7 years into their formation, the band Spacemen 3 still found themselves searching for something. I’d say “identity,” but I’m pretty sure they knew exactly what they were doing at the point in which they billed themselves as, “an evening of contemporary sitar” (it’s worth mentioning that no member of Spacemen 3 owned a sitar at the time). Though usually a 4 piece, the band had found themselves as 3 with a new bassist, and also found themselves in front of an “art” crowd. I use art in quotes only because one would expect a crowd of people waiting to see the film Wings of Desire a crowd open to a variety of artistic experiences, a crowd that would hopefully question their own immediate frustrations and find value in conflicting experience. This was however, not the case. Pat Fish, a man dubbed officially as Spacemen 3’s “Joint Roller,” reported overhearing a man in his 40s or 50s say, “to think Elvis died for this!” For the next 50 minutes, Spacemen 3 would play in one key (A), and they would irritate almost everyone inside of that room. Overheard, a PA announced final seating for the film, to which the bassist Will Caruthers confused with his own actions, stating, “we’re already sitting.”
In reality, his performance had only occurred between himself and his own thoughts, as he had forgotten to plug his bass into his amp. Caruthers was so fucked up on hash that he hadn’t even bothered to plug in, and to my judgement, he had probably made himself the most integral part of the performance. Imagine a space so egoless where you find yourself totally absorbed by the sound around you, only to believe you are contributing without actually noticing you aren’t. Obviously Caruthers wasn’t listening for himself, and he might have been that shows greatest observer (the two other performers, J Spaceman and Sonic Boom too focused on their own separate tasks).
I again go back to the idea of searching, as, I think, a band like Spacemen 3 would have known exactly what to do for whom if they were a traditional “band.” Three well received albums in, three years shy of a decade from their formation, and they were still doing performances to hostile crowds. Meanwhile, contemporaries Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds had found themselves in the film Wings of Desire, and had solidly established themselves a place in the “art” crowd at the time. But, and for lack of a better phrase, Spacemen 3 were still fucking around.
Not conceptually though, I would argue. Spacemen 3 were exploring their own relationship to drone tones and sounds, the things that really got themselves the feeling of highness outside of their own songs. The performance (which was recorded and released many years later under the experimental-rock-history-ladder name Dreamweapon) consisted of melody lines from an album they had just started working on, bits and fragments of the ideas that had been floating around in their semi-conscious states. They knew exactly what they wanted to present, they just either didn’t know or didn’t care about who they were going to present it to. They were searching for something, and that something was sound. It was not acceptance, accolades, or maybe even an audience outside of themselves (Sonic Boom once said that he preferred playing in a noisy place to a quiet cathedral, J Spaceman ended up building the rest of his career on the notions of cathedrals).
When I listen to the Dreamweapon set I find it meditative, and my mind juggles with the notion that something so meditative could produce such hostility. Granted nobody threw rotten vegetables or tomatoes at the band, but there were reports of audience members yelling invectives against the band. The band wanted to produce a drone space, instead what they ended up with was conflict. The sound of their hashish-influenced minds was presented but not accepted. They did not egg anybody on. They played peacefully. They played sitting down. Somebody yelled, “shut up you fuckin’ twats!”
When I performed under the name of Weed Queen, the Dreamweapon performance was my guiding light. However, I was not as “successful” as Spacemen 3. For starters, I had more than a few friends there who I knew and could rely on to be supportive. People did leave due to volume and repetition, but I was also very well supported by Nancy, the proprietor of the art-bar called Likewise in which I played. I played not as an emulation to the passive-aggressive wonder that is Dreamweapon (a term I am trying to use in a positive manner, as related to performance). I also expected people to leave. I’m pretty sure Spacemen 3 expected nothing.
Part II: Stoner
“Stoner metal” is arguably one of the greatest musical genre terms ever created. Genre names either come from a sense of empowerment through expression (jazz, rap, rock, blues), or by way of a diminutive neologism that just happens to stick (shoegaze, nu metal, twee, or [one I’m not even sure is real] solipsynthm). The further we move through time in contemporary music, the closer we move towards these fragmented sub-genre names, and even the notion of genre itself. Sometime around the turn of the century, we found musicians wanting to turn away from naming their music with a genre term; they had begun to find it too confining or limiting, taking their ideas and confining them to predetermined boxes. Musical genres were no longer the ground of fertile exploration, they were the rules that musicians wanted to ignore. Only the dedicated traditionalists were grounded to their genre, everyone else was trying to go somewhere, even if their sounds were incredibly derivative.
Stoner metal enthusiasts embrace the term. Unlike shoegaze, they find nothing wrong with being labeled as stoner metal. Of course they’re high as fuck when they play, that is the point. It’s worth mentioning that the genre’s defining album, Dopesmoker, by the band Sleep, starts with the lyrics, “drop out of life with bong in hand.” Inside the hazy snow globe that is weed and heavy sounds, there’s nothing wrong with being a stoner. More accurately, it’s a required part of the ticket. Imagine if the first words to My Bloody Valentine’s Only Shallow were, “stare down, ignore this world, buy more guitar pedals.” Stoner metal harkens back to a time of creative self-consciousness, which early rock n’ rollers like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly had in spades. Not only were they ahead of the game on what exactly it was that they were doing, they were also writing songs about it to let you, the audience, know exactly what it was.
