Sunday, August 28, 2016

Welcome to WUSA

WUSA, the 1970 film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, presciently predicts the rise of right-wing radio and the hatred it engenders.  Newman called it "the most significant film I've ever made and the best." And it's got a pot plot.

Newman plays the amoral drunk Reinhardt, a failed musician who calls himself a "communicator": a radio DJ. Arriving in New Orleans, he seeks to collect a debt from a swindling preacher (Laurence Harvey), who tips him off to a gig at the right-wing radio station WUSA. "We have a point of view here at WUSA," Reinhardt is told when he goes for the job.

Woodward plays a hooker whose Houston pimp has scarred her as "independent-minded," so she can't find work. "People don't usually buy you anything to eat," she notices (kind of like Anita O'Day did). "They'll just buy you enough whiskey to slosh around for hours."

She and Reinhardt set up housekeeping in an apartment house shared with Rainey, a welfare worker who challenges Reinhardt's principles (or lack of them), and a group of hippie, pot-smoking musicians. One of them is played by Leigh French (pictured), who did the "Share a Little Tea with Goldie" bit on the Smothers Brothers. "How come you work for those degenerate creeps?" she asks Reinhardt.

Radio WUSA, owned by millionaire Matthew Bingamon, is touting "The New Patriotism" which is "a bit more extreme than the old patriotism." "I'm for everybody doing his own thing," says Reinhardt, who espouses whatever beliefs are expedient. "You're listening to the big clean American sound of WUSA, the sound of a decent generation," he announces.

"When people hear the news treated right they respond to it, like music," says Bingamon. "These people are hurting and they don't really know why they're hurting. We've got to tell them....we try to keep them thinking with us." He doesn't really mind if the WUSA Loyalty rally he's planning (for Faith, Flag and Family) turns violent.

But the hippies have given up and gone decadent. "Human life is a gift," argues Rainey. "The muck of the earth was raised up to consciousness. Blood was made warm." A hippie replies: "We know that. Warm blood, and gifts and human-ness. We all had that trip man, none of us could swing with it."

The film ends when the rally turns to pandemonium, after which Geraldine is set up for a petty pot bust and makes a terrible choice upon hearing about the 15-year jail sentence she faces.

WUSA is based on the novel Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone, who also wrote Dog Soldiers (Who Stopped the Rain), about a Vietnam vet who gets conned into smuggling heroin. Dog Soldiers also "deals with the fall of the counterculture in America, the rise of mass cynicism and the end of the optimism of the 1960s." (Wikipedia).

Maybe now that marijuana is being decriminalized we can start swinging with human-ness again.

Stone, BTW, appears in the 1993 documentary Drug Taking and the Arts (aka The Art of Tripping) that also features Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, Carolyn Cassidy, Laura Huxley, Anna Kavan, Cocteau's biographer Margaret Crosland, neuropharmacologist Annette Dolphin, Professors Ann Charters and Virginia Berridge, philosopher Avital Ronell, and author June Rose, plus actors playing de Quincey, Baudelaire, Gautier, de Nerval, Poe, and Anais Nin (who has the best description of all).



Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jane Addams and the Dreams of De Quincey

I found in another wonderful book, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins, the news that reformer and Nobel peace prize winner Jane Addams "was daring enough to try opium in an attempt to better understand the fevered writing of the addict Thomas de Qunicey, but Victorian enough to take only an ineffectual dose.”

In 1889, Addams founded Hull House, a community center to help immigrants in particular that included a day nursery and a center for continuing education for adults. Addams and colleagues worked on issues like garbage cleanup, sewer installation, street lighting, clean drinking water, child labor laws, food inspections, fighting epidemic disease and many other urban environmental issues. By 1920 there were nearly 500 such "settlement houses" in the US.

