Should I Light Up, Or Not?
With the full legalization of cannabis in Canada just three months away, Bill King reminisces about his colourful and oft-dangerous history with the herb before giving it up 23 years ago.
By Bill King
It’s been twenty-three years since my last drag of a cigarette and puff of wacky weed. Those were the days when I’d bike down Spadina twice a week and visit my connection and score a few grams of decent pot. Love the sound of that, like some fifties cop show.
I was logging 4,000 kilometers a year on average biking around Toronto and half of that, I suspect, was cruising for weed.
I loved the ‘get high’ but not the penalties that came with the crime, which I viewed as bullshit. Damn, I even drove across Texas in the sixties when a confiscated seed could earn you a life sentence. Did you ever wonder who made up these laws?
Cannabis had long been a favourite item among the French artistic class. They began experimenting with hashish at the end of the 18th century when Napoleon conquered Egypt. It’s always been that intersection of cultures connected to the Mediterranean Sea.
It was American prohibitionist Harry Anslinger and his sidekick Dr. James Munch who started the war on pot consumption. It was pure racism since a good many consumers were black, impoverished, with long, difficult family histories, artistic types and out-front jazz musicians.
Jazzman Louis Armstrong preached the benefits of ‘gage’. It was the way a good puff could slow the music down, tap the unconsciousness and rearrange those scripted stanzas of music into something far more emotional and engaging. It was the way time played out. Those slight embellishments and rhythmic twists that brought life to the pages.
Anslinger drafted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and then the chase was one. Catch those jazz musicians in the act. Early stoners were called’ vipers’ and were everywhere. Rent parties, the bandstands, and back alleys. Armstrong was eventually arrested and spent nine days in a cell, yet, throughout his glorious life, he never compromised his principles, or never paused or parted with his herbal companion.
October 17, the designated date of legalization in Canada, got me thinking about how many good people have served time in prison for possessing what now is about to be legal and a bonanza for Bay street business types. Could it be those with political clout and privilege just figured out how to get total control and profit from those who took the heat, served prison time, had principles, passion and persevered and brought us to this odd date? Something smells horribly wrong about this scenario.
I get it when governments collect taxes from personal vices and funnels into worthwhile humanitarian causes. It’s when the well-connected in the private sector get into the game and frontiersmen get penalized and squeezed out. I’m still reeling from the bullshit a good many of us went through nearly fifty years back to get us where we are today.
1970, months after arriving in Canada, Kristine and I take up residence in a front room flat on Madison Avenue. A floor below was ‘the dealer’, this long-haired mystic type guy who possessed this ornate multi-drawer magic box packed with an assortment of exotic hashish. Occasionally, I’d negotiate what I thought a fair price and imbibe. He’d always warn us to be careful. This is ‘narc lane’.
Living on Madison came with consequences – a two-man drug squad. Wardell and King brought a level of discomfort to anyone with a few inches of hair growth walking about at night. These clowns went about the neighborhood rousting long-hairs and busting their way into folk’s private sanctuary.
I was appointed property manager of our building at a reduced rent. My gig was to collect rents for a landlord who was way too sweet and a bit shy about asking for money. I was much the same way, except I had experience retrieving band pay.
As a housing collective, we conspired to hide our stash in a giant paper-mache sunflower in a communal kitchen. It was an item so unobtrusive, and if contraband was found tucked inside, we could deny and blame former residents.
“Bang”, the front door pops open. “Alright, who’s selling drugs? It’s you, right? Just get me the drugs, and we’ll be gone.” Thus, the nights would roll with Wardell and King. I always suspected these assholes were reselling and getting high off the labor of others. My suspicions would eventually be proved correct.
Wardell and King searched our house top to bottom and found not a pot seed or grain of hashish.
The duo removed a tray of ice cubes, dumped them on a counter top then inspected each block of ice. Packets of hamburger meat and bags of brown rice were sliced opened, yet nothing was found. A bottle of green slime was dumped down the kitchen sink, and other items beyond description were ripped apart. Nothing! We had packed the freezer compartment with the spoils.
Like two bumbling TV detectives, Wardell and King slip fingers above doorways, along baseboards, down our socks. All for nothing. Just a ‘piss you off’ moment.
For some weird reason, the sunflower was never checked. The assholes left with a warning, “See you again tomorrow night.”