As a creative move, I love this. Mostly because it steals the thunder out of a music critic. Modern music critics love telling other people what they’re listening to, and so anytime an artist does so before they get a chance, their job becomes mooted. To me, this speaks to a couple of things: one, that we are generally afraid of not knowing what we’re listening to, and two, that the dumb stuff is much smarter than we give it credit for. Being on the forefront helps in this regard; the Rolling Stone’s “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” really doesn’t hold water to Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” precisely because by the time we hit the Rolling Stones song, we know very well what we’ve been listening to for 17 years. (This is unfair as a comparison though; the Rolling Stones’ song is about the old rock n’ roll that Chuck Berry was making, whereas Berry’s song actually describes the genre’s technical terms: “it’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it.”) The point is that certain artists are blessed with the time and space for being right on the front of something, and when that something happens, they have a choice to define its terms or to retreat into a mask of projected artistic “individuality.” Sleep was of the former, hence we have stoner metal.
Part III: I Can’t Play Stoned
Andy Kaufman once proclaimed on live TV, “I can’t play stoned.” It started an on-air fight that some consider to be one of the finest moments in comedy, if not all art.
Weed Queen is, by far, my third favorite imaginary band. This is aided by nostalgia for a former job (who I should be clear, is directed at the scenario and not the type of work, which I definitely do not miss) where I was completely surrounded by total potheads. Weed smoking in the warehouse, on shift, was the norm, so much that it was considered a cultural offence if you didn’t smoke weed while in the warehouse. This was occurring during a time in my life when I realized that I may never smoke weed again. I was completely surrounded by weed smoke, yet every time I even considered weed, nevertheless smoked it, I found that I always became that dude who got a little too trapped in his own head. This never subsided, and so I declared myself to be done with it, no more weed, forever (maybe).
I find weed culture hilarious, but not in the usual way, as in I’m not really into Pineapple Express or Cheech and Chong. I mostly just find it hilarious that people dedicate so much time and energy to it, and that one substance creates the idea of a “community” by way of consumption. It’s probably one of capitalism's most successful stories, the story of how weed, just by use, creates a subgroup of people who feel like they relate and understand each other. I think the whole illegality thing helped/helps (depending on where you live), as it gives heavy weed consumers a cause to rally behind. Taco Bell wishes it was weed, so does Dove soap.
One day at this job, the owner of the company, faced with a rapidly growing business and the need to look professional in front of UPS and USPS drivers, decided to finally drop the hammer on smoking weed in the warehouse. Such was a time where a cultural shift happened where no one present knew how to react. It was as if, all of a sudden, a sure future had disappeared in an instant. Everyone involved was not looking at capital gains, but rather at a culture that allowed them to exist in a space where they normally should not. No one should be allowed to smoke weed at work, openly, and yet here we were, supporting the work load and supporting each other. It’s worth noting that this did not curb anyone’s weed habits, but rather it caused folks to resort to the normal way people smoke weed on the job (in their car or hidden behind the building, at or near lunch time).
I’m not an “edgy” person. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m trying to get the idea across that I am “edgy,” or if I’m just admitting by way of patheticism that I’m not “edgy” and any attempt to do so will just look sad and pathetic. I found a great metaphor in this by way of shotgunning a cold can of cran-raspberry LaCroix.
I feel as if Andy Kaufman wasn’t lying when he said, “I can’t play stoned.” I don’t think his antics on Fridays were necessarily that of a saboteur, rather someone who was trying to openly admit that he’d burnt out on playing under-the-influence stereotypes, that this mode of acting had lost its comedic value, and that he’d had no method left to draw from to play “stoned.” This wasn’t the work of some deviant, destructive concept comedian that just wanted to torture people, this was a side-swiped protest. His former major show, Taxi, contained cocaine-use jokes, spurred on by his character, in a time when people for some reason were content to see fucked up people act fucked up on national TV. This is what I would contend is a “false-transgressive,” as in the transgressive nature of the action of playing like you’re high loses it’s appeal when it a) becomes norm, and b) acts more a routine route to pull laughs in a world that is realizing that getting high is fun but still illegal but fun but still illegal. Drugs were easy laughs, and Kaufman decided he’d had enough of easy laughs. Spacemen 3 were not high for easy laughs, they smoked hashish for aesthetic reasons, and in doing so continued to keep up the weed-smoke-as-annoyance route that has continued from teenager to teenager since the time of Kaufman and Fridays.
It may be worth stating then that in the scene of weed, maybe there are no true transgressions, especially as time marches on and legality becomes a matter of eventuality. It’s worth noting though that as of Friday, January 27th, 2017, states-rights to legal marijuana is under threat by the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions. This could launch the war on weed back into a public aesthetic realm where its use again looks transgressive, taking it out of its path to normalcy and boredom, which, I would like to state, is a path more noble and more difficult than one could imagine. Since the times of Taxi and Fridays, the outside “edge” has become far more sellable than that of which just wants to quit challenging its right to exist. Kaufman pointed out to us that the best laughs weren’t the easy ones, Spacemen 3 showed us that the most “artful” expressions were those that weren’t packaging themselves as “art” in an “art space,” and Sleep managed to show us that a diminutive tag could be the muse that focuses your sound, as well as that often the highest guys in the room were the smartest and most self-aware.