As a counterpoint to all the gritty R&B music I had been enthralled by the past months at Western Michigan University, Paul Simon, recently separated from his partner Art Garfunkel, was all over the radio in May with his hit song “Kodachrome”. Only beginning to process and recover from over a decade of the year-after-year onslaught of school, I was particularly tickled by Simon’s lyric playfully capturing some of my continuing combat fatigue with formal education…
When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall
All the crap indeed, in high school and before! Twelve years of sitting at desks under the discomforting and unwanted tutelage of adult handlers, most of whom I had little or no connection with as fellow human beings. And then enough of my peers I was forced to share seat time with so uncomfortable themselves with their lot that they found some perverse temporary solace in tearing down their comrades, including me from time to time. The spectacle of some of my more socially awkward and physically unappealing agemates being savaged by a jury of their peers was disheartening in the extreme and only topped when the evil eye was occasionally turned on me. Believe me, a lot of kids got it much worse than I, but my hazing was plenty scarring. And we were supposed to grow up and run the world someday… poor world! It was the battered souls that finally escaped this institution, both the bullies and the bullied, that I had encountered in large numbers at college at Western Michigan University, medicating their angst and ennui with large doses of recreational intoxicants. My solace and sanctuary had been my college theater group, where we found a more high-minded purpose for our youthful enthusiasm.
My return to Ann Arbor for the summer found the feminist activism of my mom and her close friends heightened by the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that past January, legalizing abortion. Along with that the now 30 of the needed 38 states having ratified the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution they were all working on as active members of the National Organization for Women. These peers of my mom, particularly her best friends Mary Jane and Carol, had adopted me as an honorary member of their sisterhood and as such I was starting to refer to them affectionately as my “feminist aunts”. As some of my older youth peers had decided to adopt the Christian or Jewish religious beliefs of their parents and parents’ circle, I had adopted my mom and feminist aunts’ “faith” of women’s equality and liberation.
While my Junior Light Opera prime mover Michael and several of my JLO comrades came up to Western to see me strut my newfound onstage ‘tude as the impertinent manservant Trip in School for Scandal, Michael recruited me to be in his planned production that summer of the musical Flahooley. After eight months of a community of fellow students built around beer, Boone’s Farm and smoke filled rooms of cannabis, I was happy to have the opportunity to be brought back into the fold of my hometown youth theater community.
Flahooley was a musical first performed in 1951 written and staged by a creative team that featured one of Michael’s friends and mentors, Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the script for the show. Harburg was a well-known lyricist who penned the words for a number of memorable popular songs including standards “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, as well as all of the songs in The Wizard of Oz, including “Over the Rainbow”. Harburg’s work reflected a liberal social commentary that championed racial and gender equality and union politics. His membership in the U.S. Socialist Party and its affiliated Young People’s Socialist League got him blacklisted from working in Hollywood from 1950 to 1962. Michael was Harburg’s acolyte in so many ways with his own challenge to the adult world in launching his mostly youth-led Junior Light Opera theater company in the 1960s. I in turn had become one of Michael’s acolytes.
Nightly rehearsals for Flahooley started soon after my return from my freshman year at Western in Kalamazoo. It was particularly thrilling and developmental for me because Michael was upping the ante and conceiving the show as a “pilot” production that if it came together well would be taken on the road with the aspiration, if all the many stars aligned, to end up on Broadway. For a number of us youth in his theater company, his aspirations (or perhaps delusions of grandeur) were our own aspirations/delusions as well. I was pleased to see most of my familiar JLO comrades from the previous years involved in the production, cast and crew, and interacting with me as if I never left.
The show was an allegorical fantasy about a fictional world’s biggest toy company, and a young company executive leading the production and distribution of the company’s big new product for the Christmas season, a laughing doll named “Flahooley”. To try to ensure success of the project he employs a misguided genie who in responding to a wish starts giving the doll away free to kids throughout the world, undermining company profits. The company then hires a witch to try and reverse the genie’s spell. As originally written by Harburg and Fred Saidy, it was a lampoon of capitalism and the politics of McCarthyism.
Michael was upping the ante in this production by collaborating with his mentor Harburg on overhauling the script, now calling the show The Flahooley Incident. The rewrite including weaving in a Senate Committee lampooning the current committee investigating the Watergate scandal, which was all over the news at the time. He also recruited a young musical composer to re-orchestrate the musical numbers with a rock music score. It was up to all us youth in the cast and crew to make the show successful or not, but Michael was doing his best to create a heightened environment for a more professional show. As he writes in his production notes in the show’s program…
The Flahooley Incident is a pilot production. We are mounting it in a small way in Ann Arbor to determine whether we have something with commercial potential. Based on the 1951 Broadway musical Flahooley, The Flahooley incident has its book from E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Fred Saidy, the famed writing team that turned out Bloomer Girl, Finian’s Rainbow and Jamaica.
Through the two months of rehearsals scenes were constantly being rewritten and musical numbers were added, reworked or thrown out completely. It was fascinating to me as one of the lead actors to witness and participate in all the machinations of trying to reinvent an existing musical comedy as a more contemporary rock musical. I tried my best to give my character, Peabody, the maniacal anxiety ridden marketing director of the toy company, all the bubbly, wired, bounce off the walls energy I could muster. Perhaps my most important scene was the opening, where I set the show’s pace as the first person to appear, strutting out on stage in my flamboyant costume, calling out the take number and then striking my clapperboard to begin the next take of a TV commercial for the new doll.
