Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cowlicked Doughboys

The first thing I did this morning, as I started running around using the car to do banal errands (e.g., recycling, purchasing stamps, etc.), was to turn on the radio. First up after the commercial break was the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” a song that time has proved to be as dull as the errands I was performing: Nothing dates faster than lyrics intended to shock. The album American Woman was released in 1970, i.e., during the Vietnam War Era. I was in high school. There are some good songs on the album, but “American Woman” isn’t one of them. The song’s political “message,” with its references to “war machines” and “ghetto scenes,” was so painfully obvious that even a sophomore in high school could “get it,” thus proving the fact that when you take up politics and seek to be politically correct, you end up making forgettable music. Indeed, most politically correct music is bad: John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey” is musically quite powerful; “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” is quite the opposite. So is “Give Peace a Chance,” now nothing more than a quaint museum piece, a historical artifact. The lesson? John Lennon assumed that his ideas were more important than his music.

By way of analogy, think of the movies Jean-Luc Godard made under the auspices of “The Dziga Vertov Group,” e.g., La gai savoir (1969), Wind from the East (1970), British Sounds (1970). These films were then, as they are now, tedious and boring, and the only ones interested in screening them at all are Godard scholars, obligated to watch everything. The irony is, when he paid attention to his art, to aesthetics, Godard was far more subversive—think of the “revolution” in cinema caused by Breathless (1960), historically important, still watchable, and a film that altered the course of world cinema. It’s far more memorable than anything he made during the Dziga Vertov period.

Well over thirty years ago, in 1975, Lester Bangs wrote an article lamenting the rather undistinguished careers of the individual Beatles in the 1970s, and he pinpointed what happened to them quite well. He wrote:

What made the Beatles initially so exciting and sustained them for so long was that they seemed to carry themselves with a good humored sense of style which was (or appeared to be) almost totally unselfconscious. They didn’t seem to realize that they were in the process of becoming institutionalized, and that was refreshing. By the time they realized it the ball game was over. In this sense, Rubber Soul (in packaging) and Revolver (in content as well) can be seen as the transitional albums. They doped it up and widened their scopes through the various other tools they had access to at the time just like everybody else down to the lowliest fringe-dripping cowlicked doughboy in the Oh Wow regiment, and the result was that they saw their clear responsibility as cultural avatars in what started out as a virtual vacuum (nice and clean, though), which of course ruined them. (Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, p. 45)

In other words, acute self-consciousness is the enemy of any artist, but what’s worse is taking yourself too seriously and over-estimating your cultural significance. When the music is no longer as important as the message, it’s all over.

Monday, August 31, 2009

High Time

Marijuana use is, of course, illegal. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance (in the same category as LSD, heroin and peyote) and possession of it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2007 there were 872,721 arrests in the U.S. for marijuana violations. But according to this article that appeared in yesterday’s L. A. Times, marijuana is going mainstream: so-called “cannabis culture” is purportedly “coming out of the closet.” For instance, just this past June, roughly 25,000 people attended the inaugural THC Expo Hemp and Art show in downtown Los Angeles. In addition, Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is celebrating the Woodstock 40th anniversary by selling $78 “Hashish” candles in Jonathan Adler pots with bas-relief marijuana leaves. Cheech and Chong recently concluded an international tour and claim to be at work on another movie.

Once depicted as a drug that could incite a murderous rage (Tell Your Children, aka Reefer Madness, 1936) and recently blamed as the cause for burger runs gone awry (2004’s Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), marijuana is now just another banal fixture in film and popular music. According to the L. A. Times article, cannabis crops up on shows such as Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood and Desperate Housewives, and on animated shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy. The article goes on to say:

Marijuana’s role on TV and in the movies is no surprise, says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “The people who are making movies and television shows, from the scriptwriters to the director and the producers - a very large chunk of those are probably people who grew up not only much more comfortable with marijuana’s presence in society, but probably as consumers themselves of it.”

“As a result,” Thompson said, “it’s almost switched with alcohol. Think back to Dean Martin and Foster Brooks - their whole comedy act was the fact that they were in the bag - that now is seen a lot less often. The stoner is the new drunk.”

