Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Aztec Two-Step -- "The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On The Road)" (1972)

He was born on the road in the month of July
And he’ll live on the road ‘til he sees fit to die
'Cause he learned on the road how humanity cries

Today is the 55th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the quintessential literary work of the "Beat Generation."

The first edition
After several false starts, Kerouac wrote a draft of On the Road in three weeks in 1951.  He typed the book on to a 120-foot scroll of teletype paper, which still exists.  I'm not sure why it took him six years to get it published.

Jim Irsay, the owner of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts bought the scroll in 2001 for $2.4 million, and it has been exhibited in a number of museums and libraries.  Click here to read a Boston Globe story about the scroll.

Jim Irsay with the On the Road scroll
The two main characters in On the Road are Sal Paradise, who is based on the author, and his friend and traveling companion, Dean Moriarty, who is based on "Beat" icon Neal Cassady.

Cassady's mother died when he was ten, and he was raised by his alcoholic father, who lived on Denver's skid row.  As a teenager, Cassady was arrested a number of times.  His earliest run-in with the law took place when he was nabbed for car theft when he was only 14.  Shortly after turning 18, he was convicted of receiving stolen property and spent almost a year in prison.

After his release from prison in 1948, he married a 15-year-old girl.  The couple moved to New York City, where Cassady met Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg.

Shortly thereafter, Cassady got his marriage annulled so he could marry another woman.  He and his new wife moved to California and had three children.  A couple of years later, Cassady committed bigamy by marrying another woman, with whom he had a son.

Ginsberg and Cassady
Cassady was also involved in a homosexual relationship with Allen Ginsberg, which lasted off and on for about 20 years.

In 1958, Cassady was convicted of marijuana possession and incarcerated at San Quentin.  After his release in 1960, his wife divorced him.  In 1964, he hooked up with Ken Kesey and his "Merry Pranksters," driving their bus on the cross-country trip that was the subject of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Here's some video of the Cassady of that era:

In 1968, Cassady went to Mexico to attend a wedding party, where he took some Seconal (a barbiturate) and probably had a drink or two.  He then decided to walk to the next town along some railroad tracks, but passed out in the middle of the night.  He was found lying next to the tracks in a coma the next morning, and died in a local hospital a few hours later.  Cassady was only 42.  (Kerouac died a year later at age 47.)

Cassady and Kerouac
Cassady wrote some poetry and an autobiographical novel, but his real literary significance derived from the fact that he was Kerouac's muse.  Characters based on Cassady appear not only in On the Road, but also in several other Kerouac novels.  Cassady is credited with helping Kerouac move away from a traditional, sentimental writing style and develop the stream-of-consciousness style he used in On the Road.  

Cassady is mentioned in Ginsberg's poetry, and he may have been the inspiration for the main character in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  There have been several movies in which he is a character, and he is referenced in songs by the Grateful Dead, Doobie Brothers, King Crimson, and Tom Waits (among others).

Aztec Two-Step was formed in 1971 when Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman met during an open-mike night at a Boston coffeehouse.  They are still performing together, and have released 15 albums over the last 40 years.  (The group's name is taken from a poem by another major "Beat" writer, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.)

This song captures the essence of the Dean Moriarty character, portraying him as a man-child who is charismatic but more than a little crazy.  Most of all, he is free -- which makes him scary to a lot of people:

One look in his eyes and you know he’s unsound
There’s no way to faze him he’s nobody’s clown
He’s as deep as the sea and he’s equally free
That’s why I fear him, and hate him, 
And wish he were down

The song closes with these lines:

He’s like the setting sun’s hues, 
Or the dust on his shoes
He’s living, he’s naughty, 
He’s Dean Moriarty

Here's "The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On the Road)":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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