Born and raised in Denver, Heather Dalton has long nurtured affection for one of the city's proudest cultural alumni: Neal Cassady, the larger-than-life literary macho-muse who inspired the character of Dean Moriarty, hero of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. For the past several years, Dalton, a musician, filmmaker and producer at Colorado Public Television, has been hard at work on Neal Cassady: The Denver Years, which documents Cassady's difficult youth in Prohibition-era Denver.
Cassady's exploits in D-Town are the stuff of local legend: his brief stint as a student at East High School, his time in a correctional facility for boys, his days following his father through the alleyways and dive bars of Larimer Street. Drawn from Cassady's memoir, The First Third, as well as her own extensive research, Dalton's film explores the mythology behind the man whose personality and spirit inspired many writers -- and led to the creation of one very famous scroll.
See also: - Keeping the Beat: Musician David Amram remembers Neal Cassady - Street artist Theo on Banksy, Jack Kerouac and running from the cops - Jack Kerouac wrote here: Crisscrossing America chasing cool
Tomorrow night, Dalton's film enters the final stages with a crowd-sourcing/fundraising event at 3 Kings Tavern where Dalton will lead a discussion about the film's genesis and future, and will also rally supporters to help underwrite final production expenses, Kickstarter style. You can hear her talk about it in the video below; keep reading to find out what Dalton learned on her long journey with Neal Cassady, and why his story is one worth telling -- and supporting.
Westword: Why does Neal Cassady continue to be such an indelible figure? What was it about him, and what is it still?
Heather Dalton: I believe that Cassady still has such wide appeal because he embodies a part of the American ideal that is rough-hewn and jagged like the wild West, yet his swagger was pure jazz. He dared to be himself in an oppressive post-war society and inspired those around him to do the same. I think that today we lack a lot of authenticity and the actions of people seem more contrived and no longer genuine; therefore we are nostalgic for Cassady's undiluted free spirit.
I am a Denver girl through and through. Even when all of my peers ranted that it was just a cowtown that had to be escaped, I knew there was so much more. Reading Cassady's The First Third affirmed my own personal connection, as it was basically a love letter to our city. He found beauty in parts of Denver that people tend to overlook. He was a kindred spirit and lived amongst all of the lonely and forgotten souls who shuffled down Larimer Street and sank into the bowery after dark.
What did Cassady love about Denver? Loathe?
He was intensely proud of Denver architecture, elaborating in great detail about the structures that impressed him like the Moffat Tunnel and the old post office. He even remarked how impressed he was that our alleyways are some of the widest in the nation. He enjoyed that we had a thriving jazz scene on Welton Street and that you could still find an old cowboy around any corner.
What's the biggest myth about the man?
The biggest myth was that he was just novel entertainment for his famous friends and that he reveled in being "Dean Moriarty." That kind of characterization become a noose around his neck. He resented the attention but felt he could not escape it. He had aspirations of being a writer himself and had such a frantic and fast mind that to sit and write was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. So he became, as he described in his own words "a dancing bear."
What were you surprised to learn about him in the making of this film?
In making this film, the most sensational aspects to emerge about the Holy Madman, the Hammer Thrower and Sir Speed Limit are very tame. Here we are drawn to a man that had gained iconic and mythic status for being a human live wire, carefree and bombastic, yet he was desperately trying to be a good father and husband, he was a spiritual seeker and struggled with the demons inside of himself to become a better person, and carried an immense sense of guilt with him because he knew how far he had fallen. Why do so many straight males have man crushes on Neal Cassady?
I think if we look at the archetype of "cool," there is an American amalgam that has equal parts Neal Cassady, James Dean and a bit of Paul Newman thrown in for good measure. These gents are known as a "Man's ...MAN." With Cassady, there was something much more dangerous and the sexual ambiguity, because it was wrapped in such a masculine package, seemed less threatening and almost an issue of control, perhaps ultimate dominance.
I think straight men when they admire Cassady have to ultimately ask themselves how comfortable they are with the blurred lines of the Beats and in a way they come away with a more accepting attitude.
What do you think he would say about modern Denver....LoDo, or RiNo...?
Neal would love modern Denver! The baseball park would have been the crowning gem in his eyes. I believe had things worked out differently he might have come back home to Denver and retired as a colorful character somewhere in Curtis Park.
Why is it important to tell Neal's story? Who is your intended audience? Older folks who know his work, or younger people who may not?
Neal's story is important to not only serve as a cautionary tale but also an inspirational one as well. Although he succumbed to the destructive trappings of notoriety, there was still that initial spark that influenced so many of the great writers of our time. In his own unique way, he unknowingly helped to guide two major cultural revolutions. The most compelling part about him is that he is the everyman: He was not a hero, he was not a villain, he was just truly and authentically himself -- and I think for some people, that is such a huge struggle and they admire that about him. That message is timeless for all ages and it seems that thumbing through On the Road is a quasi-American rite of passage that will introduce Neal to many generations to come.
My ultimate goal of this film is to shed light on Cassady's life here in Denver and remind us all what an amazing literary history we have.
Neal Cassady: Kickstart will start at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 29, at 3 Kings Tavern. DJ Frank Bell, Go Star and the Limbs, and an exhibition of artwork by Christian Krumpholz and Daniel Crosier round out the festivities. Tickets are $8 at the door; incentives to give include limited edition Cassady prints, skateboards, stickers, art and more. For more information, go to www.3kingstavern.com.