Highest greetings from
, the viper capital of the world. Your correspondent has come a long way from his humble origins in Flint, the city of my birth and equally my young manhood, when I was chasing the music and learning to write and enjoying city life for the first time—and smoking the first of what would become a virtual infinity of joints over the next 50 years. Amsterdam
I grew up in Davison, the little town just ten miles east of
and surely a country town when I was coming up in the 1940s and ’50s. I was introduced to the outside world as a youth of 12 or 13 when the fantastic sounds of rhythm & blues were beamed into my bedroom through the airwaves from WBBC in Flint, where my first human idol—and later friend and mentor— the great disc jockey who called himself The Frantic One, Ernie Durham, could be heard every afternoon spinning the latest sounds by Ray Charles, Wynonie Harris, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, Big Joe Turner, Guitar Slim, Ruth Brown, and the Moonglows. Flint
Frantic Ernie D’s radio show opened up a window onto a whole different world from the one that surrounded me in Davison, and it felt and sounded better than anything I’d ever experienced. I found out that The Frantic One owned and operated a pair of Ernie’s Record Racks in the north end of Flint, the outpost at 943 Leith Street near Industrial located only blocks from Buick World Headquarters on Hamilton Avenue, where my father worked, and I worked out a deal with my dad where he would take my little $2.00 allowance every Friday and my list of 10 or so new records I was desperate to possess, stop in at Ernie’s
Record Rack on his lunch hour, and pick me up the two closest records to the top of the list that Ernie D. had in stock. So I was deep into the music at an early age, this magical thing that came in over the radio and lit up my life. The drug of choice when I was in high school was beer, with maybe a pint of sloe gin for special occasions. I was 15 or 16 before I even heard about marijuana by reading On The Road by Jack Kerouac, published in 1957, and it sounded mighty good but where would you get some?
I went away to Albion College for two years and got turned on to jazz, poetry, and even Dexedrine for staying up all night listening to records and trying to write, but it wasn’t until I returned to Flint in 1961 to complete my formal education at Flint Junior College and the Flint College of the University of Michigan— then housing its student body of 550 in a single building off of Court Street—that I fell in with some cats situated well off the campus who turned me on to codeine cough syrup and sleeping pills and the way that recreational drug use fit perfectly into the life of the streets of the city.
I was working in a place called Hatfield’s Musical Tent Record Shop at
Saginaw Street and 2nd in downtown , managing the jazz stock and making friends with my customers when a guy called Bimbo turned aside from his purchase of the new John Coltrane album on Impulse Records and asked me if I got high. He slipped me a couple of pills and came back a few days later to see how I’d liked them. Pleased with my positive response, he invited to come up to the north end and dig some records with him and his friends and cop some Robitussen at the corner drugstore. Flint
One day I was hanging with the fellows in Sweetie’s Barber Shop, high on cough syrup and digging Gene Ammons on the juke box when this fairly mysterious dude called Tom pulled me aside and gave me a little preachment about downers and how that was all wrong for people seeking to grow their intelligence. “Man, it’s time for you to smoke some weed,” is how he put it, and he took me off somewhere to turn me on to my first joint. This was late in 1961, an awfully long time ago for a pothead to remember anything, and the actual details of my initial experience with marijuana have been lost in the mists of time, but there was no question that weed represented a significant step upward for the aspiring young beatnik in Flint. The mental thrills derived from feeling your consciousness actually expand and the physical sensations resulting in greater sensual awareness and increased sensitivity to self and others made life much more hopeful and interesting, and man, the music sounded better and better the more of it you were now able to hear.
After I had started copping regularly from Tom—that would be in $10 Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes, seeds and all—I met a fellow student at Flint Junior College, a piano player from Owosso named Lyman Woodard who became a lifelong friend and collaborator, and I had the honor and privilege of turning him on to weed as soon as we had moved together into an apartment at 923 E. Kearsley. Now both of us could cop from Tom, but since we didn’t know how to prepare our joints properly we had to ask him to roll the weed up for us so we could smoke it. One night after we had finally learned how to roll we had some weed we were dying to smoke but no papers in the house. Racking our feeble brains for a solution, we found an old newspaper from England printed on tissue-thin paper for overseas mailing, so we tore up a page and rolled up a big bomber (as Louis Armstrong would put it) and as we were smoking it down Woodard laughed and said, man, I bet we’re gonna know more about what’s happening in the world after this.
I turned 21 in October 1962 and my birthday present from Tom was a little package of marijuana from the crop he’d grown himself on the banks of the
Flint River somewhere. This pot was much more powerful than anything I’d ever smoked and my mind was expanding exponentially the farther I got into the first joint. The popular record in our set just then was the new Miles Davis album, Someday My Prince Will Come, which I’d heard at least 100 times already, but listening to it now on Tom’s big record player the music came to fully to life and I heard every note, every rhythmic surge, every twist and turn of the improvisers’ minds as they worked their way through the musical material, and it opened up a door for me in my mind that I’ve walked through every day for almost half a century.
Yeah, it sort of illuminated the slogan advanced by Louis Armstrong and Mezz Mezzrow and the early American vipers—jazz musicians, most of them—when they said: “Light Up & Be Somebody!” Even in
you could do this, and it was a good thing—both Flint
then and now.
June 22, 2011