Hey Partner, Won’t You Pass That Reefer Round

As a child of the Sixties, these days it often seems to me that history is repeating itself. Only this time, instead of the demon drug being cannabis, it’s tobacco. It may be worth recounting what it was like back then, for those who weren’t there.

Back in the Sixties, a subculture grew up around cannabis and the music and clothes and the experimental attitudes of the time. It was a separate culture from the main culture. In the main culture people smoked cigarettes and drank beer and did so quite openly in pubs and restaurants. By contrast the drug subculture was to be found behind closed doors and drawn curtains in flats and houses all over Britain.

You either belonged to the drug subculture or the main culture, and there wasn’t much interaction between the two. If you belonged to the main culture, you didn’t regard cigarettes and alcohol as “drugs” at all: you regarded “drugs” as being things like cannabis and opium and the like, and you were utterly petrified of them, because everybody knew that you got addicted to them, and it was a rapid spiral downwards once that had happened. Equally, if you belonged to the drug subculture, you very often had a high opinion of cannabis (and perhaps a number of other drugs), but hardly ever touched alcohol or cigarettes, which you regarded as far more dangerous drugs than cannabis. Smoking tobacco, you believed, caused lung cancer, because the US Surgeon General had said so just a few years earlier, and you believed him. Smoking cannabis, by contrast, was good for your health, although the US Surgeon General hadn’t actually said that.

I guess that back in my university days, about half the students I knew belonged to the drug subculture, and the rest belonged to the main culture. And the two cultures gradually grew apart. Moving from one culture to the other entailed adopting quite different attitudes to a whole variety of things, and not just drugs. The drug subculture had not only its own drugs, but its own music, and its own fashions and hairstyles and even its own home decor (lots of velvet). People in the drug subculture didn’t read things like newspapers, or watch television, or listen to the radio. They instead played music and smoked cannabis and talked an awful lot about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Theirs was a very introverted world.

The drug subculture was also a persecuted minority. There were quite often police raids on flats and houses, and people were carted off to police stations and had their drugs confiscated (and sometimes planted on them), and were fined and sometimes sent to prison. And one result of this was that the drug subculture was rather paranoid. People wondered if they were being watched or followed. And quite often they were being. And they were often angry about this, angry that their chosen drug was being unjustly singled out for draconian treatment, while the smokers and drinkers engaged in their habits undisturbed. “How would they like it if tobacco was made illegal?” was a question that was quite often asked.

I got rather tired of the drug subculture after a few years. It wasn’t the drugs that bothered me, but instead the growing paranoia and gloom that seemed to afflict more and more of its members – and which was increasingly reflected in its music. I didn’t want to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”. I wasn’t much interested in Indian gurus. I didn’t see much point in railing against “the system”, or engaging in long discussions of how it was all going to collapse when the nukes started landing, or the oil or the food ran out, or because there were “too many of us”. I didn’t want to set up a commune somewhere, and live on rice and beans. I increasingly began to think that everything that the people in the subculture were thinking and talking about was complete claptrap, all the way from the Indian gurus and the meditation to the vegetarian food and the save-the-whales environmentalism. I set off instead in pursuit of cold reason.

Over the next decade or so, I gradually rediscovered the main culture. I began going to pubs and smoking cigarettes. I started reading newspapers. I got a radio and later a TV set, and a motorbike, and eventually a car. But above all I got away from the subculture’s dystopian obsessions. Instead of being pessimistic about everything, I began to become optimistic, and to enjoy life.

So it’s been rather odd, and very deja vu, to find myself back in a persecuted subculture, only this time being persecuted for smoking tobacco. It’s quite surreal. And I’ve stopped reading newspapers again. I no longer have a TV. It seems to be an alien and threatening world out there once again, just like it was in the late Sixties. And the smoky-drinky subculture that is now emerging is the mirror image of the drug subculture of long ago. And it’s also a rather paranoid and gloomy subculture, that sees doom in all directions. And instead of heading off to Morocco or India, people now head for the bars of Spain or Eastern Europe.  And they have their very own “drug dealers”, in the form of the ubiquitous ‘man in a van’.

It’s a world that has been turned upside down, and one in which the fearful, paranoid, pessimistic drug subculture of 40 years ago has become the main culture, complete with windmills, solar heating, and an apocalyptic Malthusian vision of impending disaster, if not from peak oil, then over-population or global warming or whatever. I was familiar with most of it 40 years ago, before anybody else had heard of any of it. And I was pretty much as sick of it 40 years ago as I am today.

