The Man Who Would be King of Cannabis

The house sits near the crest of a dike in a remote section of Holland near the German border. Built around 1880, it’s a grand structure with 15-foot ceilings, elaborately carved moldings and custom stained-glass windows. This is far from your ordinary 19th-century mansion, however, as Nevil, the man who lives here, breeds cannabis and sells the seeds for a living. Instead of wine cellars, this mansion’s basement is filled with indoor grow rooms.

On Thursday, November 6, 1986, Nevil returned from his daily pilgrimage to a nearby post office. It is raining lightly and a cold breeze blows off the Rhine. Although the sun made a brief appearance early in the day, massive, billowing clouds have obliterated it.

As Nevil enters his house, he is assaulted by his watchdog, Elka. He climbs the stairs to his living room, flops on an old couch, and starts opening his mail. “Breeding is a matter of bending nature to your will,” he says while drawing a toke on a joint of Skunk #1. “There’s not a coffeeshop in Holland that can produce better weed than this. But I don’t sell it. I give it away—or I throw it away.”

In a few short years, Nevil has made an incredible transformation from penniless junkie to wealthy entrepreneur. Although he’s an effective and efficient businessman, cannabis is his business, so things are run a bit differently around here. For example, resinous buds of exotic strains are strewn haphazardly about the room, as are large chunks of hash and bags filled with seeds.

Nevil is a displaced Australian of Dutch heritage, and has a quiet, understated sense of humor. He lives in relative seclusion on his estate, breeding marijuana, playing pool, watching videos, waiting patiently for his many cannabis experiments to bear fruit. He has his doubts about the future of the marijuana business in the Netherlands, but these doubts disappear in a whiff of smoke whenever he samples a new, successful hybrid.

“In the beginning I was quite keen for people to come here and visit me, but I found it takes large amounts of my time,” he says. “I have to sit around and smoke with them. Now it has to be someone worthwhile, someone who has a large project in mind. Most American growers are looking for the same thing: strong, overpowering, two-toke indica with huge yields. My number-one seller is Northern Lights.”

After the mail has been sorted and delivered to the in-house accountant, Nevil visits the basement to inspect his prize plants. The doors to four grow rooms are wide open, disclosing the blinding glare of dozens of sodium and halide lights. Powerful exhaust fans circulate the air, and the smell of cannabis is overpowering. Three of the rooms are devoted to young seedlings, while the largest contains 40 flowering females in their spectacular resinous glory.

Nevil placed this classified ad in September 1984 High Times.

It’s no secret that an explosion of indoor marijuana propagation has taken place in America: grow stores are sprouting across the nation and high-wattage grow lights are selling faster than Christmas trees in December. The reason for this sudden interest in indoor growing is no secret either: high-quality marijuana has been nearly impossible to find—unless, of course, one personally knows a grower. But any pot farmer will tell you good equipment does not guarantee a good harvest. The most important element, in fact, is good seeds. And until recently, good seeds have been as rare as a $15 ounce of Colombian Gold.

Thanks to Nevil, however, this sad situation has changed. Every day letters pour into his post office box, containing American dollars wrapped in carbon paper to avoid detection. The money is for seeds. Not ordinary pot seeds, but the best, most potent seeds on the market, seeds that will grow gargantuan buds dripping with resin, seeds that cost between $2 and $5 each.

Nevil’s seed factory is perfectly legal. The Dutch government views Nevil as a legitimate, tax-paying businessman. Seed merchants are held in esteem in Holland, and even though Nevil is something of a small-fry by seed merchant standards, he is a protected national asset nonetheless. In 1985, his company supplied $500,000 worth of seeds to 15,000 American growers. If you smoke high-quality marijuana, chances are good the buds may have been grown with Nevil’s stock.

There is a big difference between growing marijuana and breeding for quality. The best-known example of the long-term effects of breeding are the Cannabis indica plants that arrived in the United States in the ’70s. For hundreds of years indica plants were bred by Afghani farmers for disease resistance, early flowering, large buds and wide leaves. The strain was developed for hash production, but it was also useful for American growers who had difficulty with sativa strains, most of which require longer growing cycles.

Ever since indica arrived in the USA, breeders have been creating hybrids that take advantage of indica’s early flowering and sativa’s bell-like high. The results of these experiments first appeared at secret harvest festivals in California, Oregon and Washington. Then, in the early ’80s, a legendary underground organization called the Sacred Seed Company began distributing these remarkable hybrids. Nevil’s company, The Seed Bank, sells many strains originally developed by the Sacred Seed Company, including the famed Skunk #1, Early Girl and California Orange. More recently, however, some of the most mind-blowing strains have come out of the Pacific Northwest; Northern Lights, University, Big Bud and Hash Plant are adequate proof that Seattle and Portland now hold the breeding crown. Needless to say, Nevil’s Seed Bank obtained cuttings and seeds of all these varieties as well.

Who is Nevil and how did he come to found this amazing company? The man who would be King of Cannabis is the son of Dutch migrants who settled in Perth, Australia in 1954. His father trained telephone technicians, while his mother became a counselor for unwed mothers. They were adventurous, hardworking Catholics, and they raised their six children strictly, sending them to Catholic schools.

“I wasn’t the most malleable child,” admits Nevil. “From an early age I had an aversion to authority. I was the first-born, and I saw myself as a sort of pathbreaker for the rest of the children.”

Despite his rebellious nature, Nevil was intelligent enough to jump two years ahead of his peers, a leap that resulted in his being the smallest in class. “I got beat up a lot,” he admits. “A typical day would start with the teacher calling me up in front of the class to smell my breath. ‘Yep,’ she’d say, ‘You’ve been smoking.’ And I’d get six of the best straight away. And that was just to start the day! Usually a thing like that would put me into a bad mood, so the rest of the day wasn’t much good either. It worked out I got the strap 900 times in one year, the school record.”

Nevil was not your typical juvenile delinquent. At age seven, he began raising parakeets; two years later he joined the Parakeet Society of Western Australia. “My best friend across the road got some parakeets,” he explains, “and I got extremely jealous. After he started breeding I became quite adamant I’d do the same.”

He eventually became friends with one of Australia’s leading parakeet breeders, Bob Graham. “I learned an awful lot from him,” he says. “He was a quadriplegic and he was incredibly intelligent.” Nevil learned Mendel’s laws of breeding and began charting dominant, recessive and intermediate traits for his birds (something he would later do with cannabis plants). “I bought some of Graham’s stock and got immediate results,” he says. “When you breed parakeets, you breed to an ideal. It’s like sculpting with genes.”

When he was 15, Nevil was sent to a state school and forced to repeat his third year of high school. Consequently, he caught up with his classmates in size. “I got into a few fights,” he says with a smile, “just to get back for all the times I’d been beaten up.”

Although discipline at the school was considered harsh, it proved a cakewalk after Catholic school. “The first time I was brought before the headmaster to be punished, he made me hold out my hand and he tapped it twice with a cane,” recalls Nevil. “I thought he was just aiming. I closed my eyes and waited for the real pain, but it never came. I was quite shocked. I thought, ‘Well, now I can do anything I want.’ I ignored the dress code and dressed how I pleased. That didn’t go over well, and I managed to get kicked out within three months.”
He also discovered marijuana.

