These ideas had an impact on me and, along with my encounter with the broadened horizons of marijuana, I found myself longing to uncover a magical side in my own life. Not so much Mailer’s dark and violent one, but more akin to what I had read in Ray Bradbury’s story of a kid’s magical summer in Dandelion Wine.
It was such a weird mix of news in the world as my first semester of college wound down in November and into the December winter holiday time. Richard Nixon had been reelected President of the US by a landslide over the liberal George McGovern. France executed what turned out to be its final two people convicted of capital crimes by cutting their heads off in the guillotine. The first “tea house” opened in Amsterdam to legally sell marijuana, giving some added credence to my own evolving close encounter with this mind-altering substance. Apollo 17 astronauts, headed to the moon for the last human moon landing, took the iconic “Blue Marble” photograph of the Earth. Folk singer-activist Joan Baez led a delegation to Hanoi to deliver holiday mail to American POWs only to be caught in the Christmas day Bombing of the city by U.S war planes.
In the midst of all that I took my final tests, unlike my senior year of high school I had no final papers to write. My last test happened to be on the last afternoon of the last day of finals, and maybe ninety percent of my fellow students had already left campus for the winter holiday. When I finished the two-hour test and exited the building on the south side of campus it had already started to snow. It was a heavy snowfall, the big wet flakes drifting straight down from the low gray clouds because there was absolutely no wind. With such diminished activity on campus and the falling snow muffling any remaining sounds, there was a sense of such total quiet that I could not recall experiencing before.
When I got back to my dorm room, my roommate, my “suitemates” in the adjoining room we shared a bathroom with, and most of the other students on our floor were gone. One of the few other stragglers in a room down at the other end of the long now quiet hall poked his head in my door and asked if I wanted to “smoke a bowl” with him. Again, the protocol for smoking marijuana was to always seek to include others if possible, even if you did not intend to hang out together. So we exchanged tokes on his little metal pipe and soon were both nicely buzzed. We made conversation sharing our plans for the holiday break then broke off our little conclave to return to our final prep to leave.
I was alone again, with the mind altering drug juicing my brain, dialing down the parts of that organ that would keep my mind from focusing on the moment. I had completed my first semester of college. I was done! It faded from my consciousness and there was only beautiful white silent snow. I recall opening my big sliding glass window to the cold to fully feel the hugeness of the silence. Captivated in the thrall of that moment, I packed a small duffle bag, bundled up in coat, scarf, knit cap and gloves, and gleefully headed out for the mile walk across campus to Oakland Drive that led out to I-94 and the way home. I walked through the winter wonderland in that wonderful altered state as the big snowflakes continued to drift down from above and the near absolute quiet and calm seemed to envelop everything everywhere. Despite the accumulation and the continuing snowfall, I managed to get timely rides and get home in less than three hours. My trip again included one driver who shared a joint with me, unlike Amsterdam still illegal.
In going off to school out of town I had detached myself from my circles of peers in both the Junior Light Opera youth theater company and my wargaming buddies. Upon my return to Ann Arbor for the winter holidays my brother filled me in that the new incarnation of JLO was going strong as the performing arts department of the new alternative Community High School that he was attending as part of its inaugural ninth grade class. He had performed in their most recent musical Hello Dolly, and he filled me in on what my former mentor Michael Harrah was up to as one of the CHSJLO adult co-directors. Though happy to be privy to the gossip, I recall feeling jealous with pangs of sadness that I was no longer part of the intimate daily goings on and internal “dramas” of that close knit group that he was sharing with me.
I did have the opportunity over the break to see my closest theater buddies Lane and Angie and reconfirm their plan, which I had asked to join in on, to backpack through Europe that next fall after their upcoming high school graduation in June. Though I had rebuffed Lane’s romantic overture the previous year, and continued to have regrets about that, I still hoped somehow we could rekindle something beyond being just friends. But I did enjoy being the male companion of these two best friends, both vivacious, funny and intelligent young women. I loved the shared psychological intimacy of their friendship and how they let me into that relationship space to a large degree.
