Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico and French avant-garde film director Philippe Garrel had a decade long romantic relationship between 1969 and 1979. Garrel, acclaimed in his youth as being a sort of cinematic Rimbaud, was much admired by Jean-Luc Godard, but is almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world. Nico appeared in seven of his films and sometimes gave him music for them that has not been heard elsewhere. Stills from Garrel’s films appeared on the covers of her Desertshore and The End albums, which show how interested she was in promoting his work. Garrel made his own clothes at the time and began dressing Nico, encouraging her to dye her hair crimson and cut her bangs. Their most significant and fully-realized collaboration was La Cicatrice Intérieure (or “The Inner Scar”), made in 1972 when Garrel was only 22.
During their relationship, the pair became hardcore heroin addicts, resorting to petty thievery from friends and acquaintances to support their habits. According to Richard Witts’ biography, Nico: The Life & Lies of an Icon, their Paris apartment was a “garret” that lacked gas, electricity, hot water, furniture and housed a gargantuan mountain of cigarette butts. The entire apartment was covered in two coats of glossy black enamel paint. Their bed, apparently, was Garrel’s overcoat.
To call Philippe Garrel’s films “tedious” and “self-indulgent” is a bit of an understatement. They’re preposterously tedious and self-indulgent—I believe the Monty Python “French Subtitled Film” sketch was directly inspired by Garrel’s work—but no more so than Matthew Barney’s movies, if you ask me. About half of her Desertshore album (and one otherwise unreleased song, the mind-blowing “König,” see below) is used as the film’s soundtrack. (This again seems worth comparing to Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, a collaboration with his wife, Bjork, herself a big Nico fan.)
To some, Garrel, who is still making films today, is an underrated visionary genius whose work must be seen in the cinema to be fully appreciated (for years the director refused to release his films on DVD). To them he is revered as some cinephiles worship John Cassavetes. To others, his films (the ones made during his relationship with Nico at least) look like what two junkies with a camera and the financial backing of a French heiress might get up to…
La Cicatrice Intérieure‘s dialogue, mostly made up right before they’d shoot it, by Nico, consists of existential bitching, basically, as the pair walk around in barren, yet gorgeous landscapes shot in Sinai, Death Valley and Iceland. Garrel uses LONG simple linear tracking shots with minimal editing during scenes. Visually, the film is quite stunning—again think Matthew Barney—but the director forbade subtitles so unless you speak French and German, at a few places you’re bound to be confused. (A Japanese DVD with subtitles popped up in 2005).
Nico does most of the speaking in La Cicatrice Intérieure, moaning throughout the film in her humorless, stentorian voice, at times coming off like some sort of prophetess of doom. As the Time Out reviewer said of the film when it was released in 1972: “You need a bloody big spliff to enjoy this. A miserable couple who you would not wish to meet at a party [Garrel, Nico] are joined by a naked weirdo [Pierre Clémenti, best-known for his role as the gangster lover of Catherine Deneuve’s prostitute in Buñuel’s Belle de jour] with a bow and arrow and a desire to set everything on fire. That’s about it, frankly, unless I fell asleep, which is likely.”
Nico described the film like so:
“[It’s] an important film, a great film. It concerns the fragility of life. The film treats the story of a lunatic who starts to kill all of his sheep. It is not clear if he is a shepherd or a prince. He has no identity until I show up [of course!]. I am a queen on a journey. A queen finds a kingdom wherever she goes. There are more songs than dialogue in the film which I think is a good idea [of course!].
In the case of La Cicatrice Intérieure, she’s probably right about that, and although the film does have its perplexing, often gorgeous, merits, as our own Marc Campbell put it, La Cicatrice Intérieure is “a gorgeous looking folly that, despite its abundant tracking shots, is so inert it makes L’Avventura look like The Fast And The Furious.” La Cicatrice Intérieure is now in the public domain and there is even an HD version of it floating around on the torrent trackers that elevates the viewing experience quite a bit and is worth finding (Hint, looky here). Yet another fine example of an absolutely M.I.A. film that you can see today without even getting up from your seat. La Cicatrice Intérieure was once the litmus test for obscure, nearly impossible to see movies, but there’s even a quite good version of the film on YouTube (see last video).
“My Only Child” and “All That Is My Own” are heard in the following two sequences. The child is Nico’s son, Ari Boulogne. Note how the camera moves constantly.
If you are a cannabis aficionado, getting to visit a properly set-up marijuana “grow room” is an extra special treat.
