So, when the law went into effect, there was an instantaneous black market for drugs. People still wanted it and could no longer get it. Some of the doctors continued to prescribe it and were arrested. They had clinics for a while where these people could go, but they were shut down eventually, and the only place to get it was in the underground.
The first drug dealers were ethnic immigrants in the neighborhoods of New York — Jews, Italians, and Irish, primarily — who began procuring this stuff, but until the Mafia started organizing a global trade, there was just piddling amounts of it. It was a simultaneous happening. As he became a hero, he was influencing the lives of his fellow musicians who were also getting into the drug. By , after he had his breakdown and was enjoying his comeback in New York, heroin was beginning to flood the neighborhoods of Harlem as a result of gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, as well as corrupt New York City narcotics police and intelligence agencies — some of whom allied themselves with the gangsters as a way to counter the influence of the communists in places like the port of Marseille in France.
So, while these drugs were coming into Harlem in , by, you had the brightest young jazz musicians in America already addicted to heroin — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon — I could go on and on. No one really knew how bad the drug was, but they certainly found out quickly enough once they became addicted to it.
He fucked up all our minds. It was where the ultimate truth was. So, Parker was a god to them, really. Not only that, but conceptually, when Kerouac wrote On the Road , his famous taping together of Japanese rolling paper was done so he could type words on his typewriter in a continuous flow of consciousness exactly the way Bird was blowing jazz with his saxophone. Ginsberg adopted what Kerouac called a long saxophone line, used in his poem Howl.
They brought it into their writing. He just sort of fell into an abyss at that point.
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He was strung out, he broke down, they sent him to Camarillo, yet he came back out more brilliant and stronger than ever. What it meant to them is that Bird had created great art out of this pain. One of the remarkable things about that is that you would think that the stories of the likes of Charlie Parker and Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix would be cautionary tales serving to prevent people from ever doing this kind of thing. In fact, that did not happen, and in a lot of cases they may have even stoked the embers. That has always just blown me away. I was about twenty when Hendrix, Janis and Morrison went down, and it had no restraining impact on us at all.
These guys did with their lives what the jazz musicians were doing with their instrument. They were trying to blow as well, but they were blowing different modes of being, different modes of looking at life and processing experience. Cassady was remarkable that way. He just burned with life. Everyone who knew him and spent time with him was deeply affected by Cassady. The most powerful thing about him was the way he was able to be in the moment.
That is so different from the way most Americans lived their lives at that time. You have to understand how revolutionary that was — the conventional American middle class protestant culture of the mid-century was not about being in the moment, it was about doing the right thing, it was about preparing for the future. It was about so many things other than being just absolutely present in the moment, like almost in a Zen sense, and that was what Cassady was about.
Of course, the drugs that he did — speed and pot — were things that enhanced that aspect of being in the moment. That is what Kerouac was so blown away by. For all of his aspirations to be a great writer and to break through with a new form of writing, Jack Kerouac was a mill town boy who had a lot of Catholic repression to deal with. When Neal Cassady came along, he felt he was dealing with a force of nature. Kerouac was essentially an observer. Cassady was this wild stallion, and his persona had an enormous impact on them, and he became a character in their stories as well.
So a whole generation of kids in the late fifties became influenced by his character when these books started coming out amid the phenomenon of the beat generation. People read On the Road and they looked at the Cassady character of Dean Moriarity and responded with great enthusiasm.
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It was just as powerful as those kids who looked at Bird in and and went wild over his lifestyle. When the beat generation happened, there was a huge media backlash. It was very vitriolic. One of the reasons for that, of course, was the element of drug use in their writings. Other things were offensive to people as well — the sexuality, the homosexuality, the crime, the sort of amorality of it. All of this was really eye opening.
