Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey

Magic Bus Poster

poster for the documentary, "Magic Bus"
poster for the documentary, "Magic Bus" | Source

Neil Cassady, the Ultimate Beatnik

So you’re curious ‘bout this man who I speak
‘Cause he tears you and scares you out of your sleep
I am sure that you’ll find, if you open your mind
That it’s you and not he who is really the freak…”

Lyrical comments about Neal Cassady, from The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty by Aztec Two Step


In case you haven't heard of Neal Cassady, he was a wildly, energetic vagabond, drifter and all-around discontent, who somehow got connected up with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and a group of writers, known worldwide as the Beats. Cassady was major inspiration for Kerouac's enchanting character, Dean Moriarty, in the popular, autobiographical novel, On the Road. Following Kerouac's literary lead, Cassady went on to write his own Beat novel, called The First Third.

Born in Denver in 1926, Neal had a troublesome young life that included reform school and prison. After his release from a Colorado prison in 1945, he married LuAnn Henderson and soon thereafter, the newlyweds traveled to New York City, where they got hooked up with Kerouac and company. The release of On The Road in 1957 made Neil Cassady a crazy sort of offbeat national anti-hero. Unfortunately, Cassady's wild lifestyle may have played a major role in his untimely death in 1968 at age 41.

Captured on Film

the seldom photographed Neal Cassady
the seldom photographed Neal Cassady | Source

Ken Kesey Writes a Book

Like Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey was born in Colorado, but his family soon moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Here, Kesey attended high school and the University of Oregon, where he was an outstanding wrestling.

Before writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962, Ken Kesey studied creative writing at the post graduate level at Stanford University. About this time he was introduced to LSD through a special CIA research project, called Project MKULTRA, which was carried out in a VA hospital, where Kesey worked as a night aid.

Upon the release of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey quickly became a household name. As an upcoming American novelist, celebrity status eventually lead to Kesey being hooked up with the Beat Writers, who by this time had become frequent visitors to the West Coast.

Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey | Source

How They Met

According to the Paris Review, Neal Cassady met Ken Kesey after Neal began participating in the same LSD experiments as Kesey. The location for the CIA project was the VA hospital in Menlo Park, California and the year was 1960. Cassady actually met Kesey by driving over to his apartment in an old jeep that broke down, just as Neal arrived.

In 1960 Neal Cassady had just been released from his second prison sentence, a two year gig at San Quentin prison for attempting to buy marijuana from an undercover cop. After his prison release, Cassady somehow caught wind of the LSD experiments and ended up in the Bay area.

On Board A Bus Named Further

Ken Kesey (in foreground) and Neal Cassady on board the "magic bus".
Ken Kesey (in foreground) and Neal Cassady on board the "magic bus".

The Merry Pranksters Make a Cross-country Trip

When Ken Kesey's second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, was released in 1964, his New York publisher requested that Kesey journey to NY City to assist with the promotion. This prompted Kesey to make the infamous California to New York journey with Cassady and the Pranksters in the brightly painted old school bus.

By this time, Cassady was off probation for his marijuana conviction, so he was allowed to leave the state of California. But the traveling band of gypsies was much more interested in LSD, which was still legal at this time, despite the drug's powerful pysco-active properties.

A Bus Named Further

Neal Cassady drove this psychedelic bus around the country, accompanied by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters
Neal Cassady drove this psychedelic bus around the country, accompanied by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters | Source

A Documentary Is Released

Beginning in 2011, a pair of films were released about the legendary adventures of Neal Cassady. The first cinematic effort was simply called,“Magic Trip”. This documentary piece was the creative product of Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, as the film was culled from real clips of the actual 1964 bus journey, which included both Kesey and Cassady.

After Magic Trip, Hollywood made plans to release a feature film by Gus Van Sant based on Tom Wolfe's non fiction book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The movie was to bear the same the name, but somehow the film never happened or was abandoned along the way. However, in 2012, Hollywood did release a screen version of Kerouac's On the Road. The movie received mixed reviews while losing money at the box office. As most fans of the Beats know, this story around the mythic travels of Kerouac and Cassady, but was does not include Kesey, as it it was before his time.

The Everpresent Neal Cassady

Though Neal never had the literary impact of Kerouac or Kesey, he did write and publish some poetry and an autobiographical novel, “The First Third”, which is widely accepted as classic Beat literature. Moreover, Neal's great contribution to the literary and cultural movement, was his endless energy and infectious outbursts of uncontrolled charisma. As a result, characters or personages, based on the wild nomad, show up in the writing of Hunter Thompson, Allan Ginnsberg, Charles Bukowski, the Grateful Dead and of course, Kesey and Kerouac. Still, all this cultural acclaim, can create an inflated portrait of the main character. Fortunately, “Magic Bus” provides some real-life footage and interviews with both Cassady and Kesey.

Portrait of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

cover of Cassady's novel, The First Third featured a picture of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac
cover of Cassady's novel, The First Third featured a picture of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac | Source

Traveling Down the Road

In the 50s and 60s, cheap gas and powerful automobiles aided coast-to-coast travel.
In the 50s and 60s, cheap gas and powerful automobiles aided coast-to-coast travel.

A Musical Book Report

Aztec Two Step was a post-Woodstock, popular singing and male performing duo that came together in the early seventies. Their songs combined rousing rhythms with insightful lyrics, which successfully captured the wild and carefree spirit of the times.

Music lovers, as well as Kerouac readers, might enjoy this musical tribute to Neal Cassady by Aztec Two Step. Though described as musical book report for On The Road, the song, The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarity, deeply delves into the magnetic and infectious personality of Neal Cassady.

The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty

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