Psychogeography & spiritual evolution

B. F. Spath has just released a masterpiece of psychogeography, a little-known occult art form that emerged out of the French counterculture of the late 1960s and one that’s been evolving through a small handful of radical European artists ever since. With this book, Spath strikes his claim as an American grandmaster of the order.

Psychogeography involves telepathic emanations and psychological impacts of specific locations and also improvisational wanderings through new environments, a quest whose purpose is the act of questing into the unknown. In Spath’s case, however, this translates into a fascination with Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, once a sacred site for Native American ceremonies, and from the 1770s through the 1800s, one of the premier ceremonial sites for Europeans in North American. Before the advent of Ellis Island, immigrants arriving in Manhattan landed mostly here, and it was from these docks many clipper ships departed for distant shores in search of opium, spices, silk and china. For someone buried in the basement of a Lower East Side tenement, Battery Park becomes the key psychological escape from the suffocating claustrophobia of modern life.

The book involves the sacramental use of cannabis for making telepathic contact with ghosts of ancient ceremony and ritual, and the perils that sometimes afflict the intoxicated.

Since Spath is one of the founders of the Pot Illuminati, I’m hoping this book sparks great interest in the coming revolution in cannabis spirituality, a movement I expect to overtake many established fundamentalist religions someday.

The most important thing about the Pot Illuminati is the one rule: “don’t hurt anybody,” and while we respect the rituals of ancient religions and study their histories, we reject all dogma as false, and don’t recognize leaders, except in respect to the most creative among us. We don’t fund-raise or collect money from anyone for anything, which make us the only non-corruptible religion on the planet.

The ancient city of Balkh, once a jewel of the Silk Road although now long abandoned, is some of the geography I’d like to explore someday, perhaps even following the Oxus River down to the Caspian and Black seas, a route traversed by the original stoner tribe. There are spiritual sites dotted all through the Caucasus Mountains created by this cannabis-using tribe, as well as a ring of settlements buried in mud around the rim of the Black Sea, settlements that were engulfed by a tsunami created when the Bosphorus Strait was breached due to rising sea levels. Someday this area will become a mecca for pilgrims seeking a connection with the origins of cannabis spirituality.

In Praise of Flick Ford

sc00055444After the Soho Weekly News folded, I went looking for a new place to publish my landmark 1980s uptown-downtown journalism. Ah, yes, the tawdry East Village in the 1980s, a time and place that someday may be as widely celebrated as the Summer of Love in San Francisco, because it was equally revolutionary and exciting.
My first book, Hip Hop, had disappointed me as it looked rushed out and I guess it was. For my next book, I wanted to work more closely with the designer. I noticed the East Village Eye on a newsstand and that caught my eye because I loved the new wave art direction. Soon, I met the publisher Leonard Abrams, and the art director David Allen, who had two other art directors he loved working with, Flick Ford and Brian Spaeth. The illo (above) was drawn by Flick, a portrait of the two of us, based on a photo from the East Village Eye.
I was living on the Upper West Side, where I still reside, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, hanging out mostly with friends from Illinois who had all penetrated the upper ranks of the corporate media world. But suddenly I shifted gears and started hanging out in the East Village almost nonstop for ten years.
I’m shy, so I like extrovert buddies who can start a conversation. Larry Green was my sidekick in high school and he always reminded me of a young Fred Astaire. Very suave and he loved to dance. I remember thinking: odd, a dude in the dance club, but then Larry told me it was the easiest way to meet hot girls.
Well, Flick reminded me of a young James Cagney and he could entertain and sweet talk the opposite sex better than anyone I knew, excepting Chef Ra, and Flick became my sidekick for the next decade. He certainly had a style all his own and I radically adjusted my look just from hanging around with him.
1375810819_WILD-2Flick, Brian and I would go on to form the Soul Assassins, a legendary band from the period. We all worked at High Times at one point, and now we’ve gone in different directions, although I think all three of us are doing our best work right now. I’m tremendously impressed with Flick’s latest book, Wild, 75 Freshwater Tropical Fish of the World.
I didn’t catch on to Flick’s obsession with fish until one day when out of the blue he got a small tank for his apartment. I returned a few weeks later and his apartment was filled with huge tanks, fresh and salt water. It’s safe to say the fish were talking to Flick. And what do you think they were saying? Save me?
Of course, that was 30 years ago. Today, Flick is widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest fish painters. He travels the globe catching fish so he can watercolor them straight from the water and then he mostly returns them to their habitat. Wild is an attempt to document the earth’s freshwater phenotypes. I guess you know life began in water so these fish are some of our oldest ancestors. And many are disappearing and have been replaced in captivity by flashy hybrids, which is cool, except what happens when all the original phenotypes are gone? In case of emergency, it’s up to the conservationist to capture, protect and preserve these phenotypes and that’s really what Wild is all about: inspiring a new generation to respect the natural order by honoring the ancestors of the earth. This is not just a book of paintings, however, but an encyclopedic compendium of vital information and includes maps of origin and instructions on captivity.
1349797378_artpic-bowHere’s Flick’s Rainbow Trout from the Upper Missouri. You can’t really do these images justice with web shots, however. The fish literally jump off the pages and many are so colorful you wonder why anyone felt they needed to be enhanced through breeding. Even more astonishing are the prints and original watercolors Flick carries when he’s on tour. I thought I’d give you a heads up on a rare opportunity to meet a colossal talent in person.
Art exhibition: Jan. 11, 2014 – Woodstock, NY
And check out Flick’s website here: http://www.flickford.com/