According to Jane Addams And the Dream of American Democracy, by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Addams entered Rockford Female Seminary in June 1877, when she was not yet 17 years old. In her book Twenty Years at Hull House, Addams calls her schoolmates a “group of ardent girls, who discussed everything under the sun with unabated interest.” She wrote:

Addams as a schoolgirl
At one time five of us tried to understand De Quincey's marvelous "Dreams" more sympathetically, by drugging ourselves with opium. We solemnly consumed small white powders at intervals during an entire long holiday, but no mental reorientation took place, and the suspense and excitement did not even permit us to grow sleepy. About four o'clock on the weird afternoon, the young teacher whom we had been obliged to take into our confidence, grew alarmed over the whole performance, took away our De Quincey and all the remaining powders, administrated an emetic to each of the five aspirants for sympathetic understanding of all human experience, and sent us to our separate rooms with a stern command to appear at family worship after supper "whether we were able to or not." 

De Quincey was “one of a large company of nineteenth-century English essayists to whom Addams was devoted,” writes Elshtain. His Confessions of an Opium Eater, first published in 1821, promised opium was no less than "the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for many ages."

Elshtain notices a similarity between the description of the incident and that of young Will Ladislaw, a character in Middlemarch by George Eliot, in whose works Addams had a “deep immersion.” Ladislaw, Eliot wrote, “made himself ill with doses of opium. Nothing greatly original had resulted from these half-measures and the effect of the opium convinced him that there was an entire dissimilarity between his constitution and De Quincey’s.”

Perhaps both Eliot and Addams were "too Victorian” to try large enough doses of opium, despite their curiosity. Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) wrote in her 1859 novella The Lifted Veil, "A half-repressed word, a moment's unexpected silence, even an easy fit of petulance on our account, will serve us as hashish for a long while."  

Addams founded the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919 and during World War I, she chaired a women's conference for peace held at the Hague in the Netherlands. When the US entered the war, Addams was stamped a dangerous radical and a danger to US security, but was later honored by the American government for her efforts for peace. In 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to be so honored.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Anne Waldman and Weed

According to the wonderful book Sisters of the Extreme, “One of the most electrifying poetry events of the seventies was Anne Waldman’s stage readings of her poem, ‘Fast Speaking Woman,’ a free adaptation of the Mazatec shaman Marian Sabina’s sacred mushroom chant.”
 
I’m the mushroom woman
I’m the phantom woman 
I’m the moaning woman 
I’m the river woman 
I’m the singing river woman 
I’m the clear-water woman 
I’m the cleansing woman….

 Waldman wrote 13 Tankas In Praise of Smoking Dope in 1969:

Even a priceless jewel 
How can it excel 
A toke of good grass? 

Even jewels that flash at night 
Are they like the breath of grass 
Freeing the mind? 

Of the way to play 
In this world of ours 
The one that cheers the heart 
Is laughing dope tears 

This week to celebrate the Goddess Magu’s Harvest Festival, I took an hour off and stopped at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, opening Waldman's collection Kill or Cure to my New Favorite Poem, Pulse:

She swallowed the drug with her whole heart. 
She wanted to go that far, as far as she could stretch. 
In her head she could be joined again in the imagination 
of the demons who turned to archangels. She saw them 
as flowers. She saw them as pliant dancing pulses 
of energy, as light. She wanted to see the whole 
scene again as it fractured in increments of life 
and light, as it danced. It was a great dance. 
She wanted to get on top of the hill where she could 
look back at the town, where she could look toward 
the sky. The sky was a screen for her mind to play 
upon. She wanted to melt with the trees, with the 
rocks, with the flesh of all the nameable world. 
She loved words. She would name the world now. 
She would name it again. Again. Name it words again. 
She would embrace that hill and everything upon it…. 

Waldman traveled with VIP Bob Dylan and wrote about it, correctly identifying him as a shaman. She also co-founded, with Allen Ginsberg and Diane DiPrima, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is a Distinguished Professor of Poetics at Naropa and continues to work to preserve the school’s substantial literary/oral archive.