“I had an American friend who suggested we buy some,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I’m not scared.’ We both pretended we’d done it before, when, in fact, neither of us had. After scoring from someone at school, we went back to a shed outside his house. I volunteered to roll joints, even though I’d never done it before. There were three of us and I rolled three joints, one for each of us,” he laughs. “It seemed logical at the time, still does, actually, even though it was more normal to pass joints. But we didn’t know any better. It was Indonesian weed and we got extremely ripped. I really liked the sense of time distortion—everything happened so slowly.”

There was plenty of high-quality reefer going around Australia, and to insure a steady supply for himself, Nevil made the jump from smoker to dealer in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, to satisfy his parents, he found a legitimate job.

“As long as I couldn’t be the Pope, my mother wanted me to be a doctor or veterinarian,” he says. “My father didn’t see this as a possibility and just wanted me to get a job. Fortunately, I was offered work as a lab assistant at a local university, which was semi-professional, eh? And I was working, so they were both satisfied.”

Nevil did well at the position. So well, in fact, that he was made acting head of the anatomy lab with responsibility for the operating room, animal room and office. He was given the only set of keys to the drug cabinet and placed in charge of ordering drugs when supplies ran low. For someone interested in sampling illicit chemicals, it seemed like the perfect job.

“Having heard horror stories about cannabis and how bad it was for you, I decided everyone in authority lied about drugs,” says Nevil. “I knew cannabis wasn’t harmful. I concluded the harmful effects of other drugs must be exaggerated as well. I started with barbiturates. I knew many people used them for sleeping tablets. Eventually, I tried morphine. I was quite good at giving injections. There’s something very professional and doctor-like about giving yourself an injection. I had to inject rabbits and mice all the time, and if you can hit a vein in a rabbit’s ear, you can get any human vein. I veined the first time I tried. Morphine made me feel good. I had friends who were already addicted to heroin and they encouraged me. Soon, I had a bag filled with tablets, pills and chemicals of all sorts from the lab.” Unfortunately for Nevil, this situation was not destined to last. Within a few months, he was arrested for drug possession. And it didn’t take long for the police to figure out where the drugs had come from.

The head of the anatomy department suggested Nevil be sent to a treatment center. His parents agreed, and had their son committed to a university psychiatric ward for six weeks. “I wasn’t addicted at the time,” says Nevil. “I used far too large a variety of ingestables to become addicted to any one thing. After I was released I had the option of working part-time at the university—to build up my position again. But I felt the stigma of being a known user. It was a bit unbearable. So I left and started hanging around with people who supplied smack. Even though I started shooting smack, I never sold it. I just sold weed.”

One day Nevil woke up with a terrific backache. His hips and the base of his spine hurt terribly. He went to a doctor and was given some pain pills, which proved useless. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. Nevil went home, and the pain still wouldn’t go away.

“Then I realized, ‘Shit, I’m addicted,’ ” he says. “It was quite a substantial shock even though I knew it had to come eventually.” He enrolled in a methadone program, which proved to be an extremely dehumanizing experience. “They made me beg for drugs,” he says. “I didn’t like that. I was scoring weed in Melbourne and shipping it back in huge speakers, telling people I was in a band. I was making what seemed like a huge sum of money—$5,000 a week.”

Unfortunately, Nevil gave a free sample to a girl who was later arrested by the police. The girl identified Nevil as her supplier and a long court case ensued, one that eventually reached the Australian version of the Supreme Court. Throughout the trial, Nevil was enrolled in a methadone program and under psychiatric supervision. “I got the feeling things were coming to a head,” he says. “My drug problem seemed quite insurmountable and the case didn’t look promising. So I flew to Thailand.”

For several weeks Nevil lived in a cheap hotel in Bangkok, shooting heroin until his money ran out. He skipped out on the bill, moved to another hotel and began hawking his valuables to raise money. “I found a taxi driver who would take me to exclusive shops in the city,” he says. “The driver would get a kickback from the store for delivering Europeans to the shop, whether they bought anything or not. After we left, the driver and I would split the kickback.”

However, after they’d visited every shop in Bangkok (and were no longer welcome at any of them), Nevil telephoned his parents and asked for a plane ticket home. Unfortunately, the police had already appeared at his house with a warrant for his arrest. “It didn’t seem prudent to return to Australia,” says Nevil with typical understatement. His parents sent him a ticket to the Netherlands and the address of an uncle living in the countryside.

After Thailand, Nevil’s habit was really out of control. Upon arriving in Holland, he immediately enrolled in a methadone program and discovered he required 24 tablets a day to stay straight. “I handled that for about six months,” he says.

“I was trying to cut down, trying to fit in. I had unemployment benefits, which is enough to survive in Holland. But I was feeling quite lonely.” Six months later, he moved to Tillberg, the center of Holland’s smack scene.

In 1980, Junkie-Union appeared in Holland, a pro-heroin movement protesting police raids and abstinence-oriented therapies.

Obviously, Tillberg was not the sort of environment conducive to kicking heroin. Junkies had taken over the city, converting pubs and hotels into shooting galleries. “My first day in town, I went to a bar called the Lawyer’s Purse,” he says. “Smack was being sold up and down the counter. It was a madhouse. Apparently, the police didn’t—or couldn’t—do anything about it. It went on like that for quite some time. When the police would close one place down, everyone would move to another bar. It was a fairly rough town and I went through a time of hardship. I had no money except welfare. I had a raging habit. I was living in a town known for being tough and criminal. I cost the state large chunks of money as I went through all the available drug rehabilitation programs. After having made numerous failed attempts at stopping, I decided no one could help me. Which is true. No one can help a junkie. He can only help himself. So, I decided to kick heroin on my own. I convinced a doctor to give me ’ludes to sleep and a synthetic opiate, which probably didn’t do anything. I stayed home and suffered for six weeks until I reached the point where I could handle alcohol. Then I started drinking every day, a half-bottle of Scotch in the morning, a half-bottle at night. I used the ’ludes to sleep, so that there was always a certain part of the day blocked out. Eventually, I got sick of hangovers and turned to grass. I decided it was probably the only acceptable drug.”

In 1980, while still trying to kick his habit, Nevil stumbled across a copy of the Marijuana Grower’s Guide by Mel Frank and Ed Rosenthal. “I’d grown some weed in the bush in Australia,” he says. The book helped reawaken Nevil’s interest in genetics. Why not combine his two favorite pursuits, breeding and getting high? Nevil applied for a loan to build an indoor growing chamber for marijuana. Only in Holland could such a request be taken seriously. “The drug program I was enrolled in gave grants to drug addicts to get them started doing something useful,” he explains. “I told them I wanted to grow weed indoors. They weren’t thrilled with the idea, but they gave me the money anyway.” The unit employed eight five-foot fluorescent lights. “There was a vacant lot behind my apartment, and I filled it with weed. I had Nigerian, Colombian and Mexican seeds. The Mexican was the best. I still have the strain. My dwarfs come from it.” Although there wasn’t much demand for homegrown weed in Holland, hash oil was a valuable commodity and could be sold easily. So Nevil became a professional hash-oil maker.