Not too unlike my stage character, I had adopted my own more flamboyant persona of post-kid liberation and hippiedom at that point in time. I had screwed up my courage while away at school to buy and on occasion wear a pair of flashy brown and white shoes with two-inch platform heels, which I had seen other guys wear, and looked particularly good in my bell-bottom jeans and other flared slacks. The ratted up curly haired ‘fro that I had adopted to top my character’s head, I decided to keep after the show completed. I often wore very flashy paisley shirts or one even with completely abstract random patches of bright colors, like some Miro painting, and that actually glowed under the occasional trendy black light I encountered. At 6’ 2” in my heels I had a long and lanky strut with my ‘fro bobbing to the beat. Inside this new avatar I was still shy, even painfully so on the romantic and sexual side, but it was nice to pretend most of the time that I wasn’t.
But it was definitely only pretend as my dysfunction in the girlfriend acquisition department continued to dog me and captivate my thoughts when I lay in my bed at night trying to get to sleep. Just a month prior I had developed a serious crush on my mom’s friend Carol’s daughter Jillian. My mom and and her good friend Carol had decided to go kayaking in the Huron river which ran through the north side of Ann Arbor. They decided to invite me and her daughter to go along.
Jillian was my age and I had met her on a couple occasions at parties at Carol’s house but had never had a chance to really get to know her. But now here we were spending a Sunday together kayaking together or sitting and chatting while our mom’s did their thing. She was cerebral like her mom, tall and willowy with a great figure featuring nice breasts that I struggled at times to take my libido juiced gaze from. Though my female JLO friends that I had crushes on were all good looking young women, Jillian was the first instance I recall where I had this primal libidinal reaction to a comrade’s particular body. As we paddled our separate kayaks mostly side by side, except down the occasional small sedate “rapids”, we laughed and chatted about our crazy feminist moms. Completing our run long before them, we sat on the railroad bridge over Barton Pond continuing to chat and find common ground dangling our feet waiting for the two of them to come down the river. It was one of those magic moments when you connect with another human being and she seemed to have feelings for me, though I was so bad at gauging that, while I was head over heals for her.
Later that night lying alone in my bed I realized that I just had to pursue this relationship to see if there was a possibility that she might want to go out. I kept thinking about how I’d blown my last big romantic opportunity with my dance partner Rhonda that previous fall at Western, and I was determined not to let this slip through my hands without at least trying. So it percolated in my brain all the next day at work and I somehow mustered the courage when I got home to call her and invite her to a movie on the upcoming Saturday.
I managed to get her on the phone but things got off to a bad start when she thought I was someone else and I had to remind her who I was. To my credit I still asked her out, but she said she was busy Saturday and we agreed maybe another time, and the call ended awkwardly without any definite plan. Still with that lingering deficit of self esteem, the call ended with me feeling that she probably didn’t want to go out with me, but later that night, again lying in bed, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to myself to write things off so quickly. As things turned out I never made that second attempt to ask her out. After a week of being involved in rehearsals with all my JLO buddies, the crush had subsided, though I continued to feel good that I had at least tried once, one being way more than zero. I was learning to be at least a little bit kind with myself regarding my romantic dysfunction.
This issue filled my thoughts at night and I noted it in the new journal I was keeping. Other aspects of my life, creative activities and circles of good friends, seemed to be coming together quite nicely. The big missing aspect was a sexual relationship with a female comrade. I felt so strongly that when I had that under my belt a lot of anxiety would finally be released, a hell of a lot. The last piece of the Cooper Zale puzzle might fall into place and I could move forward more confidently into my adult life. But with who? Physically gorgeous Jillian? Lane, who now seemed to have another guy who she was interested in? And new on my romance radar, Angie, who I would be backpacking through Europe with this coming fall.
With evenings filled with rehearsals, my daytime was dedicated to earning money to finance my planned backpacking trip to Europe in the fall. I read through the want ads in the local paper and applied for and got a job working as a “houseboy” at the local Hilton Hotel on the south edge of town. It was 40 hours a week and my first full-time job, paying $2.10 an hour, right around the minimum wage. The work involved some janitorial work, some carrying customer’s luggage to their rooms, some work doing errands for the hotel owner and manager, but mostly cleaning guest rooms, supplementing the all female maid or “housekeeper” staff.
With my budding feminist awareness, from my mom and my “feminist aunts” Mary Jane and Carol, it was quite an enlightening experience to work in a low-wage “pink collar” work environment at the hotel. All the regular “housekeepers” were women, mostly older white women in their fifties and sixties who did not seem part of the academic university community that my mom had always attached herself to. The head of housekeeping, Mrs. Monday, was a forty-something woman who saw herself not as one of the housekeeping staff but an executive more on par with the manager of the hotel. Every day when she briefed the housekeeping staff in the morning and handed out room cleaning lists, she made it very clear that all decisions were made by her, that she was the boss, and not first among equals, since I never saw her clean a room herself. She did not seek their input in her decision making and did not seem that interested in it when offered, other than to dutifully listen until they were done and then go back to her planned speech. She also played favorites among the housekeepers she supervised which led to some real petty ongoing negative feelings between some of her staff. She actually treated me with much more dignity and respect than any of the women she worked with, presumably because I was male.