Sometimes magic starts itself

Before I arrived at High Times, I’d spent over a year working on a book about the East Village art scene, examining the art clubs. Art After Midnight goes for around $100 today, although you can buy an updated digital version on smashwords with new illos and photos for under $5. There was a lot of hybridization going on in the 1980s, with punk meeting hip hop and both invading the art world from different fronts. Both styles emanated out of the 1960s counterculture and both found the mainstream too soft.

So I was in a Club 57 frame of mind, where camp becomes a wilderness of mirrors, when I arrived at High Times and just to pass the time, started a column called My Amerika by Ed Hassle, a tribute to Ed Anger of the Weekly World News. I always thought the supermarket tabloids were run as propaganda tools by the CIA, but Anger was an obvious comedy act who made fun of right wing views by taking them to their illogical conclusions.

Bill Kelly, my favorite deejay used to read from his column on his Sunday show. Funny thing, Bill was a big reason I diverted into forming the Soul Assassins. I was hanging out with the first generation of hip hop and inspired by their do-it-yourself energy. I could have formed a rap band I guess, or just become a hip hop journalist for the rest of my life and made a fortune like Nelson George. Instead I veered into garage rock? Maybe because I’d been kicked out of my first garage band for doing LSD in 1967 and never got to finish perfecting my garage rock set. Then I met Brian Spaeth and he’d been kicked out of the Fleshtones, the reigning garage kings of NYC. So I guess we both had something to prove.

Funny thing, after Ed Hassle called for the formation of a new movement called The Freedom Fighters, a hemp movement that would bring back the big pot rallies from the late 1960s (most of these events had died out) it began as a joke really, but when the issue came out, the concept took off like wild-fire, and I realized I had a tiger by the tale. Before long, I was touring around the country, playing with my band in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, and giving speeches about legalization with Chef RA and Jack Herer at every stop. And afterwards, we’d head back to the campground and eat Ra’s Rasta Pasta, sip Budweiser and pass spliffs until late into the night while the Assassinettes danced around the fire with a full moon beaming down. See, I was trained in “Happenings” by the likes of Jasper Grootveld, Julian Beck, John Cage, and Ken Kesey, so I had a sense of the magic involved in changing people’s perceptions on a massive scale, as well as the techniques for manifesting that sort of magic.

Funny how the natural elements always seemed to be working against us, not to mention all those undercover cop cars that dogged us everywhere. The first time we left New York in our magic bus, we got stranded by a freak snow storm high in the Pennsylvania mountains. Much later, returning from the first Freedom Fighter National Convention, we got lost in a monsoon and a screaming fight broke out about which way to go. When the bus finally got back to our motel, I kissed the ground. But we lost Rodger, who had all the weed, as he couldn’t take the smell of hard liquor on some of us and disappeared never to trust us fully again. And then the party turned into a binge drinking bash with no weed in which our energy unraveled and we lost harmonization. We’d broken up and lost our Assassinettes, not to mention Brian, Bob and Rick. And the vibe just wasn’t the same without them.

