Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies!

Death To Ambiguity!

by C. P. Lee

Two recent events have stirred my interest and given such food for thought that they’ve inspired this piece – The first was discovering that the number one selling single in Great Britain (not this week, obviously) was an Afro-American rapper called Afroman, with a rendition of his song ‘Cos I Got High’, and the second was David Blunkett announcing a relaxation in the cannabis laws.

Before Afroman topped the charts I’d been zapping channels on my TV (looking for another bargain on QVC) when I happened to come across the video for ‘High’ on some music channel or other. As luck would have it I had a cassette lined up in the VCR so was able to record it. When I played it back I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

It started off with Afroman lighting up a huge ‘blunt’, the popular name for joints amongst young people now, so I’m told – actually, this has just led me into the world of Harry Potter and I think I might be the first person to ever mention it, but ‘muggles’, that is, non-magicians in Potter world, was also the slang word for reefers, joints, sticks of tea, etc. Is JK Rowlings aware of this? – I think we should be told! – Anyway, he lights up his dope and then sings his song about how he got high and the ensuing disasters that this action provokes. Reading that you might be misled into thinking that it was an anti-drug song, but you’d be wrong. It’s a glorious celebration about smoking weed, witty, self deprecatory and very, very catchy.

The next thing I know, the Home Secretary is on TV telling us that he’s reclassifying cannabis and that simple possession is more or less decriminalised. I nearly choked on my spliff.

The next thing is hearing Afroman on Radio 4’s Today programme being asked to comment by John Humphries or James Naughtie, on the Home Secretary’s decision. I begin to think to myself that the world is getting too surreal. Then I spotted in The Guardian that he was on that evening’s edition of Top of the Pops and I knew that somehow somewhere, a circle was being completed.

Afroman came on and was duly introduced and set about performing his number one hit. He performed it as if he was really stoned and I still can’t make up my mind whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, but that question is academic. The important thing is, when did the broadcast media in the UK suddenly decide it was alright to play songs about dope? I heard Blunkett’s announcement and that was virtually the same week as Afroman’s appearance on British telly. I Got High had been receiving airplay for weeks before that. What else had slipped by me since I passed fifty?

Almost thirty-four years ago a fresh faced – oh, alright – a young Bob Dylan reached number seven in the UK charts with Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. Despite its lyric exhorting “everybody must get stoned!” Dylan went out of his way to deny that he wrote ‘drug songs’.

Albert Hall, May 1966: “… this is probably one song  that your English music press here would call ‘a drug song’. Well I don’t write ‘drug songs’. I never have. I wouldn’t know how to go about it… I’m not saying this for any kind of defence, or reason, or anything like that.”

Dylan was actually referring here to Visions of Johanna, but we get the message. I can clearly remember reading his words in Melody Maker the week after the concert and then quoting them back at school to someone who was arguing that the world was awash with drug songs and Dylan was the principal pusher. But – and it’s a big BUT – when it came to defending RDW#12&35, we (Dylan’s defenders) were on much shakier ground. Thankfully the lyrics were ambiguous enough to argue the toss. It was about artistic freedom; it was about the stifling atmosphere of provincial life in a post-war world; it was, at that time, literally about Dylan getting stoned by his audience who were rejecting the ‘Folk Rock’ direction he was going in; it was about anything, but most certainly it wasn’t about drugs. Of course, the irony was, that to those in the know, the ‘in-crowd’, the hip, the cool, all knew that it was about getting stoned. We just wouldn’t admit it to outsiders.

At that time our moral guardians were ever vigilant in their search for questionable material and had achieved a great deal of success in getting certain records banned from airplay on the radio. Up until 1967/8 there really weren’t that many contenders until bands like Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & The Fish flew out of San Francisco and into our consciousness. The Beatles denied that Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was a drug song. So did The Byrds as regards Eight Miles High. Perhaps the most bizarre victim of the witch hunt was Puff The Magic Dragon, an innocuous children’s song that suddenly found itself bracketed with Steppenwolf’s The Pusher (actually an anti-drug song if ever there was one) and The Electric Prunes’ I Guess I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night (which, frankly, could have been about anything!).

Now the provenance of RDW#12&35 as a celebratory ‘up’ song about getting stoned is closely intertwined with its sing along, anthemic appeal. There’d been songs about getting stoned before Dylan – notably Ray Charles’s Let’s Go Get Stoned, but that was a more relaxed, after hours type tune about gin. Sinatra’s Ratpack all joshed and joked on stage and TV about ‘getting stoned’. Dean Martin made a career out of it. Robert Shelton in No Direction Home tells us how Dylan and Phil Spector heard Ray Charles’s version on a jukebox in a Los Angeles hang-out called The Fred C Dobbs Coffee Shop –

Shelton, p322: ‘Both of them, Spector told me later, “were surprised to hear a song that free, that explicit”.’

A couple of months later Dylan recorded RDW#12&35 at a Nashville Blonde on Blonde session. While we don’t know if Dylan was ‘high’ during the session (and it’s not particularly relevant anyway), the musicians were certainly stoned in the traditional sense, Dylan having sent out for coffee carton sized cups of a particularly strong local cocktail that rendered them, how shall we say… more relaxed.

Skip forward a few months and we’re back to the release of the single and the resultant controversy over the lyrics. I have to confess here that I have no memory of it being banned by the BBC at that time. Remember there wasn’t even a Radio 1 until 1967, if RDW#12&35 would have appeared on the Light Programme it would probably have been played by the BBC Light Orchestra with vocals by Elvis Costello’s father Ross MacManus! I have a feeling that it was a few more months before they followed the American line and started looking closely at songs. The first one I can remember being specifically banned was The Beatles’ A Day In The Life because of the ‘went upstairs and had a smoke’ line. Interestingly, I can’t find any reference to RDW#12&35 being banned in this country. In all probability that’s because it never got played anyway!

But back to the point – In the late 1960s and early 70s it was fun to work out which drugs songs had slipped past the censors – Here Comes The Nice by the Small Faces being one of my particular favourites. How could the BBC have failed to notice the lines ‘He knows what I want, he knows what I need. He’s always there if I need some speed’? Obviously tunes like The Brotherhood of Man’s (that’s the Lowell George, American BOM, by the way), Don’t Bogart That Joint My Friend, was heading for the can as soon as it was released. However, over the decades some blatant drug songs did get by through an adoption of the ambiguous stance – Musical Youth’s Pass The Dutchy (presumably the BBC couldn’t begin to conceive of 13 year old kids singing about dope, or couldn’t speak Jamaican patois), The Farm’s Ebeneezer Goode, (‘E’s are good, geddit?) being two that spring to mind.

Throughout the years though it was Dylan and his wet women that remained a constant, even if the lyrics have remained ambiguous (‘They’ll stone you’ = friends or foes? – literally with stones, or with marijuana?). I think it’s a fair comment to say that since Dylan first began performing this song live in January 1974, audiences have enthusiastically adopted the approach that the tune’s ethos was one of hedonistic abandon and duly entered into the spirit of its celebratory nature.

Question? If this were a new song, released this week, would it receive airplay without let or hindrance? Answer – I think that the current climate is now, finally, after so many decades of repression, allowing us to do away with ambiguity in relation to taking cannabis. Lenny Bruce said he believed legalisation would happen within his lifetime. I still await full legalisation, but feel it’s nearly here. And as Bob Dylan said – ‘Everybody must get stoned!’