Highest greetings from New Orleans, where I’m visiting my daughter Celia, staying with my friend Frenchy, the great New Orleans action painter & his family, and getting ready for the Mardi Gras, which I’ve attended faithfully every year since 1982 to renew my commitment to Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias, who I started following in 1976 on my first trip to New Orleans.
I flew first from Amsterdam to Denver, Colorado to perform at the 5th annual Neal Cassady Birthday Party at the Mercury Café, where I was joined by Tom Worrell, my pianist from New Orleans, for a few days of fun and creativity. You can hear some of the results on The John Sinclair Radio Show #535 and 536 at www.RadioFreeAmsterdam.com.
There was also the great thrill of seeing one of my idols and mentors, the great musician, composer and writer David Amram, and having him sit in with Tom Worrell and my band on “Blue Monk,” a song Amram used to play with Monk himself back in the 1950s in New York City.
Neal Cassady and David Amram are two of the amazing characters who helped shape my world view as a young man in Flint, Michigan seeking an attractive and intellectually challenging path through life in America that was not at all immediately apparent.
Both were central figures in the life and legend of Jack Kerouac, who fashioned his revolutionary novel On The Road around the gleeful brilliance, ceaseless curiosity, immense daring, and insatiable conversation of Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s literary version of his close friend and role model from Denver, Neal Cassady, who also appeared prominently in the Kerouac oeuvre as Cody Pomeroy, hero of the novel Visions Of Cody.
Against the pale backdrop of American life in the Eisenhower era, these guys got high on marijuana, freaked out on modern jazz, tore across the country in buses, beat-up cars and sleek driveaways, chased women and had as much fun as it was possible to have as young white men in that time and place.
Kerouac and Cassady hooked up in 1946 along with their friends Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke and William Burroughs, and for the next ten years they labored through their writings and personal comportment to create a new way to approach life in these United States. They were ultimately hailed as “The Beat Generation” and propelled into public consciousness with the publication of Ginsberg’s book called Howl And Other Poems (1956)—tried for and acquitted of obscenity—and Kerouac’s smash literary hit On The Road.
Shortly after the release of On The Road in September 1957 Kerouac teamed up with a pianist and French horn player named David Amram to initiate the first series of public jazz-and-poetry performances in New York City, initially in a series of small art galleries and coffeeshops and then in jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard. Jazz and poetry had been spearheaded by Poet Bob “Rainey” Cass and saxophonist Bruce Lippincott in New Orleans in the early 1950s and by Lippincott with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco a couple of years later, but Kerouac, Amram, and poets Philip Lamantia and Howard Hart established the idiom in New York City under the spotlight that followed Kerouac after the success of On The Road and before his recordings with Steve Allen for Hanover Records and Blues & Haikus with saxophonists Al Cohn & Zoot Sims.
In 1959 Amram improvised the soundtrack and Kerouac improvised the dialogue for the pioneering Robert Frank independent film Pull My Daisy, starring Kerouac, Ginsberg, Amram (as “Mezz McGillicuddy”), poet Gregory Corso and painter-saxophonist Larry Rivers in farcical acting roles. Fifty-five years later, and now 83, Amram continues to travel the world to converse and perform, make music, compose and conduct symphonies, and write books like his three memoirs: Vibrations, OffBeat: Collaborations with Jack Kerouac, and UpBeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat.
David Amram is just about the sweetest, most perceptive, most sympathetic individual I’ve ever known, and it’s always a joy to be in his presence. We met in 1996 shortly after he unexpectedly climbed on the bandstand and graced my band the Blues Scholars with his French horn and penny whistles in the middle of our set at the Insomniac-A-Thon at the Creative Arts Center in New Orleans, and we’ve subsequently performed together several times at the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival in Jack’s home town of Lowell, Massachusetts, including just last October. Being on stage with David Amram for me is like performing in the Olympics with the guy who threw the first discus or ran the first Marathon—what I do, he started it all, and he’s still doing it to death every chance he gets.
Neal Cassady went on from his days with Kerouac and Ginsberg to raise a family in California and work as a brakeman on the railroad. He did time for marijuana possession in the early 1960s and resurfaced in public life with another marijuana felon, the novelist Ken Kesey, as principal accomplice and partner in cultural crime when Kesey and his Merry Pranksters staged the Acid Test events in California and clomped across the country in their psychedelic bus called Further, with Cassady behind the wheel on the road again in a whole new way.
It’s always a thrill to be in Lowell for the Kerouac festival in October, not just because he’s my literary idol who turned me on to the concept of marijuana and poetry-&-jazz and opened up the path I’ve followed in life ever since I first read On The Road, but because his home town has come to recognize him as an important writer and a great American and continues to honor him with a beautiful memorial park as well as the annual festival in his name.
Now Denver is taking pride in its native son, Neal Cassady, and keeping his memory alive with a yearly birthday party as well as with its recent legalization of marijuana, a cause first championed by Kerouac and Cassady almost 70 years ago. I had intended to stay in Colorado for a couple of weeks following the party to investigate the new reality of legalized marijuana in the U.S.A. but changed my plans and came to New Orleans as quickly as I could to escape the incredibly cold weather that had greeted me in Denver.
I did have the incredible pleasure of buying some top-notch weed over the counter at the Healing House in Denver: two 1/8-oz. packages of White Fire at $45.00 apiece, plus $9.50 tax for each transaction. I’d been waiting 50 years for this moment and enjoyed it to the max. As in Amsterdam there were many outstanding varieties of first-class weed available on the menu at prices ranging up to about $70 per 1/8th oz. but I was happy with my White Fire and went back for another bag two days later.
That’s as good as it gets so far in the United States, and the dominoes are continuing to fall as the War On Drugs sputters toward its ultimate demise. Let’s keep up the good work and FREE THE WEED once and for all.
February 18, 2014
© 2014 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.