Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000

Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000

by Martin Torgoff

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Can't Find My Way Home is a history of illicit drug use in America in the second half of the twentieth century and a personal journey through the drug experience. It's the remarkable story of how America got high, the epic tale of how the American Century transformed into the Great Stoned Age.
Martin Torgoff begins with the avant-garde worlds of bebop jazz…  See more details below


Can't Find My Way Home is a history of illicit drug use in America in the second half of the twentieth century and a personal journey through the drug experience. It's the remarkable story of how America got high, the epic tale of how the American Century transformed into the Great Stoned Age.
Martin Torgoff begins with the avant-garde worlds of bebop jazz and the emerging Beat writers, who embraced the consciousness-altering properties of marijuana and other underground drugs. These musicians and writers midwifed the age of marijuana in the 1960s even as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) discovered the power of LSD, ushering in the psychedelic era. While President John Kennedy proclaimed a New Frontier and NASA journeyed to the moon, millions of young Americans began discovering their own new frontiers on a voyage to inner space. What had been the province of a fringe avant-garde only a decade earlier became a mass movement that affected and altered mainstream America.
And so America sped through the century, dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms at home, shooting heroin and ingesting amphetamines in Vietnam, snorting cocaine in the disco era, smoking crack cocaine in the devastated inner cities of the 1980s, discovering MDMA (Ecstasy) in the rave culture of the 1990s.
Can't Find My Way Home tells this extraordinary story by weaving together first-person accounts and historical background into a narrative vast in scope yet rich in intimate detail. Among those who describe their experiments with consciousness are Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Robert Stone, Wavy Gravy, Grace Slick, Oliver Stone, Peter Coyote, David Crosby, and many others from Haight Ashbury to Studio 54 to housing projects and rave warehouses.
But Can't Find My Way Home does not neglect the recovery movement, the war on drugs, and the ongoing debate over drug policy. And even as Martin Torgoff tells the story of his own addiction and recovery, he neither romanticizes nor demonizes drugs. If he finds them less dangerous than the moral crusaders say they are, he also finds them less benign than advocates insist.
Illegal drugs changed the cultural landscape of America, and they continue to shape our country, with enormous consequences. This ambitious, fascinating book is the story of how that happened.

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Editorial Reviews

Nick Gillespie
Between an encyclopedic bibliography and dozens of original interviews with folks ranging from the Doors' record producer Paul A. Rothchild to National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) founder Keith Stroup to the "acid angel" Dawn Reynolds, the reader gets a contact high from touring a number of legendary drug-infused scenes. Allen Ginsberg's reading of Howl at San Francisco's Six Gallery; a typically debauched evening at New York's Studio 54, "the high temple of the Great Stoned Age"; the seminal '90s Ecstasy event A Rave Called Sharon -- Torgoff represents all these and more in well-rendered detail. He also gives due weight to gloomier tales, ranging from Charlie Parker's tormented love affair with heroin to '60s clown Wavy Gravy's showdown with Charles Manson at a California commune to the suicide of High Times magazine founder Tom Forcade.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Torgoff challenges what he calls America's "cultural amnesia" about recreational drug use during the last half-century, staking out a rhetorical middle ground that acknowledges both the pervasive cultural influence and the costs of overindulgence. The problem with his panoramic account is its focus on celebrities, especially among the creative classes, whose stories have already been told. That makes for a series of often stunning images Charlie Parker in the grip of heroin addiction, Wavy Gravy confronting Charles Manson, John Belushi snorting cocaine on live TV especially given Torgoff's skills as an interviewer (and the good fortune of getting to talk with key figures like Herbert Huncke and Timothy Leary before their deaths), but at the expense of discovering what happened once various drugs made their way to ordinary folks in the suburbs. Torgoff (who won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for American Fool, about John Cougar Mellencamp) does touch on that by opening with his own early drug use on '60s Long Island and closing with a poignant encounter with an aged homeless junkie, and the book could have used more stories like that. The discussion of the government's "war on drugs" is somewhat scattershot; though detailed on President Carter's flirtation with relaxing the laws and the militancy of the "Just Say No" era, there's nothing about Nixon's policies a particularly stunning omission since the DEA was created during his administration. Torgoff creates compelling juxtapositions, and he's not afraid to ask difficult questions, but he hasn't truly broken new ground. Agent, Russell Galen. (May 13) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Torgoff (American Fool) presents a history of the production, distribution, and use of heroin, LSD, marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs in America since World War II, told principally from the perspective of drug users. The book opens with the marijuana users and heroin addicts of the 1940s Bebop jazz scene and the nascent Beat generation. We see Charlie "Bird" Parker playing hot jazz and killing himself with heroin, and Jack Kerouac and the Beats smoking pot and taking amphetamines. Then, in the early 1960s, marijuana begins its rise into the mainstream, while Timothy Leary touts LSD as a cure-all consciousness expander. Throughout, Torgoff includes interviews with marijuana farmers in California, heroin junkies and cocaine snorters in New York, and members of the gay drug scene in San Francisco. He juxtaposes the reasons users give for their habits--artistic expression, social rebellion, alternative medicine--against the wasted lives, mental problems, and massive social costs of drug abuse. He is convincing in his argument that postwar America cannot be understood without examining the role drugs have played in American music, politics, and social relations. This book would be a useful supplement in any course on American history or culture since 1945 and can be appreciated by lay readers as well. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.--Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Music writer Torgoff informally collects scenes from the illicit drug culture during the second half of the 20th century. As all the singular and emblematic figures in the dope world over the last 50 years come walking through the author's door, he passes on their words-good, bad, indifferent, paranoid-or tenders a bit of their drug history if they're dead. Torgoff is not here to pass judgment, but rather to chronicle the rise of illicit drug use. He takes the middle road. Demonizing dope is absurd and pointless, he argues, and it's equally nutty to claim that drugs are harmless, as a percentage of users will always experience abuse problems. He simply wants to know what Timothy Leary and William Burroughs were after. (The former said he learned "that consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded"; the latter noted after his first injection, "Well, now, that's very interesting"). Allen Ginsberg's "optical consciousness" interests him too. Torgoff paints a sad picture of Charlie Parker, who emerges as something of an idiot savant with one overwhelming fixation enwrapping one prodigious talent, and an equally sad picture of the Summer of Love: as novelist Tom Robbins said, "All utopias attract thugs, like iron filings to a magnet." The hope for utopia, Torgoff notes, forms a major part of dope's attraction, as do the brilliance of drug-fueled synesthesia and the wildness of literary forms created by users. In the 1960s, he recalls, smoking dope led to other kinds of rebellion: "All you had to do was get high to understand in the most visceral sense that the government was lying about pot; once you saw through that hoax, you started questioning what the authorities weresaying about everything else." Or maybe you got lost to bad acid or crack. Anything was possible. Maybe it was all just (mostly) fun, but Torgoff's father's question remains unanswered: "What did any of it really mean?"Agent: Russell Galen/Scovil Chickak Galen
From the Publisher
"As pleasantly and richly intoxicating as a double hit of Humboldt County, California's finest....Torgoff ranges widely in documenting the profound influence of drugs on postwar America."
— Nick Gillespie, The Washington Post Book World