I got to know a lot of the housekeepers, at least to some degree, during breaks or at the end of our shifts around when we punched out on the time clock. I was a friendly young 18 year old guy who most found easy to talk to, since I was probably much more comfortable and interested around older women than most of my male peers. They told me stories of their lives outside work. Most had families, children and grandkids, while some lived alone. They asked me about my own life, including college plans and whether I had a girlfriend, like they were extended family interacting with me at some large family gettogether. They appreciated that I would talk to them and really listen to what they had to say, while one or two other male co-workers around my age were more dismissive of the “maids”.
For the most part I did the work that they did. It was not so hard as it was routine, cleaning hotel room after hotel room all basically configured and decorated the same way. So the hard part was keeping your head into it through the eight hour shift. I did notice that my room list to clean on a given day was usually one or two rooms shorter than theirs, even on days when I had no other janitorial, errand, or bellhop type tasks.
I’d knock on the door of the room, call out “housekeeping”, then use my master key to unlock the door. One time I opened the door to find two people having sex in the bed. The guy on top glared at me and the woman under him looked away from me. I apologized and closed the door and did not try again to clean the room until the end of my shift. But most of the time the room would be empty, and I would quickly look around plus peek in the bathroom hoping they were fairly tidy and if the room had two beds, that they had only used one, so I wouldn’t have to make the second one.
On my first day of “housekeeping”, Mrs. Monday had explained to me how to clean a room, including demonstrating how to configure and tuck the clean bed sheets, then blanket and comforter, plus arrange the pillow under that comforter, so it looked “just so”. She also explained to me all the required steps to clean the bathroom, without actually doing any of them herself, and concluding with putting that iconic band on the toilet seat saying “sanitized for your protection”. Those two tasks, making the bed and cleaning the bathroom, represented the bulk of the work, the remaining dusting and vacuuming being generally pretty quick tasks.
After cleaning rooms for a few days I got into my own routine with my own “standards” for how a room should look when I was done. It did not need to be clean so much as look clean to the eye. That meant in the bathroom the porcelain tub and sink, the tile floor, the mirror, and the metal fixtures needed to be clean and even shine. In the bedroom the beds needed to look neat, the table and other “wood” surfaces needed to shine, and the carpet should not have any obvious bits of stuff on them to make them look un-vacuumed. That latter item meant that if the carpet looked vacuumed when I started in on a room I might skip vacuuming it.
So after a week of the work it became very routine and boring and we would crave those times when I would be asked to do some task, any task, other than cleaning that same damn room over and over. Helping guests with their bags was usually fun, encountering the different people and their varying array of baggage, offering tips about places in town to see and restaurants, since I knew Ann Arbor like the back of my hand. Even doing a little light gardening outside, raking leaves, sweeping sidewalks, or even planting flowers felt like a break from the routine and at least got me outside on these summer days.
But what I enjoyed most was having the opportunity to run errands in the hotel’s VW van. First of all, because it had a standard transmission, which I so wanted the opportunity to learn how to drive. It was a stressful learning experience, with the hotel’s owner Mr. McMullen taking me out in it the first couple times to teach me. Me grinding the gears to his vocal consternation. But even that stress of an adult handler and authority figure bossing me around was sufferable to get this desired skill in my adult skill portfolio. Soon I was driving it on my own, playing “gofer” for the hotel, picking up or dropping off around town. A couple times I even got to drive it on the freeway into the Detroit area, once to Metropolitan airport to pick up some VIPs staying at the hotel and another time to pick up housekeeping supplies when our regular shipment did not come through and we ran low on toilet paper and such.
I so wanted to be capable and a jack of all trades, to leave all those bad connotations of being a “child” who still needed an education, behind.
When not diverted by other tasks, what helped mitigate the boredom of cleaning endless hotel rooms, was that I could turn on the TV in the room and watch, or at least listen to, the ongoing coverage of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings. Each day they were on one of the three major networks, generally starting in mid morning and going through most of my workday until my shift ended around 4pm. I loved the cast of characters. Committee chair Senator Sam Ervin, the affable but persistent southern Democrat. Senator Howard Baker, the ranking member but no big fan of his fellow Republican the president. Sam Dash, the no nonsense majority council and the more laid back minority council, Fred Thompson, who later became an actor and GOP presidential candidate. And then the witnesses, featuring Nixon’s crew of top aides, including tough as nails chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and domestic advisor John Ehrlichman, the duo known as Nixon’s “Berlin Wall”. There was the preppy and cerebral turncoat John Dean with his iconic “cancer on the presidency” assessment. and the youthful and somewhat naive Alexander Butterfield who made the revelation about Nixon’s secret recordings.
It was a real world soap opera with a compelling story arc and new plot twists each day, helping pass the time making beds, scrubbing toilets and trying to get hairs off the sides of the bathtub. With all my own liberal pedigree and even more radical ideas, I certainly was no fan of President Nixon and his apparatchiks, except for the whistleblower Dean.
It was also grist for my ever percolating imagination. One day I imagined a guy coming out on stage to a rock intro to the tune of “Hanky Panky” singing “You can’t do it if you ain’t got the power”. Then behind him appear two dancers wildly gyrating and repeating the line as his chorus, one with the head of an elephant and the other with that of a donkey, but both dolled up in sequined stars and stripes costumes.
