(Note: With the passage of numerous drug legalization/decriminalization ballot questions in the November 2020 election, pundits have been saying it looks like the War on Drugs is fading. But how did the modern drug culture ever get so strong in the first place? A 2004 book took a hard look.)
BY STEVEN ROSEN, DENVER POST, 2004
Book Review: Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age 1945- 2000. By Martin Torgoff; Simon & Schuster, 2004
Since the U.S. government has long been engaged in a War on Drugs, with mixed results at best, it’s critical to know where and how our pervasive, entrenched modern drug culture started.In Martin Torgoff’s well-researched and superbly written “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the answer is startling. It started because, as Martha Stewart might say, it was a good thing.
At a time when most Americans were optimistically celebrating our victory in World War II, the first of the contemporary drug acolytes saw the horror of a ravaged world that had barely survived the catastrophe.
And those seers – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, the Denver-raised Neal Cassady and a few others who eventually would become known as the Beats – wanted a spiritual alternative. A new vision to what they saw as “the Great Molecular Comedown” of the post-war world.
“Others had fought in the battle, but it would become (their) peculiar lot to perceive and digest the meaning and magnitude of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb and the bitter, uneasy peace that followed, as they experimented with drug-induced altered states of consciousness,” Torgoff writes. “From the outset, there had been strong intellectual and artistic motivations behind their pursuit of drugs – what Ginsberg would later call ‘the ancient heavenly connection’ in ‘Howl.’”
Torgoff, who previously has written biographies of Elvis Presley and John Mellencamp, covers a lot of ground in this book, which takes its title from an evocative 1969 rock song by Blind Faith. It begins with an interview with the (now-deceased) junkie, Herbert Huncke, who turned the Beats on to drugs in New York. He recalls the inspiration – like the secret language of a holy sect – that junkies in the 1940s felt listening to the jazz solos of the great, heroin-addicted saxophonist Charlie “Bird’ Parker:
“Oh man, the pathos – how does one even speak of it,” Huncke recalls. “You can literally hear him breaking down – the tone, he blows so piercingly on that song (“Lover Man”) – it’s like he’s crying! Oh my, my – yes, man, you can hear his agony, one junkie to another. The people I was with felt the same way about it.”
Parker is almost as important to modern drug culture’s emergence as the Beats, in Torgoff’s eyes. For worshipful younger musicians, trying to emulate the soulfulness of his pioneering sound, also turned to heroin. That started the post-war connection between popular music and drugs.
And the insights of LSD pioneers in the 1950s and early 1960s, like Timothy Leary, make clear that the notion of psychedelics as a “religious experience” wasn’t just a cliché. Undeniably, some enduring art came out of such tripping. And Torgoff makes an eloquent case for its importance, such as when he describes what writer Ken Kesey saw while taking such drugs at a government-sponsored program at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, Calif. He then got a job in the psychiatric ward to be nearer the drugs.
“Being on the ward under the influence of LSD and mescaline had the effect of a veil being pulled back to reveal a darkness in the American soul,” Torgoff says. Were the people in the ward really insane, or was it the society that put them there that was somehow to blame?” Thus was born “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
At the same time, through the subjects he sympathetically follows, Torgoff doesn’t flinch from showing the pain and sadness – and horrors – that drug use and addiction have caused. And he also explores how the psychedelic counterculture played a role in creating the Manson Family. (He credits Ed Sanders’ “The Family” as a source for his ideas.)
And check out this nightmarish passage about a crack-addicted woman undergoing cocaine psychosis and hallucinating about bugs under her scalp: “Suzie’s (bugs) would never crawl out, so she had to dig them out with sharp objects: paper clips, metal nail files, letter openers, the smallest blade of a Swiss Army knife.”
In the end, Torgoff is out to vividly state why drugs became such an important part of post-war American society and how unwise it is to deny their impact.
“If there is one fundamental truth about the experience of drugs, it’s that they change things, if only for as long as we’re affected by them,” he writes. “Drugs thus contain nothing less than the power to change who we are.”
And that’s hard to resist – for better or worse.