Tuesday, July 1, 2014

My Problem with Mary Jane: 11 Songs That Confirm My General Reservations About the Legalization of Marijuana (Part 1)

First of all, let me just say that I have absolutely no objection to the idea of marijuana being used for legitimate medical purposes. To use marijuana as a drug (with all the requisite concerns about its misuse), would seem to me consistent with the very reason we have drugs at our disposal in the first place. However, I do think that it is probably wise to provide these medications in such a way that avoids turning them into a cigarette, a Debbie snack, or some sort of Toll House cookie. In this way we can help limit the potential glamorization of a drug that has in many ways already become quite fashionable. But whatever the case, my gripe here is mainly with so-called "recreational" usage. Marijuana is classified, among other things, as an hallucinogen (though it is admittedly milder than LSD). Thus, if a potent drug like this can be taken without prescription, then what is the rationalization for prohibiting the use of "recreational morphine", or why not argue in favor of "recreational Robitussin," (which was popular to take when I was in college). We recognize how wasteful and detrimental the behavior is in the latter case, but for some reason we simply shrug our shoulders in the case of the former. I would argue that the distinction here is an arbitrary one.

From a Libertarian point of view, this is not an issue at all, for one might just as well declare, "Go ahead, legalize everything! At least if we do that we can get rid of all of the seedy underbelly, and then tax the hell out of it. And besides, who wants a nanny state anyway?" Well, I can certainly agree with the latter sentiment! All the same, unless we prefer complete anarchy, the purpose of having laws in the first place is to safeguard virtue and protect the common good (which is necessary for any healthy society). Freedom is wonderful, but if freedom simply amounts to license to do whatever you want, then you will not have liberty for long. Consequently, certain (limited) social restraints are necessary in order to promote the common good and to discourage social rot. This does not mean that I think it is worthwhile to track down people who smoke pot, or to treat pot heads like a bunch of crack dealers, but I do think it makes good sense not to enshrine "pot cookies" as something worthy of the average citizen.  

Whenever this subject comes up, marijuana advocates often compare it favorably with alcohol, as if abuse proved use. I do not know if it is the best argument to suggest that because some people abuse the gift of wine and beer, we should therefore abuse drugs like marijuana. This either leads to the legalization of everything, or the prohibition of everything. Part of life involves making distinctions (sometimes even subtle ones) between vice and virtue. There is always some danger that comes with anything good. The larger point is this: marijuana is a drug (in both the positive and negative sense) and can never be used for anything else, while alcohol is only one ingredient in a substance which can serve multiple purposes. One exists simply to "stone" you (see above photo), while the other, if used virtuously, can actually be a means of communion with others. You can have a thoughtful conversation about weed over a glass of wine, you cannot have a thoughtful conversation about Pinot Noir over a blunt. Yes, if we were sitting around consuming rubbing alcohol or Robitussin for the fun of it, then we would just be drinking alcohol, and it would be as useless as sitting around getting stoned. However, we are not simply sniffing glue when we enjoy a beer with an old friend. In this sense beer and wine augment/add contribute to the experience- they do not, like "weed", take center stage. One is the sacrament of Cheech and Chong, while the other is the sacrament of weddings. If keg stands or frat bingeing were the only ways to consume alcohol, I would then agree that there is no virtue in drinking. But with discipline and self-control, one can enjoy wine, whisky, or beer without becoming some kind of walking-dead zombie. Recreational marijuana is always smoked in the spirit of the keg stand (or the glue sniffer). All drugs are meant to take effect immediately. And if this is the case, then what value or virtue could it possibly have for the community as a whole? Indeed, what virtue could possibly be derived from the activity of staring listlessly at a blank wall for three to five hours at a time as if your frontal lobe had just been unceremoniously removed?