The first time I ever got to see a fairly large pot grow in the flesh was about eleven years ago in Humboldt County. To say that it was out in the boondocks is an understatement. There were nearly no stop signs, let alone traffic lights (or any signs of electricity for that matter) for at least the last 30 minutes of the journey in the flatlands even before we began the uphill leg of the trip. It was the scariest time that I have ever spent in a car—in this case a big Ford Explorer—and the muddy dirt road was littered with the corpses of cars that had not made it over the years, and that had simply been left there. I mean this was scary.
When we arrived at the top of the mountain we were scaling, almost vertically it felt like, we got out to stretch our legs, pee and unlock the gate. I remarked that I felt like I needed a joint the size of my arm to calm my nerves, whereupon my host informed me that we’d yet to begin the second and far more perilous component of our journey. You know how you can be a total atheist, but pussy out and pray when you’re really sweating it? That was me that night and I DID smoke a joint the size of my arm when we arrived, you’d better bet I did!
At the top of this desolate mountain was a small, but nicely appointed ranch house. HOW they would have ever gotten heavy machinery and bulldozers up there to construct this place was beyond me. Maybe they’d been airdropped? Who knew, but the operation ran on several electrical generators and the house had its own septic tank. I have no idea where the water came from or how it got there. A sizable plot of pot plants were growing outdoors, but these were cleverly covered from the view of any DEA helicopters by trees. In the basement were two varieties of pot growing under lights that I have never seen anywhere else. One was called “Blue Dragon” and it was cobalt blue and smoked like it was a candy-flavored vapor. Another was apparently a Chinese strain that was dark green and dark red, like Swiss chard meets a Venus Fly Trap. (Sadly I didn’t get to try any of this exotic strain).
And the smell! Imagine being in a greenhouse full of… flowers. A treat for the senses. Like honeysuckle, but it’s pot! Sometime in the near future, such a blissful botanical experience should be easier to have, sans all the driving up slippery, muddy dangerous roads and paranoia. You know how wine enthusiasts want to go to Northern California to visit the grape orchards and vinters’ operations? Colorado has the right idea with their “pot tourism.” It’s a blast, and sorry Holland, but the American states that have legal or medical marijuana are simply 100x times better than your dinky little coffee shops.
In any case, until that day, here’s something that simulates the experience of visiting a grow room somewhat—minus the olfactory part—a time-lapse video of the marijuana plant’s growth cycle, from sprouts to heavily crystallized goodness...
There used to be a famous bumper sticker in the 1970s that warned would-be hitchhikers that they were expected to pay for their lifts with “Gas, Grass or Ass, No One Rides for Free.” It was a familiar sight, normally festooned on a VW bus:
A new business that’s opened in Colorado Springs, Colorado called “Gas & Grass” is aiming to satisfy at least two of these requirements (Can you guess which two?).
The “Gas and Grass” gas station is located adjacent to a Native Roots medical marijuana dispensary, although they have separate entrances as state law will not allow pot shops to sell non-marijuana products. Medical marijuana patients shopping at the dispensary will get discounted gasoline, similar to a rewards program with a 5 cent reduction in the per gallon price of gasoline. Upon registering with the Native Roots collective, the new patient will also receive a one time free full tank of gas.
At first blush this seemed a bit nutty to me, from a “public relations” perspective, certainly, but the fact of the matter is that most gas stations these days at least sell beer, if not hard alcohol. If I had to chose, I’d much rather face someone high coming at me down a country road than someone drunk, any day. Hell, I’m more against people hopped up on Starbucks coffee getting behind the wheel of a car than those who are mellowed out on weed. Why not sell pot? And why not try to appeal to the pothead who might need to pick up a gram of hash oil and a gallon of milk and gas up on the way home? Chances are there are quite a few folks who might like to do all of their errands in one place like this. I’d personally patronize such an establishment. If their rewards program was commensurate with my pot consumption, I’d have free gas for life.
One can surmise that Pierce’s family decided not to participate with Powell and Voss’s movie bio and the filmmakers were left to put together this “feature-length” documentary with just talking head interviews with former Gun Club members Kid Congo Powers, Ward Dotson, Terry Graham, Jim Duckworth and Dee Pop along with Henry Rollins, Lemmy, John Doe and Pleasant Gehman. Because that’s all it is, basically. Under different circumstances, it would have no doubt been a better film.