Writer Maria Garcia Teutsch asked Waldman about the role of the artist in the 21st century. She replied, “I believe it is to help wake the world up to itself. To point out the beauties, the possibilities, the extraordinary power of empathy and love, in art and in life, as well as the horrors of our greed and ignorance, our inhumanity and cruelty, and unspeakable injustices in a world that should know better from the harrowing legacy of slavery and war and climate degradation.”

Hear a 2009 interview with Waldman.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Turner Classic Marijuana Movies

TCM is airing marijuana propaganda films in the early morning on Saturday/Sunday, July 16/17. Along with the well-known Reefer Madness (1936) is another film from that year, Marihuana. It stars fresh-faced Harley Wood as Burma, a teenager who feels neglected because her mother dotes on her older sister. ("All I hear is Elaine, Elaine, Elaine," she yells in a Jan Brady moment.)

Burma goes bad when she gets turned on to weed after the requisite older gangster guy invites she and her friends to a party at his beach house. "We tried Tony's giggle water, let's try his giggle weed," they figure, and the party gets racy, with the girls disrobing and skinny dipping in the ocean, squealing all the way. They pay dearly for their fun when one of the girls drowns and Burma gets knocked up.

To earn money so that he can marry her, Burma's boyfriend smuggles dope for the nasty Nick and is killed by the police. Nick helps Burma with her problems while plying her with champagne and turning her into a marijuana peddler who also pushes "C" and "H." Interspersed with headlines like "Wave of Brutal Crime Laid to Marijuana Smoking," the now-corrupt Burma is shown gleefully adorning herself with furs and jewelry. At one point she takes a woman's engagement ring in exchange for a package of heroin, and then concocts a scheme to kidnap her sister's child for ransom. In a plot twist, her past comes crashing down on her in an almost poetic way, a bit unlike the campy, heavy-handed Reefer Madness or She Shoulda Said No—the 1949 film starring Lila Leeds, the actress who'd been arrested for marijuana with Robert Mitchum.

According to IMDB, the script for Marihuana was written by Hildegarde Stadie, who, "despite her wholesome appearance, led a colorful, bizarre and unpredictable life. She was the niece of a patent medicine peddler, and as a little girl, she traveled with him all over the United States, selling their cure-all, Tiger Fat. Part of the presentation involved a pre-teen Hildegarde, appearing fully nude, with a python draped around her shoulders. Though she did not draw upon this particular anecdote, her experience with her uncle greatly influenced her script for Narcotic (1933)."

Harley Wood as Burma in Marihuana
Stadie and her "notorious exploitation filmmaker" husband Dwain Esper made films that "remain so bizarre and prurient that it is hard to imagine a husband and wife with two children producing them." Stadie was 98 when she died in 1993.

Wood went on become a songwriter as Jill Jackson Miller with her husband Sy Miller, penning songs like "Keep in Touch With Your Heavenly Father" and the popular "Let There Be Peace on Earth (and Let It Begin With Me").

Also showing on TCM are two short films, "The Terrible Truth" (1951), wherein "a juvenile court judge investigates the tragedy of marijuana addiction," and "Keep Off the Grass" (1969), an educational film in which "the dangers of marijuana are outlined."

Sunday, July 3, 2016

June Eckstine: Lady With a Pipe?

When I was last in my hometown of Pittsburgh, on my way to meet the fabulous Theresa Nightingale of Pittsburgh NORML, I happened upon a State Historical Marker commemorating the birthplace of jazz great Billy Eckstine. Looking him up, I may have found another Tokin' Woman, or just a woman who was repeatedly harassed over marijuana: his first wife June.  

Billy Eckstine won a talent contest by imitating Cab Calloway (he of "Reefer Man" fame), and became a popular and accomplished singer. In he 1944 formed his own big band, which "became the finishing school for adventurous young musicians who would shape the future of jazz." (Wikipedia) Included in this group were Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charley Parker and Tokin' Woman Sarah Vaughan. Davis claimed in his autobiography that Eckstine supplied the band with cocaine.

Eckstine was a snappy dresser who later had a clothing line, and a bevy of female admirers dubbed "Billysoxers." He and June were married in 1942. She sang with the band and was described as "glamorous" and "sultry." The couple were frequently photographed together for lifestyle pieces.