Nevil used petroleum ether, an extremely flamable liquid, for the distillation process. “I was heating it with thermostatically-controlled electric plates,” he says. Unfortunately, Nevil didn’t realize the thermostat on the heater had to be placed in another room because it sparked when turned on. He had a sink with 40 liters of petroleum ether, as well as a can with another 10 liters on the floor. One day he turned on the thermostat and a spark exploded into a flame, which instantly turned the room into a raging fire.

With eyes closed, Nevil ran to the adjoining room and dove out the window, bouncing off a roof and rolling onto a sidewalk. “My first thought after hitting the ground was to save my dope,” he says with a laugh. He ran back inside, grabbed whatever hash oil he could find, and buried it in the backyard. He went back again and collected whatever valuables he could find. “Then I went next door to tell the neighbors,” he says. “They were shocked by my appearance. I didn’t realize my hair was singed, my face was black, my clothes were torn. I was covered with burn blisters.”

Twenty minutes later the police arrived, followed by the fire brigade and an ambulance. At the hospital, the burn specialist told him he was lucky to be in such pain, because it meant the burns weren’t third-degree. He was given a shot of morphine to kill the pain. The next morning, Nevil refused further shots. “I knew I’d turn into a junkie again,” he says.

Despite horror stories from his doctors about being scarred for life, Nevil was released two weeks later with no visible damage. There was one permanent change, however. Nevil decided not to make hash oil anymore.

Since Nevil had been reading High Times, he knew revolutionary new indica strains were appearing in the United States, even though none were available in Holland. If only he could grow weed the Dutch would consider palatable, then he’d be in business and could sell marijuana instead of hash oil. He searched through copies of High Times hoping to find an indica seed supplier. “I looked for hidden meanings in all the ads,” he says. “Of course, it was just fantasy on my part. I knew how difficult it was to get good Nigerian and Indonesian seeds in America, and I wanted to trade with someone.”

Eventually, Nevil realized there was only one way to obtain good seeds, and that was to become a seed merchant himself. He hired a lawyer to investigate the legal implications and discovered it was possible to sell cannabis seeds in the Netherlands. Within a matter of months, he sent his first ad to High Times.

“I expected there were thousands of people just like me, and as soon as they saw the ad, I’d be in business,” recalls Nevil. Business, however, was disappointingly slow for the first few months. Why? Probably because most readers found it hard to believe high-quality seeds could be obtained so easily.

Nevil doesn’t discuss his distribution system, but there is no doubt the seeds were getting through. Most of the money he received went back into improving his seed strains. Nevil went to great expense to obtain seeds, a commitment best illustrated by a secret trip to Mazar-I-Sharif in Afghanistan. According to the Moslem legend, one of Mohammad’s sons died in the city. Consequently, it is a very holy place. It is also known for high-quality hashish. Although hash from the area had been readily available in Holland in the ’70s, the Soviet invasion of the country greatly reduced exports. In 1985, an Afghan refugee told Nevil the fields around Mazar-I-Sharif were being destroyed. “That was all I needed to hear,” says Nevil. “I caught the next plane to Pakistan to save the strain.”

The story of this adventure first appeared in Regardies magazine and was written by former High Times reporter A. Craig Copetas. After being smuggled into a refugee camp near Peshawar while lying on the floor of a car, Nevil made contact with a 30-year-old Muslim fanatic who had a throbbing vein that ran from between his eyes straight up his forehead. The man took a lump of black hash out of his pocket and told Nevil that it had been processed by his uncle, a man known as Mr. Hashish…. Surrounded by four men who were pointing machine guns at him, Nevil set about negotiating with Mr. Hashish, a Mujahedin commander, and finally persuaded him to send a squad of his men 280 miles into Soviet-occupied territory and come back with two kilos of healthy Mazari seeds.

“He thought I was ridiculous because I didn’t want to buy hash or opium,” recalls Nevil. “Nobody had ever come there before to buy seeds, and at first he had no idea what I was talking about. I stood there trying to explain genetics to this tribal hash leader in sign language. When he finally figured out what I wanted, he asked for too much money. I took a zero off his price and gave him ten percent up front. He called me a bandit, but I had the seeds four days later.”

Nevil also went to great lengths to obtain ruderalis seeds, a little-known cannabis strain that grows primarily in Russia. Although some American growers had sold so-called ruderalis strains in the past, Nevil undertook the necessary trip to the Russian-Hungarian border to authenticate the plant.

Ruderalis is not known for spectacular resin content, but it flowers automatically — regardless of photoperiod—which makes it a potentially useful hybrid, especially for outdoor growers. Nevil began crossing ruderalis-indica hybrids with his Mexican dwarfs. The result?

An indoor/outdoor bonsai marijuana tree that matures within two months and never reaches a height over two feet. Such a plant would be difficult to detect from the air and it could take years before the DEA even figured out what it was. (After several years, Nevil abandoned his ruderalis experiments.)

“Since becoming a seed merchant, I’ve directed all my energies and money into finding people with superior strains of cannabis and getting seeds out of them,” says Nevil. “And I can honestly say, I’ve never heard of a strain I wanted that I wasn’t able to get—one way or another. Theoretically, there is someone out there growing better stuff than I am using my seeds. Why? Because tens of thousands of plants are being grown with my stock. Selection from tens of thousands gets phenomenal results, while I can only select from a few hundred. I’m not holding back anything. Any grower in America can experiment with the same stock.”

Epilogue 2023

Intel had been tracking me long before I left for the Netherlands to interview Nevil. The night before I flew back to New York, I was waylaid by Robert Clarke and Sam the Skunkman, who had recently sold seeds to Nevil, including Skunk #1 and Pollyanna. Sam told stories about the harvest festivals in Santa Cruz before CAMP shut down the ceremonies. Skunk #1 was a legendary award winner created by a grower’s collective known as Sacred Seeds. On the plane back, I got the idea of creating the Cannabis Cup, something I began working on as soon as I landed. Nobody was using the word “cannabis” at the time. Even scientists like Dr. Lester Grinspoon preferred the Mexican slang term, marihuana.

Sam began his plot for global domination by partnering with Wernard Bruining, founder of Mellow Yellow, which had started as a squat with a house dealer but had changed names and become a huge operation. Wernard designed the club as a hangout where he and his friends could get stash, and that expanded into a cafe supported by had two huge outdoor greenhouses. Ed Rosenthal wrote about the grows and introduced Sam to Wernard, who quickly became alarmed by the scope of Sam’s plans. Shortly after Wernard ended his partnership with Sam, his two grow ops were both busted, the first cannabis grow ops taken down in Holland’s history.

Cultivators Choice catalogue, 1985.

A few months later, I was back at the Castle collecting samples for the first Cup. Nevil and Ben Dronkers had agreed to participate but Sam kept waffling. He eventually agreed to join the competition days before the event kicked off. The three judges included the photographer (Jeff Vaughan), the new grow writer (Bram Frank), and me.

I dubbed the photographer “Jiffy Schnack” because he couldn’t walk past a street vendor without buying and consuming something. When not snacking, Jiffy could be found holed up in his boatel room, chain-smoking Northern Lights and blasting Metallica on his Walkman headphones.

Jiffy tried chain-smoking Skunk #1, but it gave him a headache. He openly disdained the praise Bram and I bestowed upon the strain for its wonderful flavor. Eventually Jiffy declared his intention to throw the contest to Northern Lights by voting down Skunk #1.