Return of the Soul Assassins

Prior to the arrival of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, it was pretty much unheard of not to have a dedicated rhythm guitar player in almost every ’60s’ garage band. In fact, my former band, the Knight Riders, was actually one of those few since John Knight played organ. I played bass in the Knight Riders, a beautiful Gibson SG.

Twenty years later, when I started the Soul Assassins in my Upper West Side apartment in New York City, I began by playing cardboard boxes with drum sticks. Brian Spaeth was the first actual instrumentalist in the Soul Assassins, since he played both bass and sax. Bob Brandel, one of the leading guitar players from the original garage band scene in Central Illinois came in next on lead guitar. As soon as Brian Moores, a former drummer for the Finchley Boys came on board, it was only natural that I start playing rhythm.

One afternoon we were practicing “Just Like Me,” when, out-of-the-blue, I took a timid little solo on top of Brandel’s howling solo. And when we were listening to the tape later, the band went crazy: two guitars soloing at the same time! They thought it sounded great! Me, I had the exact opposite reaction. I thought the song lost all intensity the second the rhythm guitar dropped out and I vowed never to let the rhythm drop out of a song again. It was my first and final guitar solo.

Years later, I remember talking to Chip Znuff, who was a big Soul Assassins fan. I said something like, “I’m just a rhythm guitar player.” He looked stunned. He couldn’t believe I didn’t understand the crucial and central role played by the rhythm guitar in many bands, including the Soul Assassins. But as the Ramones proved so well, any band can get can by with no lead guitar. But few get by without a solid rhythm. In fact, it’s the rhythm guitar that defines the sound of many rock bands. The Rolling Stones would be a perfect example.

I was playing a Fender Telecaster out of a Fender Deluxe Reverb with trebles cranked up on both. The sound was super crunchy like a saw-blade carving up chunks of chords and spitting them out. Brandel’s lead guitar usually landed between me and the bass. That’s how far up in the treble atmosphere I normally resided.

Anyway, for those who care, the Soul Assassins are coming back for a grand performance soon. Dino Sorbello is on bass, Rodway on drums, Brandel on lead guitar and me. We’re all looking forward to loading up that old lumber truck for another ride down the mountain—two wheels on all the curves— a style also known as “r-r-r-real rock’n’roll.” To commemorate this occasion, I’ve been digitizing some of the old Soul Assassins tapes and I actually found that one and only guitar solo I ever took on “Just Like Me.” You can find it by clicking the link at the top-right column of this page that says “click here to listen to the Soul Assassins.”

http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Chakra-Candles/dp/B00BVMZ8U8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1414952468&sr=8-1&keywords=candles+steven+hager

Scream (West Side version)

I recently started listening to some old tapes recorded at my Upper West Side apartment back in 1986 when the band first started, and I was amazed at how great the band sounds using a Walkman Pro with stereo mike to record. One of the first things I did after forming the band was invest in a small PA system. If we were going to rehearse in my apartment, I wanted the singers to be able to blast over the amps and drums. And I didn’t want to rely on the crummy house PA’s that you always find in the bottom-tier of venues. On hot days we’d open the window and just let it blast! Saturday afternoons were our usual rehearsal time. I knew we had something when a bunch of people hanging out the windows in the building across the street on West End Avenue all started applauding and cheering after we finished a particularly rousing version of “All Night Long,” a ’60s garage tune from Texas that’s particularly hard to play. That first spring we actually developed a fan club in the windows across the street who knew our regular rehearsal schedule. Later, we moved the rehearsals to real rehearsal rooms and eventually to Giorgio Gomelsky’s, as my building started rattling sabers about the noise. It didn’t help that the super lived in the apartment next to me, or that we had clouds of marijuana smoke drifting into the elevators.

