LET'S 'AVE A LARF
It's my experience that to smoke marijuana for the first time is to explore the limits of hilarity only to find that there are no limits. You laugh so hard that you get addicted to it. You want to laugh that hard again, so you smoke marijuana again. And again and again and again and again. I'm told that few ever really succeed in laughing that hard a second time, but I did. The two biggest laughs of my life were the first time I smoked marijuana and the first time the Beatles smoked it.
The latter occasion was at the Hotel Delmonico on Manhattan's Park Avenue on August 28, 1964. The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, had just finished eating their room service dinner when Bob Dylan and I pulled up in Bob's blue Ford station wagon driven by Victor Maimudes, Dylan's tall, slender and very sephardic-looking roadie. Victor carried the stash in his pocket as we made our way through the mob of teenyboppers on the sidewalk and into the hotel. I think it was my stash, but I can't remember for sure. I'd like to ask Victor himself if he remembers. In fact I'd like to ask Victor whatever else he remembers about that night, so I might include Victor's version as part of this story, but he refuses to talk to me. Why not? I never had any falling out with Victor. Has Bob ordered Victor not to talk to me? Bob has rehired Victor as his road manager after many years and now Bob doesn't talk to me any more, either, although I haven't the faintest idea why not. I must have done something wrong again. But then that's the way Bob treats everybody. To him, we're all a pile of old shoes. Me, I consider Bob one of the greatest artists ever born, but he's not the kind of guy I would trust with my wife. Unfortunately, I already once did. But then, I've also learned that as infirm, impotent and irrelevant as I might have become, you can't trust me with someone else's wife, either.
In the Hotel Delmonico lobby, cops blocked our access to the elevators until No. 2 Beatles road manager Malcolm Evans, who was by that time getting to be a buddy of mine, descended to the lobby to escort us through the police lines. When we got to the floor of the Beatles' suite, the elevator doors opened on a hotel corridor crawling with still more cops plus there was an overflow from the suite next door to the Beatles. This overflow included reporters and photographers and radio and recording and TV personalities the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, all of whom were being charmed by Beatles press officer Derek Taylor while awaiting their turns to meet the Beatles in the suite next door. I doubt the Beatles ever got around to meeting any of them on that particular night.
Mal led us directly through the melee and into the Beatles' suite, where I introduced everybody to everybody with an awkwardness for which I will always hate myself. Allen Ginsberg would afterwards ask me if this initial meeting between Bob and the Beatles was "demure." That is exactly the right word for it. Drugs have colluded with time to erode my memory of the typical style each one had of coming on to one another. I wish I'd had a tape recorder, but no, I don't remember whatever small talk accompanied the handshakes, smiles and greetings they exchanged. At that time, I thought Bob's smile could turn on the world, and when Bob aimed it at the Beatles, they reflected its glow with their own happy charisma. Yes, Billy the Kid and the Jesse James Gang bubbled shyly like bashful little girls.
There was also Beatles manager Brian Epstein with his wide grin and elegant gayness, who tried to take charge of things, but who also seemed to wag like the bulldog's tail, the bulldog being John Lennon, the gang's ringleader. Bob and the Beatles all needed room to swashbuckle, but nobody wanted to step on anybody else's ego. Looking back, I still see that evening as one of the greatest moments of my life. Actually, I was well aware at the time that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music, certainly up until then. My aim was to make happen what did happen, which has been some of the greatest music of our time. I was pleased by the thought I was engineering, participating in and chronicling a milestone moment in history. Plus, as a journalist, I also knew I was setting up a very big scoop for myself, even though, as things have turned out, nobody now wants to print it. [Well, that's not entirely true. Q Magazine, allegedly Britain's equivalent of Rolling Stone, printed a version of this very piece you're reading right now in its edition of May, 1994.]
As for our Latter-day Billy the Kid and England's pop-style Jesse James Gang, all their first few get-togethers could be described as demure. And all of them were left for me to arrange. I was the go-between. In those days, I was in the middle of everything. By this time, I already had networked together one of the world's greatest collection of potsmoking pop stars, poets, painters, personalities, plus my jazz contacts, featuring Miles Davis and also my wide circle of writers, music tycoons, movie actors, and other entertainment artists. But to put Bob Dylan and the Beatles together was my crowning achievement. If I'd had one stinking iota of junk bond swindler Michael Milken in me, I would now be worth millions for all the music mergers I arranged. But I guess I wasn't enough of a hustler and a con man to compete with the sharks, wolves and snakes with whom I had to deal. So now, I'm just a poor, broke, forgotten and ignored blacklisted journalist who has to give away all my stories free on the Internet because I don't want to wait to be published posthumously. Boo, hoo.