It was the first attempt to rig the Cup, but would not be the last. Sam attached himself to the three of us and eventually got wind of Jiffy’s plot, and began pressuring me to cancel his vote. Since there was no Awards Show nor celebratory dinner (we were on the thinnest of budgets), the Cup would not be publicized until the issue came out in four months. I recall Sam complaining about not being given a real trophy to take home when he arrived to inspect the issue prior to printing. (It wasn’t until the 6th Cup that unique cannabis trophies were created by Robin “The Hammer” Ludwig.)

One moment stuck out while visiting Nevil to pick up his samples for testing. Nevil wanted to inspect the competition, but Sensi Seeds had turned in fresh-picked buds so wet I didn’t see how we could smoke them. Nevil peeled off some buds and blasted them in his microwave. Sitting next to the microwave was a tall jar filled with water with a green deposit on the bottom. Nevil informed me it was his new technique for making hash with water, something possible because the water entering his house was exceedingly cold.

When I returned to the office and began working on the issue for the first Cup, Sam and Rob arrived to deliver a photo of Skunk #1 for the cover. They were giddy with excitement as they wanted to take out a display ad in High Times. In return for $10 cash, they promised to deliver the secret of turning stash into hash (or mold into gold). The ad ran as a trade agreement in exchange for use of a photo of Skunk #1 on the cover. Rob was a comics fan and commissioned Flick to create an illustration. Flick was paid in stash. Rob had initially stayed at my apartment while visiting New York, but had switched to Flick’s smaller abode, possibly because it afforded him a get-high buddy capable of keeping pace with his intake. The more mysterious Sam, however, never made an appearance anywhere in New York outside that one visit to the office.

It took decades before I realized that giddiness may not have been due to the anticipation of making a fortune selling a sheet of paper for $10, but by forging a trail for possible grandfather rights on making water hash. I got a letter from Rob after the ad was published telling me not to run it again as it had served its purpose. The description claimed the final product had the consistency of “chewed bubblegum.”

Sam and Rob often seemed focussed on some distant pot of gold and global domination in cannabis genetics usually seemed part of that vision. I sensed Nevil’s rise in status in the realm of cannabis might be threatening their swagger. Like Tom Forcade, Sam was an outlaw hidden in the shadows, never photographed, and nobody knew his real name, only a string of aliases: Sam the Skunkman, Sam Selezny, Sam Selgnij, Sahdu Sam. Nevil, meanwhile, had played Abbie Hoffman to Sam’s Forcade and seized the glory.

Like many American’s at the time, I paid little attention to hash, being fully satisfied taking a few sips off a flavorful joint, although the Dutch quickly converted me to their art of rolling with filter tips. I served as a judge for the first Cup and instantly knew judging was not my thing. Unlike Jiffy and Flick, I had no love of constant weed and hash smoking and received more satisfaction studying the hidden history of cannabis in religion, an attitude that put me at a social disadvantage among hard-core, hash-smoking afficionados.

I sensed the primary reason for being waylaid by Sam and Rob right after departing Nevil’s was simply so they could prove their head-stash was better than his. Nevil was fine-sifting the finest Haze tops at the time and not all that eager to share his pressed hash with a novice like me. Sam, on the other hand, was doing the same with Skunk #1 and his head-stash was a golden, unpressed power that made a tiny liquid pool in the center when hit with a flame. Nevil’s hash didn’t do that.

Eventually, liquid would not be enough and hash would need to bubble like lava to be considered pure, but that was still a decade away.

Operation Green Merchant

High Times was always a cutthroat environment. When I arrived as a full-timer in 1985, the editorial and art staff had just been sacked right before Christmas. The trustees running the magazine had pulled the annual staff Christmas bonus due to sliding sales. Someone leaked the story to the New York Post and word came down from on high the squealer needed to be exposed and punished. Nobody confessed nobody squealed, so everyone was fired.

The magazine was obviously being busted out and had been in sharp decline for years while the trustees took out millions a year for themselves through cutting budgets, expenses and salaries. There was no editorial budget, as most content was ad trade or given free, especially cultivation information. Aside from cultivation, the content was uninspired with the exception of Dean Latimer’s occasional contributions. But after Larry “Ratso” Sloman resigned, nothing like what Tom had produced or intended appeared until my arrival, mostly just steady promotion of cocaine, heroin and porn. I didn’t have a lot of respect for the people responsible for this transformation, and maybe they sensed it.

Peter Gorman.

Upon arrival I began scouring the files for ignored submissions worth publishing and found several, including one by Peter Gorman, who’d I’d soon hire full-time. He was a natural reporter and once tracked down a leader in Earth First by leaving messages at a sports bar in his general area right before a game involving his college team.

John Holmstrom.

I kicked out the hard drugs and began promoting flowers and fungi. The publisher, however, demanded at least one hard drugs quote remain in every THMQ and the trustees always sided with him and if they didn’t he’d find some other way to torment me in retaliation. I imagine it might have been difficult watching me turn the company around on a dime, since it put his incompetence on display. I began promoting indoor cultivation as the best means for avoiding the black market entirely, and indoor grow articles began appearing in every issue, mostly on closet gardening in small spaces.  The ads for the equipment swiftly followed. John Holmstrom, founder of Punk magazine, was brought in as my executive editor and for a couple of wonderful years we had a blast transforming High Times into a cross between National Lampoon and Covert Action Quarterly.

The parties were legendary, mostly due to the High Times house band, the Soul Assassins. The lead singer, Flick Ford, was my sidekick in those days and had recently designed my groundbreaking book, Art After Midnight. He’d soon become art director of High Times. But it was only after we added an amazing trio of super hotties from the Lower East Side dubbed the Assassinettes that we developed a rabid downtown following. One night Malcolm Forbes pulled up on a Harley to check out our packed show at Continental Divide. That’s how far the buzz had traveled in a few short months. What I didn’t realize, however, was High Times had become the biggest seller at Tower Records on both coasts. There were no celebrations or announcements by the publisher. I knew advertising had skyrocketed, but the business side remained silent about money pouring in from the sudden rise in circulation. Instead, the trustees secretly upped their bonuses and began investing profits into phone sex lines. High Times catered to the sleaziest, bottom-feeding ad base in the industry as the publisher never saw an ad he didn’t like, and the explosion of phone sex advertising convinced him this is where the company needed to invest some money, and the trustees agreed.

Bill Kelly.

One of my goofier ideas was an homage to my favorite deejay Bill Kelly at WFMU who was largely responsible for promoting a garage rock revival in the New York City area. During his show, Kelly would read Ed Anger columns out of the Weekly World News, making fun of Anger’s illogical rightwing rants. I created a column in High Times called “My Amerika by Ed Hassle” supposedly written by a rabid Grateful Dead fan who was lost in tin-foil-hat lunacy. The character was designed as a goof on hippie fascism, something known as “woke culture” today. Hassle was the first anti-woke influencer disguised as a pro-woke influencer. It only took a few months for him to become the most popular columnist in the magazine, surpassing grow guru Ed Rosenthal, although I often wondered how many of his fans were in on the gag and how many swallowed his kool-aid rants. Aside from his monthly column, Hassle soon began appearing in multi-page comicstrips on a wide variety of topics, carving out a sizable presence in the magazine.

The ad that got Hassle whacked.

