This article © 2021 Zachary Kopp
The first thing I asked Neal’s daughter Jami Cassady Ratto was if she believed in UFOs and she told me, “Oh my gosh. Always believed in them, and Mom always believed in them. We kids would go sit out on the grass on Bancroft Avenue, Los Gatos, as we were growing up, get on our backs and look at the clouds, cause Mom always said the Mother Ship was out there, in the biggest cloud. And so, you know, we will, to this day, drive down the road, and go, ‘Well, there’s the Mother Ship.’ I mean it weas part of our belief system. And kept waiting, ‘Why aren’t they coming? We believe in them. Why aren’t they coming to say hi to us?’ You know. Never never never heard one, never even saw one, but it is very exciting that the government’s coming out with something about it.”
“Right? I mean who knows what it’ll come to, but they haven’t told us anything for 60 or 70 million years.”
“And they kept denying and denying and saying it didn’t exist. Yeah, I know. So, we’re really excited.”
The Cassady Estate has a lot in the works besides a traveling yard sale. Neal’s Joan Anderson Letter, the one that inspired Jack Kerouac to “discover” spontaneous prose, was discovered in a box in San Francisco and has recently been published to acclaim after having been thought lost overboard about as long ago as the Roswell Incident (which Neal and Jack drove past unknowingly once or twice in 1947), and Neal’s letters to Jami’s mother Carolyn from San Quentin will be republished in an expanded edition soon. Randy’s been working hard to organize and decode the boxes and boxes of writings left behind by Carolyn, who died in 2013. Neal died in 1968, after driving the Merry Pranksters’ Magical Mystery bus from one countercultural era to the next.
Everyone who’s looked into Neal Cassady has heard about his connection with Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation and Ken Kesey and LSD and the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead. Many see him as a countercultural pioneer. Fewer have heard about his conversion later in his short life to Edgar Cayce’s doctrine of reincarnational karma, and his intense devotion to that athletic metaphysical perspective, where it’s all about perfecting oneself out of the endless loop of lives. The couple met in Denver, where Carolyn was studying Theatre Arts and Set Design at Denver University in the middle 40s. The hotel on 10th and Grant where Carolyn lived, walking in one day to find Neal, LuAnne Henderson and Allen Ginsberg naked together in bed, as recounted in Kerouac’s On The Road, is still standing. I had a drink in the bar downstairs a few weeks ago. Neal and Carolyn Elizabeth Robinson Cassady were party to all manner of esoteric metaphysical concepts decades before most of their neighbors, which had a profound effect on the couple’s three children, John Allen, Jami and Cathy.
After his being glamorized as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road and targeted by narcotics officers at the Southern Pacific and spending 2 years in San Quentin for a marijuana bust, Neal and his wife Carolyn turned to “Sleeping Prophet” Edgar Cayce’s thesis as an answer to their troubles as a couple. “Now be sure and tell me if you’ve heard this before,” says Jami. “This is my history, my upbringing, my childhood memories of being told this all the time by my parents, that Dad was the ticket-taker, the conductor on the Southern Pacific Railroad and wore that wonderful outfit, that uniform, and taking tickets, I can just see him, that wonderful outfit, and charming everyone—what a guy. Anyway one day he was walking down the aisle, and someone had left Many Mansions on a seat—I actually have that book at my house, that he found—so um he brought it home, and Mom and he started reading it, and, ‘Well, wait a minute, this might be our answer,’—when we were doing the archives, we found out they went to counseling together, something we never knew—this was a way to say, ‘Oh, that’s why we do that. We’re not the bad people. Karma’s making us do this. Let’s try to change our karma. Yeah, so they really tried hard, they both tried hard, and had a really hard time.