ON THE OTHER HAND, I’ve watched this 75-minute old movie twice and if you are a fan of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Gun Club, this modest film is a must. Obviously there is a lot of “myth” that’s grown around the person of Jeffrey Lee, who died at the age of 37 from a brain haemorrhage in 1996 and although this is more of an “oral history” than a documentary per se, it gets to the heart of the truth about the real Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who by turns is described as brilliant, tortured, loveable but mostly just as a complete and utter asshole and colossal, detestable fuckup junkie and drunk.
Although little of what the viewer learns about the life and times of Jeffrey Lee Pierce in Ghost on the Highway is particularly, er, complimentary, it didn’t really change my feelings about the man one iota. Anyone who knows anything about him knows where the story arc trends after the commercial break in this low budget Behind the Music, so it comes as zero surprise how many people thought the guy was a punk. Clearly he was an asshole, but he was also a great artist who made transcendent music. I only ever saw him from standing in the audience, so he gets a pass from me.
After the jump, a ‘Mother Juno’-era Gun Club set shot in Los Angeles in 1988…
It’s a winner, folks. Simply put, Kliph has carved out an area of research and made it almost entirely his own—I refer to the development of the world of professional stand-up comedy in the decades before Richard Pryor, George Carlin, or even Lenny Bruce. (Not to worry, he also covers everything up to Louis CK too.) Kliph has made it his business to acquaint himself personally with many of the surviving old-school stand ups from the 1950s and also with the bounties of Variety’s archives.
Marijuana and LSD were huge influences on comedy at the end of the 1960s. It was not uncommon for talk show guests to show up high. George Carlin said he took “a perverse delight in knowing that I never did a television show without being stoned.” Paul Krassner dropped acid before a Tonight Show appearance with guest host Orson Bean. Krassner was immersed in his trip when he walked through the curtain. “I kept staring at Ed McMahon because his face was melting into his chest. Orson asked me, ‘Have you taken LSD?’ He meant in a general sense, but I had this thought, ‘Oh, no, he can tell!’”
Phyllis Diller encapsulated the older generation’s ignorance of counterculture elements when a reporter asked her if she would remarry. She responded, “What kind of LSD have you been smoking?” Such cluelessness was common as Hollywood’s gatekeepers struggled to relate to the new hippie demographic. Television shows like Dragnet and My Three Sons portrayed counterculture protestors as morons. Carl Reiner’s son Rob was cast in several sitcoms play-ing such roles. “I did three Gomer Pyles, played a hippie in a couple of them. Did a Beverly Hillbillies, played a hippie in that. I was like the resident Hollywood hippie at the time. I had long hair and they needed somebody. In one of the Gomer Pyle episodes I actually sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ with Gomer.”
Veteran filmmaker Otto Preminger gave LSD the Hollywood treatment in 1968 with a motion picture called Skidoo. Preminger contacted Rob Reiner to help write dialogue for the hippie characters in his film. “Preminger was a very interesting, liberal guy and he took acid early on,” says Carl Gottlieb. “He wanted to meet The Committee. So we all trooped down to his offices with Rob Reiner.” Reiner said, “I went in and turned out some pages for hippies so that they would say ‘groovy’ in the right place.”
Groucho Marx was cast in Skidoo as an LSD dealer named God. It was surprising he agreed to it, as he was contemptuous of the new social mores (“That Midnight Cowboy. It’s about a stud and a pimp. I hated that movie”). Marx may have hated the counterculture, but he was hip to many of its elements. He subscribed to Paul Krassner’s paper The Realist, which featured articles about the drug culture. Krassner says, “Groucho was concerned about the script of Skidoo because it pretty much advocated LSD, which he had never tried but he was curious. Moreover, he felt a certain responsibility to his young audience not to steer them wrong, so could I possibly get him some pure stuff and would I care to accompany him on a trip.”
Groucho Marx high on LSD? Some who knew Groucho question the story. “It’s a fucking lie,” says producer George Schlatter. “Groucho never took acid. He didn’t need acid. Everyone else needed acid!” Carl Gottlieb agrees. “I doubt that story, because my contact with Groucho was around the same time. He was pretty infirm. The acid that was around in those days was the Owsley acid—Windowpane. It was brain-breaking.”
“Well, that was the reason Groucho asked me,” Krassner responds. “I have a letter from Lionel Olay, a popular magazine writer. He had interviewed Groucho and Groucho told him he was very curious about LSD. He read The Realist and about my taking trips. Bill Targ, my editor at Putnam, was a friend of Groucho. The writer of the movie Skidoo, Bill Cannon, introduced me to him. Groucho and I had lunch. He asked me if I could get him some LSD. Groucho was not going to go around boasting about this. It was just to prepare for the movie Skidoo. I accompanied him on his trip. We used the home of an actress in Beverly Hills. Phil Ochs drove me there. It was Owsley acid. Three hundred micrograms.”
