The history of music and marijuana (part two)
Love and Haight
The Mecca for beautiful people during the Summer of Love was San Francisco ? where you had to be sure to wear flowers in your hair ? and the city's most revered precinct was the Haight-Ashbury district, where flower power had first been fomented in the "happenings" chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. LSD provided the inspiration for free-form events at which rock groups performed lengthy improvisations before back-projections of swirling colors while the audience would loon around wildly, or sit quietly on the floor, as the mood took them. However, as Harry Shapiro put it, "if LSD was the icing on the counter-cultural cake, marijuana was its basic ingredient."1
As the influence of flower power and of the bands that grew out of the San Francisco scene became more pervasive, so did pot smoking and, at the large outdoor rock festivals that superseded the acid tests, smoking pot became almost obligatory. During the hippie era, which was formally inaugurated at the Monterey festival in June 1967, climaxed at Woodstock, and came to an abrupt end at Altamont in December 1969, smoking pot ceased to be a minority activity. For a generation of young people, igniting a joint was a defiant, quasi-political act indicating dissatisfaction with conventional society, identification with the hippie values of peace and love, and a sure-fire way to worry your parents.
For the hippies, sharing a joint was a ritualistic way of affirming a communality of purpose, however vague that purpose may have been. In 1969, Dennis Hopper's film, Easy Rider, depicted two white Staggerlee-types riding across America and turning on the relatively straight character played by Jack Nicholson with a joint at breakfast to change his perspective on the day. Together with the film record of Woodstock, Easy Rider is the most enduring celluloid evocation of hippiedom; its soundtrack contains several of the period's quintessential songs about cannabis, such as Don't Bogart that Joint by Country Joe & the Fish.
The hippie movement may have turned a lot of white people on to cannabis for the first time, but black people ? black musicians in particular ? had always smoked. The highlight of Woodstock (and of Monterey, too) was an electrifying performance by the most important instrumentalist in the history of rock music: James Marshall Hendrix. Hendrix had caused a sensation in London in 1966, where he impressed the elite coterie of rock stars on the insular London scene of the 60's not only with his astonishing guitar technique, but also with his authenticity. Not only was Jimi really American, but he was black. Even if he had been less forthright about his fondness for cannabis ? pronouncing, in 1967, that he reckoned it would be legal within five years ? who could doubt that Jimi smoked pot?
A lesser star of Woodstock, but one who was in the ascendant, was Sly Stone, whose inspirational performance resulted in two tracks on the live album, including the anthemic I Want to Take You Higher, which insinuated Sly & the Family Stone into white middle class homes across America and beyond. Sly was brought up in the Bay Area and had hung out in the Haight during the crucial period before coming out with an infectious style of dance music with optimistic, politically-conscious lyrics that he declared to be "a whole new thing."
Sly Stone was one of the key innovators of funk, the style of black dance music popularized by James Brown and characterized by a rhythmic sensibility that is implicitly informed by cannabis. The etymology of "funk" is opaque. Its dictionary meaning, "fear," may provide a clue to the title of James Brown's classic, In a Cold Sweat, but its received meaning referred first to smell and later to style. Could it be that the term was coined to describe music that evoked the atmosphere of a hot and sweaty room crowded with dancers and sweet with the smell of pot smoke?
* The funk flag was flown most prominently throughout the 70's by Parliament, led by George Clinton, who had their first top-10 hit on Billboard magazine's Black Music Chart in 1974 and peaked in 1978, when Parliament scored two number one hits with Flashlight and Aquaboogie in the same year that Clinton's other group, Funkadelic, had a world-wide hit with One Nation Under a Groove. While the lyrics of these songs may not refer specifically to cannabis (unlike other Clintonic titles such as Pot Smokin' Tots, or Munchies for Your Love) there's small doubt that it was pot that put the P in Clinton's own special brand of music, P-Funk.
Put simply, the P is the best of anything; P-Funk is the purest form of funk ? uncut funk ? also known as "the bomb." The P represents a state of mind, an alternative reality, and if the stoned subtext of these songs eludes you, well, you may be irredeemably lost in the zone of zero funkativity. Clinton created a universe of his own over a series of albums like Chocolate City, the title track of which postulated an alternative government with Mohammed Ali as President, Aretha Franklin as First Lady and Stevie Wonder the Secretary of Fine Art.