A similar dynamic was emerging in my growing relationship with my mom and her best friends Mary Jane and Carol. The three women had all divorced their husbands and were actively involved in the growing movement for women’s equality focused on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Carol worked for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, investigating complaints of sex discrimination in the auto industry and other major businesses in southeastern Michigan. Mary Jane was a local community activist with an extensive academic background that included two PhDs. Carol had three kids and Mary Jane four, all broadly in the age range of my brother and I. We were all becoming like extended family, and I would come to refer to my mom’s two best friends as my “feminist aunts”.
Mary Jane and her kids had become like family ever since two years previous when my mom, Mary Jane, her ex-husband Ray, their four kids, my brother and I had stuffed ourselves into a car and driven to Toronto for the weekend to see the musical Hair. In the year after that she had become a mentor for me with my own flirtations with political radicalism. She was a radical feminist intellectual who had avant garde ideas regarding all aspects of society. She had introduced me to the concept of “patriarchy”, our male-centric, male-dominated hierarchical structure of society. She was a friend, colleague and acolyte of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, and based on his ideas that human society was transformed by its communication technology, believed that phonetic literacy had led to the beginnings of patriarchal dominance some 5000 years ago. She believed that going to school should be optional, saying “if it’s mandatory it’s not education!” She was also the first person I ever met who was a vegetarian. Though at the time I did not agree with all her provocative ideas, I was thrilled to have such a close relationship with what seemed to me to be a bonafide radical thinker, like the Russian anarchists I had learned about in my Modern Russian History class my senior year of high school. I was coming to treat her like a revered guru.
When I shared with her that I had read An American Dream, Mary Jane rolled her eyes and indicated that Mailer was quite the “misogynist”, a term that I had not heard before that she took the time to explain to me, and I listened and took note attentively. Enjoying her bigger than life standing in my eyes, she went on to share with me that Mailer was an acquaintance of hers who had been to several of her big parties in Ann Arbor. She regaled me with an anecdote where Mailer, intrigued and even perhaps smitten by her at one of her parties (I certainly judged her as brilliant, outspoken and at times a major league provocateur) followed her around and actually hit on her after having a number of drinks.
From my growing relationship with my mom, Mary Jane, and several of my male JLO comrades who I would later find out were gay, I had pretty much learned how not to engage in any of that stereotypical male heterosexual behavior that tended to hinder close friendships with women. Unfortunately that learning had included mostly not being comfortable making or even responding positively to any sort of romantic advance. Looking back, my appreciation and love for women was like being a very shy lesbian trapped in a man’s body rather than a male person comfortable with acting upon his heterosexuality. I so liked the way the women I knew engaged the world and felt comfortable in that space and energy, a comfort I seemed to rarely find around my male peers.
The exception to my growing greater fondness for the company of women were my two closest wargaming buddies, Jerry and Avi, who I also reconnected with over the winter break. Like Lane and Angie, they too were each others best friends (they lived on the same street just a half block from each other), and I somehow fit nicely into the dynamic of a triad with the two of them. It was like I resonated somehow in the deep and intimate connection between human beings, which was often best found between longtime friends. I longed to have that deep connection with all the people I interacted with, which was of course generally impossible.
Adding an exciting and provocative new dimension to my relationship with the two of them was that contemporaneous to my own encounter that fall at college with marijuana, they had discovered it as well. They even had an ongoing source to buy the stuff from the younger brother of one of our other peers in our larger wargaming circle. I remember learning all this when I called Jerry on the phone having just walked in the door from having hitchhiked home from college in Kalamazoo. Having once again, like my first episode thumbing for rides, ended up getting high with my driver who brought me all the way to the door of my house. I was still probably pretty stoned when I called Jerry, and it felt like some sort of Kismet when he shared all his and Avi’s encounters with the “evil weed”.
The first joint I smoked with Jerry was up in his bedroom at his parents’ house. I was surprised that he was so open about doing it there and initially concerned how his parents might react if they noticed its distinctive smell coming from his room or from the two of us. But again it was 1972 in a very progressive college town, and Jerry’s mom had a bit of a live and let live nonconformist streak herself. I recall the first time she smelled the burnt weed on us she scrunched up her nose and waved her hand in front of her face and grinned kind of sheepishly with a sort of “not that again!” look and maybe rolled her eyes for good measure. Perhaps a bit younger than my mom, in some ways she seemed more like one of us than one of my parents’ generation.