And I really believe that if you could see what someone like Chris Huhne or George Monbiot or perhaps even Deborah Arnott looked like 30 years ago, they’d have had long unkempt hair, and beads, and a well-thumbed copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue in the back pocket of their dungarees. And they haven’t really changed. They still have the same mindset. They see imminent threats everywhere to continuing human existence. And it’s all justified with a we-can’t-go-on-like-this mishmash of irrational beliefs and assumptions. They’ve simply donned suits and brought their nightmare visions into the heart of the main culture, which they want to destroy. Because they don’t care about pubs or alcohol or tobacco or anything of the old culture. They loathe it all. They always did.

For there are an awful lot of people like that out there. For the subculture gradually expanded to include more and more people. They may now hold down steady jobs and be married with children, but in their hearts they’re still pretty much Woodstock hippies, and what they believe is a confection of William Burroughs and Carlos Castaneda and Paul Ehrlich and John Lennon and Karl Marx and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Twiggy, with none of it ever having been subjected to serious criticism of any sort ever. Theirs was a ‘consensus’ that had emerged, complete with windmills and mung beans, in the curtained rooms of the subculture. It was a shared mood. And in the privacy of their own homes, even today they’ll now and then pull out a little brown lump of hashish, and with a conspiratorial grin start rolling a joint, just to show that they’re still the cool dudes they always were. Except that many of them are now as terrified of tobacco as their parents were once terrified of cannabis.

Theirs isn’t a rational world. It’s a subjective, touchy-feely, wishful, magical, emotional world. And what they believe has been shaped as much by the music they’ve been listening to as anything they’ve read anywhere. They’re not ‘watermelons’, green on the outside and red on the inside: they’re Habitat bean-bags that have been moulded into shape over several decades by hundreds of bottoms, and gradually solidified into a one-size-fits-all accommodation. And now they can’t change. And they can’t bear disagreement or criticism, because they’ve never had any experience of it. And now they’re running the country, and they’re doing as they were done to, and closing down the pubs, and building windmills galore.

I should know. 40 years ago I was one of them. And back then, I would have been listening to this:

It takes me right back.

About Frank Davis

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21 Responses to Hey Partner, Won’t You Pass That Reefer Round

  1. Walt says:

    Sixties to Eighties were a little different around here, though the “here’s” I was familiar with at the time were Madison Avenue and Hollywood in whose vineyards I toiled. While it’s true that at the late-late end of sixties the ad guys still chain smoked and drank a lot of Scotch (as in the “Madmen” television series –don’t know if you get the program over there), at house parties everyone was passing around the joints, or warming up the hash pipes, and the air in the “discos’ we went to was pungent, and, hey, it’s hard to get more “mainstream” and button-down shirt than Mad Ave. Then, too, I knew ad guys, and girls for that matter, who messed around with acid. So the drug culture wasn’t confined to the Haight or to the bell-bottomed tie-dyed candle-dipping set….By the eighties, it was all coke all the time almost everywhere in Hollywood. (A major agent tried to lure me into signing up with his agency by offering a hot-but-safe coke connection. I never did coke but I made the mistake of going with the agency where everyone was too scudded-out to do their jobs.)

    What I do agree with is that most of those people are now vegetarian anti-smokers. I believe they’re into that because they believe it’s the “in” thing to do. Just as they once thought their weed/ hash/ mescalin and bullshit were “in.” These are creatures of fashion.

  2. Jack Savage says:

    Har! I deeply resemble those remarks!
    Fully behind your tobacco campaign even though I no longer smoke it myself…..only….yes… you have guessed it…..weed.
    The demonisation of baccy has enabled me to now have a contemplative spliff with all the other smokers outside the pub, without attracting any attention. Not a consequence considered by our Lords and Masters.
    It has , however, led quite a lot of baccy smokers to have a tug on a blunt now and again and I find myself occcasionally sought after.
    Watching the whole sorry tale has been a head-shaking and face-palming experience.
    It all boils down to asking yourself…….where do Governments get off deciding what I may or may not put into my body?

