Modern life is evolving so fast it’s hard to imagine the vibes going down 30 years ago. Which is why it’s so entertaining to check out a documentary I produced early in the 1990s titled Let Freedom Ring: the Origins of the Hemp Movement. It came out just after my discovery of 420, but three years after I’d created the Freedom Fighters with the help of Rodger Belknap of West Virginia, who quickly became our organization’s chief funder and spiritual advisor.
The Freedom Fighters went from a handful of High Times staffers to the biggest cannabis legalization group in the world in two years, while the Ann Arbor Hash Bash went from a dozen hardcore devotees to many thousands cramming the diag at the University of Michigan. Marching into rallies in our Freedom Fighter outfits was the ritual that helped galvanize a national movement.
Shortly after the film was released, however, Rodger was railroaded into jail, while High Times forced me to disband the group, allegedly because NORML was unhappy about the competition, which seemed weird since our newsletter had been recognizing and supporting NORML chapters from inception, and many Freedom Fighter state groups were also affiliated with NORML, including the chapter in Boston that created the Boston Freedom Rally.
Our big campaign was bringing activists together for major rallies. We organized free campgrounds with free food and a free bus ride to the rally. When Rodger asked me what was needed for the organization, I told him we needed a school bus and council tipi. Within a few weeks we had both and took off for the Rainbow Gathering in Ocala, Florida, where I flew a High Times flag and nobody cared.
The Risk of Being Ridiculous by Guy Maynard got me interested in blogging about the 1960s. Maynard grew up in Urbana, Illinois, a year ahead of me, and was one of the leading figures in the garage-band movement that started around 1966. His book takes place in 1969 and really captures the intensity of the times. I gave it a rave review in High Times and it inspired me to dig up my own archives from the 1960s, especially a short story I wrote called “The Steam Tunnels.” I was surprised at how well my story had held up over the years. I’d forgotten most of the trauma I went through in the mid-’60s. People called it a “Generation Gap” but it was really a “Generation War.”
Well, there’s another novelist from my home town who wrote extensively about Carpenter and Cole, who (along with Guy and George Faber) had led the garage-rock movement in Central Illinois. Mandy Moores was actually one of my sister’s best friends in high school, and she ended up briefly married to Carp, and lived with him down in New Orleans when he and Cole were both deep-sea diving off oil platforms around the world. It was incredibly dangerous work, although the pay was pretty good.
Mandy’s book, Dream Palace, came out many years ago, but I just got around to reading it recently. Mandy’s brother, Brian, was the original drummer for my band, the Soul Assassins, as well as one of the drummers for a later incarnation of The Finchley Boys, the greatest garage band to emerge from Central Illinois. I’ve lost touch with both Brian and Mandy, so maybe this blog will bring them back into my orbits.
You can pick up a copy of Dream Palace for around a buck on Amazon. I kinda wish I could have helped Mandy edit this project, because she’s clearly a very talented writer. This first novel could have been something spectacular, on a similar level as Maynard’s book, but it has some flaws. For one, Mandy was a little too close to the subject when she wrote this, and had a lot of issues she was working out. Carp had a well-known anger-management problem, and we all knew you didn’t push his buttons unless you were looking for serious trouble. But Carp could also be a heroic figure, and this side of him is mostly missing. I also would have loved to have gotten more details on his garage band origins in Urbana, as well as more details on the dangers of deep-sea diving. For example, When Doug Blair got beat-up for making fun of the football coach (Smitty), it was Carp who went after Frank Sowers to take revenge. Reading the book, I couldn’t believe how tough Mandy was, pushing Carp’s buttons big-time, forcing confrontations with him, and basically not taking any shit at all. Unfortunately, their marriage was doomed because they were headed in completely different directions. Mandy had a fairy-tale view on life when in high school. I remember her many paintings that evoked this magical dream life. The book does a good job of capturing this side of her personality, but her fairy tale turned bad when Carp started getting violent.
Bugsy’s not in the book far as I could tell, although he was also part of that New Orleans crew, working as a deep sea diver. Carp always had some major schemes going on. Mandy goes into great detail on his 50-foot sailboat that he overhauled and eventually took to Jamaica for a load of pot. Unfortunately, this trip coincided with an anti-smuggling campaign supervised by then-Vice President George Bush. On their way back to the Florida Keys with a boatload of ganja, Carp and Bugsy were unexpectedly intercepted by a fleet of warships that had been deployed to root out drug smugglers. With the Coast Guard bearing down on him, Carp went into action-mode, and tried to dump all the bales before they were intercepted. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fast enough and the Coast Guard was able to pull a bunch of the bales out of the water.
In a most amazing coincidence, the head prosecutor in Florida handling their case was none other than Ralph Hersey, who’d been a columnist for my underground paper, The Tin Whistle. I tried to recruit all the best writers in my high school and Ralph had been suggested by one of the English teachers. Ralph was a good counterpoint to Charlie Gerron. They were both black, but Charlie was angry and confrontational, while Ralph was the model of common sense and morality. We also had a great poet in our class, Jim Guthrie, and I remember going to Jim’s house and trying to recruit him. Jim took one look at the first issue of The Tin Whistle, however, and decided it wasn’t for him. His work was considerably more mature than what most of us were doing at the time and Jim would go on to win many poetry awards in the 1970s.
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.”
Captain Whizzo stopped by High Times looking for illustration work, and we gave it to him. His pen drawings were always amazing. More important, the Soul Assassins had hired Whizzo for our second gig (he did have the only authentic ’60s-style light show, and we were—in our minds—the most authentic ’60s-garage-sound revivalist group). Whizzo clued us into a garage rock scene that had recently kicked off in New York, run by Ivy and Ann. Ivy was the daughter of the famous doughnut spokesman from all the commercials, but we wouldn’t learn that factoid until later. Of course, we immediately sent a Soul Assassin tape to Ivy, and, of course, she loved it! And she wanted to book us at the next possible opening, which was at least two weeks away. Meanwhile, I’d sent Andre Grossmann to scout out the Minds Eye and bring back some photos of the scene, you know, a basic recon mission. While going through his photos, I picked out a photo of this exotic rock goddess. “Who’s this girl?” I asked Ivy. “Oh, that’s Allegra,” said Ivy. “She’s in a band. I have her phone number right here.” I immediately called Allegra and invited her up to my High Times office for an important meeting. When she arrived, I got right to the point. “I have this band, the Soul Assassins, and we’re looking for three girls to join the group, and I want you to be one of them.”
Allegra thought it over for a day and decided, no, I have my own band and I don’t want to join your girl group. But I do know the perfect person for you. Meanwhile, Flick had already discovered a girl he wanted in the group. I hadn’t met these girls yet, but I knew their names were Abby and Kimona 117. Even better, Flick had located an amazing new drummer named Dave Rodway. Soon, we would all meet for the first time. You can listen to the original Soul Assassins at Bandcamp.com