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The budding of high culture

By Hempology | July 30, 2002

Dudes, it’s something we always suspected. When we listen to the great music of the 20th century,
or read the Beat poets, we recognize our debt to artists on pot

From The Globe And Mail, July 27, 2002

By Brian Preston (Victoria)

The other day someone gave me a club card with a mini-bumper sticker that said “I owe a lot
to B.C. Pot.” The joke is likely too local, too particular, to travel with well, but if you
rejik it a bit, it works to describe the history of popular music: We Owe a Lot to Artists on

One of the earliest public mentions of marijuana use in North America comes from the Storeyville
quarter of New Orleans in 1909. Sailors brought ganja to Storeyville’s cabarets and brothels from
Jamacia, where cannabis had been introduced from India by Hindy labourers in the 1870s. According
to pot historian Jack Herer, white citizens of New Orleans soon blamed marijuana for causing black
people to break into “hysterical laughter” when told to “go to the back of the trolley,” and for
“Negro” musicians’ refsals to put on black face (under southern Jim Crow laws, black performers were
banned and in order to circumvent the law, blacks would wear black face and pretend to be white under the

Storeyville was the brithplace, in 1900, of Louis Armstrong, undeniably the greatest figure in the
development of jazz music and arguably the most inflential musician of 20th-century America. The New
York Times has said of Armstrong, “He really did perform with everyone from Bessie Smith to Leonard
Bernstein; he really did smoke marijuana virtually every day of his adult life; he really did write
the finest of all jazz memoirs, unassisted by a ghostwriter; he really did end his concerts (some of them,
anyway) by playing 250 or more high Cs, capped with a high F; he really was adored (no lesser word is
enough) by all who knew him.”

Armstrong, who spend 10 days in jail for possession in 1930, called pot “gage.” Jazz musicians copied
his musical style and his lifestyle, and mellow marijuana was the social lubricant that helped jazz
become the first racially integrated art form in America.

By the 1950s the Beat writers had discovered pot through jazz, and in works of overheated prose like
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, they proselytized its mind-expanding qualities as an antidote to the
stultifying conformity of Cold War America. Eventually Allan Ginsberg turned the young
folksinger Bob Dylan onto pot, and Dylan in turn introduced it to the Beatles, according to legend,
backstage at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964.

It was a pivotal moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, which, swelled by the demographic force of
the then-teenybopper boomers, was rolling over pop music (not to mention Beethoven) like a sonic
tsunami. Up until 1964, rock had been mostly cliche-ridden boy-meeets-girl drivel (“She loved you,
and you know you should be glad … or “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”), and apart from the superior harmonies and
infectious energy, the Beatles were largely indistinguishable from Herman’s Hermits.

THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – arrived in John Lennon’s cerebellum just in time to take rock
to a new level. The Beatles produced their album Rubber Soul purely on pot (that is, pre-LSD and whatever
else they got into later). Many call it their finest work. Compare She Loves You to Norwegian Wood:
“She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh/ I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep
in the bath.”

That was 37 years ago. Two generations of pop musical styles and trends have come and gone (including
reggae, from the source, Jamacia), most of them produced by musicians high on pot, not always for the better.
As the Barenaked Ladies sing, “It’s all been done.” Pot is a given, the drug of choice for everyone
from Willie Nelson to the current crop of rappers, and especially musical stewmakers like Wyclef Jean,
who proudly and publicly matches Satchmo’s legendary consumption.

Pot’s influence on other pop-art forms and artists is more difficult to trace. In television and movies if
cannabis is acknowledged at all, it tends to be lampooned, a la Dude, Where’s My Car, or made quaint and
retro, like the stoners on That Seventies Show, who play being high like Dean Martin played drunk, with
a sweet tipsiness. Apart from a few brave souls, like comedian Jack Black on the current cover of High
Times, or a grizzled vet of the hemp wars like Woody Harrelson, most pot-loving performers, filmmakers
and writers remain in the closet.

If you care to check up on them, then a magazine like Canada’s own Cannabis Culture (circulation 60,000),
which is equal in visual style and entertaining content to any publiciation this country has to offer,
will dish the dirt. The latest issue reveals how Jennifer Aniston, trying to get pregnant, has stopped
toking and started to insist Brad leave the house to “spark a fatty.”

The current issue also covers a speech by the host of the late, lamented TV talk show Politically Incorrect,
Bill Maher, addressing the national convention of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws) in San Francisco this April:

“There are a lot of prominent people, I’m not going to name any names – Harrison Ford,
Ted Turner – who smoke a lot of pot and need to stand up!” After the laughter died down Maher added,
“I’m not going to mention names, I would never do that.”

The Austrialian economist Carl A. Trocki argues that the British built their 19th-century empire
largely on the global trade of drugs and drug foods like sugar, coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco and
opium. “Without drugs and durg economies, capitalism could never have come into being,” he writes in
a recent book, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy. “These new consumer markets were
built on commodities that no one had ever really consumed before, and which, in general, were totally
unnecessary. They were truly nothing more than smoke and water.” What are the three most visible
pillars of American global domination today? Marlboro and Coca Cola, with Budweiser coming on strong.

If marijuana were suddenly legal on a global scale, then America, which is already the world’s leading
consumer of marijuana, would quickly become the pre-eminent pot-producing nation, just as it is today with
caffeine, booze and tobacco.

Victoria-based Brian Prestonm is the author of Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture

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