In 1970, I attended a lecture by Joseph Heller at Valparaiso University. Heller’s best-selling novel (Catch-22) was about to be released as a major motion picture. During the lecture, Heller mentioned the inspiration for his main character came from a French novelist. I made a mental note to check out that novelist, but by the time I got home, I’d already forgotten his name.
So I wrote a letter to Heller. Much to my surprise, I got a quick response providing the answer as well as recommendations for other writers to check out. I immediately read Journey to the End of the Night and afterwards, Catch-22 seemed like a pale imitation (sorry Joe). I couldn’t understand how a book that created the modern anti-hero and revolutionized stream-of-consciousness writing remained so obscure. I considered myself an authority on counterculture literature, and had been reading everything I could find for over five years, and yet, didn’t discover Celine until I was 19 years old. The reason seemed to be Celine had become a rabid anti Semite after the lack of success of his first novel. Maybe his first publisher was Jewish and that got the ball rolling. But our two most famous American novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway were both notorious anti Semites, and The Sun Also Rises positively drips with hatred of Jews and gays, yet it didn’t seem to hold back Hemingway’s career at all. Celine wasn’t the only man of letters to conclude that a conspiracy existed between British intelligence and some dynastic banking families of Jewish heritage. Didn’t Ezra Pound come to similar conclusions? Journey to the End of the Night is a masterpiece and should have been recognized as such. The fact that Celine later in life wrote essays suggesting Jews should be expelled from France really should have no impact on his previous work as an artist, especially since there are no traces of antisemitism in his first novel. Of course, Heller was Jewish himself, and Catch-22 never would have existed without Celine’s inspiration. If critics are going to insist on rejecting Celine’s considerable artistic accomplishments based on views he later expressed in essays, then I’m afraid there is very long line of racists whose work ought be treated with equal disdain. Celine was a huge influence on William S. Burroughs and many other groundbreaking novelists. Bukowski called him “the greatest writer of 2,000 years.”
Within a few months, I would write “The Stockholm Manifesto,” a rant heavily influenced by Celine. You can read the short story in my fiction collection titled 1966.
Beat Street has and will always be a major monument in Hip Hop. What was the inspiration behind Beat Street?
I went to an art show in Long Island City titled New York/New Wave, curated by Diego Cortez. “Break” a photo of a subway car painted by Futura 2000 was included (along with hundreds of other photos of graffiti art). “These Are They Breaks” by Kurtis Blow was just starting to climb the charts, one of the first rap songs to enter the mainstream. While staring at Futura’s painting, it occurred to me graffiti and rap music were deeply connected. I went on a search to find Futura so I could write about him (and buy a framed photo of “Break”), and in the process, made connections with Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa.
I must say this a thousand times a day, Hip Hop is a culture. I can clearly remember going to the movies when Beat Street was first released. Everything amazed me. I was intrigued by the graffiti (art), the New Yorker dialogue, breakers, and music. Every kid in the 80’s era wanted to move to New York and become a rapper after seeing Beat Street. It wasn’t until I did the research on Beat Street did I learn the writer, Steven Hager was white. Are many people surprised when they meet you?
Nobody today seems surprised by my whiteness. But I have to admit a few people did look at me funny when I was attending Bam’s shows at Bronx River Projects, where I’d often be the only white face in the crowd. After the shows were over, Bam always put a bodyguard on me to make sure I made it back to the subway.
In 1983, Charlie Alhearn released Wild Style. Wild Style was the first Hip Hop movie. Wild Style is actually the movie that introduced the art of free styling and party battles. In May of 1984, Charlie Parker and Allen DeBevoise released Breakin’. Sadly, I can’t say that it really fit into the hip hop culture. It definitely wasn’t a great movie to be released after Wild Style. On June 6, 1984, a beast was released. Beat Street the king of the beat. Did you ever expect for Beat Street to hit as big as it did? If not, why?
Actually, I was pretty disappointed with the final product. My script was closer to Boyz n the Hood. It was closer to reality. I didn’t recognize any of the interiors or characters in the final film. They all seemed way too middle class, and not street smart (except for the dancers and rappers who were just playing themselves.) What saves the movie are the battles with New York City Breakers and the Rocksteady Crew, and a few of the rap performances. One major problem is that I wanted the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three in the film, but the Furious were in the midst of a huge legal problem and Flash couldn’t even perform for several months or use his name. The Cold Crush Brothers would have been a viable substitution, and I encouraged Harry Belafonte to use them, but he demanded an audition, and the Cold Crush refused because they were the premier group at the time and felt an audition was an insult. Actually, that was a mistake on their part because they could have captured a huge audience by appearing in the film. At the time they were more interested in live performance than records or films. Grandmaster Caz should have become a major star, but never got over the hump.
