Mark Bliesener wants to build a monument.
The 69-year-old fixture in the local music scene wants it to recognize and celebrate two men who launched a literary and cultural movement that influenced untold young minds — including his own — and still reverberates. And he wants it to remind Denver visitors that of all the places in America, this cowtown provided the inspiration.
It’s with this in mind that he steps one recent day from the blinding sunshine into the shade of My Brother’s Bar, the historic Denver watering hole at 15th and Platte streets, and removes a single sheet of paper from a stack by the front door.
What at first may be mistaken for a menu in fact is a morsel of replicated memorabilia: a portion of a handwritten letter from a teenage Neal Cassady, serving a sentence at the Colorado State Reformatory in Buena Vista, asking a friend and mentor in Denver to pay his outstanding tab at Paul’s Place — the establishment that once operated within these same walls.
This slice of history has made the bar a touchstone for the Beat Generation, the post-World War II explosion of anti-establishment, free-wheeling, hedonistic forces that not only influenced American literature but also eventually ignited the ’60s counterculture. And it underscored the connection of Massachusetts-born Beat icon Jack Kerouac, author of the groundbreaking novel “On the Road,” to the city of Denver.
That connection was, first and foremost, Cassady — the street urchin, con man, womanizer and mostly self-educated individualist who grew up in lower downtown flophouses and whose real-life exploits framed the Dean Moriarty character in Kerouac’s book.
Denver’s role in this literary and cultural moment has been marked by small remembrances like those at My Brother’s Bar, where the Cassady letter and various other photos and artifacts are framed prominently in a hallway. A tourist itinerary for exploring the city’s Beat legacy can be found online, complete with suggested readings for each site.
And, every February since 2010, Bliesener and his friend John B. Lane have organized the annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash, on occasion prompting the mayor to proclaim “Neal Cassady Day” in Denver. They even persuaded East High School, where Cassady’s truancy proved more than a match for his considerable intellectual potential, to grant him an honorary diploma.
But Bliesener believes the two men, and the movement they embodied, deserve something more, something permanent.
Hence, the monument.
“There’s something so authentic about Neal and the Beats,” Bliesener says. “It’s totally Denver. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. To my mind, Neal was at the forefront of this, even though he was a street kid, living a true-to-himself lifestyle, which in those days was revolutionary in itself.”
Cassady, whose rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness prose proved too difficult for him to constrain for literary purposes, remains best-known for his prolific letter writing. That, and the sheer force of his personality, sparked the creative instincts of writers like Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, who carved out a literary form that also inspired musicians from Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead. As the Beats gave way to the psychedelic era, Cassady even drove the bus that transported Kesey and his self-described Merry Pranksters on a drug-fueled trip across the U.S. in 1964, inspiring Wolfe’s classic chronicle, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
For Bliesener, who like countless others read “On the Road” at an impressionable age and embarked on his own personal journey, echoes of the Beat Generation stayed with him — particularly since he moved to Colorado in the mid-1970s and recognized the Denver streets and landmarks that lent the novel its western ethos.
So he regards as almost inevitable that he and Lane would launch a campaign to recognize Cassady and Kerouac’s Denver influence. He estimates it would cost $80,000 to $100,000 to produce a life-size bronze sculpture of the two young men, arms draped around each other as depicted in an often-reproduced photo taken by Cassady’s second wife, Carolyn, in their mid-20s.
A Colorado sculptor has gotten on board, and an online fundraising effort is currently a little more than $500 toward the goal of $2,500 to produce a 21-inch scale model, which then could be used as a catalyst for what Bliesener calls “serious fundraising.”
Bliesener regards it as a long-term project that would involve no public funds. Ultimately, it would be given to the city of Denver to place where it deems appropriate, though no discussions with city officials have taken place. Yet certain locations seem a more natural fit than others.
Cassady spent hours in Denver’s old public library, housed in what’s now called the McNichols Building in Civic Center park. The lower downtown area recalls his childhood. Sonny Lawson Park at Park Avenue West and Welton Street appears in Kerouac’s accounts. Cassady recalls how the clock in the landmark now known as the Daniels & Fisher Tower on the 16th Street Mall woke him for school each morning.
There’s no shortage of potential landing sites. But finances and logistics aside, do Cassady and Kerouac merit a monument?
The case for a lasting remembrance
“Absolutely,” says Heather Dalton, the director of production at Colorado Public Television who in 2014 released the documentary, “Neal Cassady: The Denver Years,” that was a decade in the making.
“Literature loves those who are larger than life — literature and music,” Dalton says, noting Cassady’s impact on the Grateful Dead. “He was definitely iconic in a sense that he was a larger-than-life person, and definitely a muse; maybe not creative himself in other terms, but he inspired some of the greatest minds of that generation.”
Brian Trembath, a special collections librarian for western history at the Denver Public Library, takes the case a step further.
“Neal Cassady is arguably one of the biggest literary pop culture figures, one of the most influential, from Denver — maybe of anybody,” he says. “When you talk about influence, you think of ‘On the Road’ as the birth of the Beat movement. And he’s the linchpin, why everybody comes to Denver, the fuel for all their antics.”
