Drugs And Rock 'N' Roll
The first time I smoked pot was at a rock concert. The first time I got stoned was at a rock concert. They were not the same concert.
The first time I smoked pot was at a Ten Years After/ Procol Harum concert. It was on April 15, 1972; I was 14. I was in the front, near the stage. A joint came floating through the crowd. I took a hit. It did nothing for me, but I didn’t expect it to. The point was, I had smoked pot!
Although both bands are nearly forgotten now, they we both big names in 1972. Nowadays remembered only for “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum was a rarity -- a keyboard-based rock band. True, they had the virtuoso Robin Trower (another name almost vanished from memory) on guitar, but the two keyboardists, Matthew Fisher and Gary Brooker, were the true backbone of the group. Even more interesting to me, they were the only band I know of who had a lyricist (Keith Reid) considered a full-time member of the band. Their big hit that year was a live version of “Conquistador,” one of their early tunes.
Ten Years After played blues-rock. At the time, their guitarist, Alvin Lee, was considered the fastest guitarist in rock’n’roll (a title he lost in the late 70’s to Eddie Van Halen). In fact, I had positioned myself near the front so I could watch his guitar work, although I had absolutely no understanding of guitar technique. Nowadays, “I’d Love to Change the World” is the one Ten Years After song to occasionally get airplay, but in 1972 they were best known for “I’m Going Home”, a long guitar workout from their Woodstock performance.
The concert was great, although I no longer remember much of it. I have a clear memory of a large grand piano on the stage for Procol Harum, and of Ten Years After playing a lot of blues and a lot of boogie. Procol Harum did play “Conquistador” and Ten Years After did play “Going Home.” I also know that for the next few years I considered it the best concert I had seen yet.
But hitting that joint is what I really remember best.
The first time I got stoned was an Alice Cooper concert a year later (the Billion Dollar Babies tour). That may seem like a long interval, but I don’t think I smoked much pot in the intervening year. Also, it was pretty well accepted “knowledge” that you didn’t get stoned the first time you smoked pot. (Do stoners still believe this to be true? Or is the pot that much stronger now?) My understanding is that this has less to do with the actual effect the marijuana has on you and more to do with your ability to recognize that effect. That is, you do get stoned, but don’t recognize the experience as being stoned.
That’s certainly what happened to me. It’s only in hindsight that I can see just how stoned I was at the Alice Cooper concert. At the time, I just felt a strange disconnect between my mind and the show. I had to keep bringing myself back to the concert, like reminding myself, “Hey, you’re watching Alice Cooper, enjoy it.” I walked out feeling like I had somehow missed half the concert.
What’s really strange about this is that it is the exact opposite of most of my subsequent experiences of drugs and concerts. The drugs (especially marijuana) usually help break down the distance between my mind and the music, helping me to immerse myself totally in the music.
All I can think is that I wasn’t used to doing that yet. Not only was I not used to being stoned (and probably part of what was going on was my mind going, “Hey, what’s happening to me?”), I was not used to experiencing music by immersion. Up to that point I had experienced concerts intellectually -- what songs are they playing, what kind of show are they putting on, etc. The notion of just immersing myself in the music hadn’t yet occurred to me. Those moments of “You’re at a concert, enjoy it” were actually my mind fighting against getting lost in the music.
Despite all that, I actually remember quite a lot about the concert (much more than the Ten Years After show). It was much more of a “show” than any concert I had seen before. The stage was amazing; a multi-leveled structure lit from beneath by bright white floodlights. Alice prowled this stage like a cat, and, at one point, (during the song “Billion Dollar Babies”) skewered plastic baby dolls with a sword. He was executed by guillotine while singing “I Love the Dead,” and he kept singing after he was “dead.” Although I remember many of the songs he played, I don’t remember the actual music near as much as the show.
The first time I got totally lost in music from being stoned was not even a concert. It was about a year later; I was riding around in the back of a van with couple of my high school friends. We were all very stoned. Very stoned. Whoever was driving played the first Aerosmith album, which I had not heard before. I got totally lost in the music, complete with multi-colored, abstract visuals to go with it. I thought it was the greatest music I had ever heard.
The funny thing is, the next time I heard the album, I didn’t recognize a single note of it. (Although nowadays I can listen to the album and imagine how it probably sounded to me that first time.)