What is your opinion of the transformation in Hip Hop from then to now?
Don’t really listen to much hip hop, especially the gangsta stuff, just don’t connect with the message. I did like Asher Roth’s “I Love College” even though it’s just a party song because I like Asher’s personality.
What would you like to see change in today’s Hip Hop?
It’s not for me to prescribe anything to today’s artists. But I’d like to see more respect for the First Generation. I’d like to see more remakes of the original songs, and more use of the First Generation on the CD’s being released today. The big hip hop stars of today should reach out to people like Grandmaster Caz, Sha-Rock and Coke La Rock and invite them to do duets with them.
In January 1990, High Times news editor Steve Bloom returned to the office from a trip to the Bay Area and brought with him a flyer for an April 20th event to be held at the top of Mount Tamalpias in Marin County. The flyer indicated that “420” was California police code for “marijuana smoking in progress.” Bloom thought the flyer was funny and a bit ridiculous, but I felt otherwise. Since I’d recently started my research into the spiritual history of cannabis use and was deep into the Rig Veda, I seized on the flyer as evidence of the spiritual powers of cannabis. “I’m gong to re-focus all my ceremonies around 4:20,” I told Bloom. “We can use 420 to spread awareness about the spiritual aspects of cannabis.” From that day on, I began holding 4:20 PM ceremonies in my office at High Times and proselytizing about 4:20. That’s because there’s a connection between math, music, marijuana and spirituality. Numerology has always intrigued me.
Imagine my surprise when Bloom published a one-paragraph mention of the flyer in his news section that month, but failed to mention my promise to use the number to help build the legalization movement, something I thought was pretty important news. I was disappointed I’d failed to penetrate my missionary zeal to my news editor, but remained undeterred and made 4:20 council the central focus of my legalization group, The Freedom Fighters, which at the time may have been the largest pro-pot organization in the world. The next time I returned to the Cup in Amsterdam, I brought 4:20 council with me, and it’s been there ever since. In fact, the 4:20 councils at the Cup were videotaped for 15 years, and highlights can be found on my Youtube site.
Eventually, the Cup crew, specifically the Temple Dragons, began holding 4:20 AM celebrations at the Quentin Hotel lobby. (This was Rocker T’s idea.) The 4:20 AM ceremonies quickly became crowded when word leaked out they were the best parties at the Cup. Hundreds of people took photos of themselves in the Quentin lobby next to a clock as proof they attended a 4:20 AM ceremony. In 1997, I began using 420 as a central element of the Whee! festival in Oregon, and the following year, the ceremony was picked up on by the Seattle Hempfest. If Whee had been allowed to continue, it would be as big as the Seattle Hempfest, but just as I was forced to give up the Freedom Fighters, I was also forced to give up the world’s biggest hempfest.
After 420 caught on, the tour agent, Air Tech, changed their name to “420 Tours.” They set up a website and were soon contacted by Steve Waldo, who indicated he and his friends started the 420. I flew out to San Francisco to meet with Steve and check out his claims. I returned to the office a few days later and announced I’d discovered the origins of 420, and it wasn’t a police code.
Unfortunately, then-publisher of High Times Mike Edison disputed my story and refused to accept the Waldos were, in fact, the true originators. Imagine my surprise when many years later Bloom tried to take credit for “discovering” 420, when he was one of those at the office that could never connect with my efforts along these lines. For Bloom, my attempts at forging an untainted ritual tradition for modern stoners was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, and I’m sure he feels that way today.
Thus began my odyssey to tell the true history of 420. Now many people spread false stories and stake claims on having a better explanation, but no one can document the use of the term “420” as a reference to marijuana prior to 1971, other than Steve Waldo. And no one can document 420 ceremonies outside Marin county in the early 1990s aside from mine. It’s strange to read Cannabis Culture claim they were using the term in the mid-1990s (several years after I began my 420 ceremonies) when, in fact, Marc initially ridiculed my 420 council at the Cup when he attended the first time. I’m sure that’s where he heard about 420 for the first time, although he later wrote my attempts at “hippie spirituality” were out-dated, which broke off our relationship for a while, although I’m happy to say all that’s been patched up.