Skidoo entered production with a cast that seemed plucked from Hollywood Squares. It included Frankie Avalon, Carol Channing, Frank Gorshin, Peter Lawford, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Arnold Stang and Jackie Gleason. It had a soundtrack by Harry Nilsson and an unforgettable scene in which Gleason, high on psychedelics, is haunted by the disembodied head of Groucho Marx.
Robert Evans, the head of Paramount, was not happy with it. “It was a zero on every level,” said Evans after the screening. “The guy [Preminger] cost us a fuckin’ fortune. His new entry belongs in the sewer, not on the screen. He’s such a prick; he gets his nuts off seeing us sink.”
Cheech and Chong’s best-selling ‘Big Bambu’ album came with a gigantic rolling paper. For obvious reasons, these rolling papers are rare today…
Several comedians considered their psychedelic trips important, life-changing experiences. “Pot fueled Cheech & Chong during our heyday,” said Tommy Chong. “Pot and to some extent acid. It had changed our world and it put me on a path to artistic and financial success. The spiritual effects and the revelations never leave. The secrets that LSD revealed to me changed my life forever.”
George Carlin felt the same. “I know exactly when I first did acid—it was in October 1969 while I was playing a major, now long-defunct jazz club in Chicago called Mister Kelly’s. Next to my [note-book] record of that booking, which was otherwise uneventful, is written in a trembling hand the word ‘acid.’ Actually in the course of a two-week gig I did acid multiple times, maybe five, maybe ten. Fuck the drug war. Dropping acid was a profound turning point for me, a seminal experience. I make no apologies for it. More people should do acid.”
Chris Rush was another comedian who came into being with the counterculture. Psychedelics informed his act. “When I took lysergic acid diethylamide I started rapping comedy: full, polished conceptual chunks. It just flowed through me, and I was a stream-of-consciousness comedian. I started doing it for fun in loft buildings and I started doing some clubs. This guy Mark Meyers from Atlantic Records came to see me. He said, ‘This guy talks like George Carlin.’ Bingo, I had a record deal.” His album First Rush sold half a million copies in the early 1970s, mostly to pot-smoking college kids. “They’d get high with twenty of their friends and put the album on.”
Comedy and the counterculture coupled with the new technology of FM radio. During the early 1960s FM radio was mostly used to simulcast aurally superior versions of AM sister stations. In 1967 the FCC passed an ordinance that ended such simulcasts. It forced FM to devise original programming. In order to fill mass spaces of airtime in a pinch, young disc jockeys turned to playing entire sides of LPs rather than just one song. Soon FM was a place where hippie rawkers and their long jams received maximum exposure. Likewise, comedians who aligned themselves with the counterculture found entire sides of their comedy records being played on FM. College-aged kids tuning in to hear their favorite hippie music were turned on to the comedians being played on the same stations—and those comics saw their ticket sales increase enormously.
Amid the FM scene emerged an audio comedy troupe called the Firesign Theatre. Phil Austin, David Ossman, Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman met at the newly minted Los Angeles FM station KPFK. They worked in various executive positions and eventually left for KRLA and improvised drug-influenced comedy on the show Radio Free Oz. Surf music producer and KRLA employee Gary Usher used his industry connections to secure the boys a deal with Columbia Records. “I’d see The Byrds at Columbia Studios when we were all recording,” said Phil Proctor. “We didn’t realize how much history we were observing or even making. There was very easy access. People were very friendly and the music brought everybody together. Pot brought everybody together. It was a very sociable scene, you know, hot and cold running girls all the time…We were using the Columbia studio where The Byrds recorded, [but] also the radio studio where Fred Allen had been.”
The Firesign Theatre, George Carlin and Cheech & Chong owed their vast success to FM. The radio stations were listened to by thousands of impressionable college students. “FM radio helped expose the records, and that led to our ability to headline shows on college campuses,” said Proctor. “We were asked to go on the road with the Maharishi.”
Comedian Jimmie Walker says FM radio was a platform for comedians who never would have been accepted in traditional circles. “They would never have gotten on Carson or anything like that. Lou Adler from A&M Records came up with these guys from Vancouver—Cheech & Chong. There was a new thing called FM and Lou said, ‘I’m going to make an album with these guys.’ These guys started selling out colleges, and we were stunned. Nobody was doing that. FM changed everything. It changed the face of comedy.”