So my experience is that smoking pot is an acquired skill, one in which previous experience enhances one’s appreciation of present experience. In a way, so is listening to music. At this point in my life (mid-teens), I was still learning to do both. Transcendental experiences (with both) still lay in the future.
Since my college days, drugs have always been a part of my music listening experience, and for the most part they have helped me enjoy and appreciate music. There was a time when I could tell you which concerts I was stoned for, but that was ages ago. Now, for any given show, (at least those post-high school) it’s save to assume that I was stoned. Or more. And for the vast majority of those shows, it has been a pleasurable, and even beneficial, experience.
I realize that in today’s climate, it is risky to come out, in any way, in favor of drug use. But I firmly believe that there is a difference between drug use and drug abuse. That is, not everyone who uses drugs abuses drugs. Many, many people use drugs to their benefit. Drug use is so prevalent in human history that it must meet some psychological, or maybe chemical, need in humans. This is not to say that drug use is not a risky venture, or to deny that there are some people who, again for psychological or physical reasons, cannot handle drug use of any sort. But I believe that the number of people who can, and in fact do successfully handle drug use is much higher than anti-drug propaganda would have us believe. I also believe we would have a much better chance of controlling drug abuse if we had an honest understanding of why people use drugs, both the pros and cons.
To show I have some balance, some understanding of the negative side of drug use, I’ll start out with some of my worst drug/music experiences.
There was the time I went to an Iggy Pop concert on speed. Let me say, right off the bat, that speed is a nasty drug, one I certainly regret ever using. It is a drug in which the negative consequences far outweigh any (perceived) benefits. And it adds nothing to your appreciation of music.
Nonetheless, in the six months after I graduated from college, I went through a period of being a minor speed freak. I’m not talking week-long binges or anything like that. I mostly took it to get through a brutal work schedule (one of the waitresses where I worked was dealing it). But, since I had easy access, I was also taking it as a party drug.
That spring, Iggy played Stage West, a huge barn of a venue in Hartford, CT (about an hour and a half away from Amherst, MA, where I went to school). A bunch of my college buddies and I all went to the show. My friend Eric was supposed to pick me up from work. I got off work, popped some black beauties in anticipation of the concert and sat down at the bar to wait for him.
My boss, whom I hated (he was a jerk), sat down next to me and started chatting. I have no memory of what we talked about, probably the restaurant business, but I do have a firm memory of sitting there, starting to tweak pretty heavily, slamming beers and wondering where the fuck my ride was… a ride that never showed up.
Eventually I gave up waiting, and set out to hitchhike to the concert. All I could think of was the pounding I was going to give Eric when I got there. I no longer even cared about the concert; all I cared about was beating up my friend.
Now obviously I would have been upset about this under any circumstances. And having to talk to my asshole boss while I waited only made it worse. But it was surely the speed coursing through me that made me even think about getting violent.
Luckily, I got a ride fairly quickly, from people who were going to the concert who turned out to be friends of an acquaintance of mine, who turned out to be playing keyboards in the opening band. So, by the time I got to the concert, I had calmed down enough to just shove Eric around a bit and yell at him; no real violence. And then, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert.
It took a couple more months, and my quitting that job before I realized that speed was not the drug for me.
Other unpleasant experiences have been much more innocuous, like the time Eric Clapton joined the Rolling Stones for ”Little Red Rooster” at the L.A. Coliseum (see the Flashpoint CD), and I was so stoned I was going, “Huh? What? Eric Clapton? Who? What’s going on?” But, as with the Alice Cooper story, that was more a case of the drugs interfering with my intellectual appreciation of the concert, not my aesthetic enjoyment of the music.
Actually, like both of these stories, many of most my memorable drug/music experiences have less to do with listening to the music than with the externals - the story, shall we say - of the experience. And they’re not necessarily positive or negative experiences, they’re just stories.
For example, I saw the guitarist Snakefinger at CBGB’s in the early 80’s. Snakefinger performed regularly with The Residents, a group of San Francisco weirdoes who put out some of the strangest music in all rock’n’roll. Yeah, we’re talking obscure on top of obscure here, but I like it that way. Snakefinger was one of those guitarists I’m always attracted to, who play unlike anyone else, and make the instrument sound like something brand new.