Bands and sports teams are very similar in that they rely on energy harmony and transference. Some days the energy and harmony and transference are working, and some days they’re not. Going into studios to record would always boost our energy, but it could never guarantee those transcendent performances. Flick especially seemed to do his best work when the band was alone, or even late at night when we were just hanging out drinking beers and smoking joints, when he’d suddenly bust into his Lil’ Miscreant cartoon character and start channeling the ghost of Elvis or anybody else he wanted to. But once Flick got on stage, much of that improvisational energy would evaporate, and while Flick always put on great performances, that special magic we knew existed deep inside him seldom surfaced full bloom in recording studios or even onstage. To give a little demonstration of this, in case people think I’m just talking shit, I just put an alternative version of “Scream,” the first rock song I ever wrote on bandcamp just so our fans can hear that other Flick Ford for the first time. I believe this was recorded the same afternoon as that rousing version of “All Night Long.” Certainly the performances are better on this than any other version I know. And this was the original version of “Scream,” before Gordon Spaeth told us my song sounded too much like “Have Love,” and I re-jigged the guitar riff and sped up the tempo. After Flick goes off you can hear Brandel step up to the plate and knock his guitar solo out of the park, and if you listen close, you’ll hear Brian do the same thing on his bass soon afterwards.

http://theoriginalsoulassassins.bandcamp.com/track/scream-west-side-version

In case you just stumbled onto this blog, I’ve been telling the stories about the Finchley Boys and Knight Riders (and Seeds of Doubt)  from central Illinois from 1966-69, while, at the same time, telling the story of the Soul Assassins, my New York City garage band from 1986-89. Check out my free eBooks, links top-right column. And thanks for stopping by.

Hip Hop to Soul Assassins

While I was researching my hip hop book and film project, I got inspired to get involved in music again. I’d left that scene behind in 1967 after being kicked out of my Illinois garage band for taking LSD. In all fairness, the Knight Riders did offer me to rejoin a few days later, but the chemistry was already ruined.

It wasn’t until I began interviewing all the kids in the South Bronx who created hip hop, that I got the urge to get back on stage. And at first, I edged into hip hop as a deejay, enlisting my two best friends, at the time, David Bither and Jeff Peisch, to join as my emcee group. Jeff rapped his own lyrics, while David blew wild sax solos, and I scratched up some break beat records Bambaataa had clued me onto. We held a performance at the cavernous apartment on the Upper West Side Jeff and I were living in. All three of us were rising freelance writers at the time, working for Horizon magazine, and other publications. Jeff and David got a cushy gig that summer with Lincoln Center. “High-level executive meeting” was Jeff’s code-phrase for smoking a joint during work. Our initial performance was attended by many critics and music-industry insiders, all of whom positively raved about how great we were. If nothing else, we certainly had attitude. Dave’s sax playing is what took it over the top since Jeff’s rapping style was more of a white-boy parody of real rap, talking about his Sony color TV set and Klipsch speakers, and other toys he coveted. We probably could have become something, but I had also been moving in circles around the East Village, writing for the Soho News and East Village Eye,  and soon discovered garage bands were very much in fashion downtown. Laurie Lennard was going out with Jeff at the time, and was one of the top goddesses on our scene, a real go-getter who eventually landed a job booking talent for David Letterman. Laurie would later become famous for marrying Larry David and producing “An Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore. According to Jeff, her body was an exact replica of Marilyn Monroe’s. That’s her in the red sweater with her arm around me in the above photo. Jeff would soon become news director of the newly-created MTV, and then an award-winning producer for Time/Life, while David eventually landed his dream job co-running Nonesuch Records.