Many of my ideas and deeper thoughts came to me in the late evenings or early mornings lying in bed trying unsuccessfully to get to sleep. One night I wrote in my journal…
If people react unfriendly when you reveal your hangups to them it means they have ones even deeper than yours. So to reveal yourself entirely would be to win instant friendship and adoration from him. You would be master of the universe. Your essence is like a cavern filled with a dry parched badlands. The inside of your personality is an awful, primitive pit, of animal ancestry tied back to the early epochs of man. This total acceptance by one another of the awfulness of the other brings an intense bond of need which creates love. If I could reach that level of total exposure of total flow, other people would do the same and the whole world could be tuned in. Everyone’s needs would be fulfilled by everyone else because people’s personalities would be latched together. People were made to be all together. Why billions of chunks of the same human essence instead of one dynamic mass.
This line of thinking inspired a verse I wrote and recorded in my journal…
It would be nice
If you could look through all the crap
And see what I really am
Then I wouldn’t have to stumble clumsily
Trying to show you
I continued to crave deep intimacy and connection with all the people in my life, to get beyond those obstacles that kept us isolated from each other. Obstacles like formality, age, gender, fear that we were not worthy of the others esteem. As I was finding my own mentors, so I was finding opportunities to start mentoring comrades a bit younger than myself. I saw myself becoming a mentor to Avi, who was a couple years younger than I was. He like me was shy and cerebral, lacking in self esteem and confidence. I realized it was important that we let Avi express his opinions, his feelings, his self. I noted in my journal that he was a plant we must try to help grow.
Life as it was conventionally lived by most people seemed to be filled with such anxiety, thinking in isolation and even madness, while I longed for deep connection with the people I was sharing life’s journey with. Even among my closest comrades in my theater group, I could see the fault lines forming as we all wrestled with our transition into adulthood. On the Fourth of July I saw the fireworks at Buhr Park with Lane and her new boyfriend and another couple among my theater comrades. Instead of an opportunity to deepen our connections that I craved, the two couples were being really awful and getting down on everything. It seemed so selfish, like everyone else wasn’t important anymore. It’s a cruel world. It ain’t easy to stay alive so stand aside buster I got too big of a job taking care of myself. Thats the kind of attitude I had been running into lately. It was really discouraging.
On this theme, the big song on the radio that caught my fancy (perhaps suggesting the kind of ‘tude I needed to adapt to keep myself in one piece) was Gerry Rafferty’s very Dylanesque “Stuck in the Middle with You” by his band Stealer’s Wheel…
Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you
Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place
Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all
With the end of The Flahooley Incident, I got my typical post show blues that Saturday night after the last performance that evening. There was no official cast and crew party including everyone, but my comrade Al invited me to a party he and Leo were having at his apartment for some of his friends in the cast. Al and Leo were the two older “alpha males” of our theater company, a couple years older than myself, both tall attractive even charismatic guys who got many of the lead roles, particularly in musicals. They were both unabashed male chauvinists and pushed my buttons, probably in part because even though I would not acknowledge it, I longed for that alpha status as well that they commanded so smugly. Even though I was uncomfortable with both of them, I accepted Al’s invitation out of my own ego’s need to feel part of the in crowd within the group.
There was plenty of alcohol and marijuana at the party, and now that I was imbibing both, it was my first opportunity to do so with some of my theater comrades, and self medicating my post show blues seemed an appealing idea that night. The party dynamic was feeling discomforting for me, with most of my own closest JLO buddies, like Lane and Angie, not in attendance. Leo made his grand entrance a little late, with a very sexy young woman in tow, dressed in a very slinky short black dress. She was not part of our theater group, and most of us had never met her before. Leo introduced her to everybody but she did not interact with us much, basically mimicking Leo’s haughty attitude, only interested in him and clinging to his arm. Her presence, and the dynamic between her and Leo, soured the party atmosphere even more, at least for me.
Things went from bad to worse when Leo excused himself and took his girlfriend into one of the bedrooms where the two of them proceeded to have sex with each other. I could not believe it, it seemed to me so rude and inappropriate and destroying the dynamic of the group assembled there. They emerged after a half hour or so and Leo made some crack about how good she was and my discomfort deepened. There seemed no one at the party that I was talking to that shared or was willing to admit they shared my disgust at this show that Leo was putting on. He was after all the alpha and they were privileged to have been invited.
Al, I guess not to be outdone by his fellow alpha, began hitting on Tina. She was a young woman my age who did mainly backstage work for our group and I had had the occasion to get to know her in some long set building work sessions. She did not have the panache and charisma of some of my other female comrades in the group that I had been attracted to. But she had had a crush on me for a while that previous year, but her low self esteem had always troubled me, perhaps too similar to my own. I almost could not believe it when after quiet whispers between Al and her, she agreed to come with him into his bedroom. They were gone for almost an hour, presumably having sex as well.
I tried to buffer all my discomfort with this stuff going on around me by smoking and drinking way too much as the hour got very late. So much that I was suddenly overcome by extreme nausea and, before I could retreat to the bathroom, threw up all over the living room floor. It brought the party to a halt, everyone focused on me sitting there in the middle of the room next to a pool of my own vomit. Someone offered and drove me home. I was almost too wasted to be embarrassed and glad to have an exit, any exit from this situation.
