CANNABIS CULTURE – It’s jam night at the Vapour Lounge in downtown Vancouver. The host, Adam Bowen, is onstage with a group of scruffy funk rockers, pounding out the bass line and singing improvised lyrics.
Every once in a while he pushes some buttons on the sound board in front of him, adding sound effects and making adjustments.
“Jams in the Key of Green” takes place every Tuesday night at the Vapour Lounge in the B.C. Marijuana Party Headquarters. Tonight the big room is bright and full of people seated in clusters on black leather couches. A guy wearing a Canucks jersey has filled an enormous vapour bag from one of the silver Volcano vapourizers, and it floats all the way up to the ceiling.
Hosting “Jams in the Key of Green” is one of many gigs Adam Bowen upholds in Vancouver that allows him to make his living doing what he loves most in the world – playing music. Thirty years old, Bowen wears his hair long, pulled back and secured by a somewhat dangerous-looking silver chopstick. He has a tattoo of a bass clef on one wrist, a treble clef on the other. Two thick wallet chains emerge from the pocket of his black jeans. Since he was a child he’s played any instrument he could get his hands on – drums, guitar, upright bass, didgeridoo, harmonica. “It’s like different voices,” he says. “Music to me at this point is like speaking.”
Born in New Market, Ontario outside of Toronto, Bowen’s earliest memory is walking in on a rehearsal of his parents’ band, Mirth – a folk band whose record was produced in the late seventies by Bob Lanois, brother of successful Canadian producer Daniel Lanois; Bowen remembers holding a balaleika (a Russian ukelele), and wanting desperately to play with them.
His parents split up when he was two and he spent much of his childhood traveling in Europe with his mother, Patricia Watson, an international recording artist and piano bar player. When he was six years old they lived out of the Sheraton Hotel in Gothenburg, Sweden. Barbara Schenker, founder of the German rock band VIVA, and sister of Michael Schenker (Scorpions, UFO, MSG), taught Bowen how to do Picasso-style drawings, which he would sell in the lobby of the hotel. In the bars at night, his mother sang “Desperado” and “American Pie” while he played blackjack with the bartenders and men around her piano. The men, who were mostly interested in impressing Bowen’s mother, would put down more money for him if he lost, so he always came out on top. He used his earnings to buy toys and candy.
By the time he was ten, Bowen and his mother had begun traveling back and forth between Toronto and Maui, a Hawaiian island that was wildly supportive of live entertainment. It was in Hawaii that Bowen would later craft his musical career, playing happy hour patio gigs, hosting the longest-running open jam in Maui, and having his band, Lawa, voted best band in Maui in 2007, which lead to an invitation to play at the Playboy Mansion in Beverley Hills. “I got that notch in my belt,” Bowen says. “Jumped in the pool afterwards with my jeans on and no shirt. Peed in the grotto hot tub, not because I had to pee, but because I wanted to pee in the hot tub.”
Another of Bowen’s favourite memories playing music speaks in contrast to the Playboy Mansion. One Christmas when he was a kid, he and his mother sang carols for the female inmates at the Maui Community Correctional Centre. Many of the women were there because of problems with crystal meth addiction, an issue that is spread across the Hawaiian Islands, and has had a devastating effect on tightly knit families and households. Bowen and his mother faced a room full of fierce Hawaiian women with long black hair and fire in their eyes. All of them in orange jumpsuits. But when the music started, the walls broke down. He and his mother sang “Silent Night” and the women sang along in Hawaiian. Some of them were crying. One woman got up and danced hula. “It was music that connected us,” Bowen recalls, “and that connection was so deep, and it was soulful. It was such a beautiful experience, an experience I’ll always remember, my whole life. And that will definitely rival the bawdy experiences of the Playboy Mansion.”
Bowen finished high school in Toronto, and by the time he was twenty-two he was back in Maui, playing music and making a life for himself: “I got to play with many killer bands in Hawaii because in the city, I guess, there’s more money for musicians. People need to be entertained.”