According to the book Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine by Cary Ginell, both Billy and June had run-ins with the law over marijuana in 1947, just after the band had an altercation with a racist audience member (for which Frank Sinatra wrote him a note of congratulations). Billy was at a party with a Honolulu-born dancer named Louise Luise at the apartment of "Chicago playboy" Jimmy Holmes when the place was raided. Holmes had 183 "reefer cigarettes" and Eckstine was caught with a .45-caliber revolver. The headlines read, "Maestro-Crooner Arrested with Pretty Sweetheart in 'Weed' Den." Eckstine's lawyer claimed his client had found the gun in a wastebasket and that he was unaware of the marijuana. His charges were quickly dropped.

June "was the target of the more salacious accusation of sodomy" at a "weed party" in Ardmore, Pennsylvania later that year, Ginell's book claims, putting her age at 25 at the time. An 18-year-old girl from Bryn Mawr reportedly said June "persuaded her to ingest marijuana and then raped her." June vehemently denied both accusations, claiming she'd been framed. A grand jury cleared her of the charges and the case never went to trial, but not before sensationalist headlines screamed that June had been arrested for "dope and unnatural acts."

In March of that same year, Tokin' Woman Anita O'Day was arrested for pot after two undercover policeman came to her home during a party at which Gillespie was playing from the branches of a tree in their front yard.

June was photographed smoking one of Billy's pipes shortly after they divorced in 1952 (above), and targeted soon afterwards for a second marijuana arrest. "Singer June Eckstine, the attractive 27-year-old former wife of crooner Billy Eckstine, was arrested in her plush Hollywood apartment with three white friends and booked on a charge of possession of narcotics," said  a Jet magazine item on July 29, 1954. Charges were later dismissed against June for insufficient evidence, but Roberta Kahl, described as "a 34-year-old blonde model" who had a joint in her purse, was held for trial.

June had a small speaking role in the  movie "Carmen Jones" with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in 1954. She later became a successful realtor in Los Angeles, finding homes for the likes of Lou Rawls, Muhammad Ali, and Sammy Davis, Jr. and dating people like John Garfield.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When G. Gordon Liddy Raided "Eminent Hipster" Donald Fagen Looking for Marijuana

If I lived closer to LA, I would for sure make it to the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night for Steely Dan performing with the LA Philharmonic for a program arranged by Vince Mendoza (hear some of Mendoza's work with Joni Mitchell on her stunning, modern versions of "Both Sides Now" and "A Case of You").

I picked up the book Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen recently, and along with lots of fascinating observations about the early New York jazz scene and esoteric items like a tribute to the Boswell Sisters and an interview with Ennio Morricone, it contains some interesting admissions about drugs.

Of his time at Bard College, Fagen wrote about a roommate who had "an endless supply of marijuana and nightly visits from an assortment of willowy girlfriends." A single tequila-filled night had him swear off the hard stuff and soon he was off to the 1967 "Human Be-In" in Central Park. He describes his classmates as "concerned with inner space....most of us were just incredibly self involved...primed to leave the repressive fifties behind and make the leap into the groovy, unbounded, sexualized Day Glo future."

They were also "smoking enormous quantities of weed, which had just begun to be co-opted by the middle class." Fagan says he "smoked a fair amount myself until a series of anxiety attacks scared me off in the winter of 1967." He thought the attacks might have been triggered by "the DMT my friends and I smoked during the big blizzard of that year."

"Dimethyltryptamine was the hallucinogen that Timothy Leary called the 'businessman's trip' because of its intensity and brief duration," he wrote. "You'd go from zero to a peak acid-strength high in a nanosecond. The snow that was billowing across the campus was revealed as an army of tiny angels, and you wondered why you hadn't noticed that the college buildings huffed and puffed as if they were in a Betty Boop cartoon from the thirties. Fifteen minutes later, everything looked normal except for a warm, lingering glow."