The connection made here between gaming and pot smoking really does make sense

Ultimately, my reason for writing this blog post is not so much to compare the potential virtues of beer and wine with the risks of recreational marijuana use, but rather to discuss in a very particular way the music from my youth, and how that music lends insight to my general reservations about the legalization of this drug. Hence, my argument is primarily an aesthetic one- not one based on statistical models which can be endlessly disputed. But whatever your disposition on this issue, the one thing that cannot be disputed is the honesty with which many of the following artists have written on the subject. I have split this post up into two separate entries- mainly because it is worthy of a lengthy reflection, and also because I wanted to use a broad swathe of musical styles in order to make my case as clearly as possible.

1. Captain Jack - Billy Joel (The Argument From Arrested Development) 

No one would mistake Billy Joel for some kind of Puritan. Nevertheless, in his song "Captain Jack", he is not only criticizing pot use, but he is condemning a particular type of individual who ceases to develop as a human being in part because he spends so much time getting high. Does the drug alter the brain in such a way so as to promote this kind of "arrested development", or is it simply the personality of the user (or is it both)? In interviews, Mr. Joel has stated that this song was meant as a sort of composite sketch of a certain kind of suburban kid that he grew up with who, in spite of all of his affluence and wealth, felt the need to behave like a degenerate. What makes the lyrics so compelling is just how perfectly he describes this particular brand of narcissism; "So you decide to take a holiday. You've got your tape deck and your brand new Chevrolet. Ah, but there ain't no place to go anyway, and what for? And you got everything, awww, but nothing's cool. They just found your father in the swimming pool, and you guess you won't be going back to school anymore." As someone who grew up in a relatively affluent area, this description of a certain set could not be any more accurate. They stayed around town too long, going to high school parties and preying on girls far too young for them. The pot was part of their posture, not to mention their prop. It was representative of everything associated with their unwillingness to grow up and become real men. To quote Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, and they stay the same age…" They were tragic figures, stuck, and stoned in a perpetual state of going nowhere, reeking of bad cologne, likable in a certain way, but inevitably remote; "So you play your albums and you smoke your pot, and you meet your girlfriend in the parking lot. But still you're aching for the things you haven't got, what went wrong? And if you can't understand why your world is so dead. And why you've got keep in style, and feed your head. Well, you're twenty-one and still your mother makes your bed. And that's too long… But Captain Jack will get you high tonight, and take you too you're special island… just a little push and you'll be smiling."        

2. Sex and Candy - Marcy Playground (The Argument From Apathy) 

While not technically a song about marijuana use, this piece captures some of the atmosphere of that world; "Hangin' round, downtown by myself and I've had so much time to sit and think about myself, and then there she was -like double cherry pie, and then there she was- like disco super fly. I smell sex and candy here. Who's that lounging in my chair? Who's that casting devious stares in my direction? Mama, this surely is a dream." There is an air of mediocrity and apathy that permeates- not just the lyrics of this song- but even the lead vocals. It is as if he can barely muster up enough energy to express his dream-like perception of reality. What is abundantly clear, however, is the fact that he has been spending far too long inside his own mind. And of course what happens to a man who spends too long locked inside himself? You guessed it; he becomes paranoid and irrational (think I Am Legend and Cast Away); "Who's that casting devious stares in my direction…" Many individuals, especially in this age of screens, already tend to spend an exorbitant amount of time in their own world, why would we want to chemically proliferate that tendency. As suggested before, there is no direct mention of any drug use in this song (though the album cover is probably a good start). However, it is not too much of an intellectual leap to recognize in the song's central figure many of the characteristic features of a stoner; lack of motivation, lack of purpose, moral mediocrity, shallow and lengthy musing about one's own thoughts, a vague and impressionistic interpretation of the surrounding reality, along with a paranoid interpretation of them, and last but not least, a dream-like detachment from everyone and everything. "Yes mama, this must be my dream".