It was soon after Lawa played their gig at the Playboy Mansion that Bowen faced immigration issues on his way back to Maui from a visit to Ontario. Unable to return to the U.S., Bowen made phone calls to his friends in Toronto and Montreal, looking for job opportunities in the music industry. When nothing came up, he called an old friend in Vancouver, and was immediately offered an apartment in Lion’s Bay, a car, and a gig at the Pemberton Music Festival setting up sound equipment on the main stage. He moved to Vancouver. His partner and future wife, Ani, packed up their stuff in Maui, shipped his music gear to Canada, and moved there with him.
After working for the company Backline at the Pemberton Music Fest, he was hired on to help set up the stage at B.C. Place during the Olympics for artists like Neil Young, Hedley, Nelly Furtado, Burton Cummings, and the Barenaked Ladies. Bowen still works for Backline as a technician. He came upon the Vapour Lounge by chance in 2009 when some friends who were involved in Vancouver’s marijuana community took him to the going away party for Marc Emery, the “Prince of Pot” political activist who had been sentenced to five years in prison for selling cannabis seeds in the U.S. Bowen was inspired to write a song for Marc Emery called “Trichome”, which earned him a video on the Pot TV online network, and soon afterwards “Jams in the Key of Green” was born. “I got to stand out here in the Vancouver music scene,” says Bowen. “I got to show my metal here at the BCMP, and that was another totally synchronistic event, as much of my life is.”
Bowen believes that appreciation of live music in Vancouver is somewhat lacking, and that he was lucky to find an outlet in the marijuana community. “Vancouver’s a very weird place financially for music,” he says. “It seems people like it, but they’re more into electronic music. It’s tough for musicians to get by. I’m really thankful,” he adds, “that I stepped in the pile of cosmic dogshit that got me this Backline gig, and I’ve gotten to be able to know these people, and have a couple of regular gigs that put food on the table, and act as an outlet for my self expression.”
Last year Bowen was hired on as head co-ordinator for live talent at Vancouver’s annual cannabis celebration on April 20th, known as 4/20. It was the kind of work he refers to as “effortless”. Everyone involved shared his passion for music, and it came together flawlessly. Attendance was higher than ever in 2011. Two thousand people crowded the north steps of the art gallery downtown, where Bowen and his crew had built a stage. Traffic was gridlocked up and down Georgia Street, and Bowen sang “Redemption Song” under a cloud of smoke while the crowd waved “Free Marc” flags and peace signs.
“It was all DJs before I took 4/20 over,” says Bowen. “And when I did, I relegated DJs to a more traditional role of playing as a filler, rather than the primary entertainment. So I think the city really responded well to all the live music, I think they were stoked to have that kind of quality. So I don’t necessarily think the people of Vancouver don’t like live music. They just don’t know what they’re missing because it’s not being offered.”
For Bowen, live music and recorded music are two separate worlds, like theatre and television. He recorded his own album around the 2003/2004 time period, and he’s played on other albums, but he has always felt most at home when he’s onstage, performing live.
Improv and stream-of-consciousness are important aspects of his performance. He’s especially interested in the way humans perceive sounds that are not necessarily musical, and he experiments with different noises in his music. He asserts that it’s merely the social conditioning of North Americans that makes us think music has to be professional. We are taught that there are right and wrong notes, and that music can’t be found in everyday noises, like traffic or rain. He explains how the effect of a drug, or a headspace, or even an experience can alter our perception of the world around us, including the way we hear music: “If your perception is altered, you can hear music in anything.”
Near the end of jam night, Bowen picks up a guitar and starts off a reggae beat with another group of regular jam night musicians. Into the mic he says, “Thanks everybody for coming out to jam sessions in the Key of Green, here at the B.C. Marijuana Party headquarters on beautiful old Hastings Street in Vancouver!” They fall into a groove that has everyone moving in their seats. It becomes clear that this kind of communication, the ability to reach people through music, is what Adam Bowen has sought after since he was a little boy with a balaleika. “Have everything sync right up,” he says, “and that’s where it is. That groove. When everybody’s in a groove together.”