Showing posts with label marijuana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label marijuana. 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)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Psychodramas and Traumas

The decades-old debate over the meaning of The Association’s first big hit, “Along Comes Mary,” is due to the basic slipperiness of its lyrics. Who, or what, is “Mary”? A standard interpretation is that “Mary” is short for “Mary Jane,” a coded reference to marijuana. If so, there’s nothing regarding that particular drug, lyrically speaking, that makes it the least bit desirable or attractive (“does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains/She left the night before”). Indeed, if Mary were a female character in a movie, she’d be a femme fatale. I reproduce below what I believe to be the accurate set of lyrics:

Every time I think that I’m the only one who’s lonely
Someone calls on me
nd every now and then I spend my time in rhyme and verse
And curse those faults in me

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick
And give me pick of memories
Or maybe rather gather tales of all the trials and tribulations
No one ever sees

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks
Whose sickness is the games they play
And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks make jokes
As who is most to blame today

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to set them free and let them see reality
From where she got her name
And will they struggle much when told that such a tender touch as hers
Will make them not the same

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

While “Along Comes Mary” is more redolent of meaning than it is explicitly meaningful, I think the proper noun “Mary” functions as an empty signifier, a placeholder in the phrase, “And then along comes ________, meaning the next “craze,” the next fad, the next “Big Thing"--the latest way to get your "kicks." As a signifier, it substitutes for any popular social or cultural practice that promises individuals a transcendent experience (“And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”), but one that is ultimately empty and without value ("Will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them/Realize their urgent cry for sight no more"). In this sense, “Mary” may not be necessarily short for “Mary Jane” (although perhaps intended to invoke it), but might represent the drug culture’s endorsement of LSD as the preferred drug of choice: “sweet as the punch” is perhaps an oblique reference to LSD-laced sugar cubes or Kool-Aid. “My empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch” strikes me as another way of saying, “I’ve got plenty of nothing" (if the line said, "My cup tastes as sweet as the punch" it would mean something else entirely. The fact that the cup is empty makes all the difference.) The irony is that the song is often perceived as advocating drug use (at least marijuana use), but in fact it would seem to be doing just the opposite, a song that was reactionary in nature, one that, at the time, would now be called an “anti-drug” song. “And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”: one wonders whether there might be a subtle joke embedded in this lyric. Is "her name" . . . dope?

Thanks to fred for his welcome correction to my original set of lyrics (see comment).