3. Brain Damage - Pink Floyd (The Argument from "Brain Damage")

As anyone who has read a sufficient number of my blog posts knows, I am huge Pink Floyd fan- both on a musical and philosophical level. One of the things that has always fascinated me about them is the leitmotif of insanity that runs consistently throughout their music. All of this goes back to the fact that one of their founding members, Syd Barrett, who subsequently lost his mind shortly after the band experienced its initial success. This happened due in large part to his Cobain like discomfort with success, along with his excessive drug use (particularly LSD). As a consequence of these events, those who remained in the band (along with new member David Gilmour) spent a good deal of their time reflecting on their friend's descent into madness. The song Brain Damage from the album Dark Side of the Moon, provides perhaps the clearest example of this. During the making of the album, bassist Roger Waters, decided to interview a variety of people on a whole host of morbid topics (such as death, violence, and insanity). He would later use those interviews as background on the album itself. During one of the interviews, the interviewees was apparently quite stoned, and it is from this interview that we get the famous line; "I've been mad for f***ing years, absolutely years", followed by the now famous "stoned laughter" that appears in at least a couple of places on the album. Adding to the intrigue of the background voices, are the lyrics of the song itself; "The lunatic is on the grass. The lunatic is on the grass. Remembering games, daisy chains, and laughs, got to keep the loonies on the path…. The lunatic is in my head, the lunatic is in my head. You raise the blade/ You make the change/ You re-arrange me till I'm sane. You lock the door, and throw away the key. And there's someone in my head but it's not me." While lyricist Roger Waters denies that the "grass" reference has any connection to smoking marijuana, the connection is difficult to deny, especially when you consider the fact that the "stoned laughter" in the background (as it is commonly referred to), looms so heavily in the song, and on the album in general. Whatever you think about the meaning of the song, what is undeniable is the fact that Roger Waters felt the need to make the connection between the laughter of a stoned man, and the laughter of a madman. For him, their unsettling "levity" seem to mimic one another. If stoned laughter has nothing whatsoever in common with the laughter of a lunatic, then why do they seem so interchangeable? And if abusing hallucinogenic drugs like LSD can potentially lead to permanent psychological "brain damage" (as it did with Syd), then why would anyone want to experiment with a drug that is a little like "LSD on training wheels?" Just as shock treatments tend to dull certain parts of the brain in order to diminish psychosis and pain, so also when people choose to fry/bake their brain on marijuana, there is a similar kind of process of anesthetization. Indeed, compare the facial expression of a man who is high on pot with the man in a mental institution, and then ask yourself if there is any considerable difference between the two.

4. Ripple - The Grateful Dead (The Argument From the Type of Culture it Engenders)

I do not mean to step on the toes of any Deadheads, but here goes.  I went to a Grateful Dead show when I was in high school. I really tried to force myself to like them. But even during my college days, wherein I was most open to listening to that kind of music, I just couldn't stomach it. While I was able to pull off the look (part grunge, part hippie, part hipster), I was not able to contort my spirit enough to embrace it in earnest. However, in case you question my credibility and knowledge on these matters, let me demonstrate an adequate understanding of the music and the culture. First of all, I know this much: it would annoy any devoted follower of the Grateful Dead that I selected the song Ripple as something indicative of the spirit of the band. Why? Because this song is the closest thing to a mainstream hit for them (aside from a song like Touch of Grey). And secondly, my selection would displease them because it is not the type of song that lends itself so easily to a "jam", which is the classical litmus when discussing their music. Yes, I can appreciate this concern, but there is method to my selection. While I have greater respect for the Dead than I do their more whimsical counterpart, Phish, a song like Ripple embodies everything that is frustrating and ultimately impotent about what they represent. Like the superficial attraction that people have to impressionistic art (like Monet), there is something very pleasing about their style up to a point. Yet much like impressionism, there is a stage at which you realize that it is all style and no substance. It might be appealing as a background, or as an occasional atmosphere, but when you get a little closer, you discover that there is a whole lot of nothing behind that elaborate veneer. Indeed, as you pay closer attention, you start to realize that this atmosphere of fluttery pleasantness is simply that: an atmosphere consisting of vapor and insubstantiality. The Grateful Dead is the musical equivalent of the smiley face at Walmart, the Mean People Suck bumper sticker, the nice people who after you get to know them for a while reveal that there's really not whole lot them, except for perhaps a few sunny aphorisms. It is no wonder then that other than their remarkable talent for adorning corpses with rose petals, their representative insignia includes pink, purple, and green teddy bears (Barney on acid, anyone?). "Well, that's wonderful," you may be thinking, "but what does that have to do with the smoking marijuana..." Everything. In a lyrical sense Ripple embodies this spirit of insubstantiality in a nutshell. As a song itself, it is pleasant enough to listen to, but as a larger commentary of how their music- and accompanying lifestyle- ultimately goes no where- provides a devastating critique. I know, I know, it means "this, that, and the other thing" to you, but that's precisely my point- it says whatever you want it to say. I understand the song is sweet, and that it feels as if it is taking you somewhere better, but it isn't (which the song itself essentially admits to the audience). It is a  search without a destination. Read the lyrics again; and notice how little they say; all while pretending to say everything:


And so you come away feeling like you actually made it to a higher ground, but you didn't. It is a placebo, or the blue pill of Morpheus, allowing you to passively stare at existence, all while convincing yourself that you are virtuous simply because you did so in a pleasant state of mind. That is the very definition of what it means to be virtuous from a stoner's point of view (or a Taoist's); "Ripple on still water. When there is no pebble tossed, no wind to blow." Indeed, "what a long strange trip its been," especially when you've never even left your couch. All of these disciples of the "Fat Man", are not some group of revolutionary neo-Franciscan hippies witnessing to a higher love. They are an entire race of pot-zombies, treating their lives as if it were a lab experiment, believing that because they feel good, they are good. When evaluating the worthiness of endeavor, how can you not evaluate the subsequent culture that attends it? Does the culture that surrounds it not say something about the drug itself? Yes, it is true that very few of these individuals actually commit heinous crimes (intentionally), but this would be true of anyone who happened to be under heavy sedation. Docility and meekness are wonderful things, but I am not so sure about the kind that results from being a burn-out, or the kind that stems from losing any clear sense of purpose or direction in life.

5. Sleepyhouse - Blind Melon (The Argument From Self-Medicating) 

One of my favorite bands from high school was Blind Melon. Sleepyhouse was the first song I ever heard from them (long before "No Rain" was out), and soon afterwards I bought their album. From start to finish it is still one of my favorite albums. Anyhow, the title of the song comes from the fact that the band wrote the album in a "sleepy" little neighborhood home in Durham, NC; "No time frame for what I need to do today, here at the yellow house. I think that I'm gonna play with some free livin' lads down the street aways away." As is often the case with musicians, unless they are very disciplined, there is a certain lack of structure to their work day. "OK, so we have to write some songs for this album, but there is certainly no '9 to 5' time frame to it. After all, you can't force art..." This may be one of the reasons artists tend to experience so much melancholia, for as human beings we are made for "time frames", and so it is understandable then that a lack of one might provoke a feeling of aimlessness. However, what Mr. Hoon cites as his reason for "getting high" has nothing to do with combatting artistic melancholia, rather what he seeks to do (via the medium of drugs) is to return to a more innocent time in his life; "And in my head I sometimes pray... I'll be feeling fine, as I was as little child. And I'm feeling better when I'm high…" Yes, whatever convoluted reasons people cite in their effort to legalize recreational marijuana, the motivation is probably much simpler than all that. We want heaven on the cheap. Feeling emotional and psychological pain is unpleasant, feeling good is nice. The end. Or as Ryan Adams once put it; "When you're young you get sad, and then you get high". When everything in your world seems to be falling apart, it is more than a little tempting to go down a self-medicating route, not only with something like alcohol, but also with something a little stronger and mind altering, something that might help to permanently (and more effortlessly) numb the pain. It is true that marijuana is not physically addictive in the same way that something like cocaine is. Yet what is fundamentally addictive is the prospect of feeling high on a permanent basis, particularly when a good portion of your life is spent feeling low. For this reason, it is dangerous to smoke pot even once, for if you successfully find a way to become "comfortably numb", as it were, why would you not want to return to that place ceaselessly?

To be continued...


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