Kentucky-born “Sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce (18 March 1877 – 3 January 1945) showed an intense interest in the Bible from childhood, reading and rereading it with the goal of memorizing the whole thing. Cayce was hypnotized as a young man in hopes of curing a mysterious case of laryngitis., and began to dictate cures for various ailments while in trance. In time, at the prompting of metaphysician and journalist Arthur Lammers, despite this fundamentalist Christian bent, Cayce addressed topics like reincarnation and karma, things entirely heathen and suspect to his conscious mind. Despite this initial forbearance, Cayce ultimately elected to continue doing the readings since they were helping people, which couldn’t be bad. Neal and Carolyn were among the thousands of early converts to the ethos of self-taught spirituality Cayce (though a fundamentalist Christian) was one of the first idols of, which mushroomed over the coming decades (60s, 70s, 80s) through embodiments like Uri Geller and Marianne Williamson all the way to today’s examples, like Rob Brezsny (Pronoia) and Rachel Archelaus (Intuitive Art).
Mutiny Information Café on Broadway in Denver was founded by a couple of old friends who’d ridden boxcars all over the country before founding it, ultra-cool old-school anti-racist non-phobic mods and punk rockers supportive of everything cool. I’d hosted a variety show there a few years ago and they’d made space for Dan Fante and Bob Hyatt when I’d invited them and almost hosted a panel of ex-Merry Pranksters I tried setting up before Paul Krassner kicked it, God rest him, but that one didn’t end up happening. It was great seeing Jami and her husband Randy again. Both about 70 years old, Jami sprightly and full of energy with her father’s face and some of his mannerisms, Randy wearing an orange tie-dye T shirt with Neal’s quote, “We are actually fourth dimensional beings in a third dimensional body inhabiting a second dimensional world,” on the back. We sat in the rear of Mutiny for a couple of days at a couple of tables of Estate wares talking about Neal and Carolyn and allowance and intuition and Edgar Cayce and spontaneous writing as people came and went, leading through all the binders and sometimes buying a book or a T shirt or talking to Jami about her dad. This was a coming together of my personal interests and literary and human history over the course of a couple of rainy June days in Denver, with Neal Cassady’s daughter Jami at the punk rock bookstore for an interview and an Estate wares sale, and to hear parts of my new book where I mentioned her dad, with the U.S. government about to announce the existence of unidentified Aerial Phenomena and who knew what else they might do? Neal’s and Carolyn’s ashes were sitting on the table in little glass containers, not enshrined, just there among us, hanging out. One bystander made a joke that they might get stolen and everyone agreed someone might do that, but no one even seemed to know we were back there. I said, “I’d never do that, but sneaking a pinch had crossed my mind.” What would I do with it? Smoke it? Probably so, knowing me. “Go ahead, you’re welcome,” Jami actually said, but I didn’t. I kept picking up the hammer, though, which had little swirls of Pranksters day-glo paint at the base of the sledge. It felt like being outside the normal flow of time sitting there in the back of a bookstore with Prometheus’s daughter, people wandering in every ten minutes with questions like, “Who was this Neal Cassady?” “What’s this all about?”
I asked Jami about the family’s involvement with the Cayce doctrine, and what she thought about grace beating karma—“’cause that’s the same thing as not dwelling on your so-called blocks, or like being sensitive enough to see past the car coming at you.”
