Showing posts with label Grass. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grass. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Illegal Smile

Last night I watched Ron Mann’s documentary Grass (1999), not so much a social history of marijuana in the United States as an exploration of the government’s attempt, over a roughly 70-year period, to make marijuana possession (and therefore, presumably, its use) a criminal offense of ever-escalating severity. His film is a marvelous compendium of newsreel footage, clips from educational scare films, period music, and feature film excerpts with references to the herb, from the largely unknown (at least to me) High on the Range (1929) to the well-known cautionary tale, Tell Your Children (1936) AKA Reefer Madness. While Mann, to his credit, reveals the extent of the government’s systematic propaganda campaign against marijuana, for which it has, apparently, spent billions upon billions of dollars over the past century or so, the question that remains unexplored in the film is why—why has the U. S. government spent billions and billions of dollars attempting to discredit an rather benign drug, certainly no worse in terms of wasteful cultural expenditure than alcohol?

Perhaps the answer lies in the sort of behavior with which marijuana has been variously associated during the decades explored by the film, for instance, jazz and swing in the 1930s (racial “mixing,” or miscegenation), R&B in the 1950s (juvenile delinquency), psychedelic rock in the 1960s (“free love,” or sexual promiscuity), and the cults of the 1980s (Satanism and goth rock). In other words, the government's campaigns were as much about attacking marijuana as they were attempts to discredit or proscribe certain social behaviors, broadly understood as youthful insolence. As a Victorian—who held the key government position of “drug czar” for over 30 years—Harry J. Anslinger’s campaign against marijuana seems to have been motivated out of a hatred of the anti-Victorian forces and forms of modernism, of which the popular expression in the 1920s and 1930s was jazz and swing, represented by the Afro-American musician. It was therefore motivated out of racism (toward the black jazz artists of the 20s and 30s, but also toward the rock musicians of the 50s and 60s, e.g., Little Richard, Chuck Berry). It would seem that the government’s anti-drug campaign during those decades is roughly analogous to the idea of censorship. While censorship can operate at the level of production (as in the case of “prior restraint,” the prohibition of certain behaviors or practices, for instance), it can also operate before the production stage, meaning it makes certain thoughts literally unthinkable. Racial mixing, or miscegenation, is an example of such a forbidden thought during the swing era. In the rock era, John Prine’s song, “Illegal Smile,” is a wry critique of the sort of censorship that outlaws certain thoughts. Prine has said that the phrase, “illegal smile,” refers not only to the bemused look on a stoned person’s face, but also the “knowing smile” one exchanges with another when each one understands that a joke or reference has violated certain proscribed thoughts—the silent, non-verbal communication, in the form of a smile, that occurs between individuals living under the threat of punitive action. A video of his performance of the song is available here.

13 Sonic Celebrations Of Grass:
Louis Armstrong, Song of the Vipers (1934)
Black Sabbath, Sweet Leaf (1971)
Black Uhuru, Sinsemilla (1980)
Brewer and Shipley, One Toke Over the Line (1970)
Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Reefer Man (1932)
Bob Dylan, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (1966)
Fraternity of Man, Don’t Bogart Me (1969)
Lil Green, Knockin’ Myself Out (1941)
John Prine, Illegal Smile (1971)
Bessie Smith, Gimme a Reefer (1933)
Steppenwolf, Don't Step on the Grass, Sam (1968)
The Toyes, Smoke Two Joints (1983)
Muddy Waters, Champagne and Reefer (1981)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things We Do On Grass

“The green grass grows all around” is the title of a well-known children’s song, and in fact as a declarative utterance the lyric is quite true, as some form of grass is known all around the world, to all human cultures. For centuries certain grasses, when cut and dried and called “straw,” have been mixed with adobe to form bricks. Hence grasses, while a major source of food around the world, have many other uses, such as feeding animals—it has been estimated that grasses have been grown as food for domesticated animals for close to 10,000 years—and, of course, for lawns. In early twentieth-century jazz culture, a "joint" (a marijuana cigarette) was referred to as a “viper.” I cannot say precisely when, but at some point marijuana, or “Mary Jane,” become known as “grass,” which is how I remember it being called in the 60s. But marijuana was also referred to as “weed” as well, so marijuana, a plant which contains a pleasure-inducing drug, seems to elude conventional nomenclature. It is known as both “grass” and “weed.”

While grass is the name for marijuana (cannabis sativa or cannabis indica) in the drug culture, grass is also the plant used for lawns, that most coveted of American possessions, a sign of invidious distinction. In Arthur Miller’s masterful Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman laments he has no lawn, for in the crowded neighborhood where he lives, there isn’t enough sunlight for things to grow. Grass needs sunlight like rivers need rain. Willy’s desire to have a green lawn, and to raise a garden, isn’t simply a desire to belong to the middle class, but also expresses a desire to return to an idealized past (although for Willy that past is fictive, but he’s convinced himself otherwise). Grass is used in this way, as a metaphor for home but also a highly idealized past, in the song, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a hit for Tom Jones in the mid-60s. The singer sees his childhood home, which he has not seen for a very long time. His parents, as well as his beloved, Mary, greet him as he steps from the train—they have come to meet him. He sees again the landscape of his childhood, including the old oak tree that he once played on. It is “good to touch the green, green grass of home.” But the green grass of home is only a dream: he has not returned home, but awakens in prison. He sees the four drab walls surrounding him and realizes that he was only dreaming. In fact, he is on so-called “Death Row,” and it is the day of his execution. His dream has foreshadowed his fate: he shall return home, but only to be buried. “Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree, as they lay me ‘neath the green, green grass of home.” Green lawns also cover the dead. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Safe in their alabaster chambers, / Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, / Sleep the meek members of the resurrection, / Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.”

Green Grass And High Times:
Animal Collective – Grass
The Friends of Distinction – Grazin’ in the Grass
George Jones – When the Grass Grows Over Me
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Gary Lewis and the Playboys – Green Grass
Tim McGraw – Where the Green Grass Grows
The Outlaws – Green Grass And High Tides
The Pretty Things – Grass
Steppenwolf – Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam
XTC – Grass