Jerry and I were already close friends from all the time we had spent together the past year in high school and outside of it. He had the long hair, beard and blue blue eyes with the look of a mountain man, but was really a sweet caring guy without a macho bone in his body. But smoking weed together allowed us somehow to share more of ourselves with each other and deepen our relationship. Something about the protocol of getting high together that you could say just about anything you were feeling and the listeners had to, or at least mostly would, accept it, maybe chalk it up to your intoxication. By the time you were all sober again you might not even remember most of the details of what was said, but still it had been shared and processed at some level by the other person. Kind of a joint (as it were) Rogerian therapy session of sorts.
For Christmas our mom, my brother and I drove down to Dayton Ohio to spend the holiday with my mom’s younger sister, my favorite aunt Pat and my uncle Ray. Our dad who lived in nearby Xenia drove up for Christmas day as well but did not stay overnight. Ray was now an up and coming executive in the corporate world, working in operations for a company that bought and sold rare coins. Pat was running the household and they were raising three kids, my three young cousins. She also had a part time job as an editor of a small weekly suburban newspaper.
Halfway between my mom and I in age, my aunt Pat continued to play an occasional but important role in my life as a sort of liaison between my own generation and my parents’. All my life I had struggled to understand and be comfortable with people of what is now called the “GI Generation”. So far, my mom was the only member of that cohort that I had been able to have what I felt was an authentic one human being to another relationship with. That only because, due to her divorce with my dad and all her subsequent struggles, my mom had had to surrender the normal parent-child formality and authority and reach out to me on more of a peer to peer basis.
But when I first developed a relationship with Pat she had been a young adult, but so youthful in her outlook and junior to my mom, she always felt more like an older member of my cohort than an adult authority figure. From that starting point I had enough of an ongoing relationship with her, seeing or at least talking to her several times a year, to see how someone closer to my age could transition into all the roles and responsibilities and the persona of an adult. Pat also demystified that older cohort for me, explaining why they did some of the things they did, which otherwise made people of my parents’ generation seem to me like an alien species.
So sitting around her kitchen table talking about family, politics, whatever with Pat, Ray, my mom and my dad, I observed and took note of how Pat had learned not to let her older sister control the conversation and rule the roost as she would so often do. My mom would make some provocative hyperbolic statement like how the radical student-led Human Rights Party in Ann Arbor was “destroying the antiwar movement!” Pat would call her on it, saying something like, “Now come on now sis, you know it takes a lot of people doing a lot of different things to stop the war”. Then later after others had gone to bed, Pat and I being night owls would stay up and talk, and she would explain to me her take on the motivation behind what my mom had said, or what my dad had said, and I gained an insight I would not have had in a discussion with just me and one or both of my parents.
After celebrating New Year’s Eve, watching the Rose Parade and college football games on TV New Year’s day, my mom, Peter and I returned to Ann Arbor. Winter break ended and I hitchhiked from my hometown down I-94 back to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. As usual there was at least one ride where the driver offered to share a joint with me, and I as always accepted. Getting high and losing my sense of time tended to make the two to three hour journey back and forth between the two cities more of a profound transition for me than it might otherwise have been. The freeway between the two cities seemed more like some sort of space/time wormhole than just a drive.
I returned to my dorm floor and its little society built around alcohol and marijuana consumption to find out that I had lost my second roommate. My first roommate Ease had left school some time in October. My new roommate, who went by the nickname of “Mister Meek”, had been a friendly unassuming guy who apparently had a history of being accident prone. So much so that we had only half jokingly pleaded with him not to go through with his plan to go skydiving over the winter break. Well true to form, he had apparently broken his ankle on landing, so badly that he decided to take a semester off from school. It would be several weeks before I got a new roommate.
My new classes ended up being more memorable than first semester. Contributing perhaps the most to the ongoing development of my present day understanding of human history and culture was a general studies class called “Aims and Achievements of Science”. The class looked at the development of science and the scientific method during the modern era and its juxtaposition to religious thought with particular focus on the undergirding belief system that supported that development. From this context modern scientific and modern religious thought did not seem as different as they were viewed by most of my parents’ circles of university academics in my secular humanist university hometown, who mostly exalted the former and poo pooed the latter. It planted a seed in my mind that human history might be a more interesting narrative than a simple transition from savagery, ignorance and fear to science and civilization.
