With The Drug Years VH1 chronicles the history of illegal drug use in America and its impact on popular culture
by Alistair Highet
Stanley Owsley may be the most influential figure in the history of American pop culture that you´ve never heard of. In 1963 he was a student at U.C. Berkeley where he started to experiment with psychoactive drugs. Never one to do things in small doses, he began to buy lysergic acid in bulk and became the world´s number-one purveyor of acid trips. Others had toyed with it on a small scale, but Owsley, or ¨Bear¨ as he was called, made it available to the masses, supplying it to the novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who began to conduct ¨acid tests¨ and famously tour America in a bus, and to the Grateful Dead.
According to The Drug Years , an upcoming four-part documentary running this week on VH1, and June 16 and 17 on the Sundance Channel, Owsley made tens of thousands of hits freely available to the crowd for the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, the first outdoor pop concert of scale, where an unknown Jimi Hendrix took two hits, apparently, and blew away a crowd that was already plenty blown away. Monterey with as many as 200,000 people out there and many of them tripping became the signature moment of the Summer of Love, the explosion of consciousness that is what people usually mean when they look at you and say with feeling, ¨the ´60s.¨
And is that really the way it was? The Drug Years has a lot going for it. Inspired by Martin Torgoff´s book, Can´t Find My Way Home: America in the Stoned Age, it moves along at a heady clip and is stuffed with great bits of footage that I´d never seen before. Everyone gets a look in. Here´s Janis Joplin smiling, laughing; Jimi Hendrix playing at Monterey. Here´s Peter Townshend back in the day, looking like a lost schoolboy with a red nose as he describes his acid trip, how he wanted to cut his head off to escape the sensations, but ¨half of it was very nice.¨
Here´s Jim Morrison doing ¨Light My Fire¨ on the Ed Sullivan Show and singing the word ¨higher¨ even though he´s told not to. Here are the hippies in the streets at Haight-Ashbury. Even better, we get to see film footage of the bus tours that were organized so that straight America could come and see the hippies in their natural habitat , like tourists in a safari park.
By then the high summer of 1967 -- the bloom was already off the rose. Over a quarter of a million kids came to San Francisco that summer with a flower in their hair. There wasn´t enough pot to go around, so speed started to show up (and as one commentator noted, within a couple of months there were no more cats in the neighborhood. The speed freaks were eating them.) And then, as Jerry Garcia says here, ¨It got really strange.¨
So the best part of these films is that they are quickly edited, with terrific footage and snappy interviews with Peter Coyote, Ray Manzarek, Jackson Browne, Ice-T, Tommy Chong, John Mellencamp and a host of experts, retired drug dealers and professional opinionators (including Henry Rollins, who seems to be VH1´s go-to guy on every subject). This is history delivered to you by VH1, and perhaps inevitably it has a ¨101 Greatest Moments in Drug History¨ kind of quality.
Here´s the basic arc San Francisco was great, then Altamont where that guy got knifed at the Stones concert was a drag, and Charles Manson didn´t help, and then there was Vietnam and heroin and by then 30 million Americans were smoking dope so you got head shops and stoner rock and Colombian Gold, which was too hard to ship, so then you got cocaine and disco and we all have a blast, and then John Belushi died, and African-Americans smoked crack, so you got rap, and then you got rehab, and Reagan and the War on Drugs and parents getting concerned about it all. And that sort of worked, but then the kids started taking ecstasy and it was the ´60s all over again. Except for crystal meth, which makes you look like an angry, toothless gnome. But that´s the way it is. What are you going to do?
If you are looking for deeper stories, you won´t find them here. But then perhaps there aren´t any. If this film proves anything, it is that we like to get loaded and we´ll take anything. Some of us can handle it, and some of us can´t.
Certainly, the film puts its cards on the table right away. You or I might have started such a narrative with secretive marijuana-smoking in the blues and folk tradition that preceded rock ´n´ roll or with the morphine addiction of the 19th century. The film gives all this a quick nod, but can´t wait to get to the real Promethean moment Bob Dylan listens to the Beatles´ ¨I Want to Hold Your Hand¨ and instead of ¨I can´t hide, I can´t hide ...¨ thinks the lyrics go, ¨I get high, I get high ...¨ and so in 1966, Dylan brings dope to the Beatles´ hotel and gets them stoned. The film tells us, ¨This single experience would have worldwide repercussion¨ because the biggest band in the world starts to get high and goes psychedelic, leading to Sgt. Pepper´s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the counterculture.
That may be the moment when the gods embraced and the sky opened up. But not everyone is seeking visions. Most of us probably -- and there are 160 million Americans who have used illegal drugs at one time have been seeking oblivion.
During the war in Vietnam, the CIA got involved in the business of heroin-smuggling as part of its covert activities, for the purposes of generating cash and diverting money to allies and agents in Southeast Asia. So heroin was plentiful out there and there was plenty of reason to find a place to hide in. The result, according to this documentary, was ¨blowback¨ in that one in every four American servicemen returning home from Vietnam had picked up a habit. Soldiers became heroin smugglers, cramming the stuff in body bags along with the corpses. Heroin use exploded in the U.S.
And then there´s money. Some of the characters that turn up in the documentary are the ¨hippie mafia,¨ the guys in Hawaiian shirts who discovered in the early 1970s that there was money to be made in going down to Colombia to buy weed in bulk and fly it in under the radar. They are amusing characters in their way. Again, there are some great bits of footage here, of drug busts and Colombian airfields. All quite cheery. But the problem with smuggling marijuana is that you have to do it in bulk if you want to make a profit. These same guys found that they could make more money smuggling cocaine, and now you´re talking real money.
At this point, though, the series runs out of compelling narrative energy maybe because the hippies are gone and nobody is seeing visions of Johanna anymore and the story becomes about what every American story is about: Money and the law.
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