“Bending down to get my cup,” she replied, “I thought, ‘I know I’m gonna have to talk about grace beats karma. I love when things are synched like that.” She told a story about Neal and Carolyn having a fight once “over him wanting to go to Mexico or something like that. We had this big stump of a tree in our yard, and he went out with the jalopy he had then and a chain and tried to rip this thing out and rip this thing out—he couldn’t do it, so he called a tow truck and the tow truck got it out, then he came back in and took a shower and changed his clothes and was the most beautiful husband and father you could get. So she chalked it up, ‘It does work—do the opposite, or do what you think you should do,’ or something like that.” [this story about Neal doing Carolyn a favor he’d resisted, to purge his karma of resentment, is recounted in her Off The Road]
“I knew from a very early age that I had the gift,” Jami told me. “Another thing I could do, and that’s one of those pictures over there, of me as the White Rabbit—uh—in Alice in Wonderland—I was really nervous for some reason, I was in a big part, and I got this big boil on the bottom of my foot. So I couldn’t dance. And it was big. And it was icky, and horrible, and everybody’s all ‘Oh no, who’s gonna do the part?’ And I remember lying in bed, and this lady came, from probably Edgar Cayce or Unity Church or whatever they were part of, and she sat on the bed, Mom’s bed, and she told me, you know, the mind’s power, this and that, blah blah—and of course, the next day, the next morning it was gone. That’s another one of my great stories. So I knew I had the power, I knew and it was demonstrated to me quite a few times in my life. I remember another time, you know, I was always kind of overweight, and my thighs, you know, I wasn’t a new York City ballet ballerina, by any means. I was rehearsing in the classroom in the mirror and all of a sudden, it was like I lost 50 pounds! And I stared, and I danced, and I looked, and I kept looking—it was the most amazing thing, and it was true, I mean it happened, I wasn’t, I definitely wasn’t on speed—lllloved it. I actually said, I remember, ‘Look, look—is that—right?’ You know? To me, I was, so it was real. Yeah. So I always kinda had that, but I let it go. I um you know started you know I un got hooked on speed, and then became an alcoholic, and you know, that stuff just kinda—you know.”
When I asked about Neal and allowance, or “going with the flow”, she made a face and said it reminded her of him going off with the Pranksters, which was the beginning of the end for our kid. She said she thought he had a death wish at that point and when Carolyn divorced him, there was nothing left to hold him back. “He cane back a number of times crying, saying, ‘I just can’t do this anymore,’ and Mom told him, ‘You shouldn’t then,’ but she never took him back.”
“Is that book here, actually, Grace Beats Karma?” I looked around at all the books on the tables, not seeing it.
“That book’s out of print but we’re doing the expanded edition. I have one copy at home, it’s all beat up. Todd [Swift]’s reprinting it for us, and—so—Randy and I, going through Mom’s stuff, have realized Dad’s state of mind to get arrested. He knew they were narcs, he told Mom that Natalie [Jackson, Neal’s girlfriend, who threw herself off a building in 1955] killed herself, they forged Mom’s signature, they got ten thousand dollars, they lost it at the racetrack, Natalie jumped off the roof, you know? All this stuff. And we’re putting all of that, we have letters, and pictures, and drawings.”
“Like a cold case approach.”
“We’re gonna put it in front of his prison letters, to show that that means something, you know?”
“Showing the mindset that led to what happened, the circumstances of it.”
“Yeah. And then at the end we’re gonna put John’s chapter-book about him, Visions of . . . Dad [Visions of Neal by John Allen Cassady, unpublished at present]—because that’s when he was riding go-karts with John down the neighborhood street, and taking him to the demolition derby and, you know, his grace as a man—and then Cathy and I are gonna write something, too—overcame his horrible childhood, and the—but we think he wanted to get arrested, Randy and I, this is our thing: we think, ‘cause he was done—”
“Yeah. ‘Cause he knew they were narcs. So he was either flaunting something, or he was like, ‘Get me.’”
“Yeah. He was like ‘Get me,’ is what we think. But you know, we’re gonna just present everything like we found. We also found his diplomas from his classes in San Quentin, the ones Gavin Arthur taught, and he worked in the printshop, he learned how to be a print guy, like Kerouac’s dad, and who knew that? Mom never told me. So we have all those things. And then Randy’s gonna add the stuff that Mom tried to get welfare and they wouldn’t give it to her—just all the crap she had to go through when he was gone—the neighbor’s letters that, ‘Don’t worry, we’re behind you, we’re gonna help you all we can’—and what she was most afraid of was that kids in school would say, ‘Oh, your dad’s in jail,’ and stuff, but not one mother told any child in the whole school. I never knew, until I was fourteen, that he’d been in prison.”
“Yeah, that’s miraculous.”
“We thought he was on a railroad trip, on a conducting tour. Mom said he had a little longer of a stint, you know—two years—came back, I remember I had the measles, or the mumps, I was in mom’s bed, watching TV, walks in the door—‘Hi, dad!’, ‘Hi, honey!’—you know? It was like—so—haha,” Jami looks away, smiling, like Dean or Cody.