With the show and that awful post show party behind me, and long August evenings after work at the Hilton now free of rehearsals, I filled that time hanging out with my wargaming buddies. My high school friends Jerry and Avi, plus the larger circle of nerdy fellow travelers we were building, including Clark, Patrick and Dave. Adding to the mix and the growing gaming bond between us was that we were all now smoking marijuana, and as always the shared passing of that clandestine joint or pipe and the altered state we then enjoyed together built such a sense of community between us. Though as I’ve said I had generally become more comfortable around women than men, this group of male peers was the exception. There was not the slightest bit of stereotypical male macho or competitiveness within any of us, and my five comrades were some of the sweetest and most caring human beings I have ever had the pleasure to spend time with.
It was actually Patrick’s younger brother Damian, still in high school and probably only 16 at the time, who sold us our weed. Jerry, Avi and I would call him on the phone and place our “order”. He would either have the stuff in stock or would call us back a few days later when his next shipment came in. He apparently bought marijuana by the pound and then sold it by the ounce to what might have been a large circle of customers, though Damian refrained from talking about his business much. He was quite the character and I was always a bit in awe of him, not the least of which was the fact that he looked like a young Mick Jagger. He would meet us generally in Eberwhite Woods, which was just beyond the backyard of Avi’s house on the west side of town.
My hometown of Ann Arbor had gained national notoriety for being the site of what was called the “Hash Bash”, a big gathering on April 1st 1972 at the main central piazza of the university known locally as “The Diag”. It was a quickly organized celebration, including copious pot smoking, of the Michigan Supreme Court’s overturning several weeks earlier of the state’s law making possession of even a small amount of Marijuana a felony. The ruling had been made based on the appeal of the felony conviction of local radical activist John Sinclair, who happened to be a close friend and activist comrade of Avi’s older brother (both Avi’s brother and Sinclair were leaders of the local radical White Panther Party). The overturning of the law had made marijuana essentially legal in Michigan, inspiring the “Bash”. In the fall, the Ann Arbor city council, including two newly elected members from the leftist Human Rights Party, had approved an ordinance making possession of less than two ounces of marijuana a $5 civil infraction ticket. And this April Fools Day the first anniversary of the “Hash Bash” had been celebrated by a similar gathering, which I might have otherwise attended except I was still off at school in Kalamazoo.
I and various subsets of my five gaming buddies would generally get together in some permutation on weekend days and evenings throughout that hot August to smoke weed, drink wine and indulge our shared addiction for complicated military simulation board games. The bigger and more complicated they were, like winged insects to their flaming or excremental nirvanas, the more we were drawn. That summer the awe inspiring game was “La Bataille de la Moskova” (the Battle of Moscow), simulating the 1812 battle between Napoleon’s Grand Armee and the Russian army led by General Kutuzov around the small town of Borodino at the gates of Moscow.
I recall Jerry, Avi, myself and one or two others from our group convening down in Jerry’s basement on a weekend evening to play the monstrous thing. As was usually our process, first we smoked some weed, drank a little wine, put music on Jerry’s stereo (hauled down from his room). I recall the wine was a Christian Brothers California Rose with a nice sweetness to counter the dusty dry mouth from smoking weed.
The initial music was the amazing new Dark Side of the Moon concept album from Pink Floyd with its ponderous melodies and broad lyrical critique of contemporary industrial culture. Followed by one of Jerry’s favorites that summer, the spacy jazz-rock fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra from their albums The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. The music on these two records defies my ability as a writer to describe with any due justice, other than to say that it was instrumental with no lyrics or even recognizable melody, and as the album titles suggest, had an emergent and at times transcendent other-worldly quality. Combined with the mind-bending buzz of the marijuana it took my mind completely out of the muggle world above Jerry’s basement and allowed our imaginations to flow in any number of directions including traveling back in time 161 years to the hills and fields of czarist Russia.
Nicely stewing in our intoxicants and taken to an enhanced altered state by the music, we shared our anticipation of the “meta” of this new game. By whom in our group and how it was acquired. The fact that it had a game board bigger than anything we’d seen before. It had literally hundreds of little cardboards units, when other games we had played generally under a hundred total. It would probably take days, even weeks, to play from beginning to end. As the tetrahydrocannabinol massaged and manipulated our brain function, the anticipation grew even stronger, a true gamers peak experience, lusting after the big new thing.
We unfolded the sections of the cardstock board and oriented each to the others to create the full map. It literally took up almost half of Jerry’s basement ping pong table. As part of the ritual with new games we first studied and oriented ourselves to the map… where each army would set up, tactically important geographic features, scale of the hexes, and general artistic qualities of the map rendering. Our minds duly reoriented by the buzz of the weed, we probably all stared at the map for a half an hour or more, heads dipping down to a foot or less above the map surface to get a closer look like entomologists studying small insect specimens. Our creatively augmented minds transformed us into nineteenth century generals and field marshals, and transformed each inked and colored map feature into a flowing river, a stone bridge across it, dense woods, commanding ridges and imposing fortifications upon them. We oohed and ahhed with anticipatory delight as we compared notes.
The Russian supreme commander Kutuzov had positioned his army between Napoleon’s to the west and his nation’s capitol of Moscow to the east in as defensible a position as was available. The Kalatsha river and the little town of Borodino protected his north flank, where the main road from Smolensk ran east through the town and over the river to Moscow. A stream cut north-south across the battlefield between two sets of north-south ridges, one occupied by each army. The Russians had fortified their position just south of the town by building a section of earthen walls known as the “Great Redoubt” along with lesser earthworks to the south of it. On the south flank of their position was a woods. Our buzzed minds had become generals’ minds, pondering the tactical implications of this geography on the battle to be.