Just a curious question that recently dawned on me after watching the Basquiat film. Seeing that you were the original writer of “Beat Street,” was the Ramo character a not-so-thinly veiled reference to Jean-Michel and his SAMO moniker? If so, what a prophetic ending! –James
Great question, James. I don’t know how I came up with the name Ramon, I knew I had to switch up all the names and was looking for something original that had style. In my original script, a central character catching on fire in a subway tunnel was named Ramon, and his tag was DJ Ramo. In dropping the “n,” I must have been thinking about Jean-Michel’s tag, Samo. So I guess it is sort of a nod in his direction. The climax in my script involved Ramon catching on fire in a subway tunnel. It was a depiction of what happened to Ali when he was painting one night with Futura 2000. A spark by a passing train set off a can of spray-paint whose nozzle was hissing. Ali was covered by flaming paint and barely survived. While in the hospital, he gave a famous interview to the New York Times about the dangers of graffiti writing. In embellishing his story, he claimed to have been abandoned by Futura while on flames. Futura actually put out the fire and took him to the emergency room. After the story was printed, however, no one would believe Futura’s version and he was forced to join the Navy to get a ticket out of town for a few years. My original script was called Looking for the Perfect Beat and was very, very different from what eventually came out. In fact, the main characters’ names was almost all that survived. Someday, maybe Looking for the Perfect Beat will actually get produced. I put the entire original script on Smashwords and Amazon for $2.99.
Is there a bigger media whore on TV today than Dr. Drew? I actually crossed paths with him a few years ago at the National Association for Campus Activities’ annual convention. We were both there to to present 15-minute samples of our respective college lectures. His was a solo talk about teen sex, while I was doing my “Heads versus Feds” debate on marijuana legalization against former NY DEA chief Robert Stutman.
Seconds before I was scheduled to take the stage, however, Pinksy collared me and began ranting about how a recently invented cannabis antagonist was going to make it impossible for people like me to ever get high on cannabis again. His plan was to have all known users of cannabis forced to take this new drug. He was smirking, gloating and trying to pump as much negative energy into me as he could. When I pointed out that I was about to take the stage in front of thousands of people to promote a program that actually educated students about real facts about marijuana, he ignored me and continued his diatribe a few inches from my face until Stutman came over and told him to lay off. At the time, I had no idea who Pinsky was, but I did form an opinion of him as a jerk based solely on that incident.
It’s interesting to note his much-hyped cannabis antagonist drug went down in flames very soon after this confrontation. Yes, they did develop a synthetic drug that blocked the primary cannabis receptor site. But after studies with the drug revealed people who took it became severely depressed, the drug was scrapped. If Pinsky did his research, he’d know that the endogenous cannabinoid system is actually one of the most important, and least understood, systems of the body, and it is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system, as well as creating feelings of bliss and inner peace that occur naturally through exercise and/or meditation. And that is why these same feelings can be achieved with cannabis, which duplicates the body’s own natural cannabinoids. Although this system is essential to creating and protecting neurons in our brains, it is located throughout the entire body, especially in vital organs. The other day I was channel surfing while at a motel immediately after at “Heads versus Feds” debate, when I caught a few seconds of Pinksy’s new TV show. He was interviewing porn star Capri Anderson about intimate details concerning her association with Charlie Sheen, who has lately replaced Lindsay Lohan as Pinksy’s favorite celebrity target. Pinksy believes Charlie should be forced into a psyche ward and have all his assets seized as he is legally insane and not able to care for himself. The reason for this is because Sheen (like most people on this planet) likes to get intoxicated.
It was absolutely creepy to watch Pinsky manipulate Anderson into talking about her intimate sex life. He also kept reaching over and fondling her knee during this interview, which made it clear he derives some sexual pleasure from his interrogations. It’s absurd to think Pinksy is doing anything other than glorifying the worst aspects of celebrity culture through these programs. He’s not part of any solution to our growing cultural narcissism since he clearly is a media whore who revels in sticking his nose into intimate details of celebrity lives that are actually none of his business. He does this to achieve ratings, not to help anyone. If Pinsky truly wants to do something to help people with addiction issues, he’d be much more effective referring them to ibogaine centers in Canada, since ibogaine has a much better success rate than the 12-step programs he currently promotes. And he needs to realize that cannabis has nothing to do with hard drugs, and some patients with addiction problems could actually benefit from medical cannabis.
During the winter of 1979, I moved to New York City and was crashing in a loft below Tribeca with a friend of a friend while I looked for a cheap apartment and job. After a late dinner, my host took me to an after hours club on Houston street to show me my first taste of New York City nightlife. There was a bebop jazz combo performing and it was around midnight when we walked in. While I was standing at the bar, a young black man approached and asked me: “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” Until then, I hadn’t realized how out-of-place I looked in my button-down shirt and ski jacket, and I got very self-conscious. I’d just arrived from graduate school in the Midwest and it would take years for me to assimilate into a New York sense of style. I was so punctured by the comment that I never forgot the dude, although it would be several months before we met again.