I’d asked Flick to make Hassle come to life as a cartoon character. I was executive editor at the time and Flick was a freelancer suddenly doing multi-page full-color comics. I suggested he should get some creative rights as he was being paid far below scale, a request that soon provoked Hassle’s removal. Kennedy gave me the bad news in the form of a comedy news release wherein Hassle was victim of a mafia hit. It felt like he was stomping on me and laughing at the same time. Whenever Kennedy made some imperial pronouncement like his killing off of Hassle, it was always non-negotiable. I had no idea at the time he was the real power behind the throne running the company, and not the trustees, two of whom were his puppets. The third (Tom’s mother) would get axed the first time she sided with me on anything. I was sent a letter by Judy instructing me to never to speak nor write her mother ever again. Aside from Tom, the mother was the only honest one in the family.

Around this time, Kennedy was representing the head of the real Italian mafia in the huge Pizza Connection trial. Kennedy was paid a quarter million and his entire defense amounted to putting the capo and a few underlings  on the stand just long enough for them to confirm there was a ban on heroin trafficking within the order. When that defense failed and the client got convicted, Kennedy put out the word it was his last mafia case. He might have been worried about getting a hit on himself.

But after Operation Green Merchant put the corporation in peril, I made a plea to bring back Hassle to save the company by igniting an activist response to DEA harassment on High Times. NORML had initially refused to be associated with the return of the Hash Bash, indicating Kennedy had likely been telling them not to get involved with my antics, but that changed after 10,000 people showed up on the University of Michigan diag.

Kennedy was seldom seen or heard-from, although everyone at the office remained on tippy-toes during his infrequent visits because his temper tantrums were legendary. Right before Hassle was purged, Hassle’s latest comic strip had blown the whistle on the government cover-up of alien spacecraft secretly sucking trichomes off outdoor cannabis plants, something responsible for a national decline in pot potency. Hassle had only managed to uncover this operation after being abducted by UFOs. Although all memories had been wiped by alien doctors, snippets were later recovered through hypnosis. The strip was a parody of the sort of UFO material found in supermarket tabloids, stories I assumed were planted by intelligence agencies to divert the dumbest among us away from any real conspiracies like the JFK assassination or MK/Ultra brainwashing. Even today I believe phony UFO stories are constantly floated by intel to keep people diverted and confused.

High Times catered to the most disreputable ads.

The night before the 15th anniversary party, the publisher was abruptly fired in one of Kennedy’s secretive midnight moves. Had he not been fired, that publisher would have become one of the biggest shareholders since he had purchased Tom’s widow’s shares, allegedly for $50,000. Gabrielle Schang wanted out of the company after Kennedy seized control from her, but that didn’t happen until after she’d fired most of the original staff, cutting down the vested-employee list considerably. Any employees hired after 1990 weren’t going to qualify, so my staff and I were the last ones in. There never was any information about the trust or what we stood to gain when it dissolved. Even after the trust dissolved in 2000, none of the employees were allowed a copy of the articles of incorporation, possibly because one stipulated minority shareholders could never audit the finances.

Much of what Kennedy did was illegal. Lying, cheating and stealing was in his wheelhouse and he ran High Times like an intelligence operation, on a need-to-know basis, while playing people off each other. Many decades later, the reason became clear: Kennedy had stolen the company from the rightful employees and subverted its founder’s mission, which had been to funnel all profit to NORML. But NORML only got some free ads, which cost the company nothing. Millions in profit went straight to Kennedy and Tom’s sister, Judy Baker, except for what the accountants could steal.

Another fact became clear as well. Kennedy had been the secret leader of a terrorist network of avowed Communists who attempted to instigate a violent takeover of the Constitution by planting bombs and distributing weapons and explosives, mostly to blacks either recently returned from Vietnam or released from prison.

The Weather Underground murdered at least three police officers and were involved in the kidnapping of Patti Hearst and subsequent shoot-out between the Symbionese Liberation Army and police. Supplying MK/Ultra psychopaths with automatic weapons had been their prime directive. Like Charlie Manson, who was likely being run by MK/Ultra scientists, the Weather Underground sought to instigate a race war. Even after Timothy Leary outed Kennedy as the leader of the nation’s most-wanted terrorists, Kennedy escaped serious investigation and his terrorist group was lionized afterward by Hollywood while the two primary leaders under Kennedy came out of the cold and waltzed into university gigs with pensions.

On October 26, 1989, agents arrested 119 people while raiding stores in 46 states. Business records and customer lists were carted away by the wheelbarrow. Many of these companies went out-of-business immediately and for the next two years, names and addresses seized would be milked during ongoing raids. Typically, if your address appeared on the list, they’d check your power consumption and if it was deemed excessive, a flyover of your property with an infrared camera would follow.

Operation Green Merchant was well-planned and executed by the DEA and intended to shut down The Seed Bank, High Times, Sinsemilla Tips and most of the indoor grow industry in one fell swoop. The DEA had worked on the plan for over a year infiltrating grow stores with agents posing as medical users who entrapped clueless employees by discussing cannabis as medicine.

By the end of 1991, DEA agents had interrogated hundreds, including scientists at NASA’s horticultural research facilities who had ordered grow equipment, while arresting 1,262 people, dismantling 977 indoor grows, and seizing $17.5 million in assets. Dozens served between 4-to-15-year prison terms, many with mandatory minimums that blocked any sentence reductions.

The first day, two DEA agents showed up at the High Times office to deliver a subpoena on me. I was ordered to hand over all correspondence I’d had with Nevil while making an appearance in New Orleans. I didn’t know it at the time but one of Nevil’s primary remailers in Michigan had turned State’s Evidence and provided names and addresses of all Nevil’s customers he had shipped seeds to.

Ed Hassle to the Rescue

There were serious worries Green Merchant might black swan the company, but it really only killed off most of the advertising. The media for the most part rallied around freedom of the press, and I got invited on national television to expound the virtues of hemp and medical marijuana. At the time, few seemed aware that petrochemical poison was creating immense negative health issues and severely impacting the health of the planet. When I tried to discuss these issues, the commentators thought I was talking about the oil crisis and not an environmental crisis.

I got permission to bring back Hassle, who made a plea for people to join the Freedom Fighters. The idea was to create a wave of protest rallies across the country. Any members who attended a rally (or wrote a letter to an elected representative supporting legalization) got a Freedom Fighter pin. New pins were made annually. All it took to join was a one-time fee of $15.

The Freedom Fighters were asked to participate in improvisational ritual theater by dressing up in Colonial outfits and carrying drums to the rallies. Members were encouraged to seek out news crews covering the rally to discuss what hemp legalization could do for the environment. Instead of stoners smoking weed, rally coverage shifted to people  in tricorn hats talking about how President Washington was a hemp farmer, who once wrote: “Make the most of hemp seed. Sow it everywhere.”

The result caught me by surprise. Thousands of people began sending in $15 and joining the fight for hemp legalization. Suddenly, I had a war chest for activist activities. I produced a documentary on those years, the first of many I’d create at almost no cost to the company. Strangely, the company never attempted to exploit the steady flow of video content, which included feature documentaries, internet TV shows like the Cannabis Castaways (based on just-launched Survivor on CBS), stoner comedy shorts, and multi-camera music videos that were pouring out of my office. I thought I was laying the groundwork for our own cable channel and I was getting meetings with the heads of Comedy Central and Lion’s Gate, so my work was taken seriously by some. The Castaway project became the most popular feature on the website upon launch (even though it was restricted to postage stamp size), but my video was soon quietly junked, after which I was never allowed input to any of the company’s websites ever again.