I asked a question about her mother Carolyn’s relationship with allowance and intuition and a couple of miniature fans fell off the mantle she was sitting in front of. Jami laughed. and said, “Oops! That little fan ran out of batteries,” as if it were letting us know what it wanted.
“All right,” I said, in the manner of a table-tapper, or someone leading a séance, “Carolyn’s spirit doesn’t want us talking about her, for some reason [Jami laughed]. . . but Carolyn, I’m your friend, I want to promote your reputation, not leave you in the shadow of your late mate, as it’s usually done. So, if you’re not opposed, we’re gonna try this again—and if you are opposed, you’ll try again.”
“Oh, she’s made herself known to me a couple of times, a while back,” laughs Jami, saying, “Okay..” between phrases, exactly as Jack described Neal having done in eight or nine places in three to six books.
“So, Allowance,” I said. “To me that’s not about freewheeling hedonism, though it can sometimes take that shape—but it’s more about electricity or energy, allowing the circuit to complete as opposed to a short circuit.”
“Yes, I like that description. That’s a very good description. Like I said—my growing up with the UFO thing as an accepted part of my learning—Mom and Dad took us three kids to Christian Science church in Los Gatos just to learn the Bible stories, you know, to Bible study. They didn’t sit in the pews or sing or anything, they just took us, you know, to learn the basics, and I—today, I can name off the Bible, Old Testament—but anyway—ah—just so we knew—that kind of thing—but then, after he found Many Mansions, and they got into Cayce, they took us out of Bible study school . . . Which was fine, except that after it finished every Sunday, Dad would pick us up and take us next door to the Foster Freeze and get ice cream. So that was gone. But—they would sit in the living room and either read Cayce to us, or discuss or read other books, you know, from that same genre like that, to us, and discuss, among themselves, and to us, back and forth, teaching us about reincarnation, how the body is . . . the temple and, you know—oh Gosh—it’s so ingrained it’s hard for me to pick out sentences!” Last word comes out in a laugh. “You know. But um, and we would just sit there, and color, and listen, and you know, ask questions—and it was just, that’s all I ever knew after that. So everything that they taught us about karma is what I believe—and like I remember John and I in high school—uh—talking to our friends, we’d sit at the steps of Los Gatos High, a big old beautiful high school late at night, with our friends, and tell em all about this stuff that we had learned from our parents, and, you know, they definitely had no idea about any of this stuff—so, if you ask any of John’s old friends today, they would be aware—”
“’Yeah, I remember the Cassady kids, always talkin’ that crazy reincarnation stuff.’”
“Yeah. So I remember one day in particular we were talking, and one kid—oh, we were talking about karma, and the way how you act in one life has a direct consequence in your next life if you don’t uh—oh, ran out of words—if you don’t uh change your path, or change your karma and then your next life will be better—yes, in fact she told me that purpose of being human is to come back time after time after time and to be a Christ. That was our goal on this plane. You came back as a Christ, then you move on to another plane, do other stuff. So—anyway we were talking about it with our friends, and one said, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna come back as a pig,’ and John and I jumped all over him, ‘Oh no, that’s called transmigration.’ (holding up a finger) ‘Reincarnation is . . .’ you know, on and on about the soul, how the soul’s not in an animal, it’s a human, just on and on and on and everything we had learned, and were proud of the fact that we knew it and nobody else did. A lot of the stuff I learned from my parents, growing up I felt kind of smug about.”
“Another case of being half a step ahead, because look how important these concepts are to society now, and back then it was just a weird quirk.”
“It was a weird quirk, yeah. You’re right. Sure. That’s my upringing in religion with my parents—then she joined the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine when she divorced Dad, and um—it was in the early 70s and I was with R andy then, my husband—it was the first time we knew about Kyryllian photography and the plants—plants are alive, oh my God—and she, from that day forward, she would never buy a Bonsai, cause she—‘You’re torturing this, this tree,’ you know. To this day, I look at em and think, Ugh, who would wanna do that? everything she said really sunk in.”