Actually, my next encounter was with the art, not the man. One hot summer afternoon, I traveled to the Lower East Side to interview Fab Five Freddy. At the end of the interview, Fred showed me a postcard for an opening at the Annina Nosei Gallery. “Wow, what a great painting!” I exclaimed the second I saw the image of two primitive figures with a roast chicken being placed on a table.
I didn’t know much about Jean Michel at the time, but I did know something about current directions in art. After years of the dominance and eventual dead-end of minimalism, there was an obvious yearning for color and imagery. I’d recently written the first magazine profile on Julian Schnabel for the now-defunct Horizon magazine and knew imagery was on the way back. But I was startled by the originality of that postcard. I think Fred was a little let-down by my sudden burst of excitement. I’d been looking at his work for an hour (he was hoping to sell me something) and hadn’t reacted so strongly to anything he’d shown me of his own. I got the impression Fred was feeling a bit overshadowed by his friend Jean Michel’s exploding talents. Like many graffiti writers at the time, Jean Michel was making the switch from writing on walls and trains to painting on canvas. But he wasn’t making “graffiti-style” paintings at all, rather he was creating an entirely original vocabulary.
In 1981, when Diego Cortez’s seminal “New York/New Wave” show opened at P.S. 1, I was most impressed by a photograph of a train painted by Futura 2000 and purchased a signed copy of that photo direct from Futura. It was at that show I decided to devote the next few years of my life to researching the origins of hip hop, which culminated in my book “Hip Hop” as well as the film “Beat Street.” Those projects took me to the South Bronx, far away from the Soho art world Jean Michel had recently invaded. However, as soon as I completed those projects, I began work on a book titled “Art After Midnight,” which was going to tell the story of the rise of the East Village art scene through the stories of its most famous practitioners: Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. I already had solid personal relationships with Haring and Scharf, but knew getting close to Jean Michel was going to present a challenge. One of my closest friends at the time was a gossip columnist for the East Village Eye and also a rival of Basquiat’s. They apparently had some ongoing feud over some girl, a feud Basquiat eventually won.
I called my friend Mary Boone, who was now representing Basquiat. She agreed to take me to visit his studio (and home). A few days later, we arrived at Great Jones Street. I think the author Robert Faris Thompson (“Flash of the Spirit”) was there at the time. Basquiat seemed fully aware of my work on hip hop history and treated me with utmost respect. He brought Mary and I to the back room and showed us his latest work, a series of oil stick drawings on paper. The work was phenomenal. Mary had a great eye and tried to sort out the best pieces immediately to take and sell, but Jean Michel coyly put the best ones aside. He was keeping them for his own private collection. I could see he was pretty savvy about maintaining control over his legacy and finances. Before I left, we set up a time and date for me to come back and start interviewing him for my upcoming book.
When I returned a few days later, Jean Michel was still in bed and had forgotten about the appointment, but he agreed to get up to see me. After a short wait, his studio assistant led me upstairs to his bedroom. He had a bottle of very expensive Bordeaux and a joint going. He offered me a glass of wine. “It’s a little early for me to start drinking,” I said, “But I’d love to take a hit on the joint.” There was a huge stack of records next to a turntable, and the room contained hundreds of videotapes and a large projection TV. It was really hard to get Basquiat to open up about his childhood, so I began talking about the club scene, specifically Club 57. I was working on a preliminary thesis there was a stylistic divide between the mostly European sensibility of the Mudd Club and the pop/camp culture of Club 57. When Jean Michel said he didn’t really grasp the appeal of the Club 57 aesthetic (“Why do something old and bad?” he said), I jumped on that comment and began pursuing that line of questioning aggressively, which immediately made him suspicious and paranoid unfortunately. Then the phone rang. The second he picked it up, I knew it was Andy Warhol. “I’m doing an interview,” he said, “but I’ve already said too much.” By the time he got off the phone, he’d already decided to end the interview. “It’s like the end of mystery,” he explained. “I can’t do this.”
I was pretty crushed. I’d envisioned several long interview sessions and felt it was unlikely I’d ever be invited back, which I wasn’t. Several months later we crossed paths again briefly at a Kenny Scharf VIP party at Area. I was celebrating the arrival of the proofs of a color insert for my book, “Art After Midnight,” which included double-page spreads on Basquiat, Haring and Scharf that looked spectacular. I put the layouts on the bar and Glenn O’Brien and Jean Michel both inspected them. I could tell Jean was pleased with his layout. I was hoping the book might resurrect a relationship. Later that evening, I bumped into Jean in a remote corner of the club. He was alone and seemed strangely isolated for such a celebrated figure.