Jack Margolis, a comedy writer who once wrote for Jay Ward cartoons, composed the seminal counterculture comedy record of the time. A Child’s Garden of Grass was based on his satirical paperback of the same name, the first in-depth comedic look at the effects of marijuana. Released by Elektra, the same label that had Jim Morrison and the Doors, A Child’s Garden of Grass had its advertising turned down by every major magazine, was denied a spot on the shelves of Wallichs Music City in Hollywood and was banned in Washington State. An FCC ruling that forbade “drug lyrics” kept program managers from playing it. Despite the kibosh, it sold four hundred thousand copies. Its only real advertising came from a large billboard on Sunset Boulevard across from the Whisky a Go Go. It is impossible to calculate the number of joints that were rolled on its gatefold surface.
The longhairs dominated radio. Cinema was maturing rapidly. Battles against censorship were being won on both literary and nightclub fronts. But television, beyond its odd spontaneous talk show moment, appeared unaffected by the times. “There was a real revolution happening in other media,” said comedy writer Rosie Shuster. “There were all these Jack Nicholson movies coming out that reflected that sensibility of the sixties. In music there was Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the Stones and the Beatles. But television was still stuck in some time warp that was more like the fifties.
”Comedians appearing on The Tonight Show still had to adhere to a traditional dress code. “For a long time the rule on Johnny Carson was tie and jacket,” says Robert Klein. “I came on without one once and Johnny didn’t say anything, but it came down through [Tonight Show producer] Freddy de Cordova: ‘Tie and jacket!’ ”
Julien’s calls itself “The Auction House to the Stars,” and not without reason—an auction they’re holding this week, “Icons and Idols 2015: Rock n’ Roll,” features a metric shitload of guitars, amps, and even a couple of autoharps owned by Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Jim Morrisson’s Tallahassee mug shot, Michael Jackson memorabilia that includes his fang mold from the “Thriller” video, a Jimi Hendrix rehearsal cassette, and even handwritten song lyrics by Johnny Cash (about those last two THE HOLIDAYS ARE COMING UP YOU GUYS I’M JUST SAYIN’).
But nothing in the auction, however badass, has anything like the lurid appeal of some of the Elvis Presley lots. There’s one of Elvis’ Cadillacs. There’s a gold-leaf piano. Bafflingly, there’s even a Chai necklace. Pretty sure The King wasn’t Jewish, but hey, I’m sure he’d be welcome in the tribe. There’s a lot of great Elvis stuff on the block at Julien’s for the discerning 1%er who has it all. but the real winners here are his drug paraphernalia.
Sadly, his notorious final prescription (reproduced on the back cover of Death of Samantha’s Laughing In The Face Of A Dead Man EP, I’m compelled to mention) is not among the lots offered for bidding here, but there IS a prescription written by Elvis’ infamous personal physician George “Dr. Nick” Nichopoulos, for the muscle relaxer Maolate.
Although most credible observers think all fifty states will see legal pot by 2020, today there are still quite a few holdouts, places where you might want to keep things a little more discrete and on the down-low…
Enter VAPRWEAR, a newly-launched apparel company that makes “Smokable Hoodies.” The collar of each one of their stoner sweatshirts comes with a vape system built in where the hoodies’ drawstrings normally are. How convenient!
Now this is what I call functional fashion: You put your weed in it. And not just your weed, VAPRWEAR‘s system is friendly to hash oil, wax, e-juice and other similar preparations. They’re also open to making custom vaporizer apparel.
I’ve been aware of Kliph Nesteroff’s singular erudition for a number of years now. Sometime in 2008 WFMU’s incredible Beware of the Blog (which sadly stopped operating earlier this year) ran a loooong article about the early years of George Carlin—which is to say, focusing on the years before the 1967 release of Carlin’s first solo album Take-Offs and Put-Ons, an era that most readers probably had hardly any notion about. After a while came similar articles dedicated to the early years of Woody Allen and David Letterman, both of which were similarly informative. All of these articles carried the cryptic byline “Listener Kliph Nesteroff,” which seemed random enough and lent the impression that the author was perhaps a housebound retiree, former Navy during the Korean War, something like that.