All now very high, the next joyous half hour was spent discussing who would play on what side. After much lively debate, mock posturing and resulting giggles, it was decided that Jerry and I would partner as the French braintrust, Jerry commanding the north half of the army and me the south. Avi and Clark were our Russian adversaries, Avi opposing Jerry in the north, and Clark to me in the south.
The next several hours were spent cataloguing and organizing the hundreds of half inch square cardboard units representing infantry regiments, cavalry squadrons and artillery batteries. They were all brightly color coded designating their nationality and their ranking within the army. The infantry units included militia, line (regular), light, grenadier and guard. Cavalry designated as Cossacks, light, heavy, lancers and dragoons. Artillery as foot, horse, siege, etc. All the colors and symbols and the imagining they triggered was beguiling as we laid out the two entire armies, row after row of half-inch cardboard squares in their brigades, grouped by division, and divisions grouped by corp.
Then there were the specially emblazoned counters representing the generals and field marshals themselves along with their adjutants and entourage. We of course new our military history including the personalities of many of these historical commanders. The brilliant but dispepsic Napoleon Bonaparte. His flamboyant brother-in-law and cavalry general Joachim Murat. Perhaps his most talented field commander, Louis-Nicolas Davout commanding his right flank. And Michel Ney, the soldier’s soldier called by Napoleon “the bravest of the brave”, commanding the left flank. Opposing him the skilled and pragmatic recently promoted Russian supreme commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, who would retreat rather than risk losing his army. The avant-garde tactician Pyotr Bagration, commander of the Russian left flank. And the recently demoted old school tactician Michael Barclay de Tolly, formerly the Russian supreme commander now subordinate to Kutuzov and commanding the Russian right flank.
Burnt out on several iterations of both Mahavishnu Orchestra albums, I suggested we play Earth, Wind and Fire’s Head to the Sky, keeping the same ethereal jazz quality but in the context of a melodic soulful funk. An album highlighted by the beautiful acapella on its title track “Keep Your Head to the Sky”. I knew it was a good selection when everyone quickly got back to their concentration and work, but swaying slightly now to the more accessible beat. I paused my own studious focus laying out my army to direct all my stoned senses to that acapella bit I loved so much in the song.
Next the near herculean effort to place all the hundreds of counters in our chosen initial positions on the board, each of us working diligently and taking us past midnight as we continued to smoke joints, sip the sweet wine and raid Jerry’s refrigerator for our stocked provisions of chips and cookies. Several iterations of Head to the Sky now giving way to the Yes Fragile album combining the virtuoso bass work by Chris Squires and iconic keyboards of Rick Wakeman. We needed the energy of the strong recognizable melodies and riffs to keep us to our challenging tasks of deploying these two huge armies on the battlefield, despite the intoxicants and the late hour, keeping our noses to the grindstone.
Nothing I had ever done in school was as intense, collaborative, analytical and tactical as this. And several hours after midnight, maybe eight or nine hours into the effort when we all finished setting all those hundreds of little cardboard units on the board, we looked at each other with such a sense of accomplishment with our work, and such an overwhelm of stoner awe at what we had wrought on that cardboard map on that ping pong table. Such awe, combined with fatigue, that we all quickly agreed that we would not attempt to start playing the thing that night. Instead, all go home, get some sleep and reconvene the next evening to begin the opening turn. But still it was another hour studying the board, bleary eyed and foggy brained, with the now deployed armies, comparing notes and discussing the “meta” of the whole setup process, difficult decisions and trade offs, specific unique geographical features, and oddball units like the French marines, which I had decided would anchor the assault through the woods on the south of the map. The holistic zeitgeist of the evening, with all its sensory, imaginative, analytical and even metaphysical components felt like it had transformed all of us in some subtle unexplainable way.
I rode my bike the three miles home at three in the morning through the quiet still August muggy warm familiar streets of my hometown, appreciating the bit of wind on my face created by my velocity. Still with the ponderings of a Napoleonic general indulging the still juiced analytical sections of my brain. My mom and brother presumably sound asleep in their upstairs bedrooms, I quietly navigated my now private downstairs area, with quizzical notice from our female cat Ra sitting on the top of the tall pie cabinet, and I descended into my sanctuary in the somewhat cooler basement. Taking a moment to scrawl something in my journal, I lay on my mattress on the slab floor, still the game board in my minds eye, and still the general’s musings percolating through the analytical regions of my brain.
We reconvened the next evening in Jerry’s basement and continued the project playing the first turn and several more after that, listening to more music and imbibing more wine and weed. But it wasn’t until the next weekend, our fourth session playing this iteration of the game, that we got to a point when we all agreed that we were done with the thing. There were no conclusive winners or losers, it really was not about that, but just the shared experience of the intensity of the thing, that we all had diligently played our roles in to facilitate our collaborative experience.
I recall we played a second iteration of the game later in the month in a different venue, this time with three players on each side instead of two. The third playing the overall commander for that side and focusing on moving the reserves around and coordinating the efforts by their two comrades. The thing was definitely a game-nerd crowd pleaser.
Marijuana was providing us a different frame of reference to experience various aspects of our lives and our rich contemporary culture through its very altering intense lens. An adventurous and inquisitive person with access to weed and a good dose of discretion could conduct all sorts of experiments. Eating a peanut butter sandwich high. Playing sports high. Swimming high. Some were obvious winners, like peanut butter and swimming.
