There was Cowboy Neal at the Wheel
I have a confession to make. I always wanted to be Neal Cassady. Neal was the man who drove the bus, who bridged the gap, who was larger than not only life, but anyone else in the room. And that’s saying a lot when the room includes the best of the Beats and the merriest of the Pranksters. Neal never created much himself (though he dabbled in writing), and he died badly – alone, cold, alongside railroad tracks on a dark Mexico night.
But he was his buddy Jack Kerouac’s inspiration and when the Beat scene finally faded, Neal – impossibly, improbably – sparked a second cultural revolution when he befriended Ken Kesey. He was there when Hunter S. Thompson hung with the Hell’s Angels, and Tom Wolfe was grooving on the electric kool-aid acid test. He not only was on the bus, he piloted it, taking Furthur on its legendary cross-country trip – the one where he introduced Kesey to Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Neal’s sometime lover who name checked him in Howl.
He was the beloved muse of two generations of this country’s most gifted, electrifying writers. He didn’t tell the tales because he was too busy living them. He let others write about him, for him. And if I adore the books of his friends, I always loved Neal for that.
Which is why when I walked into the tiny, packed to the rafters Beat Book Shop on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder, I had a tough time playing it cool. I wanted to jump up and down like a little kid with too much sugar in her, wave my hands in the air, keening with joy. They were all there, lined up, if not nice and neat, than at least in some semblance of order. All Neal’s friends. All my literary heroes. Not only Kerouac and Kesey and Ginsberg, but Charles Bukowski, and William Burroughs and, of course, Thompson and Wolfe.
The shelves were seething with works by these terrible, glorious men and what little space was left was filled with framed, faded magazine covers sporting shots of them; in between there were ancient posters and funky photographs and, hanging here and there, t-shirts emblazoned with Kerouac’s face. Cassady grew up in Denver; Ginsberg and Kerouac lived in the city for a spell. The Front Range isn’t San Francisco or NYC, but it occupies a crucial spot in counterculture history, to which this store was apparently paying happy tribute.
I browsed for a bit while the man behind the cash register chatted with another customer. The proprietor’s name was Tom, I gleaned, and he opened the Beat Book Shop 20 years ago. Tom had a low, slow, melodically droning voice, and he liked to talk. When we were finally alone, I professed my instant love for his store and my obsession with figures from the 50 and 60s counterculture generally – and Neal specifically.
“Welllll,” he said, “I never met Cassady or Kerouac – unless when I was little my father happened to take me into a bar ‘round here sometime where they were drinking. It could have happened, but I don’t know if it did. But I went to Naropa -”
“The school here in Boulder?” I interrrupted. “The one Ginsberg helped start?”
“Wellll, he helped found Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. And he was my teacher…he used to come into the store a lot. He’d leave notes on the door for me if he dropped by and I wasn’t here. Burroughs, when he was around, he came in, too.” Tom gestured vaguely toward a set of framed prints hanging high over the record section. “Allen took those photographs of Jack and his friends. He was quite a photographer, you know.”
“I know…I mean I heard,” I muttered. As rare, as exquisite, as those images were, it was difficult seeing them through the stars in my eyes. “Can you recommend some books? I’d like to get some more Kerouac, and some Buk and Burroughs, too.”
Almost half an hour later I walked out, 100 bucks poorer, but richer – so much richer – in books. My brother picked me up on the corner and as soon as I climbed into my car I began regaling him with tales of Odd Tom and his marvelous emporium. Gunnar was unimpressed. “There are a million people like that around here, Jill – that’s what Boulder is. And a ton of awesome book stores.”
I hugged my purchases to my chest, frustrated. I didn’t know how to make him understand how much that store meant to me. Just spending time there had made me feel closer to the greats – to Neal and all those writers he galvanized. They’re all gone now, gone but for the tales written by them and about them and the people, ever dwindling, who can say they knew them once. But in that dark little shop on that quiet stretch of Pearl, they are so, so alive.
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