It was always about the fear of going to jail! A handful of us could have faced deportation.
When I was sixteen, I rode back seat of an old Buick sedan up I-65 towards Indianapolis for a jazz appointment with a bass player and drummer at least ten years my senior. About thirty miles north, a place where trees were in greater abundance than people, the drummer pulls out a corn cob pipe and lights up. Both did the power inhale, held, then sneezed smoke all over the interior. Then erupted in laughter.
After a couple of hits, the duo pass to me. I hold for a minute wondering what to do with the smoldering contents. I innocently ask, “What’s this?”
“It’s grass boy, grass.” I thought to myself, why on earth would anyone smoke grass. One guy turns and says, “Give me the pipe, you don’t need any of this good shit, you’re so jacked up, we’d be wasting good weed on you kid.” I then return.
With each additional puff, the car accelerates. The two crazies roar with laughter, slam every bump in the road, squeal with excitement and bask in the sheer madness of the moment. I beg God for forgiveness.
Three years would pass, and I’m on my way to California, an invited guest with a caravan of young professionals who had scored high paying entry level jobs at TRW, an aerospace company. This was on the job training.
We’d packed into a surviving 1946 hearse with four spare tires clamped to the roof. I never thought to ask anyone if they had a record of the number of corpses driven to cemeteries in this beast.
Crossing Illinois, back-tire blows, and we soon discover, jacking the chassis up was a job in need of a tow truck and service station.
Outside of Oklahoma City, we blow another tire and are rescued by a traveling squadron of Hell’s Angels. I’m declaring - the Oakland chapter, the real boys.
Three or four bikers gather, prop up the hearse, change the tire, help us shove down the road and jump-start the engine, then invite us for breakfast at a nearby roadside dinner.
In the distance, I could see the other bikers unload a semi-trailer truck packed with bikes. These were beauties. It was back to the highways after a late-night brawl with a rival clan.
I’m watching all of this and grateful for the help then decide to approach one guy and question why blood was dripping down the backside of his denim pants. He casually responds, “I took a knife in the ass last night and haven’t been able to get to a doctor for stitches.” Damn! He then invites me to breakfast. All I had in my wallet was the $90 I left home with - no employment opportunities other than a bug-eyed dream of playing keyboards with the heaviest bands of the era.
I’m digging the vibe and danger of the hang; order toast and glass of water when the dude looks up from his plate of eggs, glares back at me and says, “You got any grass? Do you? We looked after you; you look after us now.”
I honestly didn’t understand the command, so I replied. “You mean grass like them big fields out there?” He looks ‘straight-eye’ at me and says, “Grass, pot, weed, Mary Jane, call it what you want.” I shrug a shoulder, clueless what he was talking about. The only thing I could draw on was the fact the grass I heard about came in a corn cob pipe.
“Are you clowning me boy”, he asks. It was quick thinking by one of my straight looking travel companions who interrupts and says, “He’s a boy from the church. I doubt he knows anything about grass or much else.” That brought big laughs and a slap on the back.
After Madison Avenue, Kristine and I land on Gothic Avenue in a house I would now estimate worth two-million dollars on a quaint tree-lined street of homes targeted for demolition, inhabited by so-called ‘hippies’ and ‘brown ricers’. I never bought into that characterization and saw us as families, young professionals, community. Some with children and most with honorable intentions.
Renting to long-hairs was a corporate blockbusting maneuverer meant to scare residents into selling and vacating. It worked to a certain extent but what was not considered - sometimes looks don’t match first impressions or play out as expected.
We were young professionals and capable of organizing resistance. The street’s survival was a joint effort between young activists, university students, musicians, budding lawyers, writers, professionals and those in other areas of academia and a couple of homeowners who refused to sell. Push back did not come without pay back.
Mail became infrequent. The head dog catcher spent way too many hours chasing ‘baby bowser’ and the neighborhood ‘wonder dogs’. These dogs had an acute sense of harm and dodged ‘crazed dog catcher’ Wilfred Patey and played him like chorus girls in a Benny Hill romp.
Wilf made a daily stopover in the neighborhood and would park his van close to the Quebec Avenue entrance to Gothic and patiently wait, then stalk a dog out for a run. Wilf carried with him a small lasso which he’d try desperately slip around any mutt he could seduce. This was back when the Humane Society was less humane.