Back then, I was just a proud and happy shadchen, a Jewish matchmaker, dancing at the princely wedding I'd arranged. Buttons popped off my shirt. This was a marriage made in heaven. I knew I was stage-managing a major event, certainly in the history of pop and maybe even in the overall history of culture. As Peter Brown and Steven Gaines have written, this "small but auspicious event" would grow to affect the consciousness of the world. In some vague sense, I knew I was helping Hercules divert the mainstream, which would soon eddy in pop's psychedelic era. The trouble is that when buttons pop off your shirt, that's a sign you're getting fat and arrogant. And when you're arrogant is when you start walking on thin air. Guess what happens then?
To me, Bob was The Cat's Meow, The End, The Ultimate. Assigned months earlier by the Saturday Evening Post to write an article about Bob, I instead had fallen in love with him. To me, no other artist had ever come along with such wit, perception, insight, charm, cleverness and charisma. To me, Bob was going to revolutionize contemporary culture. To me, Bob was doing more to change the English language than anybody since Shakespeare. I decided for certain that, in Dylan, I was witnessing the greatest ever. For me, nobody could beat Bob, nobody past or present. Then, later, when I was also assigned by the Saturday Evening Post to write an article about the Beatles, I fell in love with them, too. Dylan, of course, had roped me in with words because words, after all, are what I deal in. With the Beatles, I found their singing and their sound so contagious that their lyrics didn't matter. As people so often say in the music business, the Beatles could have been singing the telephone book and still they would have ravished me. And everybody else, too.
Bob's girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, thought the Beatles were great, too, and she and I used to gang up on Bob about them. To him, the Beatles were "Bubblegum." But then, Bob had a habit of turning up his nose at most everything that everybody else liked. As for me, I felt it was my mission to hang out with this mysterious and elusive, but also overwhelmingly inspirational, young oracle. His combination of charm and artistry totally brainwashed me. I felt that his message was almost holy and that it was my mission to encourage him to expand his audience. I felt it important for him to reach the young. I somehow wanted his lyrics to enlighten the same teenyboppers then trying to claw the clothes off the Beatles. For Bob's part, his attitude was that he didn't want any of his concerts drowned out by teenybopper screeches. "It'll never happen," he told me. To me, Bob seemed to be pretty much of a folkie purist in those days. I used to argue with him that today's pop hits are tomorrow's folk music classics. He had no interest in the Beatles in those days. Eventually, it was almost as if I had to drag him kicking and screaming to our parking space across the street from the Delmonico.
Obviously, Bob and the Beatles were fated to meet and I was determined to be fate's helper. I certainly did my best to be the one to bring them together. After all, they deserved to know one another. In many ways, I saw Bob Dylan and John Lennon as mirror images of each other, personifications of hip on opposite shores of the Atlantic, each epitomizing the culture of his country and each emerging as a spokesman of its culture. To me, Bob and John were brothers born of the same creative clay. To me, they were both towering bastions of individuality. They certainly were both so different from everybody else as to make people pick up and notice. To me, John Lennon was Dylan's English reflection through the looking glass and across the sea in the land of left-hand drive. As soon as I got to know John well enough, I started telling him that he ought to meet Bob. John kept saying he wanted to wait until he was Dylan's "ego equal."
"Yeh, I wanna meet 'im," Lennon told me, "but on me own terms."
In other words, John, like Bob, had a mountain of an ego. I knew I had to climb those mountains to get them both down in the same place. By the time August 28, 1964, came around, Bob was still high on his hill, acting as if he were reluctant to do me a favor and come down to meet the Fab Four. On the other hand, John was in a rush. To John, Bob might not have been as important an inspiration as Elvis Presley, but Dylan's magic had stopped an entire Counterculture dead in its tracks, and John, too. In effect, Dylan had tapped John on the shoulder and made him turn around to look. John recognized that he had been outdistanced by Bob in plumbing his own depths. It was after listening to Dylan's first album that John had written his autobiographical I'll Cry Instead, intended for use in the soundtrack of A Hard Day's Night. The song never made it into the movie, but it very easily could have been written by Dylan about himself. "I've got a chip on my shoulder that's bigger than my feet," the song said, "I can't talk to people that I meet."