I decided to kill off Ed Hassle but was having trouble figuring out a way to explain why since he was so popular. I settled on a 1,400 word interview on how the Freedom Fighters had begun as a party, but had morphed into a serious national movement. I’d created numerous independent state chapters and the heads included Jack Herer (who was unknown outside Oregon at the time), Debbie Goldsberry and Rodger Belknap.

Mike Edison wrote a revenge book supposedly a tell-all from inside High Times, but mostly involving Edison’s various bands and firings, highlighted by his addictions to hard drugs and alcohol. The slim chapter on High Times is almost entirely devoted to slagging me off.
Whee! ceremony for world peace.

The Whee! festival had just happened and made a lot of money. Over 15,000 attendees and over 300 vendors. Thanks in part to Edison, the event was killed, although I was able to revive it the following year only because High Times had stiffed the landowner for $5k we owed him and he filed a lawsuit which he agreed to drop only if I came back and did another so he could collect phone numbers on all the vendors. His plan was to continue the festival without High Times or me involved. They massively overpaid the volunteer staff tens of thousands but stiffed the landowner. Why? Because he invited Judy Baker into his house to have a discussion with her without my attendance. I suspected he was a tweaker as a lot of his hangers on certainly were, and I had never been invited into his ramshackle house. Apparently Baker was so disgusted she wanted him punished for having forced her to sit on one of his filthy chairs.

After the Freedom Fighter movement took off and almost everyone thought Ed Hassle was really Ed Rosenthal, it irked me so I decided I would kill off Hassle a second time, even though he represented Flick’s best comic ever. Unwinding the history of the Freedom Fighters was a bit complex and I thought the easiest way would be in the form of an interview. The interview mostly concerned economic and environmental benefits of hemp.
Edison portrayed this interview as an advertisement for myself, implied I put myself on the cover (never did) and went on for pages ridiculing my attempt to create a national peace ceremony that would recognize cannabis as the sacrament of peace culture. He also ridiculed my belief 420 could help legalization and that the code had been created by high school kids in San Rafael. Instead, he claimed I was trying to cast some friends as the originators for my own selfish reasons and nobody knew who really created it.
Mike Edison.

Obviously, Kennedy hit the roof after the interview came out and was still talking about it seven years later, but Kennedy had said nothing to me. It wasn’t until Edison published his revenge book that I realized the interview started Kennedy’s campaign to fire me. Maybe because I threw shade on NORML, who had been blocking rallies and protests because they felt such events were counterproductive. Kennedy didn’t want NORML participating in the Hash Bash initially, and NORML sent a cease and desist to have their name removed from flyers that year. That all changed after the Hash Bash began drawing tens of thousands to Ann Arbor.

Rosenbaum was Angleton’s mouthpiece in the media.

Many years earlier, Ron Rosenbaum had written a 10,000 word interview with Kennedy that positively crawled up his ass and stayed there. Now this was surely an advertisement for Kennedy, who charged $60k to handle cannabis cases, more than twice the going rate, You’d be lucky to see him in court as all cases were handled by his assistant, unless you were super rich, high on the social ladder or a celebrity. In some cases, it was about negotiating a quick plea deal and keeping the retainer.

Shaping and molding public opinion is a multi-generational operation conducted at the highest levels of national security, which secretly manipulates media through strategically placed influencers. For a brief time in the 1960s, an independently-owned counterculture media appeared, and was peppered with intel influencers upon inception. I was 15 when I joined the counterculture revolution and soon created my own newspaper, The Tin Whistle. For this, I was targeted by State Narcotics Agents, who captured my fingerprints and terrorized me with fake charges. Over time, the counterculture media became dominated by intel influencers. Walter Bowart of the East Village Other certainly comes to mind. He thanked MI6 super spook William Stephenson in the forward to his mostly fake expose on MK/Ultra. A lot of journalists who had been investigating CIA links to the JFK assassination suddenly veered into Area 51 and evidence of alien visitations. (Jim Marrs being just one of many.)
Over the decades, I’ve watched the percentage of Americans who believe the CIA assassinated JFK drop precipitously, a result of the media’s disinformation. New Times magazine appeared supposedly as the alternative to the CIA-connected Time-Life complex, but the magazine was created by a former exec. of Time-Life who brought in the son of a Time-Life, Inc. president to edit the magazine, as well as a Yale grad with a pipeline into James Angleton’s office named Rosenbaum to write critical features. Rosenbaum had attached himself to Tom Forcade before High Times was created. He helped cover up Angleton’s role in Mary Meyer’s murder and destruction of her diary. By 1974, the alternative media was almost completely compromised with the notable exception of High Times. But the intel influencers were already positioned in the shadows, ready to take command when the opportunity afforded. Rosenbaum was contributing under his own name and also writing a column on cannabis. In a nod to British intelligence, the columns were credited to “R”.
After Tom’s death Rosenbaum penned a cover story on how pot was “over” and running was the new drug. At the same time, New Times closed down and the staff switched to a magazine called “Runner.”
Slowly, America changed direction from trying to change the world to trying to change themselves. The “Me” generation didn’t emerge spontaneously. It was riding a sled.
Meanwhile, influencers who had been investigating the falsehoods of the Warren Commission switched sides, announcing anything but Oswald alone did it was a deluded conspiracy theory. Intel operative Jerry Rubin traded in his Pancho Villa outfit for Brooks Brothers. Rosenbaum published stories on how Danny Casolaro committed suicide. He also helped cover-up the role of some Yale Boners in JFK’s assassination. Intel’s multi-generational disinfo strategy involves getting their influencers out in front of the pack first so they can better lead the pack off a cliff.
In case you missed what happened down the road: Kennedy squandered millions in a failed attempt to dominate the hemp industry while playing defense against me for decades, refusing to permit me to execute another idea and blocking my content. Meanwhile, I wasn’t allowed to participate in any of his hemp-related schemes, although everything was based on something I’d brought to the company. I’d been trying to raise consciousness, but it became clear all Kennedy wanted was to make more money. When I’d finally had enough and requested a buy-out on my ten percent of the company, he seized my archives and threatened litigation on me. Years later, when the company failed to honor the measly monthly payout, I sued and got my archives and my lawyer’s fees back, along with every cent they still owed me. But it took two years of stonewalling by High Times to get justice..

