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Without Missing a Beat

[whitespace] John Allen Cassady

John Allen Cassady remembers Jerry Garcia, Turkish tobacco and 'Sprawlus Overallus'

By Michael Learmonth

Nancy Wenstrom plays soft chords and sings lyrics about a lover, the death of a friend and a broken heart in the back room of Blue Rock Shoot in Saratoga on a recent Saturday night. Ostensibly, it's a release party for her new self-titled CD, but it becomes a reunion of sorts between Wenstrom and two friends who grew up between Los Gatos and Saratoga at the knee of a Beat Generation icon and who came of age during the Vietnam War and the Summer of Love.

"John, will you join me on guitar?" Wenstrom asks between songs.

A tall man with long white hair gets up from the front table.

"Let's rock," he says, grabbing an electric guitar by the neck and sitting down next to her.

They start to play, John slowly following with a melody that becomes more confident as he gets a feel for the song. "John" is John Cassady, son of Neal Cassady, the San Jose Southern Pacific Railroad brakeman who was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

John Cassady and Wenstrom knew each other as "kids" when Wenstrom was a student at Berkeley. Even as a young man, Cassady had his trademark long white hair. Wenstrom looks a lot like Goldie Hawn did about a decade ago. The two saw the Rolling Stones at Altamont together. They road-tripped to Tijuana, hiding Cassady's long hair under an ace bandage to cross the border. (He had a head wound, they told the border guards, notoriously suspicious of hippies.)

Between Wenstrom's sets, John and his childhood friend Jim "JB" Benoit take the stage. They play a tribute to Kerouac and to Neal Cassady, who died mysteriously of exposure in 1968 sleeping alongside a railroad track in northern Mexico.

    On the road
    Make the rules up as we go
    On the road
    There's no hurry, time goes slow on the road

When Benoit and Cassady were kids, they attended Oak Street School together and played at the Cassadys' Monte Sereno home. Neal Cassady bought the house in 1952 with a $20,000 award from the railroad after he was injured chasing down a runaway boxcar at the rail yard.

The house became a mecca for '60s counterculture artists Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, who lived in La Honda.

John Cassady says his parents, Neal and Carolyn, tried to give him and his two siblings the semblance of a normal childhood. But, one might say of the time, what was "normal" was definitely subject to debate.

John Cassady remembers sitting at the foot of Allen Ginsberg's chair in 1964 and listening to the poet's stories.

"You know, the Beatles smoke pot," the poet said proudly. "Me and [Bob] Dylan turned 'em on to it." John Cassady remembers thinking, "What's pot?"

Neal always told John and JB that the smell was "Turkish tobacco." It wasn't until the boys were sophomores in high school that they took their first puff and learned the truth about Turkish tobacco.

John Cassady remembers a day in the ninth grade at Saratoga High School when he was called to the principal's office in the middle of class. When he arrived, there were two men leaning against the counter in white jumpsuits, American flags and bright orange shoes. The two men were Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey.

"This man says he's your father," the principal said.

"Hey, Dad!" John said.

Neal Cassady explained the reason for taking John out of school: "We're taking him to a con...uh...he has a dentist appointment!"

The Merry Pranksters were waiting in the parking lot in an Oldsmobile filled with pot smoke.

"None for the kid," Neal said as they got in.

They drove to Awalt High School in Mountain View, where members of the Grateful Dead were hanging out in the teachers lounge before playing a show in the gymnasium.

"Jerry's got his Les Paul out, and he's talking philosophy with the principal," John remembers. "Bob Weir and Phil Lesh were babbling to the teachers. I got Jerry's autograph. I just wanted to be Jerry Garcia. I thought he was God."

John idolized Jerry, but as Garcia wrote in a foreward to the book On the Bus by Ken Babbs and Paul Perry, Jerry idolized Neal. It was sitting next to Neal watching him handle the gears of an old brown Ford that made Jerry Garcia realize that performing, rather than painting, would be his art.

The week after the concert, John Cassady wore his father's orange boots to school.

For the boys, John and JB, the counterculture playground was subtext to an idyllic childhood on the rim of the valley. From their perch, they grew up watching the lights in the valley multiply and the orchards disappear.

"We called it 'Sprawlus Overallus,' " JB says.

Today, John works at a Los Gatos software company and JB pours drinks at Shoreline Amphitheatre and other local venues. They get together with friends from time to time to sing songs and spin stories about Monte Sereno, Saratoga High and growing up in the South Bay in the '60s. And what a time it was.

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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