For two of the greatest communicators of their time, Dylan and Lennon both certainly seemed to give the appearance of being tongue-tied every now and then. Those were the days when I was living the life of one of those well intentioned, do-gooder and highly innocent middle class nerds with my wife and three delightful kids in a house nestled in the scenic Watchung Hills of suburban Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. I was one of those fools who think they're hip because they smoke pot. To me, marijuana was a wonder drug. It was nourishment for the brain, the consummate head food. As Aldous Huxley had taught me, pot opened the Doors of Perception. But probably it was Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg who most influenced me in my plunge into drug experimentation. When you first try it, marijuana immediately seems so enlightening and possesses such a liberating quality that those it liberates often turn into messianic Johnny Appleseeds. That happened to Neal Cassady, that happened to Allen Ginsberg, that happened to me and, in a much more cosmic way, that is what ultimately happened to the Beatles, who happened to have the power to spread psychedelia to all of contemporary culture. As Peter Brown and Steven Gaines also have written:
". . .[The Beatles] began to compose under marijuana's spell. It didn't show very much on the next album, most of which was already composed and recorded anyway, but you could almost smell the pungent smoke on the album that was to follow. There was no doubt about it; Dylan had given them a key that opened a door to a new dimension of pop music, and they took the youth of the world across the threshold with them."
Writers, historians and journalists all like to report that it was Bob who first turned the Beatles onto pot because his name has a bigger recognition value than mine, but George Harrison says Bob complains all the time about getting the credit when he knows the blame belongs to me.
My first day in Liverpool, I scored some grass. The Liverpool kids were ready to trade me for any kind of pills I had in my pocket. All of England's youth seemed to be pillheads, hooked on uppers, mostly. In my pocket, I had dexedrine spansules my doctor had given me as diet pills plus a prescription of Elavil, a mood elevator which I never bothered taking. I was becoming anti-chemical. I had discovered marijuana and, rather than swallow pills, I had swallowed the pothead litany that marijuana grew out of the ground while pills were manufactured. Prefer anything natural to anything man-made! was the Countercultural dictum. When my cover piece about the Beatles sold more copies of the Saturday Evening Post than any issue since Ben Franklin first founded the magazine, the editors sent me to England in the summer of 1964 to write a second cover story about the Beatles. By that time, I knew John Lennon well enough to tell him to try marijuana instead of poisoning his system with chemicals. Originally, I had thought for sure that the Beatles smoked pot. I had thought for sure that any artist who could make music sound as hip as they made it sound had to be a pot-smoker. Weren't they singing, "I get high! I get high! I get high!"? I had even asked Dylan, didn't he think they were singing, "I get high! I get high! I get high!" and he had answered yes. So, I was surprised to learn that they weren't pot-smokers. They sort of considered pot smokers to be the same as junkies. Like the DEA, they put grass into the same category as heroin. Finally, John said he would try some if I brought it to him. When Victor and Bob and I pulled up on Park Avenue in front of the Delmonico, I made sure Victor had that baggie full of stash in his pocket.
First Brian Epstein called me from London. He said John would phone me as soon as the Beatles got into New York. I was standing in the family room of my FHA ranchtype house in Berkeley Heights when John telephoned. I was watching a team of ants carry a potato chip across the family room floor like firemen holding a life net.
"Where iz 'e?"
"Oh, he's up in Woodstock, but I can get him to come down."
I 'd hate to think that putting Bob together with the Beatles is the only thing I'll ever be remembered for, but I think it certainly was the right thing to do. Hasn't the whole world benefitted? Look at all the beautiful music which we have as a result! The Beatles' magic was in their sound. Bob's magic was in his words. After they met, the Beatles' words got grittier and Bob invented folk/rock. Bob and George Harrison still get together on collaborations like "The Traveling Wilburys." Bob doesn't talk to me any more, but I'm proud of the contribution I made to his life and to his career.
Almost single-handedly, the Beatles infected pop with psychedelia. That's how strong the Beatles were. The Beatles had become role models for the youth of the entire western world. Whatever the Beatles did was right! Correct! Acceptable! As for Bob, the hip hero of countercultural youth, he always acted aloof and unimpressed, but he, too, was awed by the speed with which the Beatles effectuated a de facto. decriminalization of pot in pop culture. Each time the Beatles pulled off another apparent coup, such as when they were rumored to have smoked a joint in Buckingham Palace, Bob would joke to me with what amounted to a verbal wink:
"Maybe we shouldn'ta turned them on!"
Until the advent of rap, pop music remained largely derivative of that night at the Delmonico. That meeting didn't just change pop music, it changed the times.
Bob had slept many a night in my house in Berkeley Heights, where he and Victor arrived from Woodstock to pick me up for the ride to Manhattan and the Delmonico Hotel. When we were ushered into their suite, the Fab Four and Epstein had adjourned from their room service table to seats in an adjoining sitting room, separated from the room with the dining table by a wide rectangular arch. From the front room near the windows overlooking Park Avenue, we all seemed to migrate back to the room service table. That's where the glasses and the wine and the liquor bottles were. Bob just wanted what he usually drinks, cheap wine.