My friend Ken and I really wanted to be stoned for the show, but we didn’t have any pot. So, I bought a dime bag of dirt weed off one of the street dealers near St. Mark’s Place, which is honestly the only time I’ve ever bought drugs off a stranger on the street. And it was dirt weed. But it did the trick.
We took our bag into CBGB’s, sat at a table on the side, and proceeded to roll the entire bag into joints. It was a very good show, but the only part of it which really stands out is the slide guitar he played in a song called “The Model” (actually, a cover of a Kraftwerk song). Otherwise, my main memory of that concert is that we got away with rolling joints in CBGB’s.
Still, most of my drug/music experiences have been positive. Most of the time I enjoyed the show just a little bit more because I was stoned. However, there have been only a handful of times when the drugs enhanced the music to a truly memorable degree. There is a state of listening which I have come to call “musical transcendence,” in which the music takes you over, and all you are experiencing is the music. All your other senses and awareness drop away until there is just you and the music. And, for good or ill, I have found that drugs certainly help one achieve this state.
I first experienced it at a King Crimson concert (look for the full story of this concert in an upcoming essay). I was on mushrooms for this concert, and thoroughly enjoyed the show. Near the end, they played a song called “Satori in Tangier” (appropriate title) and I found myself completely lost in the music.
Many years later I experienced the same thing at a Banyan show in a local club in Long Beach, CA. Banyan is a sort of SoCal supergroup, featuring, in the line-up I saw (it has a fairly loose membership) Steve Perkins (Jane’s Addiction) on drums, Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) on bass, Nels Cline (SoCal guitar god) on guitar, and Willie Waldman (Snoop Dogg’s band) on trumpet. They play hard rock like it was free form jazz. The first time I saw them I was very stoned, and certain parts of their show, especially when Cline was shredding his guitar, took me away to that music only place.
Now, I’m not saying the only way to achieve musical transcendence is through drugs. If you’re open enough, attentive enough to the music, and the music is good enough, it can be achieved on its own. But the drugs certainly make it easier.
Many of my greatest moments of music appreciation via drugs were not concerts at all, but listening at home. I have a whole slew of “stoned in the dorm room” memories, getting totally lost in different albums. Rolling Stones Satanic Majesties, live King Crimson, and Phil Manzanera’s K-Scope all stand out. There’s a series of descending guitar notes in the Who’s live version of “Magic Bus” (Live at Leeds) which seared themselves into my memory one stoned night.
Then, there was one moment of music appreciation in a more academic sense, when, while high, I suddenly realized something about how music did, or could, work on a structural level.
I was home alone, tripping on LSD, listening to music. Not whole albums, just particular songs that really grabbed me. “Riot Act,” by Elvis Costello; “365 Is My Number,” by King Sunny Ade; and “Walking on a Wire,” by Richard and Linda Thompson. Songs which, in my mental state, ust swallowed me up.
Listening closely to “Walking on a Wire,” I suddenly realized something about the guitar solos. There are two guitar solos in the song. In the first, Thompson is almost fumbling around (but he’s such a talented guitarist that even his “fumbling around” sounds brilliant). It sounds like he’s searching for something, but can’t quite find it. In the second solo, he nails, perfectly, the solo he was searching for the first time around. The tension of the search followed by the release of the finding make the song extremely satisfying to listen to, even when you have no idea that’s what you’re hearing.
I have since noticed other musicians using the same technique. Neil Young does it, most noticeably in the studio version of “Like a Hurricane.” An interesting example is “My Only Love” by Roxy Music, on the live album Heart Still Beating, where the guitar searches for the solo, followed by a saxophone, which nails it down.
Would I have discovered this without the drugs? Quite possibly. I listen to music quite closely at times. But, maybe not. It is possible that it took the drugs to get me to listen closely enough to notice.
In closing, let me say that drugs are often a shortcut. That any “revelation” you get from drug use you almost certainly could have arrived at without the drugs. It might have taken you much longer, and much more mental effort, but all drugs do is open your receptivity to new ideas, they don’t really create the ideas. Your mind does. Drugs have often been called “the lazy man’s enlightenment,” and that’s a pretty good description.