How happy for us readers—as the news may portend further publications down the road—to learn that Kliph is far from a grouchy old obsessive, but rather a charming young obsessive (well, maybe a little grouchy), who for some reason has acquired a taste for unearthing and preserving invaluable scuttlebutt from the early days of comedy. For years he has run an essential blog called Classic Television Showbiz and an amusing Tumblr called Showbiz Imagery and Chicanery. The former houses his long-form interviews with some of the important figures of midcentury comedy (many on the verge of being forgotten today), including Orson Bean, George Schlatter, Peter Marshall, a category that also includes an incredible eight-part interview with Jack Carter. Showbiz Imagery and Chicanery is every bit as entrancing, consisting mostly of context-free screen shots of puzzling images and text culled from the hours Kliph spends with the inexhaustible (and expensive! do donate!) resource known as the Variety.com archives.
Suffice to say, in a few short years Kliph has put together a knowledge base on the roots of stand-up comedy that dwarfs that of anyone younger than, say, 50. By dint of curiosity and hard work, Kliph put himself into a position where he could see the linkages between the present and the past, could isolate the ways in which the patterns that structure the industry of professional comedy found their origins not necessarily in the ersatz “comedy boom” of the 1980s but in practices that stretch much further back.
It was incumbent upon Kliph, then, to write a book about all of this, and thank goodness, that’s precisely what he’s done. Next week sees the publication of The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, and I can say with confidence that this book will be an invaluable resource for decades to come, for anyone who wants to know about the full history of comedy, stuff that predates the days when Robin Williams was saying “Nanu Nanu” on national TV. Something very similar happened in baseball a generation or two ago, when a writer named Lawrence Ritter decided to hunt down as many players as he could find from the early days of baseball (around 1900)—those interviews eventually became a book called The Glory of Our Times, which was published in 1966 and had a massive impact on the way the sport’s fans regarded the heroes of prior generations. The highest compliment I can pay Kliph’s new book The Comedians (which is available for pre-order right now) is that I think he may just have written comedy’s analogue to The Glory of Our Times, the book that—if you have not absorbed its contents—all but demands that you hold your tongue on the subject of old-time comedy.
Kliph graciously set aside some time to answer some questions from DM.
You’ve discovered a whole new area of research to mine, at least for people of our generation. Soon it will just be called “Kliphland.” How did you get started investigating the midcentury era of comedians?
Kliph Nesteroff: As a teenager I was your typical hipster scum, collecting vinyl records and raiding local thrift stores. I collected soul music, garage rock, surf music - and comedy records. The comedy LPs were by far the most worthless. I would see the same comedy records in every junk pile: Rusty Warren, Woody Woodbury, The First Family featuring Vaughn Meader.
I was already interested in comedy but had never heard of these people. Why were they in every thrift store but never on TV or in movies? They must have been super popular at one point if their records were everywhere, right? So that made me sort of curious. Then I learned that after Vaughn Meader had the best-selling record of all time (not just comedy, but any LP period) he went crazy, schizophrenic, destitution, eating out of dumpsters, eventually wandering the desert on peyote before turning Christian and reinventing himself as a local country and western performer in Maine. Clearly there was a worthwhile story there.
I was already a writer and started stand-up at the age of 18. So, I guess the subject matter was just a natural combination of interests. The creative freedom Ken Freedman provided at WFMU allowed me to experiment and write on any topic of my choosing.
The kids in the audience at the UCB Theater probably have no idea that they’re enthused about an art form that was more or less invented by the Mob. You write that pretty much all comedians after Prohibition were working by the grace of one or another group of gangsters. That must have been hard!
Kliph Nesteroff: No, I wouldn’t say the Mafia invented the art form. In my book I have an anecdote from a 90-year-old comedian who argues they coined the phrase “stand-up comic,” because the Mob managed boxers they called “stand-up fighters” and called people they could rely on “stand-up guys.” But no, the Mob had nothing to do with inventing it. They simply owned 90% of the venues where comedians performed from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. So, you know, make the wrong wisecrack and you might suffer a broken limb.
You’ve spent a lot of time lately hanging out with some of the now-forgotten stand ups of the 1950s, who are now getting pretty old and crotchety too. They’ve been treating you pretty well, but they’ve probably been difficult at times too. Any stories to pass along?
Kliph Nesteroff: I don’t know. Old people get angry sometimes. I guess we would too if we had trouble peeing. Carl Reiner is considered the epitome of clean comedy, a guy who can write divinely funny scripts without cussing. I was at a Dick Van Dyke tribute once. I went to the bathroom and was at the second urinal when someone came in and went to the first urinal right beside me. It was a 90-year-old Carl Reiner. He braced himself with his left hand against the wall and the whole time he was at the urinal grumbling, “Goddamit Fuck! Come on! Go! Go! Just go! Jesus fucking bullshit, come on! Fucking goddamn fuck!”