Another science related general studies class with lasting impact and building on a similar high school class was “Physical Geography”. From my experience with and love of travel, maps and military simulation game boards representing various geographic venues on Earth, I was fascinated to learn about the plate tectonics that created our present day continents and mountain ranges and other geologic processes that carved great river valleys. I particularly remember the unit focusing on the components of our planet’s weather systems and how they were based on the interplay between the Earth’s rotation and the movement of relatively warm and cold air between the equatorial and polar regions creating high and low pressure systems. How those systems rotated based on the same principle that caused water to swirl as it went down a drain.
Finally an “Interpersonal Communications” class where we read and discussed the now self-help classic I’m Okay You’re Okay, with its theory of the communication “transactions” between human beings where we best case support each other with “strokes” but often do just the opposite. The class sessions where we did teacher-led go rounds sharing personal feelings made clear to me my basic shyness and timidity, and the continuing tenuousness of my self-esteem. I remember one class where we were supposed to bring and share with the class an object that was particularly emotionally significant to each of us. Mine was my winter jacket because of how it protected me from a cold world, the metaphorical implications only hitting me as I finally shyly shared that with the dozen or so other people in the class.
Outside of theater and my theater comrades, recreational intoxicants like alcohol, and more in my case marijuana, continued to be the social glue that brought most students together at least as far as I could witness. An invitation by a classmate one Friday to come to his dorm room that evening to share a joint with him and his roommate grew into a regular end of week ritual for me. Cheech and Chong or the decades later Saturday Night Live “Wayne’s World” sketches with goofy fun-loving stoner buddies always reminded me of my two Friday night hosts, Chuck and Gordon. They were two WASPy white guys with tales of dysfunctional parents and boring accounting classes who were also cannabis connoisseurs and lovers of R&B music.
Their residence was in one of the older single-sex bathroom down the hall dorms in the mid campus area. On Friday nights the two of them opened their door and put out the welcome mat to seemingly all comers and even passersbys who responded affirmatively to their query, “Hey man… care to smoke a jay”. During the winter and spring of 1973 I became a regular Friday night attendee and recipient of their cannabis largesse. Not even old enough to purchase a bottle of cheap wine or beer to contribute to the festivities, I would at times buy and bring a six-pack of Coke, which when guzzled cold (they had a small refrigerator in their room) was a nice counterpoint with its jolt of caffeine and sugar to the throat drying smoke and mind-bending buzz. Picking up where my former roommate Ease had left off the previous fall, they became my docents into my further exploration of the drug and the weed-enhanced world of white R&B music, particularly three of their favorite artists, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper.
We would literally repose for hours in their low beanbag chairs, smoking a series of “jays”, always rolled expertly by Gordon, and listening to a series of LPs always queued up on their high end stereo by Chuck, though often at Gordon’s suggestion. My contribution, beyond the Cokes, was to be their willing and ever appreciative consumer for their weed, wisdom and musical offerings. Saying the occasional, “I dig this part!”, and they would grin blearily and nod in assent, the consummate hosts.
While I had gravitated through my youth to less dark and hard edged and more lofty musical fare from Motown, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles, I was familiar with the Rolling Stones’ and Alice Cooper’s hit songs on the radio. But going deeper into their portfolios, listening to their albums over and over, was a very different experience, especially through the intensifying lens of marijuana. The effect of the drug also loosened me up and made shy me brave enough to copiously comment on the music to my hosts, who enjoyed hearing it fresh through my eyes, and feeling like successful docents, “turning me on” to what they were convinced was great stuff.
Their Stones catalog included Their Satanic Magesties Request, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers. Even though band members would later admit that Satanic Magesties lacked a strong producer who would have said no to a lot of the “rubbish”, mine was not a refined ear for the best of psychedelic rock music and I heard the album for the first time when I was very very high.
I was blown away by “Sing This All Together”, particularly the first 30 seconds, with its opening piano chords followed by a blast of discordant horns and then Mick Jagger’s voice followed by all the other band members in harmony with a sitar accompanying. The song continued with a cacophony of instruments and rhythms as I struggled to get some sense of equilibrium while what my stoner hosts called a “rush” from the tetrahydrocannabinol juicing my brain made me feel like I was accelerating backward into a nonexistent empty space behind my beanbag chair.
