One morning recently, on the way to high school, my son Noah and I listened to the song One Toke Over the Line. It’s a toe-tapper from the ’60s, but despite its sweet sing-songy melody and seemingly ingenuous lyrics I wouldn’t discount it. Driving the Honda on Riverside it brought back the ’60s for me. It’s an epoch that extended from, in my estimation, 1965 to 1972. For a few moments I reflected on what it was like to be alive a little more than 40 years ago.
The song is sung from the point of view of a guy who is deeply stoned but Noah didn’t know what the word “toke” meant. It means taking a drag on a marijuana cigarette, and when the singer talks about “one toke over the line” he means he’s smoked so much grass that he is barely in touch with the world as we know it. And when the singer sings about “sweet Jesus” it’s an irony, I told Noah, because he’s comparing the sacred and the profane. Smoking marijuana was, and still is, illegal for the most part, and to evoke the deity in that context is amusing. The song goes on to mention Mary, which rubs it in even more. And that reference argues against the use of Jesus as an expletive.
I thought about those days when, yep, your father Noah, was a hippie. I was part of an amorphous group of people, like atoms in a cloud of gas, people in what was called the “counterculture”, who were opposed to the war, wore our hair long, sometimes wore colorful clothing, and sometimes lived in communes. Depending upon our philosophy, we thought Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Mario Savio, and Ken Kesey were groovy guys. They were our heroes. Some of us were more disposed to spirituality than to political action, so you could pick your hero.
I remember getting into an argument with Jerry Rubin once at a political meeting in Berkeley. Jerry was an earnest man who after the meeting took me aside and was politely persuasive. Once I was in a negotiation with Timothy Leary when he wanted to buy the Berkeley Barb newspaper. Tim had remained, for all the world, professorial while presenting charts and graphs (today they would be mind numbing anti-psychedelic PowerPoints), explaining to us exactly what he would do with the Barb after he controlled it. I am not sure I ever told Noah about the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper that covered news that the straight media wouldn’t cover. There were the straights, and there were the hippies. There was a line dividing two worlds. And that line still exists. There are those amongst us, who call themselves conservatives, but are actually reactionaries, who want to set back the clock. And there are the rest of us, more or less pragmatists, who want to go forward. I wrote for the Berkeley Barb almost every week for four years. I wrote the so-called film review column called “At the Flicks”. It was a rambling column, like this article.
The Barb lead me to interesting places, like the back room of City Lights Books in North Beach, rapping with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or Wavy Gravy’s bedroom watching Stark Trek, at least three toaks over the line (oh those ears Mr. Spock, they grow like Pinocchio’s nose), or up in the Berkeley Hills negotiating with Scott Newhall, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, with Casper Weinberger on the phone, representing Governor Ronald Reagan. We were trying to stop the National Guard from occupying Berkley at the time of People’s park. We didn’t succeed but Newhall did thank us for publishing factual anti-establishment stories in the Barb that the Chronicle then had to cover.
In the good old American tradition of the Shakers and the Amish, the hippies sometimes lived in communes. The hippies moved around across the landscape in psychedelically painted buses. People were ceaselessly moving between the East and the West Coast, and up and down the West Coat. (The devil, the bible tells us, wanders up and down in the world.) People might arrive in droves to visit. There’d be a knock on the door and 15 freaks would walk in to your pad and it became their pad, a crash pad. And we were not very discriminating, I told Noah. Some of the people who came by ought to have been put away, and I would have nothing to do with them as a matter of self protection in my present incarnation.
The roots of the hippie culture may have come from Buddhism and from the American Indians, by way of the beatniks. I know that I lived it, and I lived through it. I have lived my cycle backwards. In the Eastern tradition, in India, a man becomes a householder. He takes care of his family and then, once that is accomplished, he puts on a saffron robe, takes up his beggar’s bowl, and wanders about seeking the spiritual path. I started on the spiritual path and wound up a householder. And that is my present incarnation: Lenny the Householder.