I was still on the Bonsai when I said, “Like bound feet,” though I suppose it could also correlate to instruction sinking in.
“Exactly,” Jami agreed.
“I never thought of that.”
“Exactly. So that, and then she had uh what’s his name, the spoon bender, and you know, all those famous people.”
“Oh, Uri Geller?” Man, that guy gets in everywhere, I thought.
“Yes—that were just starting to open up people’s consciousness—and plants, you can have houseplants in your house.”
“That was considered weird once?”
“Oh yeah, sev—early seventies—so um, all that she was a big part of, ‘cause she, where she worked, they brought in all these scholars and doctors, and medicine is not Western—you know?—and you can change things with your mind, you don’t have to, you know, go with the Western stuff”
“Thank God,” I sighed.
“Up the street from where we lived was a Unity church, and one of my best friends was a member, this is when I was being sober, and I joined, to have something to do on a Sunday, and I had just read a book about Jim Jones and the cyanide shit, you know? Excuse me. So, I read that, and I was trying to be, you know, this really good and sober person, and they had this extra class at Unity, at night, for 2 hours, it cost $200 but it was about how to be a better soul, good for karma, something like that, and I fell for it, thought, ‘Oh, cool. Lemme do it.’ You know. So I gave him the two hundred, I’m sitting there, and after about three weeks, I saw what they’re doing , they’re trying to teach me how to be in their hierarchy in their mind of what it should be like—”
“Submissive to their doctrine, like.”
“Yeah, and I sat there, and they said, ‘You know, because we want the entire world to be loving and together and connected.’ I said, ‘That’s never gonna happen.’ I mean I blurted it out, I said, ‘I just read this book, you guys stop just—,’ I said, ‘That’s not gonna happen.’ I realized they were trying to brainwash me into their way of thinking. I don’t know what their outcome would be, give ‘em more money, I don’t know—but it was just, ‘That’s not gonna work. How long have you been trying to make this happen, ‘cause that’s not gonna happen. That’s why we have karma and shit like that ‘cause people are different, and you can’t get ‘em all in that group.’ Yeah, I actually walked out. Yeah. And that’s another thing I was gonna say earlier, about my mom and her teachings. That karma exists because people are different.
“Anyway, so allowance, I’m not quite sure how to answer that. Going with the flow, he went with wherever anybody took him, or wherever he asked to be taken. That’s what dad was doing, just trying to feel good.”
“That’s easy He had a sixth—he had an 8th sense. People saw it. People wrote about it. He knew if he went around this car, he’d be safe, and there was that and this, and this and that. His amazing photographic memory was how he could pick up a conversation with someone a year later right where they left off—that must have been a burden, don’t you think? Can you imagine? I think he was high on the list of very intuitive souls. Also, Gavin Arthur, his uh religious teacher at San Quentin, said that when he did his first class at San Quentin, on comparative religion, a man walked in, with this bright aura around him, and it was Neal. What happened is when Mom divorced him in ’63, after he couldn’t get his job back on the Southern Pacific ‘cause of San Quentin, and he had to do menial labor—and he’d always had a death wish, so, after the railroad dropped him, and Mom said, ‘Oh honey, go play with your new friends,’ you know, she said, “I set you free. Go ahead.’ Well, that was another bad thing, you know, because the home life and the family was what was holding him together. So, after that he never had another home of his own, he lived with the Dead in San Francisco, with Kesey in La Honda, he went wherever anybody took him or he asked to go places uh, you know, ‘Can I drive your car?’ Stuff like that.”
“If Carolyn had not allowed him to leave, do you think he would have kept on going back and forth or—?”
“I think he would have—oh—that’s a good point, because I’m so into the lore of what really did happen with that. I think she also wanted them divorced, though, you know. She needed to spread her wings and see what she could do on her own and—so—she really did it for herself also, and it was—she really cut the tie there—and so, well after that, I mean four years later he was dead. But what he did, and he told Mom many times that ‘These people expect me to perform like this, they really need this person, so I do it because they give me stuff that I want,’ and it was just a vicious cycle there. He actually said once, ‘You know, I’m a trained bear.’”