Sports was usually a loser. Trying to field a ground ball as your mind was captivated by the energy of this small spherical object skittering quickly towards you in the dirt often meant it would skitter right by you as you contemplated the gestalt of it and made an ill timed lunge too late.
Music was an obvious winner, your altered mind allowing a suppression of linear thought while you more fully experienced the raw sensuality of the weave of instrumental and vocal threads. Also some of the spacier comedy albums of the period, like Firesign Theater’s totally stoner-friendly album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All, featuring the faux radio dramas “Nick Danger Third Eye” on one side and the stream of consciousness title track on the other.
We quickly discovered that one of the peak experiences stoned was going to see a movie in the theater, and sitting right up front so your visual senses were overwhelmed. The first such movie I recall really packing an extra wallop on weed was Fantastic Planet, an animated Czech sci-fi film, bizarre enough when seen sober, but
sensually transcendental when stoned so your mind is relieved of any need to disbelieve even the most outlandish concept.
Of course I discovered that, given that suspension of disbelief and my highly active (even overactive) imagination, certain movies were best not seen stoned. Case and point was The Exorcist, which my wargaming friends and I went to see high, with me volunteering to drive, and all of us of course taking seats in the front stoner’s row. I was so vulnerable to and freaked out by the movie that I almost got in a car wreck going home (though no longer high at that point) and fretted about the movie’s plot and characters for weeks though my rational mind kept assuring my imaginative side that it couldn’t really happen. Or could it? This Christian Devil mythology was something I had steered clear of all my life only to allow it into the deepest realms of my imagination facilitated by the marijuana.
The final and perhaps culminating event of the summer, particularly from the what’s worth doing high perspective, was the Love Devotion Surrender concert we had scored tickets to, featuring a collaboration of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra.
I recall the concert was on a Friday evening at the University of Michigan Crisler arena. I worked that day at my job at the Hilton, and in a bit of synchronicity, I happened to be doing a stint carrying guest bags to their rooms when Santana and McLaughlin, who I had no inkling were staying in our hotel, checked into their adjoining rooms, just the two of them with no entourage. Their luggage cart stacked high with bags and a couple guitars and the three of us rode up to the second floor. I got my nerve up to quickly mention my friends and I were seeing their show that night. McLaughlin seemed distracted like the two of them were having a telepathic conversation about something completely different that I had just interrupted with my spoken words. (I recently read in Wikipedia that McLaughlin’s band, The Mahavishnu Orchestra was in the midst of breaking up at the time!) But Santana, with much shorter hair than I was used to seeing in his photographs and TV appearances, smiled at me in silence and nodded his head in appreciation, momentarily multitasking from whatever seemed to be going on between the two of them.
It felt like a blessing and I so wanted to frame it that way, as I stood by their baggage cart while they opened the doors to their adjoining rooms, revealing an unmade bed in McLaughlin’s. I could see him contemplating it silently for a moment, his back to me. He raised his hands to waist level palms up like he was trying to frame some sort of response to a profound metaphysical experience. He turned his head to look at Santana and said the first words I had heard him say, measured, matter of fact and somewhat miffed, in his British accent. “My room’s not clean!”
That remembrance, with Santana’s nod to me and McLaughlin’s snit has lingered in my mind through the decades, so much so that I have no recollection of how it was resolved in the moment, though it was somehow, and is unimportant in the scheme of things.
My shift ended and I drove home, changed clothes and met the others – Jerry, Avi and Clark – at Jerry’s house. Jerry expertly rolled a handful of joints, with the dexterity and touch of the artist that he was. We all drove in one car to the concert, smoking the first joint in the parking lot before joining the long line waiting for the doors to open for the concert. As it often was, the anticipation of some profound event about to occur was one of the best parts. And the THC beginning to course through our brains heightened that anticipation as we chatted with each other and shared our excitement, or just grinned at each other when adequate words to capture the thrill failed us. Many of the several thousand other people in the line, which nearly surrounded the entire arena, were obviously stoned as well, several here and the there within view passing a joint around right there in line.
We had assigned seats, but as we entered Crisler Arena we saw that there was an area in front of the stage where people were sitting on the floor. We made a quick decision to sit there instead, and found a space just big enough for the four of us to squeeze between other groups of sitting people. The area quickly became a mass of sitting people, mostly stoned, buzzing on both THC and anticipation.
It seemed forever before the lights went down generating a howl of joy as one, from the some five or six thousand assembled concertgoers. In the dark you could see the tiny firefly like flares of light as joints were lit and hits on them taken. The air of the arena, at least there in front of the stage, quickly filled with the smell of burnt marijuana. We were not yet in a later era to come when smoking was not allowed inside buildings and concert security staff would troll the aisles apprehending any violators. A second howl from the assemblage as the band members came out on stage in the dark, found their instruments and took their positions. A few small music lights on stage becoming visibly lit as the energy of anticipation in the crowd was an intensely quiet collective oneness waiting for the first note. When you’re really stoned, a moment can be a delicious bit of forever.