The Bubblehash Wars

Ed Hassle’s Freedom Fighters started as an attempt at a High Times fan club, but it took off so fast I suddenly had some access to a promotional budget. After I published the interview announcing Hassle was being phased out because the Freedom Fighters had become a become a serious political force, Kennedy began searching for any excuse to fire me. I had also announced my intention to investigate the JFK and MLK assassinations. What many today don’t realize is the hemp movement started as a conspiracy theory in which cannabis had been secretly made illegal everywhere so it wouldn’t compete against plastic and other oil products.
One day a sinister letter arrived addressed to Ed Hassle and postmarked Atlanta, Georgia, containing a threat against President Bush and signed “a freedom fighter.” I knew immediately this was an attempt by someone to set me up. I got hundreds of letters from activists, but none were like this one. The letter was written on heavy stock with a sharpie and seemed the product of a disciplined mind, nothing like the stoner scrawls I got from many activists. The letter also indicated a CC had been sent to NORML. Real activists didn’t CC hand-written correspondence.
In hindsight it’s somewhat obvious Kennedy instigated the letter to destroy the Freedom Fighters. Eventually, I was called into a meeting with the trustees where they demanded I turn the mailing list (the biggest in the movement) over to NORML. Thus ended my access to thousands of volunteers, funds for travel, and the campaign to create pot rallies everywhere quickly ran out of steam, although the established rallies continued to grow without the Freedom Fighters. We had been organizing some of the biggest political events of our time, and although this went ignored by the national media, the plan to get Freedom Fighters wearing tricorns talking about hemp on local TV was successful. After NORML took over, all the street theater ended. After the Secret Service visited the Atlanta focalizer, followed by a break-in to his house a few days later, he resigned, followed by a number of other state leaders. Our last newsletter was Vol. 4/#1, indicating we were in our fourth year when dissolved.
There are two streams of disinfo locked in endless flame wars online, and both slag off Nevil unfairly. I never testified before the Operation Green Merchant grand jury in New Orleans, and neither did Nevil. Nevil never told me Dave Watson dropped a dime on him. What Nevil told me was that Watson was Sam’s real name and he was working with Australian law enforcement to create a genetic database for tracking illegal grow operations for the purpose of enhancing sentencing. Similar to Wernard, Nevil cut off all contact with Watson when he realized the scope of what Watson was doing.
Arjan Roskum was the first to tell me Sam and Watson were the same person.

Later, a Dutch journalist/politician investigated Watson and discovered he held an exclusive government contract to grow cannabis for medical research in Holland. Apparently, Watson also had permission from the DEA. Watson had been busted in Santa Cruz on March 20, 1985, bailed out, and departed for the Netherlands with a suitcase of 250,000 seeds.

A Dutch radio show would continue the research by interviewing a Santa Cruz sheriff who confirmed Watson’s arrest on cannabis charges. I wrote a blog “The Mysterious Mr. Watson” that drew out a lot of these characters, although I had to ban some when flame wars erupted. The original blog comments were lost when High Times threatened a lawsuit regarding my website, although I did retrieve the blog itself through the WayBack Machine. Nevil was well aware the snitch who turned him in was his remailer in Michigan, Ray Anthony Cogo. He provided a link to Cogo’s grand jury testimony.
Ray Cogo.

Cogo responded by claiming Nevil was MI6 and I was CIA and he turned over hundreds of names of seed buyers (even though Nevil instructed him to destroy those records immediately after mailing to protect the customer’s identity) in order to shut down our intel op. Obviously, Cogo bartered those names and addresses as his get-out-jail-free card. Nowhere in his testimony is any mention of MI6 or CIA, and if Cogo’s real motivation was exposing spooks why not go to the press with that story? In fact, Cogo has been offered many times to discuss his testimony with a podcaster and always refuses.

Very little of what you read about this online is unbiased. The pro-Watson sock-puppets and supporters claim Watson was never busted and he is a true hippie at heart whose life was transformed by LSD, and not the ruthless capitalist he really is.
The pro-Cogo camp is very small and peppered only by kooks from intel’s Tin Foil Hat Patrol, as anyone can easily find Cogo’s testimony to the grand jury, but they create just as much noise and confusion as the pro-Watson camp. The first person to expose Watson’s bust in print in America and accuse him of being a government agent was Joe Pietry, who also claims I am a government agent. (File under: get your influencer out in front and run off a cliff.) There never was any evidence Nevil nor I were intel influencers. In fact, I’ve devoted much of my life to exposing real ones inside the counterculture, most notably Kennedy, the lawyer who ran the Weather Underground, stole High Times, threw out the mag’s investigative journalism, and ran that once-esteemed publication into the ground while sucking out all the profit.

 

In Praise of Flick Ford

After 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.

Flick, 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.

Here’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.

And check out Flick’s website here: http://www.flickford.com/

The Bronx Crusaders

 

I had a period that lasted less than a year when I was considered a hot, emerging screenwriter. Of course, as soon as Beat Street came out, that myth evaporated because even though the movie did ok, the script was awful, not that they used a word of my dialogue—in fact they didn’t keep anything but the characters’ names.

But there were a few months when I got to know what it feels like to be constantly courted for one project or another. I started working on a couple of treatments before Beat Street came out, one was the story of Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers that I was working on with a young black director, and the other was a comedy about the South Bronx, featuring a parody of Curtis Sliwa battling a local crack-head drug lord.

At the time, I was working on Art After Midnight with art director Flick Ford, and Flick had a business partner named Rob Taub, who was also a comedian who was dying to work on a project with me. Curtis Sliwa had just emerged at the time and I thought his organization, The Guardian Angels, was ripe material for satire. Curtis created an unarmed citizen militia that began riding the NYC subways in uniforms to make the passengers feel safe again and provide a free emergency response team. Before that he managed a McDonald’s in the South Bronx. Curtis turned out to be quite savvy about manipulating public events to promote his all-volunteer force. Who knows, maybe Curtis even inspired me a little, because within in a few years I’d create my own emergency response volunteer force, The Freedom Fighters, the first hemp legalization organization in America, founded by me and Jack Herer just three years later.

Imagine my surprise when five years later, I end up going on the road to major college campuses for a few years debating Sliwa on the issue of marijuana legalization, which he was against naturally. Curtis’s favorite phrase was “sensory mind wing ding,” which was his term for a hippie pothead. We got along great as Curtis is a charming guy and not exactly the Archie Bunker character he plays on stage and when he’s on the radio, although he can lapse into one of those rants anytime, it is often mostly for comic effect.

The cops really hated Sliwa, though. In fact, some of them hated him so much they hired the mob to rub him out. The hit was supposed to take place while he was locked in the back of a taxi cab and everything went off as planned, except Curtis jumped around so much in the back seat they only managed to plug him a few times in the gut. Somehow, he got out of that cab and got to hospital and spent years trying to track down the mobsters and cops who set him up. My impression of Curtis certainly improved after he showed his mettle in this incident, although the media tried to play it like maybe Curtis invented the whole story? Yeah, sure, Curtis shot himself a few times so he could blame it on the cops? Not very likely.

But that film script, Bronx Crusaders? That went out to Hollywood where the bigwigs said “it’s not funny.” See, Len Bias had just died and coke was now considered something you couldn’t joke about, even though I always thought cokeheads were pretty funny. The execs were all rushing into treatment programs. I mean, Cheech and Chong made millions poking fun at potheads, why can’t we have a classic cokehead comedy to match up against Scarface?

Unfortunately, that media company Flick and Rob started was working with all the big corporations at the time and initially very successful, but didn’t survive the rapid technological changes that were on the horizon. In fact, the failure of that business created a cascade of tragedies, the foremost of which was the breakup of Flick’s first marriage. I even trace the dissolution of the wonderful Soul Assassins, who would have been famous had Little Steven’s Underground Garage only been around at the time, with that same spiral of doom, as John McNaughton would say.

