“I’ll tell you what I’ll do
(What will you do?)
I’d like to go there now with you…
(What will we do there?)
We’ll get high.” — The Small Faces, “Itchycoo Park”
Then a scratchy electric guitar chord from a boom box — Mad Dog’s cassette tape player — echoes through the SOS Printing basement pressroom.
“September ’77,” intones Peter Gabriel, “Port Elizabeth, weather fine. It was business as usual in Police Room 619…”
“Mad Dog,” is John Larson, head pressman at the print shop, squinting through smoke from a cigarette dangling from his lips, raising his ink knife in salute to the memory of Stephen Biko.
Just another day huddled over the light table, stripping negatives, burning and developing press plates. And suckin’ down beers after 4 p.m., sometime in the early 1980s.
Or, maybe the shop mood was mellow and the other pressman, Mark Huttner, popped in a cassette of Michael Franks’ Tiger in the Rain. Mark and Mad Dog would then step outside to light up a spliff, crack open some more beers, and chill to “Underneath the Apple Tree.”
Mad Dog was probably in his 30s then, since he graduated from Mound High School in 1966. Shortly thereafter he was sent to Vietnam. Scrappy and tough, but generous and playful, John — like most of us — enjoyed getting high. I’ll never forget his glinty-eyed, stoned grin and high-pitched, staccato giggle — or the pure animal enjoyment he got from cooking burgers and bratwurst when we fired up the shop grill in summer.
After returning from the municipal liquor store across the street with a 12-pack of Special Export, I’d toss beers to John and Mark. Then Johnny would regale us with stories about his time in ’Nam: Walking by a barber shop that the Army used as a makeshift morgue — black body bags zipped up with corpses and stuffed in barber chairs.
While in country he took a lot of pills — whatever they were (in answer to my question), he didn’t care. He’d just knock ’em back with a drink (beer, whiskey, whatever)…
And wait for the effect.
“(What will we touch there?)/We’ll touch the sky!”
Then there was David, younger brother of my neighborhood buddy Dan Rogers.
Dave liked to get high, too. And like Mad Dog, he also served in the Army, stationed in Germany during the 1990s. Irreverently funny, a bit scattered but musical, Dave drifted a lot after returning from service, busking with his guitar on the streets of Minneapolis — once, I’m told, in front of former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.
As preteens we’d steal our fathers’ beers (Dad kept his cans of Schlitz above the washer and dryer), then hang out under a boat by the dock, smoking cigarettes we’d stolen from the neighborhood Mom and Pop drugstore and catching a buzz. A huge sense of power came with catching that buzz — a way to push back against our own young anxieties and insecurities. Dave loved to laugh — impishly poking at the all the adult absurdity and authority we faced in the early 1970s.
When David was happy, everyone around him was, too.
But as he neared 40, things got harder.
“(But why the tears there?)/I’ll tell you why…”
Into my mid-20s, I was drinking more, between working at the shop and after rehearsals at the theater. By late January 1984, I was cast as George Deever in a community theater production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
My father and I took an exercise class together at the community center — completely negating calories burned with a dinner stop afterwards at the local Chinese restaurant for sweet and sour chicken. “I had a long, drawn-out haul at work today,” reads my journal entry for Tuesday, Feb. 14, 1984, “three [Schlitz Malt Liquor] Bulls after with John, fitness class at 8:30 and All My Sons blocking at play practice.”
Back in high school, I once drove to a varsity basketball away game in the family car, a 1973 Dodge Dart we nicknamed “the Dartillac,” with high school friends Steve and Scott, all drinking Scotch whisky. On Friday, Feb. 25, 1977, “I got to the game very drunk,” the diary reports, “I made it home alone, around 11:00. Bad!”
How I made it — driving drunk and solo — is a total mystery, without injuring myself or anyone else. The next day’s entry confesses that other kids worried about me that night.
I could’ve died.
“It’s all too beautiful.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2002, Dave’s sister Linda called.
David had died the previous weekend in South Minneapolis.
Linda’s twin sister Laura recently blogged that the landlord of his Section 8 transitional housing had discovered David’s lifeless body in bed “fully dressed and … shoes on [his] feet.” A toxicology report later revealed he’d died from “an overdose of OxyContin and alcohol.”
David left behind two lovely daughters. He’d struggled to keep his life together. But he also wanted to remain true to his inner artist. One time he’d called me asking for advice on how to write a book about his time in the military. I wanted him to write that book. But since I knew writing wasn’t his strong suit, I suggested he just tape record it. Get all the stories out, in his own voice, rather than worrying about “writing a book.” I don’t know if he ever got around to taking my advice.
En route to Dave’s funeral, on Friday, Sept. 20, 2002, I stopped off at John Larson’s new printing business just to say hello, since I didn’t return to my hometown often. John’s wife Paula met me at the front desk.
She said John “had died in June of [a sudden cardiac arrest due to] an apparent heart arrhythmia in his sleep.” The journal adds: “He was 53 years old.”
I include The Small Faces song here because it’s a solid bridge between John’s generation and mine and Dave’s — one that celebrates a drug culture as insidious now as it was then.
But the song also seems to suggest how altered consciousness can expand creativity.
Same coin, two sides.
Laura described her brother just before his death as “a sad man [who] had lost his soul. [His] physical body was there but [his] true being had gone somewhere else.” I’d seen Dave’s (and John’s) “true being” many times — madcap amazing, always swan-diving head-first into the pure pleasure of being alive.
Just like I wanted to do, too.
Whether you’d lived a brilliantly full life to die at 95 (as my grandfather had done) or you were a leukemia patient in a children’s hospital, the measure of a life, I think, is how completely it’s been lived. Life is going to take you down. How you decide to live it while you are alive is entirely up to you. As Kinky Friedman once said (usually attributed to the poet Charles Bukowski): “Find what you like and let it kill you.”
Hey, it’s a no-brainer: Addiction is bad. It’s born of pain, shame, and sorrow — the distinct opposite of pleasure, connectedness, and joy.
And for God’s sake, it’s an illness, not a character flaw.
I’m all for getting high. I know it’s not smart. I also know it’s not stupid. Sometimes it’s about being immersed in my work — writing, creating artwork, or even just by conversing with people. Sometimes it comes by indulging in what many people would recognize when they’re out at a happy hour and “getting a skinful.”
“You can blow out a candle,” Gabriel sings, “but you can’t blow out a fire. Once the flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher.”