Neal's Denver

A Personal Exploration

and Beat Baedeker

by Andrew Burnett
"...all the city was to become my playground..."
Neal Cassady, The First Third

"Neal is a colossus risen to Destroy Denver!"
Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, As Ever

"who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & loned in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes."
Allen Ginsberg, Howl.

If you're visiting Denver, or if you just wish you were, try one of these tours:

The Bona Fide Beat Train

The Beat Beatific Shuttle

The Beat Automobile Tour

In the winter of 1995, only two blocks remain of the Larimer Street Neal Cassady knew. For forty years Larimer used to stretch as one long skid-row for most of its 25-block length, but today only two true skid-row blocks remain, between 20th and 22nd: bars that open at eight in the morning (signs say "No children after 5:00"); pawn shops where Cassady very likely pawned anything he could get his hands on for quick cash; a 12-step recovery shelter, three bars, two liquor stores, a barber shop, and a Mexican bakery. At most, maybe three men are unconscious now on any given morning, where once there'd have been fifteen or twenty (gentrification has moved the shelters almost ten blocks north). Instead of Larimer, the men wait for the sun to come up at 23rd and Curtis.

This last two-block stretch of semi-decrepit Larimer will probably be gone by the winter of '97 -- young architects are already living on the second floors of boarded-up buildings while they supervise ground-level renovation projects below. The brand-new baseball stadium is half a block away (Cassady would have loved this, though); young hipsters gather every Wednesday night at Herb's Hideout to do their retro lounge gig with big-city martinis; and even La Popular, the bakery that fills Larimer with the smell of pan dulce at dawn, is about to move over to Lawrence -- the rents are going up; the old owners are getting the hell out and making major bucks in the process. If you read this as your last chance to see Denver as Cassady even remotely saw it, you're right: it's your last chance. That only a year or two remains of this isn't good or bad, but semi-holy moments here are dwindling: one night in seven the owner of the almost-abandoned Western Hotel accidentally leaves the neon sign on at 21st and Larimer and the blurry old blue-orange of Western matches the blue-orange of the morning sky. And again, there's really no accounting for how good the fresh Mexican sweet bread smells on a dark winter morning -- if the wind's just right, it wraps all the way around you while you're still three blocks away.

Denver isn't much but it'll do. It's a fact that American cities are increasingly homogeneous: shopping malls horrify in the same way in Newark as they do in Phoenix; inner cities are run down and then gentrified in the same ways everywhere. If a Beat site remains in Denver it's only because it was ignored from the end of World War II into the nineties: over fifty years of being so useless that no one even cared to tear it down. And for the most part if there's any change at all in a Denver Beat site, it's because the building was so worthless and damaged that it was worth more flattened than intact.

It's hard to write about Denver and the Beats without persisting in a little city-wide anti-karmic self-justification. New York and San Francisco are true, hardcore beat sites -- anything about Denver is going to sound as if somebody, somewhere is protesting just a little too much about a provincial capital with only peripheral links to Beat authors.

It's hard, too, to write about Neal Cassady. He-man mercenary, neo-Proustian speed freak, devil incarnate, lost angel, part hipster, part huckster, half lost, half found, he's not an easy fit for the sort of molto-pc puritan categories that our very proper fin de siecle comes up with. Some of what he did and said was beautiful; and some of it was repellent. Anyone conned by Neal Cassady has one story to tell; anyone who truly loved him tells another. Only Carolyn Cassady and Allen Ginsberg among all the commentators have brought together Neal's two halves to create something resembling a clear picture (Everyone else loves him or hates him unduly -- resulting in a cartoonish Cassady representing either beatitude or evil-doing). It's clear enough that love for Neal -- loving him in spite of himself as only a life-partner could -- is the quality that both his widow and Ginsberg share. And even then, Carolyn Cassady's "Off the Road" is the best document we have at present for grasping at the life of the man.

He's our Rimbaud without the luck Rimbaud had -- and R. didn't have too much. He's an American R. behind the wheel of one of our century's automobiles going way too fast down one of our streets. Close to a crew-cut, handsome as hell, jeans and a t-shirt, he's got our drugs, our music, our idiom and our books. If he's a monster, he's a monster of our making; if he's a new type of earthly saint, well then we've done this, too. There are moments near the end when Cassady himself describes nothing but blankness (man, does this remind me of Rimbaud in Abyssinia -- isn't it appropriate that the American Rimbaud's Abyssinia was Los Gatos, California, working on the railroad and recapping tires?). Listen to Cassady speed rap on one of the Acid Test tapes from '65 and all you hear is the void -- but it's an American void, and anyone with a brain and an ounce of lostness knows the void as theirs. He was Kerouac's hero but he's our anti-hero: you can't be a hero and have as much trouble with the planet as he did.

