Neal Cassady: The Denver Years gets in gear at 3 Kings tomorrow
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.
Neal Cassady captured in 1944 Denver Police Department mug shots.
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.
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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.