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Photograph by Robert Scheer

Reefer Modness

John Cassady will talk about his Beat dad at the Cannabis Cup, but that's it

By Traci Hukill

IT'S BOUND TO be a little awkward for somebody--maybe everybody. John Cassady, son of the Beat hero Neal Cassady, and his mother, Carolyn, have been invited to Amsterdam for the 12th annual High Times Cannabis Cup during the week of Thanksgiving. There the two will tell anecdotes to a blearily appreciative audience about the man who was the inspiration for Dean Moriarty, the sybilline, questing force of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and accept his induction (along with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs) into the Cannabis Hall of Fame.

If they wanted to, the duo could don the mantle of dignified duty and act as judges in the Cannabis Cup to determine the best marijuana in the world, from Humboldt County to Istanbul. They could really enjoy the various air-fare-and-hotel packages put together by the dedicated staff at High Times--from The Gram at $849 per person all the way up to the sumptuous Kilo, which translates to five-star accommodations--and of course embark on the requisite cafe tours. But neither John nor his 76-year-old mother smoke--anything, let alone pot.

"I didn't have the heart to tell them I don't smoke," Cassady confesses, shaking his head ruefully. "I used to chain-smoke the stuff. Now I figure I'm stupid enough without it.

"My mother was never really into it. That's what's so funny about this Amsterdam thing. I remember she'd get this hands-on-hips look sometimes and say, 'Neal ...' and I knew whatever she was talking about, it was fun. I think she was saying, 'Don't even think about burning reefer in front of the kids.' "

Cassady, who was raised in Monte Sereno and now lives in San Jose, is now himself a dad in his 40s with youthful mannerisms and a mane of Johnny Winters-pale hair. He waxes loquacious about his famous father, occasionally stopping to apologize for the sheer amount of verbiage spilling forth.

"I love talking about him," he admits. "Once I get started it's hard to stop ... it brings back so many memories. I'd like to write a book about it, before I forget it all."

Cassady indulges his audience with some pot stories about his old man, like how Neal liked to burn in the car on the way to the midget races in San Jose, an oblivious 8-year-old John beside him.

"I remember I really loved the aroma of those cigarettes," he grins. "Dad smoked different in the car sometimes. He held his breath. It wasn't like when he smoked Camels at home."

That kind of activity today would get a CPS worker on a guy's ass so fast he wouldn't know what happened. But Cassady insists there was nothing corrupting about his father's drug use.

"I didn't even know what pot was until I was 15," he snorts. "When I was in high school it was so kind of taboo and underground and scorned--it just wasn't done. I remember when we finally scored a matchbox of Acapulco Gold for $5 and we went to my friend's treehouse to try it. As soon as we put match to paper, just the smell brought back 5,000 memories. I went, 'Oh, my God. That was it all the time.' "

There was another side to the partying. Things went downhill after Neal did two years in San Quentin in the late '50s for possession of two joints. After his release, Cassady the Elder's perceived pressure to continue to perform as the oracle of the Beat movement, coupled with guilt over his inability to provide for his family, tainted the last years of his life. Carolyn and Neal divorced in 1964, four years before Neal's death, and Neal's star burned out in characteristically dramatic fashion.

"In the '60s he was all strung out on crank," says Cassady. "He was like a dancing bear, performing for all these hippies. He thought they expected it from him."

These thoughts will probably be somewhere in the minds of John and Carolyn Cassady as they accept honors on Neal's behalf in Amsterdam. But there's one family member who won't be burdened with memories of an ugly reality, one who's an avid On the Road fan and lives in the heart of the age group that always seems to love and need the book the most: John Cassady's 24-year-old son, Jamie Neal. Of his son's plans for Amsterdam, Cassady says with a knowing smile:

"He wants to be a judge."

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From the November 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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