Little Stevie, who had his first hit at the age of 14 with Fingertips, is acclaimed as the leading songwriter of his generation. He was introduced to pot by his fellow musicians on the Motown Revue and, before long, had dropped the "Little" tag and was producing albums with titles like Music of My Mind and writing pot-influenced songs with far-out lyrics, like Too High, the opening track of his 1973 album, Innervisions.
On the Caribbean island of Jamaica during the late 1960's, the local pop stars equivalent to the Beatles were a vocal trio comprising of Neville "Bunny" Livingston, Peter MacIntosh and Robert Nesta Marley: the Wailers. They first made their mark dressed as gangsters, or "rude boys," wearing sharp suits and shades and singing songs such as Simmer Down. They found their true style after teaming up with the rhythm section of Jamaica's premier session band, the Upsetters, and defined it in a series of classic recordings made with the legendary producer, Lee Perry. To the lilting strains of crude reggae, Bob Marley brought the sweetest melodies and the most passionate lyrics, which the Wailers rendered in sublime harmony while the Barrett brothers ? Curly on drums, Aston on bass ? ground out a profound and irresistible rhythm.
The Wailers were among the first musicians to overtly adopt the trappings of Rastafarianism, a religious cult that grew up in the Kingston slums from the teachings of a radical black activist called Marcus Garvey, to become the spiritual nationality of Jamaica and the island's most compelling cultural force. Garvey believed that former slaves must be repatriated, back to Africa, to establish their own nation state. He also prophesied that a black king would arise to lead them. When, in 1930, a tribal warlord was crowned the 111th Emperor of Ethiopia in a line of descent traced back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and took a new name, Ras Tafari ? "Power of the Holy Trinity" ? he was acclaimed in Kingston as a living god.
Rastafarianism refers back to the Old Testament, identifying its adherents as the lost tribes of Israel, sold into slavery in Babylon and awaiting their return to Zion, the promised land. Rastas characteristically grow their hair into dreadlocks, for no razor shall touch the heads of the righteous; they eschew meat and shellfish for "I-tal" food ? grains, fruit, roots and vegetables ? and they revere cannabis as the sacramental herb; it is "the healing of the nations."
Cannabis had always played a part in the medicinal and mystical rituals of ancient Africa and was probably well known to the slaves who worked the West Indian sugar plantations, but anthropologists contend that the herb didn't arrive in Jamaica until after slavery was abolished there in 1838, when it was brought by contract workers from the Indian sub-continent who were drafted in to fill the subsequent labor shortage. The Jamaican term for herbal cannabis, "ganja," is a Hindi word meaning "sweet smelling," but also "noisy," which is not a bad description of roots reggae.
The deep rhythmic bass of reggae combined with the effects of smoking large quantities of ganja ? particularly the herb's tendencies to enhance one's appreciation of tonal resonance and to distort one's perception of time ? when mixed together in primitive recording studios, begat Dub. It was the custom within the Jamaican music industry to fill out the flip-sides of 45rpm singles with instrumental versions of the song featured on the A side and, under the creative influence of cannabis, record producers such as Lee Perry started twiddling their knobs idiosyncratically, dropping out the treble and pumping up the bass, cutting up the vocal track and adding masses of reverb to haunting phrases that echo through the mix. No other music sounds more like the way it feels to be stoned.
Bob Marley summed up the influence of cannabis on emerging Rasta consciousness in an interview with Stephen Davis: "Rastaman sit down and smoke some herb, with good meditation, and a policeman come see him, stick him up, search him, beat him, and put him in prison. Now, what is this guy doing these things for? Herb grows like yams and cabbage. Just grow. Policemen do these things fe evil... System don't agree with herb because herb make ya too solid. Y'see, when ya smoke herb ya conscience come right in front of ya. Ya see it? So the devil see ya not guan fe do fool thing again. Yes, Rasta! Herb is the healing of the nation."2
In 1972, the Wailers secured their ticket to Babylon via a deal with Chris Blackwell of Island Records. They began to record a series of classic albums that would introduce reggae to a world-wide audience. Despite this success, or perhaps because of it, the Wailers split up in 1974 when Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh quit, ostensibly because the pair didn't want to go on tour. Bob Marley replaced them with three female backing singers, the I-Threes, who included his wife, Rita, and went on to become a superstar, eclipsing even Elvis over some parts of the globe.