We’d watch from a front room window as it played out in the dead of winter. Wilf and his lasso within inches of a dog’s neck then the quick sprint in nine directions - Wilf in pursuit.
The downside was the drug squads. They’d come in teams of five. Storm the front lawn, stomp through the front door and turn every physical object upside down. Find nothing, not even rolling papers, then leave with a warning - “See you tomorrow night”. We sensed there were powerful/connected players behind the harassment.
Self-preservation is all about ritual. Always put your stash in a safe place and leave no evidence, not even a lonesome ‘roach’.
I owned an old upright piano that doubled as safe. I’d remove the bottom panel covering the harp and foot pedals and stuff my wares up into the interior. I knew it would take a piano technician not a vice squad member to figure this out and that proved to be true. Which still didn’t stop the frequent raids.
The harassment became a nightmare, so I set up an appointment with our local councilor at the time, Elizabeth Ayers who set up a meeting between police, the police ombudsman and fellow street representatives demanding an end to the raids. Activist Walter Weary and I came with times, dates, stats and records of dubious invasions. In fact, over a two-year period of day by day raids. There were no arrests or confiscation of herbal quantities taken. The only scare was a group of bikers well beyond our sphere, last house on the street. We stepped away victorious.
Walking around Toronto these days and toasting a joint is like sauntering through fields of burning cannabis. The sweet fragrance of potent strains of weed abounds. I’ve been warned the shit out there is ten times stronger than what I inhaled during my early twenty-year run. That’s scary!
I’m still a Cheech and Chong kind of guy. I never found anything dangerous about smoking pot other than bogus laws. My decision to stop was more about health than legal issues. I wanted to see the world with clarity. Getting high was a blast, but a clear mind was where I wanted to see myself, yet there were some comical episodes along the way.
Let me begin with one from my last days of herbal bliss.
It’s late summer of 1994 and there’s a serious drought on weed. Feds had ripped up many of the major pot fields and there were numerous busts at the border. I’m getting calls everyday. “What do you know about this weed thing, I’m dying here. I’ll pay anything.” This is when a friend steps up – “I know this girl who sells to celebrities and she always has something. Just a bit of background; she’s a strange one and could make you feel uncomfortable.” Serious?
A rendezvous was set up and I was directed to a flat on Pembroke Avenue. Oh man, what a scene at the front door. “Hi, I’m BK, and so and so sent me.” She stares back at me and says. “I don’t like people coming to my place, do you understand.” I apologize and tell her we could meet elsewhere. She then says, “no, this is fine.” WTF?
Let’s have a first look at this simple room. Two yellowing sheets covered a front room window. One soiled queen size mattress on the floor. A half dozen or so kittens at play, on and about the bed, room coated in the pungent odor of cat piss. I’m thinking – pay, grab and run. No fucking hang time!
“You’re a music guy, right,” she says. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Want to hear me play the violin?”
Locked and loaded!
“Great, let me get my fiddle, and you don’t mind if I dance a little too. I can’t control myself?”
How do you respond to that?
“No, I love to dance,” I say.
I keep in mind there’s a drought happening, and my friends depend on me. Let the show begin!
Out she pops from a side room, violin in her grip, then an awkward leap onto a mattress. What happened next is beyond explanation. But I’ll try.
After the vigorous leap onto the bed, she then starts to pogo while playing nothing comprehensible. With each hop and stomp, three of four kittens would ricochet then rebound. There was no semblance of a song. Only the sawing and scraping of metal strings – wide leg kicks and this weird near alien like disturbance snorting from her nose and lips. Wow! That was something!
She inherited the violin in a drug deal. Oh, baby, a smartphone would have got me a quick six million views for this kind of entertainment.
Here comes the deal!
“I told you I don’t like people coming here who bring narcs to me,” she says. I assure her I came by bike and no one followed. Never once did she smile or put me at ease. Then the big score.
The violin is placed on a chair. She then summons me to the kitchen, reaches down into her underwear, pulls out a steamy plastic bag and unearths a quarter ounce of weed of which I did not touch.
She then pours the contents on a counter top. Selling what appears to be a clump of garden dirt punctuated with seeds the size of melons at its core. “That will be seventy-five dollars”, she says. “Give me the cash and leave at once.”