But why Denver, and why Cassady? He made friends at East High who eventually went to Columbia University, in New York, Bliesener recounts. Cassady would write them his trademark long, evocative letters about life out West.
The letters were passed around his friends’ social circle, including Kerouac and Ginsberg. Cassady visited New York, further intriguing the group.
“So in the summer of ’47, they all came out here,” Bliesener says. “Post-war New York City is the capital of the world, things are just exploding in New York, and these guys come to Denver? What were they thinking? In ’47, it truly was a cowtown. They were all after Neal, they wanted to interact. They were seeking kind of a wide open lifestyle, a very western, let-’er-rip attitude.”
Cassady’s cachet lay in his energetic, street-smart persona, the one that claimed to have stolen 500 cars, mostly just for laughs, and took Kerouac along for the ride. He could con you — witness his reformatory letter asking his mentor to pay his tab at Paul’s Place — but his presence proved intoxicating and his sex appeal fluid and potent. His surprising intellect and unique storytelling ability only enhanced his magnetism.
“He was the guy,” Trembath explains. “They were all sheltered literary types, and Neal was just this explosion, constantly going, sexual energy, illegal drugs, petty crime, a very exotic figure to them. And also smart and well read.”
Eventually, it was one 40,000-word letter from Cassady that Kerouac famously called “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw” that inspired the unconventional prose style he employed in “On the Road.” And Cassady, as Dean Moriarty, propelled the narrative.
By the time Cassady died in Mexico under fuzzy circumstances believed to be drug-related in 1968, four days shy of his 42nd birthday, he and Kerouac had long since gone their separate ways. But they remain forever linked in literature.
“It’s his spirit that electrified that book,” Lane says. “Without Neal Cassady, I don’t think there would have been ‘On the Road’ or the Beat Generation we know about to this day. Dean Moriarty was Neal Cassady, and the more we found out, the more we were drawn to him. Kerouac was the messenger.”
Reconciling then and now
The line between art and life can be a jagged edge — as evidenced by so many creative figures whose work has been widely embraced but whose personal conduct has breached societal standards.
So what about two men who blew past behavioral boundaries in post-war America?
“The message I got from ‘On the Road’ wasn’t about womanizing or promiscuity, though that was in there, and it’s important to understand that there was a different sensibility then,” Lane says. “But more important, there was a spiritual element and passion. There was support for camaraderie for all levels of human life, especially the most unfortunate.”
Dalton, who delved deeply into Cassady’s life for her documentary, allows that the Beat Generation unfolded at a time of some “archaic beliefs” and that most recently the Me Too movement has prompted introspection with regard to cultural figures.
“A lot of us have had to reconcile those who have inspired us, especially as women,” she says. “I will not cede my inspiration. I can admit they were human and had great failings as men and humans. But I do believe the seed of what they started in the movement has benefited the cultural movement for women in certain ways, though we still have a long way to go.”
Dalton points to the way the Beats challenged the prevailing social constructs, reflected on the definition of true happiness and personal freedom and “embraced sexual fluidity and self-expression” as a few of the ways the movement aided advances for women. She adds that many “third-wave feminists” in the 1990s, including so-called punk rock “riot grrrls” like herself, gained inspiration from beat writers male and female.
At the last Birthday Bash, a panel addressed the subject of “Women and the Beat Legacy” — specifically, issues of misogyny and what some criticized as a perception of women as throwaway sex objects — a point of view that Dalton disputes. Her documentary, largely through second-wife Carolyn’s narrative, describes Cassady as a doting father but also a man who freely and frequently indulged his sexual appetites outside his marriage. Carolyn took up with Kerouac in her husband’s absence, and with Cassady’s approval.
“When it comes to Neal, we need to acknowledge that hurt people hurt,” Dalton says. “It was a time you didn’t talk about being abused as a child, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he was repeatedly abused as a child, so therefore his sexuality became kind of a currency to survive.”
Bliesener says he hasn’t gotten any pushback yet on the monument idea — but he won’t be surprised if it happens.
“You’re always waiting for it, in the times we live in,” he says. “If you read through the Beat writings, they betray the age they were written in. Like with any historical writing, you need to take that into consideration. There haven’t been any naysayers yet, but I’m always waiting for the other shoe to fall.”
Whispers of an idea
The concept of a statue commemorating Cassady and Kerouac crystallized last fall, when Lane was emailing Bliesener with some fresh ideas on how to enhance the annual Birthday Bash. “And literally the idea came to me in mid-keystroke: How about a statue based on that photo by Carolyn Cassady?”
Not until later did he notice that, as he sat at his keyboard hammering out his email, a copy of that exact photo sat perched on the bookshelf behind him.
“That photo was looking over my shoulder as I was writing it,” he says, “almost as if whispering into my ear.”
But the friends didn’t know the first thing about commissioning a monument. They knew they wanted an artist with a Colorado connection, so Lane did an online search and discovered a foundry in Loveland whose website featured a portfolio of sculptors.
One of them was Sutton Betti, a local artist who specializes in capturing human likenesses. Among his works: the statue of F.O. Stanley, the 19th-century inventor and entrepreneur, that stands outside the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.