"I'm afraid we only have champagne," said Brian, apologetically.
There also were some expensive French wines and the scotch and coke, which had become the standard Beatles drink. The Beatles immediately started making a big fuss about not having any cheap wine and they were about to send Mal out to get some Chianti or something, but Bob started getting drunk on the harder stuff. Alcohol always was Bob's No. 1 drug of choice. When the Beatles offered some pills, I said we'd rather smoke some pot. When the Beatles said they never smoked pot, I forget whether it was Bob or me who brought up the story about thinking they were singing:
"I get high! I get high! I get high!"
As John obligingly pointed out, they were singing:
"I can't hide! I can't hide! I can't hide!"
They wanted to know how the marijuana would make them feel and we told them it would make them feel good. I still hadn't learned how to roll a joint in those days, so when the Beatles agreed to try some, I asked Dylan to roll the first joint. Bob wasn't much of a roller either, and a lot of the grass fell into the big bowl of fruit on the room service table. Bob hovered unsteadily over the bowl as he stood at the table while he tried to lift the grass from the baggie with the fingertips of one hand so he could crush it into the leaf of rolling paper which he held in his other hand. In addition to the fact that Bob was a sloppy roller to begin with, what Bob had started drinking had already gotten to him.
About twenty cops were stationed in the corridor outside the door of the suite. Room service waiters kept coming in and out. Before we lit up, Bob and I explained about the aroma. We suggested that we all go into the bedroom and shut the door for some privacy. I don't remember anybody bothering to stuff towels into the door cracks to keep the smell from leaking into the other room. Epstein and the Beatles stationed themselves at the far end of the room near the front windows, clustering around John, at the head of one of the beds. Also with Epstein and the Beatles were Neil Aspinall, the Beatles' No. 1 road manager, and of course, his assistant, Mal, the gentle giant. Mal had been conscripted into the Beatles' inner core when, as a bouncer at Liverpool's Cavern Club, he had rescued the Beatles like a hand reaching down from the heavens to pluck them from a few tight spots. Neil and Mal were each as much a part of the Beatles as John, Paul, George and Ringo. They all could read one another's minds. Neil had started out as the Beatles' roadie even before Ringo became the drummer. The Beatles themselves will tell you that if anyone deserved to be called the Fifth Beatle, it was Neil. If John was the commanding officer of the Beatles, Neil was his top sergeant. John Lennon exercised his leverage over the Beatles by using Neil as his fulcrum.
As one of the press pack covering the Beatles' arrival at JFK in New York, I met Neil the day the Beatles stepped off the plane. Atop the air terminal, the metal railings of the observation roof seemed to bulge with the thousands of kids who'd declared a school holiday to welcome their generation's new cultural heroes to America. I found myself one of a tangle of scrimmaging and butting men and women, each of whom was trying to shoulder and elbow and claw a path into the most advantageous position from which to assault the Beatles with a camera or a microphone or a notepad and pencil or with some similar weapon. Neil Aspinall, then 22, was the first man in the Beatles entourage I could get to hold a conversation with.
"Back in Liverpool, didja ever day-dream about visiting any special place when you got to New York?" I asked him.
The Apollo, the Black American entertainment Mecca, the Harlem ghetto's legendary 125th Street showplace, was where white people normally didn't go. But that very night, my wife and I and Neil slipped through the besieging army of teenyboppers maintaining a 24-hour vigil outside the Plaza. We got into my station wagon, drove up to 125th Street, and joined the crowd going in to catch the show at the Apollo. I forget which act we saw. Maybe a researcher can look it up. Who was the headliner at the Apollo the night the Beatles landed?
My relationship with Neil eventually blossomed into one of my most precious friendships. It was Neil who paved the way for me to get to know Mal and the Beatles. Neil was the one who got me close enough to the Beatles to enable me to write my Saturday Evening Post cover stories about them. Neil became one of my dearest friends. He remains managing director of Apple, the partnership the Beatles couldn't break up without giving its treasury to the taxman.
Bob handed the joint to John, who immediately handed it to Ringo.
"You try it!" John commanded.
That act instantly revealed the Beatles' pecking order. Obviously, Ringo was the low man on the totem pole. When Ringo hesitated, John made some sort of wisecrack about Ringo being his royal taster.
"Inhale with a lot of oxygen," I instructed. "Take a deep breath of air together with smoke and hold it in your lungs for as long as you can."