"Sprawling, high-spirited....[Torgoff's] ambitious chronicle packs considerable punch as an antidote to official policies based on 'myths, fears, exaggerations, and lies.'"
— Martin A. Lee, Los Angeles Times

"An exuberant chronicle of ecstatic inebriation, delusional utopianism, wretched excess and chastened nostalgia for lost highs."
The New York Times Book Review

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From Chapter Thirteen: The World's Oldest Cyberpunk

The Los Angeles Times had called Terence McKenna "the Tim Leary of the 90s." McKenna had even used his own playful variation of Leary's infamous catchphrase of the Sixties: "Log on, tune in, and drop out." Even Tim Leary called McKenna "the Tim Leary of the Nineties," but that did nothing to diminish Leary's stature in the story of the psychedelic culture. Cyberpunk had more than vindicated Leary. By the winter of 1993, his smiling countenance was being widely featured in a print campaign for the Gap. Twenty years later, the same man who had once been labeled the most dangerous man in America by a federal judge in California was selling blue jeans and T-shirts to a whole new generation as Timothy Leary, Philosopher. Leary had successfully surfed his way right onto the cybercultural cutting edge. He had become what Mondo 2000 was calling a "cyber-delic guru....The MVP (Most Valuable Philosopher) of the 20th Century." "The 90s are here," declared William Gibson, the cyberpunk novelist, "and the Doctor is in!"

As he looked back and totaled the assets and subtracted the costs of the use of drugs in America since the 1960s, Leary blamed many of his "mistakes" on simple naïveté. "For example, I made the classic mistake that we all make. It was wonderful for thin intellectuals like Aldous Huxley and me to get high and suddenly enjoy the pleasures of the body and aesthetics and sensuality and music: My God, this is wonderful! What I didn't realize is that eighty percent of the people out there are not motivated, and if they smoked marijuana, no question it could take away what little motivation they might have had. Tragically, in the cases of many younger people I observed, I didn't realize that there is a real problem with marijuana and young people who would smoke pot in the morning and not go to school -- what's the difference, put on another Grateful Dead record! You know, the last thing I ever had in mind was to create a whole subculture of adolescent haschischines! I cite this as one of my many mistakes of omission and naïveté, and I blame it on the tendency of every philosopher -- of every human, in fact -- to believe that everyone's like you, when of course they're not! -- "

He laughed, one of those Timothy Leary laughs, bittersweet and full of irony, self-deprecating honesty, and Irish blarney, more about the cosmic joke of the human condition than anything else.