Peter Tosh may not have been as talented as Bob Marley, but he was less willing to compromise. Soon after breaking with the Wailers, he recorded what was to become the pot smokers' anthem ? the title track on his first solo LP: Legalize It. The song is a litany of ganja's medicinal uses ? telling us that it's good for the "flu, for asthma, for tuberculosis and even 'umara composis'" (whatever that might be) ? and a roll-call of those who use it, including doctors, nurses, judges and lawyers as well as singers and "players of instruments, too." The chorus has became a rallying cry: "Legalize it, don't criticize it."
In 1976, Tosh told Stephen Davis: "My song about herb, called Legalize It, was played here for a while on the radio, but the herb dealers who live in Beverley Hills don't want the small man to live... I was taught as a boy that herb is a natural drug and medicine... But then I was terribly brutalized by the police and charged with ganja. Can you imagine? Herb? Vegetables? We are the victim of Ras clot circumstances. Them that don't want to legalize it have to do with the business of it... Every time I smoke herb my imagination is burning and I'm writing my best music... Herb is for the ills of man. It's the healing of the nations. But in Jamaica a man can go to prison for one seed. It might as well be one ton of herb. I smoke herb every minute, every hour, every day. Then I lie down and rest and get up and smoke again."2
Roll another number
In 1973, Eric Clapton's version of Bob Marley's song, I Shot the Sheriff, introduced reggae to a world-wide, predominantly white audience whose musical palate had become more than slightly jaded. A couple of years later, Clapton also recorded what has become the definitive version of the JJ Cale song, Cocaine, a paean to the South American substance which increasingly became the rock 'n rollers' drug of choice throughout the 1970's.
In the early 70's, Dylan had gone to ground and his nearest rival as a lyricist, Neil Young, was navel-gazing and grieving for lost friends who had become casualties of the drug culture (although he was back on form by 1975, when he wrote Homegrown with Crazy Horse). It seemed as if everyone had gone to California, at least in spirit, but the key figures that animated the Californian scene of the 60's were gone. Janis Joplin, whose anguished wail had cut through the haze of peace and love, was dead. Pigpen was dying and the Grateful Dead sounded mournful without his earthy, bluesy influence. Having single-handedly invented the genre of Country Rock, Gram Parsons, the Grievous Angel, crash-landed in 1973, leaving his musical legacy to the likes of the Eagles.
Throughout the early half of the 1970's, rock music became increasingly synonymous with bland boogie bands like the Doobie Brothers ? "doobie," snigger, being teen code for a joint ? and by the smooth and mellow West Coast sound exemplified by Steve Miller who was, like, a total pothead. Miller's entire band had been busted and deported from England in 1968 while recording their first album, and in 1973 the Miller Band had a huge hit with The Joker, in which song the singer is cast in the role of a laid-back player: a joker, a smoker, a "midnight toker."
The other most marked tendency within rock was for "progressive" musicians to produce LP records full of more ambitious, not to say pretentious, pieces of music stretched far beyond the traditional three-minute format of pop singles designed to be played on the radio. Two of the biggest-selling records of the 1970's were The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd and Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, both released in 1973.
The first is a sort of concept album, loosely about the pressures of being a high-earning star in the vulgar field of popular music, performed by a group who disdained the conventional marketing strategies of the music business and whose live shows were characterized by elaborate visual effects; the latter is a quasi-orchestral 50-minute composition by a young, reclusive multi-instrumentalist who was too shy to perform it live. Both records were designed to be listened to right through in a sitting and, as such, they provided the ideal soundtrack to many a pot smoking session held in school dormitories and college common rooms throughout the rest of the decade.
The biggest rock group of the 70's, however, was Led Zeppelin, renowned for excess in all areas. They played the heaviest music and took the hardest drugs in the most copious quantities and are widely condemned as the progenitors of Heavy Metal, the kind of pretentious stadium rock perpetrated by boorish rock stars who snorted so much cocaine that they're headed for platinum septums. Cocaine became the essential rock 'n roll accessory in the 1970's and, consequently, rock music had become deadly dull.
Next issue: From the 1980's to today's top hits, cocaine fades away, while good pot makes for more great music!
1) Shapiro, Harry, Waiting for the Man; The Story of Drugs and Popular Music, London, Quartet books Ltd, 1988, pp 137.
2) Davis, Stephen, Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica, London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1977