Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Tommy Chong Bong Song, Johnny Cash, and Me

Hear the Tommy Chong Bong Song.
It was September 2003, and Tommy Chong was being sent to prison for selling bongs.

I'd written so many articles about people being caught up in our unconscionable war against a plant over the years, I just couldn't bring myself to write one more. There were so many injustices involved, including the fact that Chong was targeted because of the irreverent Cheech and Chong movies he'd made, in a country that is supposed to revere freedom of speech.

So I decided to write a song instead.

Because the "Operation Pipe Dreams" that took Chong down involved 1200 officers in raids of head shops and distributors across the country, leading to 55 arrests, the lyric began:

While the terrorists were knocking on our front door
Twelve hundred policemen didn't have much more
To do than round up 55 in their dragnet
For sellin' a giggle on the internet
We can't find Bin Laden and we're stuck in Iraq
But we've got Tommy Chong under key and lock 

Tommy Chong, Tommy Chong
Servin' nine months in prison for selling bongs
To you I sing this song 

The song almost wrote itself, especially because so many words rhyme with Chong, including bong, song, and long (as in his nine-month sentence). One verse pointed out the irony of then-AG John Ashcroft's nephew getting probation for growing marijuana plants while Ashcroft was governor: "I guess you can live above the law/If the governor is your Ma or your Pa." I riffed off a line from Cheech & Chong's "Santa Claus and His Old Lady" bit for the final verse:

Well, I try to understand but you know it's hard
When a teacher earns less than a prison guard
Repression, recession, it's all the same thing 
We use to have fun but now we're just mean
Gotta turn around this world of hate
and educate instead of incarcerate

Tommy Chong, Tommy Chong
Servin' nine months in prison for selling bongs
Take heart and stay strong

Cash and Kristofferson Perform
"Sunday Morning Coming Down"
Johnny Cash had just died, and the airways were full of the many songs he had recorded in his basso profundo voice. I realized the song was somewhat in Johnny's style, and took it across to the street to my neighbor Tony, a fine musician with that kind of voice. We decided to record it as "Johnny Stash and the Bagmen."

In the recording studio, I pondered what name I should use as the songwriter and backup singer. "June Barter Stash!" I announced when it hit me, at which point, suddenly and for no reason we could determine, all the power went out and we were plunged into darkness. I figured Cash had done it, thinking I was insulting his wife. "Now Johnny," I called out to the void, "you know June had a sense of humor." Immediately, the power returned.

Cash famously recorded Very Important Pothead Kris Kristofferson's song "Sunday Morning Coming Down" with the line, "On a Sunday Morning Sidewalk / I'm wishin' Lord that I was stoned." As re-told by Rosanne Cash in Ken Burns's 2019 Country Music series on PBS, censors wanted Johnny to omit the line for his TV show, but he sang it anyway, looking right at Kristofferson as he did.

I had some success with my little ditty. It aired on KMUD, my local radio station in Humboldt County, CA, and in a few other stations as far away as Florida. I got to play the bass on it at a Humboldt Hempfest, leading to my rockstar moment when folks rushed the stage afterwards to buy the CD. For a minute, it was included in the soundtrack to "a/k/a Tommy Chong," a terrific movie telling the story of Chong and the case, featuring his wife Shelby. The film premiered in New York, using The Bong Song with cute animation added for the final credits, but in the end it was replaced with a Kottonmouth Kings tune. Hear The Tommy Chong Bong Song.

Chong, Me, and Cheech in San Francisco
Courtesy of The Green Cross.
I must say that before Chong was arrested, I thought his "stupid stoner" persona was all that he was, which I think is a mistake the US government made as well. He emerged from the ordeal more popular than ever, as his true intelligent and compassionate personality emerged.

His first stop after being released from prison was The Tonight Show, where Jay Leno joked, "Tommy Chong is here. He flew in on the red eye." Asking about the sting operation that lead to his arrest, Leno asked, "Isn't that entrapment?" Chong joked, "I guess not when my face is on the bongs." In actuality, Chong took a plea so that the government didn't also prosecute his wife and son, which is typical of the sleazy tactics often used in drug cases.

Not permitted to send a CD to him in prison, I sent Chong a letter with the lyrics to my song and he wrote back saying, "Thanks for the support." His book about his prison experience, "The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint" is a New York Times bestseller. I got to see Cheech & Chong perform in San Francisco in 2016 with Shelby as the warm-up, and their act is as sharp and funny as ever, with more depth and pathos than their movies. They're scheduled to tour in 2020, starting July 31 in Beverly Hills.

Tommy turns 82 today, and is a model for how smoking marijuana can contribute to a long and happy, healthy life. He's overcome prostate cancer and was the oldest contestant on Dancing With the Stars to make it to the semi-finals. See him dancing with his partner as Johnny and June. Chong and Shelby continue to tango, which he advocates as good exercise for the bodies and minds of older people.

Meanwhile Cheech has become a collector of Chicano art, and a museum for his collection is scheduled to open in Riverside, CA next fall. (It opened in June 2022.) I was at the museum site earlier this year, and I noted to the young clerk sitting at the desk there that we can, I think, thank marijuana for that. When he made a wincing face at that remark, I reminded him of the joke from The Office: "Sure, Cheech and Chong are funny, but think how much funnier they would be without marijuana." That got him laughing. Humor, art, and music are the only weapons we need.

UPDATE 6/22: The opening to the Cheech Marin Center for Art & Culture was sold out, ironically to local officials who mostly still fight against legal marijuana. Not only that, there’s a Best, Best & Krieger Alcove in it. That’s the law firm that worked on the Riverside case after the city and San Bernardino county sued so that they didn't have to allow medical marijuana dispensaries. 

For a fee, BB&K has helped many other local governments across the state undermine the state MMJ law (Prop. 215, passed in 1996). After California voters approved adult legalization in 2016, BB&K defended the nearby city of Fontana which was requiring criminal background checks to grow personal 6-plant gardens. They lost the case, but still haven't officially changed their policy (except to make permits cheaper). 

A friend of mine, when Cheech appeared on TV's “Nash Bridges,” sadly said, “I never thought I’d see Cheech holding a gun.” It lead to my verse in the Tommy Chong Bong Song: 

You might think this is quite a reach
But I wonder whatever happened to Cheech
I saw him on TV, shootin’ a gun
Playing a cop up there with Don Johnson
You can hold a gun, but you can’t hold a bong?
 Something is terribly, terribly wrong...

Latinos remain the most-arrested group in California for marijuana. CA's Senator Alex Padilla hired Cheech to appear in ads for licensing cannabis businesses when he was Secretary of State. However, most poor folks can't afford the licenses, although equity programs have tried to close the gap. But not in Riverside, which isn't even offering licenses, although unincorporated areas of Riverside county are. That may change come November. 

Meanwhile, Cheech & Chong have announced they're starting a marijuana delivery service

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