Before I could regain any sense of position in the space-time continuum, the song ended with a final horn flourish immediately followed by what in my current vulnerable state of psychic displacement seemed like the most grab-you-by-the-balls R&B guitar riff I had ever heard, delivered by Keith Richards in the opening of the second track, “Citadel”. In retrospect, I had been assaulted by perhaps one of the first proto-punk songs (note this 1982 cover by the punk band The Damned). I don’t recall what utterance I managed to force through my lips to acknowledge the moment, but my hosts, in a similar trance, grinned and bobbed their heads approvingly.
But it was the theatrical glam-goth music of my namesake of sorts, Alice Cooper, that captured my petulant heart at this moment of my life on the cusp of my legal adulthood. My hosts’ collection included his albums Love It To Death, Killer and School’s Out. The band came out of that same Detroit R&B scene that had forged the J Geils Band, the headliners that previous fall of my first ever rock concert where I had lost my musical virginity in a haze of marijuana.
But unlike Geils’ more conventional high energy blues, this band was all about outrageous rock theater built around lead singer Vincent Furnier’s frankenstein stage alter ego “Alice Cooper”. He and his all male band had long scraggly hippy hair but wore glamorous women’s dresses and jumpsuits plus exaggerated black eye makeup and lipstick. His wild stage persona played to my own thespian inclination for darker stage material. They borrowed from other Detroit bands – the MC5’s gritty rock and roll, Iggy Pop’s manic stage persona and the outrageous glam costumes and jazz influences of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.
Alice’s lyrics echoed that youthful coming of age angst I was going through and he inspired me to move beyond my shyness with his “bring it on” bravado and swagger in his lusty growling vocals. None more so than in his first big hit song, “I’m Eighteen” where coming of age discomfort transitions to embracing the new and the strange…
I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart
Took eighteen years to get this far
Don’t always know what I’m talkin’ about
Feels like I’m livin’ in the middle of doubt
‘Cause I’m eighteen I get confused every day
Eighteen I just don’t know what to say
Eighteen I gotta get away
Lines form on my face and my hands
Lines form on the left and right
I’m in the middle the middle of life
I’m a boy and I’m a man
I’m eighteen and I like it
Yes I like it
His albums were filled with in your face rock anthems and portraits of dark characters coming to grips with dire circumstances. In his Killer album, several of those characters were in fact homicidal, including the hired assassin in “Desperado” and the boyfriend who realizes only after the fact that he has run over his girlfriend, not necessarily by accident in “Under My Wheels”. As a stage actor who had enjoyed playing dark and troubled characters, my dark side resonated with the fantasy of at least briefly inhabiting these characters myself.
I particularly resonated with the lyrics in his song “You Drive Me Nervous”, with Alice dressing down a peer or perhaps himself for being bullied by his parents. His disgust with parental agendas emblematic of my own discomfort with the adults of my parents’ generation…
Yeah, you seem so civilized
Your mama’s trying to run your life
Your daddy’s trying to pick your wife
Yeah, you run around with all that hair
They just don’t like those rags you wear
You say “I’m gonna pack up my stuff
I’m gonna run away”
And then you say
“You drive me nervous”
You’re out of state you’re thrown in jail
You ain’t got the bread to pay the bail
Your mom and papa come up and said
“Honey, where did we fail?”
And then you scream
“You drive me nervous”
I was previously familiar with his gnarly anthem “School’s Out”, which had been a radio hit that nicely coincided with my own graduation/escape from high school, and picked up on the youth liberation theme of my favorite MC5 song “High School”. But the entire School’s Out album that the song was featured on was in its totality more of the audio rendition of a theater piece than just a collection of songs. His song “Gutter Cats vs the Jets” was a perfect example of this. It was a blues song that featured the narrative of an anthropomorphised street cat that either kills or is killed (listener’s guess) in a catfight…
Some bad cats from fourth street come down to our alley
Well we say that’s cool but just stay away from me and my boys
Eyes clash and claws slash and green eyed fur goes flying
Midnight! Cat fight! Neck bite! Dying!
