High Art 1967-Style

How a Lifelong Love of Cannabis Began with Two Record Albums and Nature’s Artistry

This month marks my 50th anniversary enjoying cannabis. To celebrate these landmarks, I’ve gone back in time, hoping to give readers some sense of how far we have come since 1967. Of course, my memories are specific to one place and social group, privileged white kids in New England. In San Francisco, 1967 brought the Summer of Love. But lots of us were still struggling to join the party.

I recall first hearing about cannabis in 1966, the year I graduated from high school in suburban Rhode Island. Those in the know surely had sampled much good cannabis over the years, but, most of us had no idea until the summer of ’66, when a few got access.

In July 1966, my parents rented a house next to a golden beach on the Atlantic coast of R.I., in a little town called Jerusalem, just across the Salt Pond channel from the fishing port of Galilee. There I found a thriving beach culture with lots of kids my age. We’d lounge on the sand each day like seals, snug next to the breakwater, slathered in suntan lotion, transistor radios blaring. Nights, we would drink whatever alcohol we could scrounge (being underage) and listen to records. We heard hints of a new way to get high. But, getting a chance to try it proved elusive.

The kids who had found cannabis were excited about it but extremely reluctant to share. They weren’t being greedy; they were scared. Everybody heard stories of the “friend” who turned out to be a narc, an undercover cop trying to entrap tokers. Everyone I asked about trying some said no. I ran out of time that year when my family left the beach rental house at the end of July.

I was delighted when my parents decided to rent the same house the following summer. Quite a bit had changed in that one-year span. 1967 would be the year that cannabis first became available to most of us, and our beach culture was irrevocably changed. My group of friends divided into two separate camps, the drinkers and the tokers. I wanted to change sides!

It took until sometime in August for me to find kids who would let me join them in lighting up. We drove right into the 7-foot tall bulrushes lining Salt Pond, just behind the beach. The car was completely hidden. After sharing my first joint with the others in the car, we drove back to the beach and I walked down to the shore to sit near the surf. Waves about 10 inches tall were breaking in front of me. I let my senses open to the sights and sounds before me. Suddenly, the sound of the breakers expanded and I could hear dozens of distinct, mesmerizing tones in each wave. I sat for I don’t know how long listening to the music in the breakers, the artistry of nature. In those moments, I began a lifelong love of cannabis.

In 1967, photographer Diane Arbus was teaching nearby at the Rhode Island School of Design, and in the wider world, British painter David Hockney exhibited his latest canvas titled “A Bigger Splash,” but the major art form recognized by kids my age was music. Beginning that fall in college, cannabis would fuel marathon listening sessions everywhere I went. But they say the first is always special and so it was for me. The first record I got to appreciate stoned was The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” an experience way beyond words.

It seems safe to say that the heightened sensory power of cannabis had something to do with the musical creativity of those years. In the late 60s, I gravitated toward bands crafting the very stony San Francisco Sound, such as Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape. But one somewhat odd album from 1967 deserves special mention for courage, if not brilliant artistry. On the quirky, self-named debut album of the band Spanky and Our Gang, I found a funny ditty that championed cannabis use in a way that nobody else dared. It’s a short, fake advertisement called “Commercial.” Yes, you can find it on YouTube. This gem, credited to one M. Smith, tells the story of a glum garbage collector who finds new happiness in his job after he’s gifted with the kind smoke. “The first one’s free!”

In one minute and twenty seconds, his mood shifts dramatically from “Life is such a terrible bore” to “I didn’t care; was riding high…” Quite the endorsement. And now, finding myself at the surprising age of 69, I find new joy in the song’s ending jingle, “Pot’s too good to be just for the young.”

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