I recall the music beginning with a flourish of notes in his flamenco like style from McLaughlin’s guitar, which as the lights rose just enough to see the musicians on stage (and they presumably could see and not stumble into each other or trip over chords and equipment) to reveal it was double-necked, a six-string and a twelve-string guitar fused into one instrument hanging from his neck, with him able to jump back and forth almost instantly between the two. McLaughlin was noted to have said that he felt his guitar was part of his body and he felt incomplete without it. He was also noted for using unorthodox scales and time signatures, along with his aggressive speed, technical precision and harmonic sophistication that gave his guitar solos an otherworldly quality.
Santana on the other hand, with that signature sexual howl from his guitar that sounded so deeply from human passion, responded with a flurry of his own notes and it had begun, and the world outside this huge weed infused space was no longer significant. Eventually a keyboard and latin drums joined in, but nothing yet to give me any sense, as a neophyte to this sort of Indian influenced jazz-rock fusion, of any sort of recognizable piece of music beginning to unfold. It was another eternity of several minutes of instrumental flourishes from guitars and keyboards before any sort of melodic thread was detectable. It sounded like several low human voices humming a simple eight-beat melodic mantra, over and over again, while all the other instruments played off against it. It was there for a while, anchoring my consciousness to some sort of recognizable acoustic pattern, while McLaughlin, Santana, the keyboardist surfed its simplicity with their more complex flights. At some point well into the piece the melodic line was picked up by the bass player as the other members of the ensemble continued to wildly improvise back and forth, occasionally picking up that simple melody.
And then all of a sudden it faded and McLoughlin’s guitar played flourishes as a new melody emerged in the base line followed by actual vocalized words forming a chant…
A love supreme
A love supreme
A love supreme
A love supreme
And then another version in gibberish or another language, i didn’t know which…
A ya ya do
A ya ya do
A ya ya do
A ya ya do
And then various permutations mixing those two mantras along with an occasuibak “It’s up to you”.
Who was actually singing on stage was not completely clear, maybe all of them.
This was McLaughlin’s tribute to one of his mentors, John Coltrane’s classic 1964 piece “Love Supreme”. The vocals died off but the bass and keyboard continued the melody and the drums the rhythm as the two guitar players traded improvisations against it. You could now hear the audience softly singing the melodic chant as well. The four of us joined in…
A love supreme
A love supreme
A love supreme
A love supreme
Seriously, seriously stoned at this point, I felt untethered from Earth, the space-time continuum and any sort of reality beyond the audible sounds in in this big dark space as the drums and base continued and the improvs from the other players flowed in and out like tides. I had no thoughts other than what I was hearing and to spur my mouth and vocal chords to continue the chant, particularly in those ebbs in the improvisations…
A ya ya do
A ya ya do
A ya ya do
A ya ya do
And then finally, with a few bangs of a gong, the meditation ended, the crowd acknowledged with a howl and McLaughlin picked up his acoustic guitar and started gently playing it. Santana played off it on his electric guitar. The keyboard and drums joined in and suddenly we were off again in more of an R&B piece of sorts with Santana’s guitar suddenly wailing loud, filling every inch of the arena seemingly including bits of every great Santana guitar riff woven through his improvisation. My whole body shivered spontaneously. He even played a brief melody line from the Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” out of fucking nowhere. It is like he had suddenly come alive and taken over the whole place and all the other players were forced to fall in line behind him. It was stunning and awesome and the tears flowed from my eyes at the raw beauty and power of it and I have never seen a live performer do such a thing since.
And then that was over and they were off into something completely different. McLaughlin seemingly going berserk on his double-neck guitar his fingers flying back and forth in a blur between the six- and twelve-string necks obliterating any previous remnants of Santana, “Love Supreme” or anything else that had happened previously. I felt completely disoriented and clung to the regularity of the drum line. Finally guitars and keyboard faded and it was just drums, a solo by the percussionist for his own endless maybe five minutes in Earth time.
About an hour into the thing McLaughlin introduced the ensemble. His much more well known partner, Carlos Santana on guitar. From McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham (acknowledged as jazz-rock fusion’s greatest percussionist, who had also played with Miles Davis) on drums and Larry Young aka Khalid Yasin (who had played extensively with John Coltrane and Miles Davis) on keyboards. From the latest jazz-rock fusion incarnation of Santana’s band, Armando Peraza (who would go on to play in Santana’s band for the next 17 years) on the latin conga drums and Doug Rauch on bass. Santana graciously acknowledged the less well known McLaughlin as the bandleader (apparently McLaughlin had mentored the younger Santana in the latter’s new exploration of this genre of jazz-rock fusion).
It was a stellar assemblage of players, and to me as a jazz neophyte, the stars had certainly seemed to be in alignment that night. They continued their collaborative virtuoso performance for another two hours in the big arena reeking of marijuana smoke. When we all finally realized it was over everybody stood and yelled with what voice we had left given the dry throats from puffing weed with little to drink, because it never occurred to me to go to the concession stand, nor would I have wanted to take myself out of the thrall of the thing even for a few minutes.
As we stood their clapping and yelling acknowledging the event I felt somehow blessed and again transformed in some subtle but profound way. It seemed appropriate to be thus recast and rebooted, as I was about to launch into an extensive journey through Western Europe that would, for the first time in my life, turn out to be completely at my own direction and as much a journey of internal as external discovery. A vision quest of sorts that would punctuate my youth turning into some beginning semblance of adulthood.
Another bravura performance! Particularly noteworthy to me is your ability to make the sound and feel of the music jump off the page.
Thanks Reuben… I appreciate your continuing support of me and my work! I am blessed!