Fun Gallery…the true story by Patti Astor

I was hoping to run into some old friends I haven’t seen in a while, like Fred, Futura and Zephyr, but none of them made it to Patti Astor’s book signing. The four of us belong to a very special group, you see, one that also includes Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. We all had shows at the Fun Gallery, although mine was the only photographic exhibit ever held at that gallery. (Only one photograph sold, btw, an Andre Grossmann blow-up of an early breakdance competition, which was purchased by Gary Pini for around $150. Last time I saw it, it was hanging over a fireplace in his townhouse in Brooklyn, although I haven’t been there in over a decade.)

Patti was a true Queen of the East Village during its glory days. The scene back then was divided between the older, more sophisticated Mudd Club crowd and the retro Club 57 crew, both of which were pursuing much different esthetics, although both worlds got suddenly pulled together when hip hop arrived. Patti and Jean-Michel were part of the core of Mudd Club, while Keith, Kenny, John Sex and Ann Magnuson were the emerging Club 57 stars. The Mudd Club was mostly on heroin at the time, while Club 57 much preferred mushrooms. Later cocaine took over everywhere.

Patti’s drug of preference, however, was probably Veuve Clicqout. At least that’s what usually emerged when a major ceremony of her’s was about to go down. Patti was the greatest master of ceremonies in New York at the time, which is why all these artists wanted desperately to show in her gallery.

Her book is a masterpiece of counterculture literature, and a way better guide to the era than what has been published so far (with the possible exception of my book Art After Midnight). I read it in one sitting and it really took me back to the period. Despite the emergence of AIDS right in our midst, the infusion of hip hop into the downtown scene was monumental. Fred Brathwaite was really the first person to catch onto the potentials of merging downtown with the South Bronx. He met Patti at a cocktail party and the rest is history. In the book, she refers to him as the “chairman of the board.” I had to read the book to discover they were also lovers for a brief time. One of my favorite scenes in the book happens after Patti breaks up with her husband Steven Kramer and moves quickly from Fred to Futura to Jean-Michel. Walking home late at night, Fred looks over at Keily Jenkins and snarls “You’ll probably be next.” “Really?!” says Keily. Not only was Keily next, but he was the one who actually stuck. Of course, Patti wasn’t there to see that conversation. She heard about it later from Keily, one of the many luminaries from that time period who died too young to comb his grey hair.

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.”

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

First Visit to a Recording Studio

Unfortunately the Soul Assassins made only a few trips a recording studio, the first, in fact, with the original Assassinettes (Claudia, Helena and Mean Jean), as well as original drummer Brian Moores on January 2, 1988. Flick and Brian Spaeth found the studio in the East Village where we eventually did most of our recordings. I guess it was run by some coke-head because the sound we got out of that place was always terrible. The owner was going to record and mix us one afternoon, but after a few songs, he split and left some crack-head behind to do the mixing. Of course, that dude was being paid by the hour, so he kept us there all night, twiddling knobs, acting like he was souping things up. What a joke. Garage bands sound best with zero mixing. But you have to know how to mic and EQ the instruments, which these guys obviously didn’t have a clue about. Even the demo tape they gave me on a cassette tape had crazy levels, one track riding the red all the time and the other barely there at all. It was sad that we never really stepped into a competent situation in a studio or who knows what sort of records we could have produced.

Flick and Brian were masters at showing up at the studio armed with Brian’s ancient tape-recorder and a brand-new song they wanted to do. Brian would play some Bill Kelly Show taped off his equally ancient radio. It was like a game of telephone tag trying to decipher those faint and scratchy sounds. I’m hopeless at transposing anyway, practically tone-deaf, so Bob Brandel would always work out the chords for me. He was so amazing on guitar that it usually only took Bob a few seconds before he riffed off some major chunks that sounded just like the record, only better.

In fact, it was a testament to how great the band was that we could even learn a song and record it minutes later as if we’d been playing it all our lives. I just put up a new track on our bandcamp site (see link top-right column). It’s from that first session: “That’s the Bag I’m In,” perfect for Flick’s bulldog personality. We also recorded two originals I wrote that day, “Scream” and “Higher Ground,” as well as “All Night Long,” “Down at the Nightclub,” “”Have Love,” “The Assassinettes Theme,” and a few others. The reason we picked up “Have Love” is Brian’s brother Gordon (a member of the Fleshtones) told us my song “Scream” was a copy of “Have Love” (even though I’d never heard that song before). But once I listened to “Have Love,” I realized it blew my humble tune out of the water. Gordon would eventually teach Flick how to play the harmonica.

The original Assassinettes had no problem with “Scream” but their replacements did. At least Abby did. After she heard the song on the radio one day, she told me we couldn’t play it with her on stage because of the line that went: “If you got a gal that don’t know her place, all you have to do is laugh in her face, and just scream!” Abby didn’t dig that line, so we dropped the song.

Birth of the Assassinettes

Our first gig (a High Times Christmas party) was a huge success, drawing a standing-room-only crowd of over 500 to the restaurant on the first floor of the McGraw Hill Building. We couldn’t wait for our next performance. The success, I knew, was at least partially due to distributing free mushrooms to the crowd. We resolved to continue that tactic for all future gigs. The great thing was we got people dancing at a time when people didn’t dance in New York. The only band I knew that created an instant dance scene was The 52’s, so we were in good company. I also knew that in order to build our fan base, we needed female fans. Guys show up in force at gigs where they know hot girls can be found. How were we going to attract a bunch of hot girls, I wondered? I soon came up with a plan: we would form a sister organization for the Soul Assassins called “The Assassinettes.” My girlfriend at the time, Claudia Cuseta (who I’d met working the front desk of Tommy Boy Records) was the first one to be inducted and she quickly recruited her best friend, Helena, to join as well. Flick came up with the third girl, Mean Jean, who was going out with his hairstyling buddy from high school, Romeo. That’s them in the photo, from left to right: Claudia, Helena, Jeannie. Hot, eh? Yes, they added quite a lot of pazazz to our second show, even though they only performed on three of our ten songs. Flick had booked us a gig in a bar downtown and Captain Whizzo, who had recently dropped by High Times to introduce himself, agreed to add his psychedelic light show to the festivities. I think we paid him $50 and all the mushrooms he could eat. Of course, we also brought shrooms to hand out to the crowd a half hour before showtime. Much to my surprise, East Village Eye rock critic James Marshall showed up. I wasn’t sure if James liked me at the time; I knew he was extremely hard-to-please musically-speaking. Imagine my surprise when he comes down to the dressing room in the basement after the gig to tell Flick and me how much he enjoyed the show. At that point, I knew nothing could stop us. The crowd, needless to say, had gone berserk cheering us on. I remember getting eye-contact with Flick during a peak moment and both of us smiled as if to say, “It’s working, man!” Problems would soon emerge, however, as the Assassinettes began to squabble. Jeannie and Claudia were clashing, and inexplicably, Helena was taking Jeannie’s side against her best friend.  I was head-over-heels in love with Claudia at the time, and I couldn’t take the stress of refereeing the disputes. This conflict was also affecting my relationship with Flick, so I disbanded the original Assassinettes. We needed to look for three new Assassinettes, I told Flick. And the number one rule next time around is nobody from the band sleeps with any Assassinettes! This would solve the problem, or so I thought.

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.