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It piqued the curiosity of young readers and more of them read the book as a result of the way it was portrayed in the media. The whole scene became charged with excitement with the aspect of doing the forbidden, and kids became more interested in drugs as a result. He was always completely candid about it. He would talk about how marijuana consciousness was an important part of it, in the way he juxtaposed images — he called it eyeball kicks, optical consciousness. When he was a student at Columbia, he would smoke pot and go to the museum to look at the paintings of Cezanne, and he started to understand how he used the hot and cold retreating colors in his paintings, and he began to think about how he could do that with imagery.
He always pointed out that that was a direct result of his marijuana experiences, and that is why he would always say that for a certain kind of person, marijuana could be an educational experience, because it certainly taught him stuff. And the second part of the poem — the famous Moloch section — was a peyote vision that he had in San Francisco.
There are a dozen or so explicit references to the use of drugs in Howl — he was not only writing about people using drugs, he was writing about the drugs themselves, and they had a direct impact on the stylistic breakthrough of his writing. Even before the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement was very much aligned with the early peace movement whose goals included things like banning the bomb.
Sanders was a part of that. He writes about a peace march in his book, Tales of Beatnik Glory , that happened right at the same time as the civil rights marches.
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The participants tended to be a lot of the same people, and reefer was a very secret part of the lives of a number of them. Their use of it was kept very quiet — especially in the civil rights movement — because they realized how vulnerable they were. It was strictly forbidden to carry the stuff while on a march. These activists had come out of that same literary and musical sensibility, and were well aware of marijuana and how it was now a part of the bohemian neighborhoods in the country — whether it was the Village, Coconut Grove in Florida, Venice in Los Angeles, or North Beach in San Francisco.
And where did a lot of the civil rights people come from? They came from those places and from college universities that by the mid-sixties were filled with people interested in marijuana. They were the advance guard of the baby boom generation. See, the blacks had tried to integrate into white society, and now this small group of whites was trying to integrate into black society and was finding out how hard it really was to exist in it, but we were learning new ways of walking, talking, thinking, being.
We became the diametrically opposite of the beer drinking fraternity types who formed the majority of the youth culture of America. He came to New York one night as a teenager and some hip kid that he knew took him out to a jazz club where he smoked his first reefer, and it just absolutely blew his mind and changed his life. He hung out with the jazz cats and met Coltrane and Bird. He moved to the city and wound up running the record shop on Bleeker Street, which was one of the great record shops of the time.
Rothchild was such a great character for me because he spanned the eras. He was so emblematic of what would happen to the kids who became refugees, in a way — exiles from the conventional American middle class who were really looking for something else. In his case, the jazz culture provided that for him, but he took it into a very new and authentic direction, by affiliating himself with what became the folk scene.
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That is how he cut his teeth as a producer, and marijuana was central to that. The musicians playing in those clubs down there would socialize together and smoke together, and there was this very unique scene for a couple of years where not only were they exchanging marijuana, but musical ideas as well. Of course as time went on, he got into deep trouble with drugs, cocaine and freebasing. For all of the mistakes he made — and many of them he acknowledged as time went on — he remained a remarkable American figure.
He was incredibly committed and open-minded. He was a revolutionary, a scholar, and a philosopher. He became a kind of political figure, a promoter, a huckster, a victim, a symbol, and it just goes on and on and on. But the amazing thing about Leary was how he never turned his back on his beliefs after he went to jail and came back out.
He just went on and took it in new directions. For example, he became a cyber cultural philosopher. He felt the personal computer was the LSD of the eighties and beyond. Ultimately, by , the Gap was using him in a campaign to sell blue jeans to a whole new generation of Americans.
So, clearly, in a way he was vindicated. We had found something that was going to change the culture and the whole way people played social games. We were very grandiose in our expectations, not only about the impact it would have on the culture, but how fast it was going to happen. Because we saw how fast it was happening to us. There was no limit to it. At the same time, the government was moving toward declaring psychedelics illegal, so any and all of the research that was going on at the time stopped, and the whole story was changed.