You’ve unearthed so much valuable information about pioneers who helped forge comedy archetypes we all take for granted now, like Frank Fay and Jerry Lester. It must have been fun to spot and explain connections between, say, Bert Williams and Jim Gaffigan.
Kliph Nesteroff: Well, mapping the connections that haven’t been connected before is a little bit like playing God. Based on the reviews coming in, it sounds like I’ve laid down some kind of masterwork, a sacrosanct history of comedy, and that’s extremely flattering and gratifying - but wasn’t my intention at all. I was just writing whatever I felt was interesting. Comparing Jim Gaffigan’s under-the-breath comments to a similar gimmick the vaudeville comic Bert Williams utilized is just an easy point of reference to help the reader get it. Sort of the way lazy film critics explain new movies: “It’s Revenge of the Nerds meets Schindler’s List!”
It was interesting to read about Carlin’s drug use in such detail. I didn’t realize how central LSD was to his reinvention in the late ‘60s.
Kliph Nesteroff: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin are considered the three revolutionary figures of comedy from that time. All three were primarily into cocaine in the 1970s, but before that Carlin and Pryor used LSD to positive effect. I think we as a society, y’know, as we hear The Beatles piped through at the local grocery store… we forget just how valuable psychedelics have been to expanding the artist’s inherent ability. Carlin and Pryor would have been fine talents regardless, they were born with that. But it’s because of their 1960s LSD use that their perspectives were forever altered, and why so many today consider them comic geniuses. LSD and other psychedelics can help our latent talents fuse new, uncharted neuro pathways and in turn create an original artistic temperament, unique perspective, prolific output. Groundbreaking revelations come from these experiences and they don’t wear off like a hallucination. Instead you possess new insight that will further your existing artistic ability. I mean, it’s hardly news that LSD is responsible for countless Aphrodites in music, illustration, filmmaking… But maybe the new news, as I argue in my book, is that it had the same important effect on comedy. If such theories are accepted, it’s usually in reference to the 1960s. Let’s not forget that it can still be used with the same revelatory intent today. To quote George Carlin: “More people should do acid.”
Flip Wilson was a huge deal in the 1970s, but he’s practically forgotten now. Can you describe his importance to the comedy counterculture?
Kliph Nesteroff: It’s mostly tangential. He was an early employer for Richard Pryor and George Carlin, using them as writers, and bankrolled Carlin’s best-selling comedy LPs. Flip Wilson’s significance was less on the counterculture than the mainstream. He was the very first African-American with a major network success of his own. You could argue Cosby with I Spy, but Cosby only costarred. Flip Wilson was the star of his own show… an African-American cokehead who had the number one comedy program in America. Think about that. Ten years earlier, Sammy Davis Jr, a guy who loved Sinatra’s racist jokes and endorsed Richard Nixon, could not get a sponsor for his own variety show because he was Black. Just a few years later and Flip Wilson was on the cover of every conceivable magazine. It’s incredible how quickly America changed. And despite the lunatics saying abhorrent things on cable news today, I think we’re experiencing another rapid paradigm shift akin to that era. Never in my lifetime did I expect to see gay marriage, marijuana legalization or a Black president. Nor could I ever imagine that Bernie Sanders would be a household name. Jerry Seinfeld kvetching about political correctness is not too far from Bob Hope complaining about hippie protestors. America is changing, brother. Sure, everything could dissipate like Jerry Rubin turning into a Wall Street powerbroker, but I think we’re only entering the Abbie Hoffman phase of this new era.
I’m a fellow with an awful lot of experience burning the leaves of the cannabis plant and inhaling it deeply into my lungs. I’ve been a wake-n-bake smoker for over 35 years, which surely should qualify me for some sort of Ph.D. in weed. For most of the past eight years, at least when partaking at home, I’ve used a Storz + Bickel Volcano vaporizer, generally considered the Rolls Royce of vaporizers, and for good reason. After you’ve used practically any vaporizer, though, it’s a bit difficult to go back to the burning leaves method. I hate smoking herb out of a pipe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so snobby about it that I’ll turn it down when it’s passed my way, but it hurts my throat. Not my preference.
