Keeping the Beat: Musician David Amram remembers Neal Cassady

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Octogenarian musician/musicologist David Amram's ties to the Beats hold strong, especially in San Francisco, where jazz and poetry intersected, and in some ways, he's one of the last grand old men of the cause. It's no small thing, then, to consider that Amram will be among the presenters, along with Cassady's kids Jami and John Allen and other luminaries, at tonight's Neal Cassady Birthday Bash at the Mercury Cafe. We caught up with a chatty Amram to ask a few questions about Neal Cassady and his party.

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Westword: What will happen during your presentation at the birthday event?
David Amram: I'll be reading a poem I wrote about Neal in Denver, and the I'll perform the song, "Pull My Daisy," that we did with Kerouac. I'll tell the audience what I know about his life in Five Points and the history he had in Denver - how he was basically a street kid, yet he almost set a record for going to Denver Public Library and reading more books than anyone else, and how he was in some ways a more educated person than friends who went to college, just because of his love of books and life.

WW: Why is it important to remember Neal Cassady in Denver?
DA: He was representative of so many wonderful things about the West that most people take for granted. Jack and Allen and everyone else got that Denver connection, but instead of it being wonderful, most people considered being from the West to be an impediment. The intellectual world was geared more toward New York City and Europe. Even in San Francisco, people were left out of the picture. Unless you were in Hollywood or New York, everything in between was a like a wasteland. But people like Kerouac and myself who came from the East Coast saw Denver and the West almost like a mythological place, and Neal represented a real picture of that Western spirit of independence, ingenuity and doing for oneself. Acknowledging Neal in a place in Denver -- that's about acknowledging him as a good person, not dismissing him as a cliché.

WW: In some ways, he became a tragic figure.
DA: Neal was a terrific family person. He was very old-fashioned in some ways. He was a crazy guy when he was out there partying, but he also had a job and a purpose in life that he was trying to fulfill. But one of his tragedies is that he'd put a lot of stuff he'd written in a big bag that got lost and disappeared. Neal never really got the chance to come to believe in himself, to have that creative outlet. By the time he was riding the bus with Kesey, he'd become like a cartoon character of himself fifteen years prior to that.

WW: What place in Denver reminds you most of Neal Cassady?
DA: Audrey Sprenger led a walking tour of places Neal lived in Denver that went on, and there was a wonderful section when she took us walking through Five Points, where KUVO -- which is only the best jazz station in the country -- is located close to places where he used to hang out. There was something about that all those years later, there was still a resonance of something in the air. It was a chance to walk through the remains of Larimer Street and the time when Neal lived there, when it was still a rugged place, with that beautiful old feeling that gets lost when cities get so redeveloped that you don't even know where you are anymore.

During David Amram's stay in Colorado, he'll also perform with his quartet at Dazzle at 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday; on Tuesday, he'll give a free guest recital from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in Grusin Hall at CU-Boulder's Imig Building (call 303-492-8008).

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