Money, shoes, pants, knowledge, whatever: it's a fair bet that if Cassady approached you on the street near the end of the millennium, he'd charm or con something off you in a heartbeat. (Don't we all attempt to do this in one way or another? At one level or another?) Since Cassady lived so thoroughly in his now, he was at the center of the universe (or his part of it) all the time -- and it's my guess that those who knew him and loved him were seduced by how vivid he was; how vivid his now was. Larimer (or Van Ness, or 116th Street) with Cassady was probably a pretty damned vivid, live and exciting place.

Cassady's universal poor-boy boyhood occurred in downtown Denver within a four-mile circle. Cassady's boyhood could have occurred anywhere, I think, but it happens that Denver produced him. There's a mystique because of this: there's a web site in Pasadena for a group of twentysomething friends who decided to take a spring break road trip to Denver last spring. Their schedule left them with maybe six waking hours here but still they wanted to make the trip. Buried in their hypertext links was a reference to "On The Road," and it was clear that this book was the source of their desire to see Denver. It's my guess that, via Kerouac, thousands of readers have felt the urge to explore Denver as Sal Paradise did; and search for Dean Moriarty as Sal did.

Literary Kicks curator Levi Asher talked about a mystique, too, in his original Denver page ("I've never been to Denver, but I'm dying to go. I'd get drunk on Tokay at a Larimer Street dive, and then go street-crawling in search of Dean Moriarty's forever-lost father."), and he encouraged this informal exploration after my e-mail thanked him for his work, especially his half page of Denver-centered dreams. Anyone growing up in provincial, suburban America would understand this: you grow up on the periphery dreaming of life elsewhere -- life at the center of things -- and decades later you end up a little bit in love with the streets where all the dream-manufacturing took place. Nowheresville. This is where everybody grows up; this is where everybody flees from. Denver is nowheresville. Kerouac had Lowell; Ginsberg had Patterson; Cassady had Denver. I know the feeling: Denver's mine whether I want it or not.

Growing up in Denver, I always enjoyed having little secret Beat bits of knowledge to myself: ten years ago I'd eat lunch leaning against the Water Department building in Civic Center knowing that this was the Carnegie public library when Neal Cassady was jailbait pure and simple, in and out of juvy hall-- devouring Kant and Schopenhauer when he wasn't stealing cars and attempting to put the nth line over on the nth girl. This library was secondary in importance, though, to the little library inside Ebert Elementary at the corner of Park Avenue West (a downright fabulous name for run-down 23rd Street) and Glenarm. This was where Cassady's boyhood was transformed by an obsession with Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. This was library number one for me, too, because my mother went to kindergarten and first grade here (just as Cassady had ten years earlier) in '45 and '46. As a guilt-ridden, past-haunted newsroom manager, I'd volunteered at the after-school program at Ebert for my mother's memory long before I ever knew that Cassady had been a book-devouring child in the same Cristo-filled library. The demographics of this neighborhood haven't changed in fifty years: I realized that I was reading stories to modern little manic, multi-colored, post-Ritalin Neals, pinching and kicking their way to enlightenment.

Just so you get an idea of the linkages: I couldn't for a moment pretend that these weren't personal links to Cassady; or personal links to Denver. This is compounded by my boyhood here, my periodic jailbaitness, the recognition of my own huckster quotient, and my father's frail, lifelong barberness. There's nothing I can do about either; neither could Neal.

Okay, and one more level of connection: Cassady grew up in Denver's Curtis Park neighborhood, and a year and a half ago, at a down-and-out moment, I was charmed by the neighborhood's down-and-outness, and I found myself iving in a funky mustard yellow Victorian stucco mansion built in 1884 (Rimbaud was running guns in Abyssinia; Emily Dickenson was holed up in her upstairs room in Amherst; Henry James was writing letters from London; Kafka was a baby), one empty lot away from the northwestern corner of 26th and Champa. I found my old 1971 copy of the slimmer, less-complete City Lights edition of The First Third (what other publishing house would touch it? Bless you, Larry Ferlinghetti) and was blown away to discover that page after page of Cassady's autobiography dealt with this very block. Between loving Denver and Cassady in spite of myself, this exploration has been the perfect mini-adventure for a dry western winter.

The Beats themselves, Ann Charters, Gerald Nicosia and other consummate Beat biographers and researchers have already nailed down the traditional linear history of the Beats, so perhaps a non-linear mini-Michelin guide to Denver's beat sites might complement their important work.

The best work of all about Denver and the Beats are the central texts: Cassady's "The First Third," Kerouac's "On the Road" and "Visions of Cody," Ginsberg's "The Great Rememberer." Buy them, come to Denver, walk these streets, get at American ghosts.

To begin the photo essay/guided tour, may we suggest you start with The Beat Train?

Other Literary Kicks pages:

Neal Cassady

Carolyn Cassady

An Interview with John Cassady (Neal's Son)

John Perry Barlow on Cassady and 'Cassidy'

Jack Kerouac

Allen Ginsberg

The Beat Generation

[HTML coding/production by Hewitt Pratt]

Literary Kicks
Neal's Denver Contributed by Andrew Burnett