Neal’s Town, Home of the First


Why Denver? How could podSlam‘s amazing, passionate, beat-like poetry come out of what most people think is a cow town? Is there anything more to Denver than a gateway to skiing and the home of Broncomania? Check out the poets at and you’ll wonder too.

Maybe the first PodSlam is from Denver because Neal Cassady’s from Denver. Don’t know who Neal Cassady was? Few do. Dead these 37 years, he was Jack Kerouac’s inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s great American Road Trip novel, On the Road. But Cassady was more than the book’s inspiration – he gave it his voice. Jack Kerouac was frustrated with the book’s tone of voice until he realized he had to write it using Neal’s: “He picked the project up again later, after a series of letters from Cassady gave Kerouac the idea to write the book the way Cassady talked, in a rush of mad ecstasy, without self-consciousness or mental hesitation. It worked: ‘On The Road’ became a sensation by capturing Cassady’s voice.”* 

So, while we call On the Road Kerouac’s book, it’s really Neal’s book. In fact, the area of Denver now known as “LoDo” – Lower Downtown –  Denver’s skid row for decades – was inseparable from Neal Cassady’s reality. There’s even an online tour of Neal’s Denver, suggesting all its grime and grit and passion and puke. It was put up a decade ago by Andrew Burnett, himself a poet. Here’s his intro to Neal’s Denver:

A Personal Exploration

and Beat Baedeker

by Andrew Burnett

“…all the city was to become my playground…”
Neal Cassady, The First Third

“Neal is a colossus risen to Destroy Denver!”
Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, As Ever

“who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & loned in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes.”
Allen Ginsberg, Howl.

If you’re visiting Denver, or if you just wish you were, try one of these tours:

The Bona Fide Beat Train

The Beat Beatific Shuttle

The Beat Automobile Tour

In the winter of 1995, only two blocks remain of the Larimer Street Neal Cassady knew. For forty years Larimer used to stretch as one long skid-row for most of its 25-block length, but today only two true skid-row blocks remain, between 20th and 22nd: bars that open at eight in the morning (signs say “No children after 5:00”); pawn shops where Cassady very likely pawned anything he could get his hands on for quick cash; a 12-step recovery shelter, three bars, two liquor stores, a barber shop, and a Mexican bakery. At most, maybe three men are unconscious now on any given morning, where once there’d have been fifteen or twenty (gentrification has moved the shelters almost ten blocks north). Instead of Larimer, the men wait for the sun to come up at 23rd and Curtis.

Read the whole thing – it’s great. It makes you realize what no current visit can – that Denver was to the Beat Generation – and modern American poetry – what Kansas City was to the Golden Age of Jazz and, ultimately, to BeBop. I find it amazing that these two midwestern cities were the wombs for modern poetry and jazz, respectively.

As further inspiration to read Burnett’s guide, here are some more of his great phrases:

It’s hard to write about Denver and the Beats without persisting in a little city-wide anti-karmic self-justification. New York and San Francisco are true, hardcore beat sites — anything about Denver is going to sound as if somebody, somewhere is protesting just a little too much about a provincial capital with only peripheral links to Beat authors…

It’s hard, too, to write about Neal Cassady. He-man mercenary, neo-Proustian speed freak, devil incarnate, lost angel, part hipster, part huckster, half lost, half found…

He’s our Rimbaud without the luck Rimbaud had — and R. didn’t have too much. He’s an American R. behind the wheel of one of our century’s automobiles going way too fast down one of our streets. Close to a crew-cut, handsome as hell, jeans and a t-shirt, he’s got our drugs, our music, our idiom and our books…

It’s my guess that those who knew him and loved him were seduced by how vivid he was; how vivid his now was. Larimer (or Van Ness, or 116th Street) with Cassady was probably a pretty damned vivid, live and exciting place…

Literary Kicks curator Levi Asher talked about a mystique, too, in his original Denver page (“I’ve never been to Denver, but I’m dying to go. I’d get drunk on Tokay at a Larimer Street dive, and then go street-crawling in search of Dean Moriarty’s forever-lost father.”)…

Growing up in Denver, I always enjoyed having little secret Beat bits of knowledge to myself: ten years ago I’d eat lunch leaning against the Water Department building in Civic Center knowing that this was the Carnegie public library when Neal Cassady was jailbait pure and simple, in and out of juvy hall– devouring Kant and Schopenhauer when he wasn’t stealing cars and attempting to put the nth line over on the nth girl…

The best work of all about Denver and the Beats are the central texts: Cassady’s “The First Third,” Kerouac’s “On the Road” and “Visions of Cody,” Ginsberg’s “The Great Rememberer.” Buy them, come to Denver, walk these streets, get at American ghosts.

Or go to the podSlam, filmed at the corner of 15th & Wynkoop, right in Cassady’s hood, by (mostly) young poets who may not know a central truth: many of the same old white farts who now resent or regret the truth of the poet’s words once nodded to Neal Cassady’s words and spirit, channeled by Kerouac. 

Build that bridge, and the generations can be healed.

6:16:03 PM    

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