This then immediately transitions into an up tempo jazz line with the sound of clicking fingers and then that iconic Leonard Bernstein riff followed by Alice’s snarly vocal rendition of the “Jet Song” from West Side Story (one of my alltime favorite anthems from American musical theater) followed by what sounds like a concert recording of a staged fight. This then followed by with the deliciously sensual, erotic, bluesy and menacing jazz song “Blue Turk”…
I’m lazy you know it I’m ready for the second show
Amazing thing growing just waiting for the juice to flow
But you’re so very picturesque. You’re so very cold
Tastes like roses on your breath but graveyards in your soul
I’m hurting I’m wanting I’m aching for another go
You’re squirming wet baby nothing bad coming very slow
And it’s burning holes in me
You’re so very picturesque. You’re so very cold
It tastes like roses on your breath but graveyards on your soul
One spastic explosion. Two pressure cookers go insane
It makes me act crazy. I shiver but I love this game
You’re so very ordinary. You’re so very lame
Tastes like whiskey on your lips and earthworms rule your brain
The song had a thrall that mostly overpowered my weed-whacked brain, as my mind imagined the metaphors so beyond my own dearth of sexual experiences. Though having read Mailer’s book and having processed Mary Jane’s critique, I could hear her voice in the back of my mind calling out the misogynistic thread in the narrative. Still as an actor who loved playing evil characters, this and the various other incarnations of the frankensteinian Alice Cooper character were irresistible to me.
Beyond the fantasizing, in my own ongoing pursuit of theater experience, I tried out for Western’s spring play, Richard Sheridan’s late eighteenth century School for Scandal, a period comic satire and lampoon of the idle rich laced with rapidfire witty dialog. I read for a couple of the leads, but ended up being cast in a smaller part as the supercilious servant Trip, a character which played effectively, with all his outrageousness, can steal several scenes. Rehearsals were an interesting new experience for me because they included extensive work with a speech coach learning how to master the period upper class English accent and with a movement coach to master the way men of the period strutted and posed their bodies.
The latter was particularly enlightening, because the men of the elite of that period dressed up in the flamboyant clothing, while the women wore the plainer, more uniform garb; just the opposite of men and women in our contemporary society. And the strutting and posing of an eighteenth century English gentleman (copied by their male servants) with the bent wrists and turned out leg was considered the height of masculinity then, where it would be seen as wildly effeminate today. The insight was that stereotypical male behavior was an affect of societal convention rather than something “natural” to the male human biology. And even if there was a behavioral expression associated with male hormones (“testosterone poisoning” as my mom’s friend Mary Jane liked to quip), it could be expressed in any of a number of ways, including by flamboyance and affectation as easily as the in your face toughness that was the more modern stereotype.
When our play went before the audience I was on stage a lot, but mostly in the background and only occasionally with my own lines, so I did a lot more observing from that vantage point than I normally would in previous plays where I had a more active role. I had had a major role in a period comedy, Penny for a Song, several years earlier, where I did not feel I had been successfully funny. It was interesting to see my fellow actors playing the leads similarly struggling to get beyond the accent, affects and the ever so witty staccato dialog, and relax into the genuine humor of their characters, that is be guilelessly idiotic, which was what would have been truly humorous.
I was pleased that a handful of my Junior Light Opera theater comrades from Ann Arbor, including my mentor Michael, drove up to see the show. I got good reviews from them for my comic timing in my scenes, Michael insisting I was the best one up there.
The semester ended in late April, two months earlier than what I was used to from K-12 schools. I was happy to be finished and done with the place for now. Though I had taken some interesting classes and been in a couple plays, including the quintessential chorus experience, my introduction to marijuana was truly the developmental highlight of my school year. Now that I had learned when to use it and when not, and what sort of experiences it enhanced, I was ready to have it be a part of my life for the foreseeable future, my generation’s much more sophisticated intoxicant than my parents’ alcohol!
Upon my return, I confirmed with my friends Lane and Angie that our backpacking trip through Europe was still on for that fall, so I would be taking a year off from school. The first year off from an institution that had felt inexorable, and to which in one venue or another I had reported to every fall for the past thirteen years. I was happy to be planning to do something very different and of my own choosing for once, though it felt very weird to be finally untethering myself from the yearly school cycle. A long summer was ahead which would include the need to find a job to earn the funds to finance my adventure.