“That one really got [Neal’s son, an artist] Bob Hyatt. He mentioned that.”
Jami and I had been talking about the impending UAP announcement. She left to take the Rattos’ dog, Chloe around the block for a wee. Tall Randy, sitting behind a table of Nealabilia with his arms behind his head, commented, “You know, I read a book by Erich Von Daniken in the 70s, and I disagreed with it.”
“You gotta read some Zechariah Sitchin,” I told Randy. “He’ll even make you forgive Erich Von Daniken a little.”
“Oh, I have! And you know what’s interesting—the Sumerians call the visitors from Nibiru the Annunaki, and then there’s that civilization that mysteriously vanished in the Southwest called the Anasazi.”
“That is weird. I never thought of that.”
Around six o’clock I helped Jami and Randy pack up all their stuff and load it in Randy’s black truck, Jami gave me a hug, and they were off. It was raining lightly, and the air was cool. I opened my umbrella and started walking down Broadway toward the light rail stop. On the way home, the guy sitting in front of me kept looking for something underneath his seat as the rest of us watched.
I got off the train and walked across a storm of cold raindrops holding my umbrella to the side against the wind on the second day of Cassady weekend at Mutiny Info Café. “So what ever happened with that report?” asked Jami. She was talking about the UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) report we’d touched on the day before. “Nine pages. No new info, just here they are and we don’t understand it. Which is change, if not progress. I still think something’s in the works.”
The report released to the public was only 9 pages long, but a much longer one had been released to Congress, and no doubt there would be true and false leaked versions of that longer report in the next few days. The government announced that these things were appearing and it didn’t make sense what they did, renaming the mystery a phenomena rather than objects, not terming it extra-terrestrial or extra-dimensional, just officially leaving the door open for unlimited speculation, for people’s best and worst impulses to take hold of and run away with as they might—it could be God, it could be China, could be parallel realities, aliens. Everything so far this year had pushed me out of theory into action. I’d wanted the same thing to happen again with that announcement, even knowing it was a longshot. But it felt better than worse to know it was still up to me how I felt about aliens, what I thought was happening with UFOs or UAP or whatever name they gave it. Supposedly that Jeremy Corbell guy was about to release more film, and I’d see it when it came out, like everyone else, whatever it came to. Something else Jami said was that the current low-key president was holding things steady between the last unprecedented unnamed president and the next historic bombshell in the wings—whatever that turns out to be. Your life reflects your mind.
I read some pages from the latest and a few new poems, then Roseanna Frechette read selections from Neal’s only published work, The First Third [I recommend The Collected Letters]. A couple of friends and I went up the street to an Asian-fusion joint called Karma and ordered food and drank several carafes of hot sake, talking about Neal Cassady and last night’s unsatisfying UAP announcement and human psychology. After a couple of hours, I ran back down the rain-wet sidewalk to Mutiny and said goodbye to Jami and Randy, then ran back to Karma.
My friend Tina suggested we go to this place across the street from Mutiny where she knew the bartender called Doherty’s. It was that kind of evening, where you feel good and spend all your money on fun. I was looking out the door across the street at Randy Ratto’s truck parked outside Mutiny when Jami and Randy came out and walked across the street. Randy fell down and I helped him up. “It’s his neuropathy,” said Jami. “My dad,” I said (my dad had that before he died), and the whole alchemy of health and sickness ran through my head in the blink of an eye. The Rattos joined us for a few more rounds there, and Randy told me the way Neal became connected with Kesey was through an Esalen-style commune he was selling weed to, after receiving word Kesey wanted to meet the star Beat down the street. Randy also let me know he’d always wanted to add a third day to the Cassady weekends in Denver, which had been going on since 1990-something, “A spiritual day,” he said. “That’s one side of Neal no one’s ever looked at.” I told him I’d send all the references to Neal and him and Jami before I published my new book, then walked through the cold air in my black T-shirt to the light rail stop and rode a train home to my apartment on the creaky top floor, put on dry socks and wrote this.