I’ve always been a rocker at heart. So I switched gears and told my friends to come to a rehearsal for a garage band I was going to start. I had two cardboard boxes set-up in my bedroom and a pair of drumsticks. That was going to be my instrument to get started. I tried to enlist Dave to play organ, as he knew music theory, could write songs, and sang like a bird. But Dave would only come to the rehearsal if he could play lead guitar. He’d already been in a few bands as a keyboardist and wanted to make the switch. Flick Ford, my favorite art director at the Eye, was a natural choice as a lead singer. He had a dynamic energy that could bowl you over when he was on. But I didn’t know if Flick could sing, so I also invited Rick Dehaan to show up because he had a great rock’n’roll look and had recently tried to commit suicide. I thought this project might pick up his spirits. Rick’s psychiatrist asked him what concrete steps he was taking to make improvements in his life, and Rick replied: “I’m playing the lottery.” “But that’s not very concrete, is it?” replied the psychiatrist. The next day Rick won a million dollars. At that point I was probably thinking we could use Rick to buy equipment. Brian Spaeth helped me conceive the whole project. Brian had been through a similar experience as me, having been unceremoniously booted out of the Fleshtones, the reigning gods of garage rock in New York. The only band that could touch the Fleshtones at the time was probably the Lyres out of Boston. I met Brian when I began working at High Times as Executive Editor. It was a relief to finally land a weekly paycheck after being a freelancer for months. Anyway, I told Dave I’d already promised lead guitar to Bob Brandel, one of the best guitar players from the garage scene in Illinois, who was now working for NBC news as an art director. So that became the core of the band, which I soon named “The Soul Assassins:” Brian on bass, me on cardboard boxes, Bob on guitar and Flick singing. We knew right away we were onto something. Brian didn’t like the idea of two lead singers at first, but I told him the lead singer’s ego was always the biggest issue in any band and that if we had two, it would help keep their egos in check. Rick never had an ego, but Flick soon developed a whopper. But then so did I, I suppose. (I guess the funniest confrontation was the night Flick got drunk and said, “I am the head dick in the band.” To which I replied: “That’s right, Flick.” We were both pissing on the roof at Dino’s on Sixth Street.) I soon pulled in Brian Morse, who had drummed briefly for the Finchley Boys back in Illinois, which allowed me to switch to rhythm guitar. Our first gig was a High Times Christmas party, and the film director John McNaughton (a grade-school friend of Bob’s) flew in for the party and played organ on a couple of songs. You can listen free to the band, and download songs for 99 cents by clicking the Soul Assassin link in the middle of the links at the top-right of this page.

Below from left to right: John, Bob, Flick, Me, Brian Moores, Rick, Brian Spaeth, moments before taking the stage for the first time.

Foreword: The Steam Tunnels

This is a painful entry in the journals of youth—a direct, autobiographical transcription of a familial and generational war, recorded in the penultimate year of 1967, when the forces on both sides of the generation gap assembled for a great face-off. It is perhaps difficult for anyone who did not live through that period to understand just how high the emotions were running on both sides (Get a God-damn haircut!) America was a land of a thousand contradictions (and dances!) whose myths were being put to the test.
Blake Moore is a young man on fire: in love with books and ideas, and he has the great electric current of the 1960’s running through him at full voltage. His mentor is a slightly older classmate named Wesly Pinter, a rebellious semi-delinquent who functions as Huckleberry Finn to Blake’s Tom Sawyer. Pinter introduces Blake to some of the usual ways of teenage rebellion, but he also tells his intrigued and impressionable young friend about a mysterious secret: the existence of the steam tunnels that run underground beneath the entire town, offering an irresistible lure waiting to be discovered, and they are soon exploring the tunnels together. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect metaphor: the tunnels are a labyrinth—a great seething subconscious—affording a clandestine access to key places and buildings throughout the town—as the forces of the underground break through the thin crust of a complacent America, and literally through the cracks of academia as the forces of the burgeoning youth culture swell like lava through the crumbling monuments of the old society.
My favorite moment of the story is when Blake’s father catches him late one night in bed, hiding under the covers surreptitiously reading something with a flashlight. The father bursts into the room in a rage and tears back the blankets, perhaps expecting to find his son reading pornography or some other typical teenage interest: he grabs the book out of his son’s hands and is taken aback for a brief instant: the book is Moby Dick—our greatest American novel. This is a telling moment—the father onslaught is halted momentarily by this discovery—it wasn’t what he expected. His murderous rampage is slowed for a moment—but only for a moment—as he perhaps realizes that his son’s world is deeper and more complex than he assumed.
This very brief little story—its almost a book proposal, really—begs to be expanded and fleshed out into a full length novel. I want more: I want to read about Blake/Hager and his cronies in full battle mode—propelled through the tunnels by mad counter-cultural fuel—rising up from the underground (yes, like steam!) and breaking through into the consciousness of America in 1967. I want to explore the steam tunnels along with Blake—following all the twists and turns, and secret chambers, and I want to be with them as they break into the university!
We can hope that Hager may someday want to revisit this little sketch and turn it into something bigger. This story captures the pressures and violence—both physical and emotional—of a not too atypical family caught up in the turmoil of a radically changing America in the indelible year of 1967. Peace, man!

~Brian Spaeth