"'The first song I heard about marijuana was 'Puff The Magic Dragon' by Peter, Paul & Mary. Well... that's what my older brother and his pot-smoking friends used to tell me. What else could it have been about?
'Along Comes Mary', 'Eight Miles High', 'A Little Help From My Friends'... it seemed to me that every second song played on the radio had something to do with turning on. And anyway, wasn't FM radio made for young people, who, in candle-lit basements , passed joints around listening to endless guitar solos? More then television, the movies, or any other popular art form I can think of, music has been the most up front and telling about marijuana smoking.
If the songs contained in this collection reveal anything at all, it is that marijuana smokers do not form some kind of fringe and perverse movement, despite what mainstream media would like us all to believe. A marginal group can't make a song go gold. From jazz musicians who kicked the gong around to blunt smoking rappers, the music testifies to marijuana's enduring popularity and it's resilience.
" - Ron Mann, director of Grass - Taos, Mexico, 2000
If this statement made by Ron Mann concerning the soundtrack release to his 1999 documentary Grass
is anything to go by, you don't need to watch the film itself to expect a strongly liberal viewpoint in the legalisation of marijuana. Narrated by Woody Harrelson the film traces the history of the devil weed in America, originally introduced by mexican workers immigrating into the country through to Harry J. Anslinger's spreading of scare tactics and misinformation which resulted in the prohibition laws which are still only being slowly chipped away at today. It sections off the different eras of general fear and hysteria of the public over the years alongside the cost of attempting to suppress marijuana use, which in retrospect seem completely ridiculous ("Marijuana will make you insane", "Marijuana will make you a communist", "Marijuana will make you addicted to heroin" etc) but were delivered of the utmost seriousness at the time.
The message of the film came across as very strong, from an indifferent to or even anti-marijuana perspective plenty of the evidence on display (esp. the woeful archival propaganda footage) would be difficult to dismiss easily. Whatever your stance or political leanings, there is one thing that is consistently striking about the film and that is its soundtrack. Released the following year, Grass - Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture
is just what is advertised: a collection of songs from and in the spirit of the film.
These songs span a few genres but were all mostly chosen for their enduring quality, and common ties into themes about marijuana. Mark Mothersbaugh (that guy from Devo who also did a tonne of childrens television show themes such as Rugrats) composed the theme song and only original composition for Grass
, a largely unappreciated track that goes by the name of Quit Playing Games With God!
Accompanying the title credits of the film, it perfectly sets the tone of the documentary through its use of funky percussion, groovy synths and bright acoustic guitars which interweave samples from the marijuana propaganda films of yesterday in a purely ironic fashion (57% of the student body were smoking pot! smoking pot!/it fascinates and then assassinates!/and then it kills!/a drug epidemic that's sweeping our nation!
). Disregarding its context in the film, it is a great track in its own right and is up to the standards of any of Mothersbaughs often ignored but otherwise memorable work.
Most of the album dwells in the realms of rock, mainly of the psychedelic and blues variety. Ian Whitcomb And Bluesville's You Turn Me On
is a pretty good choice with it's mid-paced rock structure and infectious lyrics as is William Topley's Uptown
(this man has quite the baritone voice), but Small Faces Itchycoo Park
and Quicksilver Messenger Service's Fresh Air
really nail it. Itchycoo Park
is as good as anything The Beatles ever wrote, the lyrics completely anthemic to the era (Over bridge of sighs/To rest my eyes in shades of green/Under dreamin' spires/To Itchycoo Park, that's where I've been/What did you do there?/I got high!/What did you feel there?/Well I cried!/But why the tears there?/I'll tell you why/It's all too beautiful
). Fresh Air
has the same exciting feel to it, but is a much slower, bluesier affair with vocals drowned in reverb (ooo have another hit, of fresh air!
). Out of the rock front of the album, only J.J. Cale's famous Cocaine
seems a little out of place (subject matter?) but regardless it is still a classic song of it's era and a worthy inclusion.
A mishmash of other genres make up the rest of the album. Cab Calloway's Reefer Man
is the sole representative of jazz here, an upbeat, completely infectious ode to "those silly cats on reefer". It's fast, walking bassline and trumpets are golden, the group sounding like it is having so much fun as Cab spouts humorous lyrics (Have you ever met that funny reefer man?/If he trades you dimes for nickels and calls watermelons pickles/you know you're talking to the reefer man
). Cat's And The Fiddles Killing Jive
is a cheery old school folk R&B song, John Prine's Illegal Smile
a rather bland live country track (which feels very awkward placed in the middle of the album) and Peter Tosh's classic reggae anthem Legalise It
makes an appearance (something Jamaican had to be here). The weakest point of the album is definitely the two tracks at the end, Mankind Liberation Front's dub electronic Dope Dreams
and Method Man and Redman's hip-hop track How High
. These songs aren't bad, but the modern styles clash a little with the rest of the album.
Grass - Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture
is an excellent compilation of marijuana music from over the years, though far from perfect with some patchy inclusions and an inconsistent mish-mash of genres most of the tracks here are a very good addition to ones music collection. There are many audio samples of archival footage from the documentary itself in between tracks, which could be grating to some but to others it might add an odd appeal. Dig it.