  3. nisakiman says:

    I was very much a part of the ‘hippy’ scene in the late 60s, but spent most of the time from ’67 to ’71 trawling round Afghanistan, Pakistan (Chitral), India, Nepal and Thailand. In ’71 I wound up in Australia, still consuming industrial quantities of drugs, and still into the Mung beans and Meditation thing. Then I started changing. I think it was when I started driving semis (artics) interstate, and was submersed in the true-blue, third generation Aussie culture of Beer, Fags, Hard Work and Loose Women. The whole axis of my approach to life tilted several degrees, and I started to realise what idealistic bullshit I’d been spouting for years.

    In short, to reiterate one of my favourite quotes: “I used to be a socialist, but then I got mugged by reality”.

    The Arnotts and Glantzes of this world never got mugged by reality, and they’re still living in a parallel universe, oblivious to the misery their utopian vision is visiting on countless thousands who don’t subscribe to their nut-cutlets philosophy.

  4. chris sorochin says:

    Great essay. I just may read it on my radio show. One quibble, though: I also lived through those days and the vision wasn’t all that bleak. Peace, love and expanded consciousness were going to bliss out the whole world, eventually and we’d have the Age of Aquarius…
    I’m increasingly dismayed that my generation, who partied their asses off during the 1960s and ’70s (and who always said we’d be a much cooler older generation than our parents) are today among the most virulent and hypocritical neopuritans.

    • Frank Davis says:

      In the UK, we seemed to pretty much miss out the peace and love. In my experience anyway.

      The people I know now who are antismoking were also the people who ‘partied their asses off’. But then, one day, they’d flip over into puritanical disapproval. I’ve usually put it down to them getting old and not quite as pretty as they used to be (a lot of them were women) and so no longer as able as they used to be to join in. But it’s far from being a complete explanation.

      Radio show? Can I tune in? http://www.wusb.fm? Let me know if you read it out.

      Hmmm. Digging produced this.

      John Ortved on “If This Be Treason” this Friday at 1:30pm

      Getting there slowly…. http://wusb.fm/node/107 What time zone is it?

      • chris sorochin says:

        Hi, Frank. Since I know you’ll be listening, I will definitely read it. Your detective work is impressive. My show, “If This Be Treason”, is broadcast on WUSB (90.1FM) Fridays at 1:00 p.m. US East Coast time. Pray that the “streaming” works! I’ll try to tape it,just in case.

        • Frank Davis says:

          I will be listening, even if I have to set the alarm clock to remind myself. I did manage to actually listen to WUSB streaming live yesterday. It didn’t explain how to do it, but I somehow ended up with a .pls file being downloaded, which when I opened it started up Realplayer, and I found myself listening to Frank Zappa.

          It’ll be fun to hear my own words being spoken, and furthermore spoken in an American accent. I do hope you have an American accent.

          …and I hope you play Country Joe’s Bass Strings.

  5. gmanedit says:

    I’ll go stand with Jack Savage. Tobacco, weed, mescaline, mushrooms—why should we have to choose?

  6. chris sorochin says:

    Rest assured that I do indeed have an American accent. But wouldn’t you rather I attempted a fake Brit accent??? You know, Americans only recognize 2 English accents: Lord Haw-Haw and Eliza Doolittle.

    Will definitely find “Bass Strings” by CJ.

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  8. chris says:

    OK “mate”; hope you’re listening in.

  9. Frank Davis says:

    Right. I’m listening.

    And I’m periodically refreshing this page, so you can ask me a question if you like.

  10. Frank Davis says:

    Good. You played it twice :-)

  11. chris says:

    We aim to please. I didn’t see your bit about refreshing the page, so I didn’t ask you anything, but any feedback is appreciated.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I had a number of thoughts throughout the show in response to things you said.

      One of them was, as I said before, that Peace and Love just never seemed to be part of the UK scene (except maybe among people like the Beatles). It was much more psychedelic music (e.g. Country Joe’s Bass Strings) and then Blues and getting quite dark. Perhaps we Brits don’t do youthful idealism very well, or something.. Anyway, I think there were probably some real differences between the UK and the USA, even if the music and the grass was shared. We didn’t have the Vietnam war, for one. And the Sixties weren’t “one long shouting match” either.

      Also the way you talked about the current smoking bans, it was like it wasn’t much of a big deal. I don’t know whether there’s a smoking ban in NY state or in Stony Brook (on the north side of Long Island?), but there certainly is in NY City), but even there you were saying that there were a few bars people could go. Here in the UK, there’s nowhere. In the USA, you can get in a car and drive to the next town or the next state. That’s not possible here. Which makes the UK smoking ban far more ferocious than anything anywhere in the USA. And that’s part of the reason… No, in fact it’s the whole reason why I’m quite extreme in my response. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if there was somewhere I could go. Because I feel like I’ve been expelled from society.