I thought it might be interesting to assemble a brief cannabis culture chronology, beginning with its emergence as part of modern life with its use by jazz musicians in the 1920s and 30s.

March. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong pot smoker, is busted outside of an L.A. jazz club. Gage, tea, muggles, and reefer are some of the many names for marijuana among jazz musicians.

The cautionary tale, Tell Your Children, is first released; it is re-titled many years later as Reefer Madness.

Devil's Harvest (thanks Bent for providing a link to the poster art! Go here)

Actor Robert Mitchum is busted for marijuana possession during an undercover stakeout in Laurel Canyon.

The TV documentary, A Boy Called Donovan, about the British pop singer Donovan, reveals the singer smoking pot with friends. Later in the year, Donovan becomes the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Members of The Rolling Stones are busted several times this year.

May. Easy Rider premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, depicting scenes of marijuana use. The same year, Tommy Chong hires stand-up comedian Richard “Cheech” Marin to perform between the bands and strippers at his family’s Vancouver, Canada, night club. The rest is history.

Sometime during this period, future President Bill Clinton experiments with marijuana, but doesn’t inhale.

New York-based magazine High Times is first published; the magazine does for pot what Playboy did for sex.

Reggae musician Peter Tosh releases the album Legalize It.

The first classic stoner flick, Up In Smoke, is released starring Cheech and Chong.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with Sean Penn as a bong-smoking surfer.

The Breakfast Club: five high school stereotypes bond as a consequence of smoking of a joint.

Dr. Dre’s The Chronic—taking its name from a slang term for powerful weed and its cover art from a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers—is released. It and 2001 (1999), the latter with a marijuana leaf depicted on the cover, together sell over 10 million copies.

Set in 1976, the pro-pot Dazed and Confused is released with tag lines such as “Weed rules.”

California voters pass Proposition 215 allowing the medical use of marijuana.

October. Dazed and Confused star Matthew McConaughey is busted at his Texas home by officers who arrest him after observing him dancing naked and playing bongos.

Showtime’s Weeds depicts a widowed suburban mother played by Mary-Louise Parker becoming pot peddler. The show recently began its fifth season.

March. The UK Daily Mail publishes a story indicating that Keith Richards says he smokes weed “all the time.” He admits, “I smoke my head off. I smoke weed all the damn time. But that's my benign weed. That’s all I take, that's all I do. But I do smoke, and I've got some really good hash.”
August. Cannabis comedy Pineapple Express opens and becomes a hit.
November. Michael Phelps, the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history, is photographed at a South Carolina party smoking pot.

April. Kalpen Modi, who as Kal Penn played stoner Kumar of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), accepts a position as the associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Last Time

The last – it speaks of fatality and finality, the end of one historic moment and the beginning of another, but without the reassuring comfort of any continuity between them. The last (of anything) names an apocalyptic rupture, an unrecoverable end marking death and extinction—the last Passenger Pigeon, for instance, named Martha, which died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 p.m. on September 1, 1914. The last thus reaffirms our perception of time as linear, and the moment that is the last, as in “our last breath,” is a point in time that is inevitable and unavoidable, although we ourselves, ironically, will not actually observe it. The last is a point in time that erases the past but therefore also leaves the future radically open to new, and therefore terrifying, possibility. Last, of course, can mean an earlier or previous time, as in “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” And the expression, “at last,” names a long anticipated moment that has finally come to pass. But songs such as “Last Kiss” are about a moment in time that is both fatal and final, the conjoining of Eros and Thanatos, the embracing of the beautiful corpse.

Ten Lasting Moments:
The Band – The Last Waltz
The Drifters – Save the Last Dance For Me
The Eagles – The Last Resort
Edward Bear – Last Song
Don Henley – The Last Worthless Evening
The Monkees – Last Train to Clarksville
The Motels – Suddenly, Last Summer
The Rolling Stones – The Last Time
Bruce Springsteen – Last To Die
J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers – Last Kiss