Last night I watched “The Radiant Child,” Tamra Davis’ loving documentary, now available on Netflix on demand, which is where I see most films these days. It’s a very powerful film and the most well-rounded biography of Basquiat I’ve come across. I was a little bugged by the title at first since its taken from a Rene Ricard Art Forum article. “Radiant Child” is a reference to a Keith Haring icon and has nothing to do with Basquiat. I wish Tamra had come up with a different title. But her film is the best introduction to Basquiat around and I strongly recommend it. After watching the film, I felt compelled to write down these memories.
A group of students at San Rafael High School in California became known as “The Waldos” because they could be frequently found sitting on a wall in the school yard they’d made their regular hangout spot. They could also be frequently found imbibing cannabis and were widely known as the school’s biggest potheads.
One day in late spring 1971, someone approached the Waldos in the schoolyard during lunch hour with a piece of paper on which had been scrawled a map of Point Reyes Peninsula. “My cousin is in the Coast Guard and he planted this patch of marijuana,” he said. “But he thinks his commanding officer is onto him, so he says anybody can go pick the patch.” The Waldos were very excited indeed. This called for an almost immediate “safari,” which is what they called road adventures. They especially loved Mexican safaris as they almost always produced weed. But it was never free like this! One or two Waldos had an after school activity, so they couldn’t meet immediately after school. And they had to meet as close to the parking lot as possible, so they could quickly pile into one car and head for the patch. So it was decided to meet at 4:20 pm at the statue of Louis Pasteur at the entrance to the parking lot. And for the next few hours, whenever they spotted each other in the hallway, they gave a little salute and said the words, “Four-twenty, Louie,” to remind each other not to miss the appointment. When they met at the statute at 4:20, they smoked a joint, piled into their car and headed off to seek the pot patch.
Younger kids in the high school picked up on the ceremony and began holding annual events at 4:20 at the top of Mt. Tam, but when they began making flyers and distributing them at local Dead shows in the Bay Area, the rangers shut down the April 20th ceremony.
But one of those flyers came to my attention when I was editor of High Times, and I immediately made 4:20 a central part of everything I was doing, which included The Freedom Fighters, the Cannabis Cup, the WHEE! festivals, and my daily routine at High Times.
A wake’n’ baker went walking one dark and windy day
He rested on a ridge, he passed along the way
A giant hookah came flyin’, o’r the hills above the town
He saw the smoke a comin’ and heard the strangest sound
hippie hi o, hippie hi a, it’s the ghost tokers in the sky
The buds had just been fired, and still looked nice and green
They dripped with oily resin, just like High Times magazine
His heart was stuck by fear as the hookah thundered by
‘Cause he saw the tokers comin’ and heard their mornful cry
hippie hi o, hippie hi a, it’s the ghost tokers in the sky
Their faces gaunt, their eyes all red, their shirts all soaked in sweat
They’re tryin’ hard to catch a buzz, but they ain’t caught one yet
They’re doomed to toke forever, but never will get high
chained to a fire-snorting hookah, as they fly by hear ’em cry
hippie hi o, hippie hi a, it’s the ghost tokers in the sky
As they flew on by he heard, one call out his name
“If you want to save your soul from hell, you better change your ways!
Cut down on constant smoking, or with us you will ride
And you will toke forever, and never will get high!”
hippie hi o, hippie hi a, it’s the ghost tokers in the sky
(To the tune of “A Pirate Looks at 40” by Jimmy Buffett)
Mother, Mother planet
you make me feel so small
spring, summer, winter procession
and, of course the fall
We’ve done it all
We’ve seen it all
Now the winter worsens
birds fall from the sky
fish and frogs are dyin’
the bees are cryin’
what the hell is goin’ on?
Yes, I am a hippie
60 years too late
don’t tell the neighbors
or put it on facebook but
I used to live in the Haight
ran away to the Haight
got schooled in the Haight
Well, I’ve done my share of smokin’
inhaled my share of grass
breathed enough tar and gases
to fill a zillion bags
never meant to last
never meant to last
And I have been stoned now
for over ten years
rolling fatty after fatty
and drinkin’ some beer
but I need to stop smokin’
I’m practically chokin’
Need to stop smokin’
maybe, just a few days
for just a few days
I go for sour diesel
or chemdog when I can find it
long as it’s kind bud
organic and well cured
you know, the super kind
just takes some time
just takes some time
Mother Mother planet
After all the years I’ve found
an occupational hazard is
when an occupation’s just not around
feel like I’m down
gotta head uptown
I feel like I’m down
gonna head uptown
(sound of vaporizer bag filling as music fades out) copyright Steven Hager 2011