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Herbal Melodies 

Choice moments in the surprising history of medical marijuana and music

Wednesday, Jun 16 2010
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Medical marijuana. What is it? Is it legal? Will it turn me into a raging sex fiend, or make me as cool and suave as Robert Mitchum? Is it a gateway to medicinal Fritos? How will it influence my already questionable taste in dashikis? 

Some, if not all, of these entirely valid concerns will be addressed at the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup, a first-ever American version of the annual Amsterdam event taking place this weekend in San Francisco. This "Epic Daze," as it also has been called, involves two days' worth of opportunities to bone up with seminars, politely decline invitations to far-off vans, and enjoy live music from Eagles of Death Metal and Lyrics Born.

Which prompts yet another question: Just how thankless a job is that of the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup talent booker? For it is this person who must bear always in mind the richly interwoven histories of music and medicinal marijuana, whose mutual reinforcement long has served as a sort of phantom pillar of our culture. As context for Saturday's show, consider these three key dates:


September 6, 1935. Starr Studios in Richmond, Indiana.

It began, as so many things did back then, with undiagnosed glaucoma. Louis Armstrong arrived at the studio with the same ocular irritation that had already shortened the career of his hero, the now-unknown yet then-legendary Chicago trumpeter Murray "Blurry" Norman. Zutty Singleton, the session's drummer and a longtime sufferer of pruritus, rolled a joint for the bandleader. Armstrong hedged at first. "This is an important session," he said. "I can't be messing around with that stuff."

"Listen, do you want to perform at the peak of your health, or do you want to go the way of Blurry Murray?" Singleton asked. Armstrong nodded gravely.

That afternoon, Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra cut the two sides now widely cited as the beginning of Satchmo's fruitful medicinal-marijuana period: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and, of course, "Closed-Angle Glaucoma Blues."


August 28, 1964. The back of a limo in Manhattan.

The libertine '60s were in full swing as the Beatles returned to the States to promote their line of birth-control pills and tuna cans wrapped in dolphin skins. Meanwhile, John, Paul, George, and Ringo had all come down with untimely cases of tunnel vision, or what Liverpudlians adorably call "glaucoma."  

What happened next would prove a turning point in the history of medical marijuana and music. Bob Dylan, a longtime sufferer of urinary incontinence, had driven from Woodstock to Manhattan to meet the Fab Four. "Here," he whispered to John, reaching into his overnight bag. "Try a little of this."

"What does it do?" John asked. 

"It helps relieve the nausea associated with certain types of glaucoma," Dylan said. 

"Wait!" Paul interrupted. "Are there side effects?"

"Nothing too heavy. A little dizziness. Some bad title puns. Later, you all might decide you want to grow mustaches at the same time."


May 29, 1991. A Memorial Day cookout in Compton, California.

Gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. were at the peak of their popularity in 1991. But behind the scenes, they were unraveling. The face of the group, Ice Cube, had already left for a solo career, and now their whiz-kid producer, Dr. Dre, was beginning to feel fenced in by the group's misogynist worldview.

"What I want to do," Dre confided to business partner Suge Knight, while fellow partygoers marveled at the hydraulics on a nearby Studebaker, "is write about the pain I feel."

"You mean your glaucoma?" Knight asked, flashing his compassion.

"Yes, Suge. Yes! I want to make an album expressing my struggle with chronic ocular irritation."

"What are you gonna call it?"

"I dunno. The Chronic?"

"That reminds me. We need to get you some weed, boy. You're depressing me."

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Andrew Stout

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