After the American writer Jack Kerouac's On the Road hit the bestseller lists in 1957, its characters were instantly immortalized, but not as fictional creations. Much to the author's horror, they became fodder for the needy mid-century Zeitgeist, heroes of an alternative lifestyle. You can read shy Kerouac's Big Sur, an account of his nervous breakdown, to understand his terror at girls trying to climb into his window to bed him, thinking the sexy guy based on Neal Cassady was really the author. Or, you can see Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood's “archival cinema verite” documentary Magic Trip to see Neal Cassady's next chapter, as the driver of Ken Kesey's bus Further.
To at least one “prankster” on the 1963 cross country journey author Kesey documented on film, Cassady was already over the hill, a daddy figure (he checked the gas and tires) with odd jerky mannerisms, a non-stop driver and talker: he was called “The Radio” because he set the beat.
Now 43 years since his death in 1968, Cassady still captures the imagination. In the documentary Love Always, Carolyn, featured at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, filmmakers Malin Korkeasalo and Maria Ramstrom focus on his wife Carolyn. Other sides of Neal emerge: he was not a great husband or family man. As famous as a womanizer as he was a driver, his character sheds light on the elusive motives of “beat” women. Surely they wanted traditional hearth and home, yet as transitional figures, they crossed a cultural moral line, transgressing with sex, drugs, and jazz. Carolyn had three kids with Neal, and, in keeping with our contemporary Zeitgeist, they seem to be figuring out how to monetize his legacy.
The footage of the women pranksters is good reason to see Magic Trip. In one funny moment, you see Stark Naked on the back of the bus and everyone is wondering why the trucks won't pass. In another, on a visit to Larry McMurtry's home in suburban Houston, she goes wandering, barefoot, dressed in a blanket, and ends up in jail. That was a heady LSD-feuled ride, a muddy psychedelic precursor to the ultimate '60's event, Woodstock. By the summer of '69, Cassady would be last year's roadside fatality.
Magic Trip had its theatrical premiere last week, for a crowd that could mostly appreciate Ken Kesey's artistic eccentricities as antique. While everyone had a good time at The Vault at Pfaff's, the highest buzz came from champagne.