"Oh, yes, we were well meaning good natured primitives back at Harvard. We didn't know anything about computers, nor did we realize anything about the implications of quantum physics, chaos theory, and fractals. We did know that when you had a visionary experience with a psychedelic drug, you were exposed to what we now call chaos. BOOM! You were experiencing a thousand times more information in a minute than in normal life. But we knew we needed to have a new language to describe it. We didn't have the language of technology back then, and now we do."

And so had Dr. Timothy Leary become America's oldest cyberpunk, a "neurologician" who portrayed the brain as "a galactic network of a hundred billion neurons," each one "an information system as complex as a mainframe computer." "The PC is the LSD of the Nineties," Leary declared in no uncertain terms, now speaking the language of fractals, digital information algorithms, virtual reality, and quantum electronic engineering as fluently as he had once spoken the language of transactional psychology and psychedelic transcendentalism. Lately he'd constructed a new philosophical platform based on the legend of the ronin (translated as "wave people"), a metaphor derived from the Japanese word for the samurai who had left the service of their feudal lords to become warriors without masters. It was the cyberpunks who were now the "pilots of the species," as Leary observed, the clear and creative thinkers who used "quantum-electronic appliances and brain know-how," the "strong, stubborn, creative individual who explores some future-frontier, collects and brings back new information, and offers to guide the gene pool to the next stage."

Cyberpunks were "mavericks, ronin, free-lancers, independents, self-starters, non-conformists, odd-balls, trouble-makers, kooks, visionaries, iconoclasts, insurgents, blue-sky thinkers, loners, smart alecks" -- in other words, exactly like Leary. He was certain that the policies of Ronald Reagan had not been what caused the Soviet Union to topple; rather, it had been the yearning on the part of Soviet-bloc youth for the very freedoms represented by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, blue jeans, computers, and -- yes -- LSD. In Leary's mind, the whole Reagan-conservative counterreaction to the Sixties that had demonized the psychedelic movement as misguided and immoral hedonism run amok was to have been expected.

"It happened after the Italian Renaissance, too, when they came in and busted all the naked statues and took down all the Venuses from the museum walls! Quite predictable, and I must say that every time we move it ahead -- and by 'we' I mean the humanists, those who believe in the human spirit and potential and believe you have to question authority -- every time we move it ahead, it's thrown back. But the base camp has been made, and the next wave will come and find your wreckage, and they'll be encouraged to go beyond that."

Of course, there were those in America who viewed any kind of "base camp" that Leary and his constituency might establish on the American cultural landscape as a kind of malignant plant that should be uprooted and eradicated -- just like the marijuana plants of Humboldt County. Those people were hardly downhearted by the news of Leary's prostate cancer in the next few years, any more than Leary was saddened by the demise of J. Edgar Hoover. As the media learned that Timothy Leary was dying and that he planned to have himself cryogenically frozen and "reanimated," journalists began a pilgrimage to his home in Los Angeles, where, for a fee of one thousand dollars, they could take their measure of the man in his final days. Most, of course, were unable to get past the most hackneyed sobriquets -- "High Priest of LSD," "Acid Guru," "Drug King of the Sixties Generation," and so on -- and asked questions like "Do you have any regrets about all the LSD you took, all the drugs that were taken in your name?" As for Leary's response to them, it was usually similar to the words he proclaimed so emphatically that day in his backyard --

"I still honor botanical substances that activate the brain. I honor cannabis; I honor lysergic acid, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms! I honor at least a hundred new botanical brain drugs which aren't even discovered yet, for all the receptor sites in the brain! I honor the ancient tradition of using the gifts of the vegetable kingdom -- or queendom! I do believe that the brain needs them; the brain loves electrons and psychoactive chemicals! -- "

He was smiling again.

"Hey, the receptor sites are there! Just like you have lungs -- well, they must want air! You got a belly, the body must want food! You got these receptor sites in your brain, it's obvious! Most human beings love to get high, love to alter their consciousness with vegetables! That's why you have taboos! That's why you have these prohibitions! That's why you have the war on drugs! Because people love it! The inevitable complication here is that the people in control, the top management, always make the idea of altering consciousness or changing your own brain something immoral, illegal, or unethical! Only God can do that, right? -- particularly if it's enjoyable! Well, naturally, it's enjoyable! Brains love electrons!! Brains love to be strobed by colors and images!! But you're not supposed to enjoy it, right? -- "

Timothy Leary laughed again, delighted by his own rant, forever tweaking the authorities, the theologians, the conservatives -- the ronin on the white horse, without masters, unrepentant, unbowed. He died on May 31, 1996, with the words "Why not?" on his lips. Having abandoned the plans to have himself cryogenically frozen, Leary nevertheless managed to have his ashes shot into space in a capsule. It was, as his official Web site readily pointed out, his Final Trip.

Copyright © 2004 by Martin Torgoff

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