He then describes as a "mystic note" how he'd had his "introduction to Oblivion" during the summer of 1965 on then-legal LSD, guided by Huxley's The Doors of Perception and The Psychedelic Experience (Leary/Alpert/Metzner). "Let's just say that Dr. Leary's method was a resounding success," he wrote. "I understood for the first time that all was as it should be, that the future was blazing with promise and that, despite all the jeers, Garden State might be a swell name for New Jersey after all."

As a senior in May of '69, Fagen had his house raided at four in the morning by a police team lead by soon-to-be Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, looking for traces of marijuana. Fagen's landlord had told police he'd sold him pot, a charge Fagen denies. Some 50 students along with former student Walter Becker and his wife Dorothy were jailed, and the men had their heads shaved. Charges were dismissed, but the incident caused him to boycott his college graduation ceremony in protest, and inspired the song "My Old School":

It was still September 
When your daddy was quite surprised
To find you with the working girls
In the county jail
I was smoking with the boys upstairs when I
Heard about the whole affair...

The last time I saw The Dan at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Becker gave a great, long intro to their song "Hey, Nineteen" with the lyric:

Cuervo Gold
Fine Columbian
Make tonight a wonderful place

Any night with Steely Dan is a wonderful place. They come with full regalia: three killer back-up singers, a horn section, a second keyboard, and a guitarist somehow able to recreate all the amazing solos from various artists on their albums.

Also Highly Recommended: the 1999 documentary about the making of the Steely Dan album Aja

And, as this is Bloomsday, and while I'm in a literary frame of mind, see a fascinating analysis of Joyce's Ulysses by José Francisco Batiste Moreno: "Leopold Bloom's Tea Pot"


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Shirley's Valentine to Pot: "Dough" Makes Dough

I caught the movie Dough last night at a theatre where the workers were wearing cute promotional aprons provided (apparently) by the distributor.

The film stars British actor Jonathan Pryce as Nat, a kosher Jewish baker in London who hires Ayyash (Jerome Holder), a young Muslim refugee from Darfur, to revitalize his business just as it is fighting a takeover by crummy capitalist Sam Cotton. Ayyash has a side business selling weed for the violent thug Ian Hart, and when he dumps his stash into a mixing bowl at the bakery one day, the dough magically becomes, well, Dough with lines out the door for the suddenly popular business.

The film is introduced by 75-year-old Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) as the widow who owns the bakeshop, and has "the best bridge club meeting ever" after she and the other ladies enjoy some brownies with the special ingredient. Other old folks suddenly start dancing, and more, with the benefit of Ayyash's recipe for fun. Nat's staid family gets a needed night of the giggles following grandpa's dagga dessert, and Nat himself is able to express his feelings about his dead wife after he downs a plate of pot brownies provided by Ayyash.

But all this beneficence comes to a halt after Cotton discovers the secret to Nat and Ayyash's success, and Hart shows up to make more mischief. The film has a predictably moralistic end, with the business apparently going forward without its most important ingredient.

Dough is reminiscent of the 2000 British film Saving Grace, in which a widow (Brenda Blethyn) and her caretaker (Craig Ferguson) grow weed to save her home, and inadvertently turn on the denizens their Cornwall village. That movie, while delightful, also had an (admittedly, by Ferguson) contrived ending, and its spin off TV series Doc Martin, starring Martin Clunes as the town doctor who puffed pot in the movie, was cleaned up to erase that charming aspect of his character.

Collins says the film is about "acceptance, and breaking bread together" and to some extent it is, but its ending disappoints. Now that we're moving towards marijuana legalization, can we dispense with depictions of violent criminals who have control of the marijuana business, and the cops who put the kibosh on all the fun? Cotton might have found enlightenment after he ate the magic muffins and done something for the good of the neighborhood, or the injustice of the marijuana laws, and the violence they bring, might have been addressed. The marijuana/muslim connection was also skirted, with Ayyash making sure he didn't taste his own goodies.

Next time, filmmakers, skip the aprons and give us a tasty ending instead.