The moment of decision. Disappoint my waiting pals or return the money. I bought the weed and turned it over to my waiting posse. Thankfully, my companions were jonesing and thanked me. I assume they got high.
The early eighties Kearney, King, and McBride had just retuned from LA after recording the China LP and copped a gig at hockey star Brian Glennie’s pub/hotel in Bracebridge.
I’m thinking paid vacation. The big swim. Smoke some herb and have a grand time. I decide to bring Kristine and Jess along, who at the time was about ten years old.
It wasn’t long after arrival that we discover accommodations to be on par with a flop house. There was broken glass wedged into the hallway carpet leading to our assigned rooms. There were plenty of busted windows. Victims of errant beer bottle tossing.
I quickly arrange return transportation for Kris and Jess back to Toronto. Danny McBride, John Lowrey and I rent a cottage across the road from Glennie’s as Chris Kearney goes solo in the palace of damage.
Nights in the club were a raucous affair as cottagers, campers and crazies plied each other with alcohol and preyed on one another for a night of sex. As far as the band? We had to endure the “play some Rush," or “Stones man, Stones” or “how about the Dead" catcalls.
Lowrey met a woman he knew from high school who was a parole officer staying in a cottage up the hill behind Glennie’s and started hanging out. The two drop in on Danny and me and invite us to join them for a toke. Danny didn’t inhale.
I follow the two back up the hill where a half-dozen brawny, clean-looking men meet us. John says to me, “don’t worry, these guys are cops. They have the best weed”. What? I turn to hike back down the hill when John says, “they are cool and really like musicians. Especially our band. I’ve tried the weed, and you’re going to like this.” What?
John’s parole gal guides us to a front porch where we are greeted by a muscled lad who then escorts us inside, sits us at a table in front of what looks like a good half pound of God’s weed. Just a whiff of this in a sun-baked room could get you blindly stoned.
The rooky cop starts rolling a joint and preaching the potency of the cannabis we are about to partake when suddenly another cop enters and begins arguing. “Where the fuck is the good shit?” Our man responds, “I sold it.” The other looks on, “You did what?”
“I sold it last night to a bunch of chicks who came by boat.” Quiet, then the eruption.
“You sold my stash! The best fucking weed we have and leave us with this shit? We’re here for a week ,asshole.” Then the epic move. The big dive and fist pounding. Two ‘beefers’ rolling around the floor kicking over furniture and bashing each other. I quickly exit. John begs me hang tight while he negotiates a bag of weed. The parole officer makes the score for us.
Later that night, John and I smoke a short one before going on stage. The place is a sweltering hundred plus degrees. Halfway through our first song, I look over and John’s wobbling; eyes rolling upside his skull. I can feel my heart surge at a be-bop tempo, look over and witness John fall backward and pass out. This was frightening.
John would eventually make it to a chair, look at the band, smile, cool off and return. In between sets, John says, “I told you the cops have the best weed.” I look at him and say, “you are a crazy fucker.” He looks back at me and asks, “are you ready for round two?”
It’s 1976, and I’m living in Hollywood and am the musical director for Martha Reeves. The gig was a nightmare, but in between scary rehearsals and travel, I hit the basketball courts. In fact, this was a seven day a week, four hours a day addiction.
Poinsettia Park was located only doors away from Motown Records and meeting place for some of Los Angeles finest round ball players. It was also common ground for television actors; black and white, out for an enjoyable afternoon run.
This is where I met Scott from Detroit.
Scott was a big Little Richard and Sarah Vaughan fan and spent most days pumping iron and running laps around the park. Scott also loved weed. Crap, weed.
I never understood the man’s affection for pot intertwined with dried sticks and bulbous seeds. Scott refused to buy weed free of refuse.
‘Mr. Detroit’ occupied a two-room apartment with his live-in girl friend and her young son. Most days he’d lay around toking and watching old reels of Ali/Frasier fights and talking shit. It was always about what was coming on the horizon. “When they need Ray Charles, I’ll be there,” he would say. This when Ray Charles was still in great health and voice and touring. ”One day they’ll need another Little Richard”, he’d say. Oh man, I didn’t even try debate or advise him.