A couple years ago I got hipped to “dabbing” or specifically in my case, smoking via a Heath Stone, which is basically a small black disc of the same inert rocky material used in a chemistry class bunsen burner. Using what resembles a dental tool, you take a teeny, tiny amount of hash oil, wax, “budder” or whatever else you want to call your approx 70% pure THC by weight concentrated tipple and “dab” it onto this disc, which is stuck in the end of a regular glass bong via a special bowl. You then torch the wax with a three-flame lighter—a BIC lighter would just melt it—and with one quick hit, you’ve consumed about the same amount of THC as you would have had you smoked three joints of extremely strong pot by yourself. It’s back to incineration, true, but it’s also a fairly brief interaction with anything that’s going to irritate your throat or lungs. Also I prefer the high from wax, I ain’t gonna lie. For a long-time head like m’self, well, once you go wax, you never go back.
My point being that I effectively mothballed the Volcano within a matter of days (if not day) once I started using the Health Stone set-up. And for the most part I’ve been very cold on the pre-loaded cartridges for vapor pens. Portable and handy, sure. And clean, too. But most of them—and I find this to be a critical flaw—just don’t get you high. And all the flavors and shit. I don’t really want hash oil that’s Key Lime Pie-flavored. This is the kind of thing I want to get away from.
So the fact is, when the fine folks at Vapornation contacted me to ask if I wanted to review a new portable vaporizer that they were very enthusiastic about, I was initially kind of blasé about it until I realized that it wasn’t just for herb, it was also for concentrates. Once I knew that, yes, this thing is for wax, too, you know, I was kinda interested for a review model to be sent my way after all…
First off, just let me say that whoever thinks they can separate me from my portable MiVape vaporizer will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands. This is a portable vaporizer done right!
As you take the MiVape out of the packaging, you feel like you’re unwrapping an iPhone. This isn’t unintentional, I would imagine, and the notion that “If Apple made a portable vaporizer, it would be just like the MiVape” probably occurred to more than just me. It feels like an Apple product in a lot of ways. it really does.
Beyond that, it’s also pretty simple to use: set the temp once with digital plus/minus controls, turn it on, turn it off. The material, either loose ground herb or a dab wiped off on a piece of cotton gauze, goes into a thimble-sized test tube-like chamber and then snaps into place. It’s all glass on glass and it’s also a pure convection system, meaning that the “burnt popcorn” taste of cached weed from the Volcano is a thing of the past. It can’t burn.
Overall, the new MiVape, made by Vaporfection, is the best vaporizer that I’ve ever used, whether a big ol’ “desktop” version like the Volcano, or a cigarette packet-sized MiVape. Size does matter! A Volcano seems very clunky and old-fashioned when side-by-side with the slicker, hitech MiVape. The Volcano that sat on my desk for years has now been replaced with a tiny box and when I leave home, I can just scoop it up and put it into my pocket, something you can’t do with the Volcano.
After the jump, a video that explains how the MiVape works…
Sign Of Aquarius (aka Love Commune) is a hippie exploitation movie shot in Cleveland in 1970. Arriving on the heels of Altamont and the Manson Family murders, Sign Of Aquarius is a hot mess of cliches that sees the counter culture through a brown acid fog instead of rose-tinted Summer Of Love granny glasses. It’s an Easy Rider bummer filled with hard drugs, bathtub LSD and softcore flower child group gropes. Later, padded with some blaxploitation jive (power to the peepholes) it was re-titled Ghetto Freaks to bring in the Times Square crowd. The movie stinks as bad as a crash pad mattress but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than Milos Forman’s hippie dippy crapfest Hair. And it has a weirdly compelling, occasionally amazing, soundtrack composed by Tom Baker and Al Zbacnik.
The soundtrack was released as Sign Of Aquarius on the Adell label in 1970. It’s rare as shit and I couldn’t find the soundtrack anywhere on the ‘net for downloading. But I managed to source three of these tunes from a VHS copy of the movie I own and one from the album itself. Four songs that make up the best tracks on the record: “Om, Pax, Om”, “Mousey,” “Soorangi,” and the strangely titled “We Are The Aquarius” (shouldn’t it be “Aquarians”?) are here for your listening pleasure. It’s some really dynamite stuff with the particularly awesome “Om, Pax, Om” being, to my ears, a psychedelic classic. The other tunes are funky breakdowns with one Moogy drone bit with some jazzy sax that takes place during a bad acid trip that pre-dates some of John Carpenter’s minimalist synth work.
I had to add some light show trickery to obscure a bunch of nudity during “Om, Pax, Om” but otherwise here’s my favorite moments from Sign Of Aquarius in all of its unadulterated badassness.