of “sketching” his scenes, the influence of a Depression Era hobo turned Times Square hustler used to writing on the fly named Herbert E. Huncke, and the exuberant personal dynamic – which extended from his speech to his letter-writing abilities – of another Denverite, Neal Leon Cassady (1926 –1968)

Wherever they were based, in whatever frenetic cross country zigzags or South American adventures in search of psychotropic vines, male or female, black or white, gay or straight, most Beat writers (and even Charles Bukowski) were profoundly affected in one way or another by their meetings with a young-to-youngish (he died at 41) Neal Cassady, who was raised half in flophouses with his wino father when Larimer Street was all pool halls and dive bars and flops, thus validly a member of the underclass unhindered by establishment taboos, who played Huck Finn to Jack’s Tom Sawyer as Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

In 1936, the notorious anti-pot film, Reefer Madness, was released. Barely a year later, the sale and use of marijuana became a Federal crime under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Just three days after the law went into effect, two Denver men, Samuel R. Caldwell and Moses Baca, became the first Americans arrested under the act after Caldwell attempted to sell Baca a couple joints at an apartment building in Downtown Denver.

These two unfortunate men were made into examples of what could happen to reefer users and dealers and caught the full force of the law and the press. A Denver Post article about the men allegd Baca had recently attempted to murder his wife, without offering details. Caldwell received a four-year prison sentence and Baca went away for 18 months.

At their trial, U.S. District Judge J. Foster Symes made his feeling on pot use very clear saying:

“Marijuana destroys life. I have no sympathy for those who sell this weed.”

That was the establishment stance. Stigmatize and villify.

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Having reportedly once set a record for the number of automobiles stolen in a single season in Denver County, Neal came from the west to Columbia U seeking knowledge in the winter of 1946 only to thrill and inspire the cloistered New York crowd with his untutored zest. Neal wanted to be a writer. Invited to the Columbia University campus in 1946 by his gay East High School guidance counselor, Justin W. Brierly (Denver D. Doll in On the Road), Neal charmed Kerouac, the young Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes, author of Go. Neal’s opening move,  spontaneously assuming the role of host at one of their parties, gathering people’s coats and taking them into the next room, emptying ashtrays and refilling drinks, reviving his hosts with youthful eagerness from over the horizon when they were all too torpid to play that role themselves, made the party a nicer time for everyone.

From his first fictionalized appearance, as Hart Kennedy in John Clellon Holmes’s Go, Neal Cassady, who inspired the Beat Generation into existence before driving Ken Kesey’s magic bus from one end of the sixties to another, was characterized as someone full of conversational zing and seemingly possessed of a superhuman ability to manage interpersonal interaction. In On the Road, Jack gave him the name Dean Moriarty, taking note of Neal’s momentous urgency as a personality driven to constant progress—“because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars . . .”

Besides having a winning personality, Neal, who grew up partly in a flophouse on Larimer Street as the “unnatural son of a few score beaten men” represented a link between classes and cultural strata for the New York enclave. He introduced Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to the jazz scene in Five Points – still thriving today with many of the same venues still operating under the same names, like the Rossonian, the Roxy, though the type of music hosted has changed with the times, and others under new ones like El Chapultepec and My Brother’s Bar.

Who first smoked pot with Kerouac, an illicit practice then looked down on by establishment whites as a black or Mexican vice? I wanted to think it was Cassady, sort of like Bob Dylan and the Beatles. But no. There are two origin stories for this momentous occurrence, both involving jazz musicians.

 

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Mezz Mezzrow

(Pgph cribbed from the internet)

White Jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, became the principal supplier of Mexican marijuana to Harlem in the 1930s, and his story was known to all the Columbia Beats. Mezzrow’s name entered the local vernacular; a “mezzrole” was the type of joint he rolled, and “mezz” became a general term for anything of high quality. Mezzrow, according to his editor, “came to believe he had actually, physically, turned black,” making him an early example of Norman Mailer’s hypothetical “White Negro”. His autobiography, Really the Blues, read by all Columbia hipsters of the period, went through numerous printings and reveals how crucial marijuana use was to this cross-cultural pollenation.

Lester Young

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A fellow classmate at Horace Mann named Seymour Wyse introduced Kerouac to jazz and black life, and he was enthralled.  He was just starting to write about jazz when he met Lester Young, nicknamed Prez, in 1943, during one of the nocturnal forays that would change the course of his life.  They shared a cab from the Village up to Minton’s Playhouse, the nightclub in the Hotel Cecil on 118th Street between St. Nicholas and Seventh Avenues in Harlem, where the bebop revolution was percolating and where, according to Edie Kerouac-Parker, Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time, who later became his first wife,  “Lester Young turned Jack on to marijuana. I believe it was the first time Jack was ever really high on it.  And I mean high.”

Kerouac was into big-band acts like Benny Goodman before discovering bop acts like Charlie “Bird” Parker, whose spontaneous saxophone playing he hoped to mirror with his prose. I’d like to believe it was Neal who introduced Jack to the freer wilder bop scene. A little-known fact about Neal is that he always wanted to be a jazz saxophonist, buying and pawning several during his life, as detailed in his Collected Letters and elsewhere.

Cassady left Denver in 1946, eventually settling in California, where he got a job working as a brakeman on the SP Depot Railroad, trading two sticks of pot to two narcs posing as fellow brakies for a ride home from work one afternoon in 1958. The agents knew Neal was the inspiration for the character from On the Road who’d come to symbolize nonconformity—it was a setup—and he ended up serving a couple of years in San Quentin. Adding insult to injury, Neal’s pot bust occurred during a time when he was trying earnestly to be a good husband and father to his wife and three children after the first rush of notoriety, effectively preventing this ambition, and making him an early martyr for sensible cannabis laws in the United States.