Scott was a lovely man, no more than 5’7” in height, lean and sporting a two-foot afro. He’d drop by and pick me up for night ball up on San Vincente Avenue under the lights. 1 am to 4 am, early morning. On one occasion Scott talks me into a trip to Watts to cop weed; I was buying.
The drive down was like a scene out of the television show, S.W.A.T. Helicopters overhead, spotlights beamed down on neighborhoods, much like Tom Cruise being pursued by extra-terrestrials in War of The Worlds and lots of shady guys dodging street lights.
First stop was a flight up visit in an apartment complex surrounded by a crew of mean looking brothers. The vibe was danger.
Scott punches the door bell. Then a guy appears and asks him what we want. I stand to the side, trying to stay out of view. “It’s Scott from Detroit. Dewey said I should drop by and talk to Clarence if I needed anything. “Anything,” the guy asks. “Me and my partner are looking for a small pack of weed, like matchbox size.” The guy steps away then returns, opens, then points Scott at a kitchen table where Clarence and a rough looking girlfriend and a gun have gathered. I post myself in the living room. Then a strange, slinky figure appears from an adjacent room.
“White boy, what you are doing in here,” he inquires. I answer, “Waiting on Scott. We’re looking to buy some weed.” He then circles and examines me top to bottom. “White boy I just smoked some PCP and feel like killing me a white boy.” With that remark, Scott quickly crosses the room and escorts me back to the van. We lay quiet and watch as action pours onto the street.
Clarence and his babe start slapping each other while others try to intervene and separate. I could hear her speaking words. “What cha doing letting that white boy in our home, he’s a fucking narc?” Clarence grabs one arm and screams back at her, “look at your self, you’re fucking white.” That was our cue to move on.
Farther along and deeper into Watts we cruise in search of a house Scott had once stopped by with a friend. This is an unannounced visit.
The street was stone quiet. A lone figure could be seen strolling down the center white line. Scott pulls next to him. “Which house does Carl live in,” he asks. The old man points at a bungalow two-doors down. Then like something out of a futuristic police movie, a beam of light strikes the man, followed by the roar of helicopter propellers and a voice from above says, “Halt, do not move.” Scott and I park the van and watch. “What are doing around here?,” a cop shouts. The old man looks upward and faces the helicopter. “Going to visit my son. He needs me to babysit.” Silence. Then the voice returns. “You buying drugs? No sir! Then get the hell off the street”, he says. The old man nods, disappears as if swallowed by darkness.
Scott knocks at the door. “Hey brother, remember me, Scott from Detroit?” It’s a handsome young brother sporting corn rolls in his hair. “Yeah, come on in. Just get the hell off the street. Those bastards are here every night.”
In a far corner, an upright piano.
Scott places the order. The young dude fades away into an adjacent room. Scott says, “I’ve got to sing some Ray Bill, play some piano. The old dude approves. “Let me tell you ‘bout a girl I know”. Scott’s on it. The young man returns, “keep it down, my kid’s sleeping. Damn, you guys can really bring it.”
Then the weed comes out. Three varieties – get high, really high, and a PCP mix. Seriously? The old man went for the toxic blend, lit one up and smiled like a Cheshire cat. Scott and I held at ‘get high.’
After we’d exhausted a joint, the guy says to me, “You sound like a jazz guy. Can you play more on my piano? You make it sound so good. I just had it tuned?”
That I did for a solid hour. The piano was tuned and in outstanding shape. “I’m studying piano at a community college, and this is what I want to do,” he says.
He then walks over to his baby’s crib, turns the child over and extracts a plastic bag with a half pound of weed from a diaper hidden underneath the sleeping child. “Hey, I’m giving you two some traveling weed for that concert, but I’d advise you not come this way again. Not because of me, but because of the conditions out there. Be well.”
Scott and I relived those hours every time we hooked up and thought about how remarkable that night was. From danger to art and safely back home. Music and weed, absent seeds and stems, good people and a fine piano.
October 17? I doubt seriously I’ll ever light up again. My only concession? If old age lays severe pain on these bones, I’m there.
I’ve got friends and acquaintances who rely heavily on the medicinal benefits of weed and its ability to suppress pain and help them live a mostly pain-free, purposeful life. I’m sure I’ll one day join them. In the meantime, I’ll keep biking for a good high!