As Ringo kept taking hits, Victor, Bob and I waited for him to pass the joint to John, who was sitting right next to Ringo. But the Beatles were unacquainted with the rituals of pot smoking. Pot smokers share joints because it's precious stuff. It's illegal, expensive and not easy to get. Pot smokers don't waste any smoke letting the joint burn idly like a cigarette. That's what's known as "Bogarting" a joint, in honor of the way Humphrey Bogart held a lit cigarette in his fingers until the long ash would fall from its own weight. I neglected to instruct Ringo about passing the joint and it was obvious that he was going to hold onto it as if he were smoking a cigarette filled with tobacco. I didn't want to risk the possibility that Brian and the Beatles might recoil from the idea of passing a joint from lips to lips like a bottle shared by winos on a street corner. I asked Victor to roll more joints. Victor was an expert roller whose joints looked like regular cigarettes.
Soon, everybody was smoking his own joint as if it were a cigarette. After a while, Derek Taylor also got into the act, popping in and out from the suite where he was keeping at bay all the press and VIPs who were awaiting their turns to meet the Beatles. A former newspaper reporter and one of the most charming men I have ever met, Derek was another champion hangout artist whom I would classify, in Jack Kerouac's words, as one of those "mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn. . ." In the end, he turned into as big a pothead as I ever was. When I once visited him at his farm in East Anglia, in the English countryside, where he lived in a picturesque house that had been converted from a mill, he was even growing pot in his garden. However, I cannot confirm rumors that Derek kept smoking pot even after joining AA.
When I visited him, Derek told me his only other alternatives to joining AA were to drink himself into the loony bin or to drink himself to death. By that time, Neil, too, had quit drinking and Ringo eventually also would end up joining AA. As for George, he recently told me that he doesn't use marijuana any more and, as for me, I have come to recognize that smoke is anti-life and so I am now anti-smoke. They used to say that marijuana, although it is a comparatively harmless substance, leads to harder drugs and I suppose that was true in my case. I eventually joined many others of the Sixties in smoking cocaine freebase, now more commonly known as crack, which drove me crazy enough to alienate myself from just about everybody I ever knew. I am still trying to get my life back together.
Soon, Ringo got the giggles. In no time at all, he was laughing hysterically. His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing, and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing.
"I'm so high, I'm on the ceiling," Brian kept saying. "I'm on the ceiling. . ."
We kept laughing at one another's laughter until every one of us had been laughed at. There also came a certain point when Paul realized he was really thinking for the first time in his life and he also realized that this was a great occasion. He told Mal to get a pad and a pen and to write down everything he said. From then on, Mal followed Paul through the rooms of the suite, writing down everything Paul said, but I never learned what happened to Mal's notes. Mal was a romantic character who had more beautiful women chasing him than even chased the Beatles. All over the world, they chased him until Mal finally left his wife and kids for an L.A. divorcee, a Jewish American princess named Frances Hughes. On the night of January 4th, 1976, Frances called the Los Angeles Police to say she'd had an argument with Mal and he had locked himself in the bedroom with a rifle. The cops bursting through the bedroom door startled Mal from a heavily sedated stupor, and Mal grabbed for his rifle in alarm. When the cops saw Mal grab the gun, they shot him to death.
That night at the Delmonico was one of monumental laughter. Despite the demureness, the tension and the Hipper-Than-Thou games, these get-togethers with Bob and the Beatles were always occasions of glorious hilarity. I remember another night when we were driving the Beatles around Manhattan in my station wagon, showing them what Greenwich Village looked like at four a.m. Afterwards, we greeted the dawn having breakfast at the Brasserie, in the Seagram Building, on Fifty-Third, between Park and Lex. While we were all sitting around the table, John produced a little yellow plastic airplane he had found in the back of my station wagon. It was one of my children's toys, not much larger than John's hand. At the table, he played with it like a kid, zooming it over heads and into faces while everyone broke up. For years afterwards, that toy airplane hung as a memento on the wall of my room. I forget when or how it disappeared or what happened to it.
Yes, we all probably had one of the best laughs of our lives that night at the Hotel Delmonico. Certainly, I hadn't laughed so hard since the first time I smoked marijuana. That's why, after that night at the Delmonico, whenever John wanted to smoke some pot, he would never say, "Let's smoke some marijuana" or "Let's get stoned" or "Let's smoke a joint" or "Let's turn on." To Paul George, Ringo, Neil and Mal, he would say:
"Let's 'ave a larf!"
Copyright (c) 1995 The Blacklisted Journalist
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