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Another Denver-Columbia connection was future architect Edward D. White, a lifelong pen pal of Kerouac’s who designed the arboretum at the Denver Botanical gardens, and whom we have to thank for the preservation of the Molly Brown House in Capitol Hill. A classmate at Columbia whose hometown was Denver, he and Kerouac used the code term “Elitch” for marijuana in their correspondence, Elitch Gardens being their favorite spot of indulgence in the taboo custom. It was White, a future architect, who first suggested Jack write “sketches” like architects designing buildings. My friend, Mark Sink, stepson of Edward Divine White, is a guerrilla photographer who trained at Warhol’s Factory currently integral to the Denver arts scene. He was kind enough to introduce me to that gentleman before his recent passing.

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Without the Beat Generation, there would have been no hippies.

Shortly after getting out of prison, Neal fell in with a crowd of Stanford students and grads including One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest author and self-made superhero Ken Kesey, and remained at the forefront of countercultural activity in the United States as designated driver of Kesey’s Magic Bus Furthur (sic). Cassady drove Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters from Acid Test to Acid Test beginning in 1964, yakking incessantly through a loudspeaker while driving, flipping sledgehammers shirtless at all the pit-stops, embodying a living bridge from the previous hip scene to the current.

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And without the beats and the hippies, there’d have been no punks, a statement iterated in various forms by everyone from Patti Smith to Joe Strummer to the recently departed Johnny Strike, who, besides fronting the band Crime, interviewed Burroughs and Huncke at the beginning of his writing career.

After leaving Denver in 1947, Neal never returned beyond brief visits to his dad, Neal Sr., and his stepbrothers, Jack and Ralph Daly. My friend Robert Hyatt of Arvada is his eldest known surviving son. A multidisciplinary fine artist and substance abuse counselor. Hyatt was adopted shortly after birth by a Denver fireman and his wife. He didn’t learn of his connection to Neal until he was 66 years old. His partial memoir, Beat Bastard: An Adoptee’s Portfolio, was written as a legacy for his own children, and retitled upon addition of Hyatt’s afterword detailing his interaction with the Adoption Bureau. This book has significance as both an historical record of growing up in Denver in the 50s and 60s and a first-person account of growing up adopted in those turbulent decades to learn, as an old man, your own father was one of the greatest change-makers.

I talked about Neal’s status as a martyr for pot smokers via his set up and imprisonment this summer with his “illegitimate” granddaughter and grandson, Vera and Henry Hyatt.

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Regarding Colorado’s recent legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use, Vera said, “I wonder how he’d feel, if Neal were here today. I don’t think he would have liked it . . . the legalization, I mean.”

“I’d like to think that Neal’s perspective on things is irrespective of anyone else’s,” commented Henry, while balancing on one finger. After which he did a backflip. Self-taught.

 “Yeah, he didn’t get hooked into things,” agreed Vera, who used the profits from selling her successful bakery to fund her nomadic lifestyle, hosting a website called She’s Got That Wanderlust.

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Progress has been made in United States culture through enaction of legislative changes to normalize things that were once taboo, including the legalization of cannabis for medical or recreational use in several U.S. states, beginning the journey out of the ignorance wherein driven experimenters with experience like Neal Cassady capsize through a lack of information about their familiars, back when people broke into the tool box whenever they got the chance and stole all the fire they could to feel better or different as fast as possible. Clearly, there are other things to be worked out beyond senseless prohibition, as seen in the current reality show, and these will have to be worked out legislatively as well. Reality still catching up to the dream.

After settling down to the earnest effort of homesteading in Los Gatos, California in 1954, presumably T played the role of an emollient in Neal’s life, something to soothe him after a hard day’s work at the depot. His aspirations to familyhood effectively dashed after being targeted and jailed for his alter ego’s counter-establishment infamy, after getting busted, Neal gave up the effort to elude his typecasting and went all the way as a spokesman for sensory derangement, driving the Merry Pranksters’ multicolored bus into amphetamine addiction and flaming out on a lonely railroad track under the stars. That’s the official story, anyway, though I’ve heard siome believeable-sounding scuttlebutt about bloody bulletholes in the room where he was staying before he supposedly took that lonely walk counting railroad ties, and it all happened so long ago, who can say now, it ain’t me.

Part of Neal’s notoriety is as a womanizer, a quality undeserving of lionization, and one he unsuccessfully tried living down both in public and his personal life before leaving his family in Los Gatos and joining the Pranksters. The Beat Generation is typically knocked for its seemingly homo-social (all white male) quality. It’s a fact that most of the writers known today as beat are white and male, and another sad fact is that women given to anti-social (unconventional) behavior (including things like literary expression and pot smoking and unexpected pregnancy) in the United States in the 1940s ran a high risk of being institutionalized, social mores being what they were. That’s according to Elise Cowen thirty or forty years ago, and on TV today we have the new judge w/ sallow jaws like a worn out bulldog. He keeps drinking more and more beer in his mind, making all of the oceans into more beer and drinking the oceans dry on television, all men and women still living out the same reality show. Let’s hope we’ve made some progress since that time, despite appearances.

Some noteworthy Beat women are Diane di Prima, Denise Levertov, Joanne Kyger, Hettie Jones, there are hundreds more. Some noteworthy non-white Beats are Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones), Bob Kaufnman, and Bataan Faigao, whose daughter, Wendy Woo, is a talented local musician, 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 and wrote a great book called Off the Road chronicling her side of things during those exciting years, recently released another publication 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 her and Neal’s other daughter Jami Cassady with director Maria Giese earlier this year toward production of a film of Carolyn’s life, so the Neal-as-womanizer tables may be about to turn with all the other tables turning lately. Don’t forget to vote.

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