Lane gave him a call, and while they chatted on the phone, Betti did an online search for the Carolyn Cassady photo of the two young friends and agreed that it would translate into a compelling sculpture. Later, Bliesener added his thoughts about a work that would draw people to it and suggest interaction — a feature that seemed imperative in this age of social media.
“I mentioned the idea of that — something people could get right up next to, so it could become an attraction unto itself, even if you’re not a fan of the Beat scene,” Bliesener says. “That photo has such a good feel and vibe to it. I especially like that in the world we live in, it’s so Instagram-able. That’s where we live.”
Betti was definitely interested. And when he attended the annual Birthday Bash, “that took it to another level,” he says.
Although Betti wasn’t born until four years after Cassady’s death in 1968, he had lived and attended art school in San Francisco, another epicenter of Beat culture. Though he wasn’t so familiar with Cassady, he fell in love with the idea that these were the cultural forces who inspired the ’60s.
“I knew about Kerouac,” Betti says. “When (Lane) reached out to me, I said I have to do this. I really want to be involved in this. It’s not my generation, but these guys inspired the generation I’ve been in love with my entire life. I was inspired by what they did, wrote and represented in that counterculture movement.”
Betti, who aspired to become a Disney animator before turning to sculpture, draws satisfaction from creating bronze monuments of individuals he considers larger-than-life — hence his success sculpting life-size historical and military monuments in six states.
He has sketched out a proposal that calls for a creation 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 7 to 9 feet wide, featuring the bronze figures of Cassady and Kerouac as they appear in the photo — although Betti improvised the position of their legs, which don’t fully appear in the picture. They would be leaning against a wall of sorts, a slab of jagged-topped sandstone that rises to about waist level — and next to each figure would be an engraved description of his cultural significance.
Betti would begin by sculpting a replica in his Loveland studio — a piece that Bliesener hopes would provide the kind of visual that would be helpful in fundraising for the full-size bronze and sandstone version. Betti notes that all the work would be done within a 10-mile radius of his studio, including procuring the stone from a nearby quarry and creating the bronze figures at a local foundry.
The project would take about a year. To ensure accuracy of the likenesses, Betti would work with their families. Although Carolyn Cassady died a few years ago, the couple’s children live on the West Coast.
There’s also a son by an early girlfriend who lives in Denver. But Robert Hyatt, now 74, didn’t even realize he was Neal Cassady’s son — that Neal Cassady — until about eight years ago. Now he’s a living reminder of the Beat legacy.
“An unusual situation to find out”
Hyatt was adopted when he was two weeks old. He learned that much from his adoptive parents when he was 7. At age 21, started searching for his birth parents long before legal barriers were largely removed and the internet enabled almost anyone to cast a wide net.
Nonetheless, he found the maternal side of his family in 1991 with the help of an intermediary. His mother had died, but he connected with three half-sisters. All he could find about his biological father was a name, which Hyatt didn’t connect to the Beat figure, and that he had died not long after Hyatt started the search for his identity.
Years later, an amateur genealogist helped Hyatt find the information that led him to hire an attorney and get court records released that confirmed he was indeed the son of that Neal Cassady.
“It was an unusual situation to find out,” Hyatt says now. “I saw online that he was my biological father and was completely surprised. I thought it must be another Neal Cassady. Then I looked further and found the Denver connection, that he lived here in his youth.”
But perhaps the most compelling confirmation came when he compared a photo of Cassady in his early 20s to one of his own son at the same age. They were nearly identical.
Of course, Hyatt read “On the Road” in his youth but never connected the Dean Moriarty character with Neal Cassady. When he finally learned that Cassady essentially was Moriarty, and also happened to be his biological father, he had mixed feelings.
“It was kind of a dubious distinction in a way,” Hyatt says. “It excited me on one hand, because it was neat to be the offspring of such a nonconformist as Neal. On the other hand, I had some concern there might be negative reaction from people close to me and other conservative-thinking people who don’t have the admiration for Neal I eventually got.”
Though initially hesitant to tell his own children of his discovery, he ultimately decided to spill the whole story. He also has connected with, and visited, Cassady’s adult children in California, where they received him kindly. And he now has become an annual attendee at the Denver Birthday Bash in his father’s honor.
Discovering his connection to an iconic figure of the Beat Generation didn’t change Hyatt’s perspective on life. But his own career path, in some ways, holds a mirror to Cassady’s. Hyatt refers to having two careers.
The one he currently pursues is as an Expressionist artist. But the first was as an administrator and counselor for agencies that worked with foster kids, substance abuse and mental health. It’s almost as if, in part, Hyatt aimed to help people whose troubles reflected his father’s.
“Both my personal and professional careers made me understand that he suffered not from a character flaw, but that he had an addiction like so many people in society,” he says. “I understood him better because of it.”
As for the idea of a statue, Hyatt is all for it — and would love to see it placed somewhere in downtown Denver, where Cassady roamed the streets.
“I think it’s great,” Hyatt says. “I really believe that to have a monument about that, it would remind people of the importance of thinking and creativity. And when close friendships develop, a lot of things can occur.”