  12. chris sorochin says:

    Hi, Frank. I didn’t mean to downplay the smoking bans. Yes, there’s a ban in New York state and New York City; NYC is in fact one of the Ground Zeros of smoking bans and the current mayor, Michael Bloomberg is the poster boy for health fascism. But there are still a handful of places one can legally smoke, mostly cigar or hookah places. They were able to claim that a certain percentage of their revenue was from tobacco. In one cigar bar I know, they charge a $5 “tax” if you smoke to defray the extra costs, etc.
    I have followed events in the UK for a few years now and it seems as if British politicians have an almost obsessive desire to take bad American ideas and make them even worse. And just a few years ago, the UK was much more tolerant in matters of smoking and drinking than the US.
    However, we in the States have no group similar to FOREST to lobby Congress, nor has the collective power to vote with one’s wallet closed a noticeable number of drinking establishments.
    In the US Federal system, states and cities have lots of independent power in matters such as this, so the entire country isn’t under a blanket ban. But there are those who would like to see one and there are precedents for the federal government high-handedly trumping states rights,as they did in the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration threatened to withhold highway funds from any state that didn’t raise its drinking age to 21.
    I’m curious; where’s the nearest place you can go to legally have a smoke with your drink? France? Belgium? The Netherlands? I applaud the smoky-drinky “movement” and wish it success.
    The goal of the antismokers is to make you feel like an outcast, so I urge you to not let them win. You and Britain’s other smokers are just as much a part of society as anyone else.

    • Frank Davis says:

      it seems as if British politicians have an almost obsessive desire to take bad American ideas and make them even worse.

      You can say that again! I have exactly the same perception.

      However, we in the States have no group similar to FOREST to lobby Congress, nor has the collective power to vote with one’s wallet closed a noticeable number of drinking establishments.

      Forest in the UK isn’t very effective, IMHO. But anti-smoking outfits like ASH are very effective. And are you really saying that bars don’t close in the USA when their smoking customers desert them?

      I’m curious; where’s the nearest place you can go to legally have a smoke with your drink? France? Belgium? The Netherlands?

      I’m not quite sure what the answer to this question is right now. Spain used to be the place I went to, because until January 2011 you could smoke almost everywhere. No longer. I think the same was true in Belgium, again until recently, although I never went there. In Holland the small single-owner bars successfully fought against their ban, and had it partially repealed. The situation in France is rather unclear: they have pretty much the same smoking bans as everywhere else, but there are lots of anecdotal reports of it being widely disregarded. Eastern Europe seems to be pretty much the only place where smoking is still permitted, largely because there are more smokers (up to 50% of the population) and they won’t have it. Anyway, you have to go a hell of a long way before you rediscover civilisation.

      The goal of the antismokers is to make you feel like an outcast, so I urge you to not let them win. You and Britain’s other smokers are just as much a part of society as anyone else.

      Unfortunately, they’ve been all too successful. It’s very difficult to pretend you’re not an outcast when there’s nowhere you can go to drink a beer and smoke a cigarette. So I no longer feel ‘part of society’, and the same is true for a great many other smokers. I increasingly think there is a deep social division opening up, of which the antismokers and the political classes are largely unaware, even if it is a logical consequence of the draconian policies that have been adopted in the UK. I think this will become more and more of a problem, and a cause of regret, in coming years.

  13. chris sorochin says:

    Frank: sorry to reply so late. You can visit davehitt.com for a (now obsolete) compilation of businesses hurt by smokng bans. Perhaps I should have said that the number and percentage of closings are largely unreported, as they tend to be working-class “dives”–you know how squeamish Americans are when it comes to social class. US official culture is also very anti-alcohol, so bars closing would never be reported as a bad thing. Also, I live on the East Coast, where certain types of social engineering are accepted without much fuss. Midwestern states seem to have been feistier…

    Parts of Germany, especially Nordrhein-Westfalen, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Berlin are also quite smoker-friendly, with bars designated by green or red stickers on the door. Austria’s even better.

    It’s always been fascinating (and frightening) to me, from a social science perspective, how a very large segment of the population can be made into pariahs overnight. Here it was a gradual process; you guys got it all at once.

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