My first attempt at rolling a joint was rather pathetic. It looked more like a small turd covered in paper than something to be smoked. And not knowing to remove the twigs and seeds — of which it had many — the loosely rolled number disconcertingly popped and crackled each time I took a hit of it. Was there something wrong with the pot? Had I been ripped off by the dropout with a scraggly beard and small Japanese motorcycle who sold nickel bags every morning behind the high school library? Given that it was the first time I was getting stoned by myself — i.e., sans any technical assistance — I would just have to make do. “Hopefully, this shit is good,” I muttered to myself as I drew in the harsh smoke from the burning weed.
The inspiration to party solo was prompted by my purchase that afternoon of “Wish You Here,” Pink Floyd’s follow-up to its brilliantly mind-blowing “Dark Side of the Moon” LP. Truth be told, I was yet to know much about the group other than its hit single “Money,” which was more or less a stand-alone pop tune from Dark Side and unlike the group’s iconic long tracks — some of which took up entire album sides and featured foreboding ticking and crashing sound effects, soaring guitar solos, and smatterings of haunting and disturbing voices.
I chose “Wish You Were Here” merely because it was the group’s latest album. I had little idea what I was getting into, and even my new pot-smoking comrades at school weren’t talking about it yet. As a sophomore beginning my fourth school in five years — my single mother and I were quite nomadic in the early 1970s — I felt a sudden urgency to move beyond pop-rock hits like “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Saturday in the Park,” and “Frankenstein,” and into music that was more edgy and dangerous to solidify my standing with what I considered to be the most interesting kids in my class.
I’d also become bored with the remaining trappings of my childhood — stamp collecting, my Saturday-morning bowling league, and building plastic models of horror-film action figures. Certainly, these pastimes were not earning me any street cred nor did they attract the attention of girls. I was ready to experiment and take some risks.
While I partook in my one-person marijuana party, my mother and her friends played Mahjong, their Tuesday night ritual in the dining room of our small suburban condo. As long as the game tiles kept clicking and clacking, I knew I was under the adult radar.
To enhance the mood, I replaced the standard light bulb in the ceiling fixture with a black light, which gave my cramped bedroom the feel of an ultra-violet, alternate universe. Everything white glowed — the bed sheets, the window shades, my skin. The Creature from the Black Lagoon model standing on my dresser — its mouth agape and scaly arms raised to attack — looked at home in the muted light.
After tearing the wrapper off the album, I momentarily pondered its cover — a photograph of two men in suits shaking hands, one aflame. I didn’t give much thought to the image’s symbolism, a jab at the record business. It just looked pretty cool to me. Then I pulled the shiny black vinyl disc from its sleeve and put it on the spindle of my hand-me-down record player — just a turntable in a carrying case — and carefully placed the needle on the outer edge as it spun around at 33 1/3 rpm.
At first, I thought something was wrong with the stereo, because the music was barely audible. But the slow ethereal fade-in from a synthesizer grew steadily louder and more complex. With the ultra-violet ambiance of my room, and the joint kicking in, I began to feel like I was drifting through interstellar dust — in a state of being without dimensions or boundaries. Finally, after what seemed like ions, a bluesy guitar riff!
Unlike the straight-ahead rock-and-roll albums I had become acquainted with in early adolescence, “Wish You Were Here” is much more than a collection of four-minute songs. It’s a journey — an arrival, a transformation, and a departure — with the epical “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” providing the record’s arc, its intro and outro, and its rise and fall. The two halves of Shine On, which are subdivided into spacious guitar, keyboard and sax solos, run for 26 of the record’s 44 minutes and could have worked as an album unto itself.
The three songs flanked by “Shine On” — “Welcome to the Machine,” “Have a Cigar,” and “Wish You Were Here” — are more accessible because of their obvious melodies and conventional instrumentation. However, their abrupt phrase changes and driving percussive elements let us know that things aren’t going to exactly work out for the “you” of the album. These lyrics leave no doubt:
Come in here, dear boy,
Have a cigar, you’re gonna go far,
You’re gonna fly high, you’re never gonna die,
You’re gonna make it if you try,
They’re gonna love you.
The title track, a beautiful melancholic ballad, gently hands us off into the whooshing wind, back to Shine On, and out into the cosmos from whence we came.
As musically virginal as I was, I didn’t initially appreciate the record’s thematic cohesiveness. It took months, even years, for me to completely grasp the sophistication of “Wish You Were Here.” At 15, I simply wasn’t “there” yet. But I must have listened to the album three times that night in my little netherworld of purple light and smoke, enjoying the atmospheric music and the Zen of being stoned.
Unbeknownst to me, “Wish You Were Here” had been a struggle for Pink Floyd. As rock historians report, the group had been exhausted and overwhelmed by the success of “Dark Side of the Moon,” making it difficult to summon their creative energies for a follow-up record. And, there was the proverbial infighting and battles for control that often come with artistic collaborations. Though they would cut three more albums in the coming years, “Wish You Were Here” is considered to be the beginning of their end.
While the record reflected on the band’s own loss of self, it was also a tribute to Syd Barrett, a psychedelic music pioneer who founded the group, but left in 1968 during a hallucinogen-induced breakdown.
Ironically, I was just beginning my own downward spiral — into stonerdom. In the coming weeks, I became a ghost of my former self, and remained buzzed for the next five years. In addition to smoking weed three times a day, I grew long hair and a beard, donned Frye boots and an army jacket, and spent much of my free time driving around with friends, listening to FM rock stations.
The high life for me was less of a conscious decision and more of a path of least resistance. It provided me with a clear identity of who I was and who my friends were. And perhaps most of all, I liked being stoned, breezing through the day whether I was in English class, working as a pump jockey at the local Shell station, or cruising the unremarkable streets of Mayfield Heights, Ohio. Fortunately, I didn’t dabble much in harder stuff like cocaine, LSD, or heroin; reefer was not a gateway drug for me. In fact, I never even liked alcohol, because of the clumsiness and loss of control it brought on. Getting mellow from weed was just right for me.
Eventually, the academic rigors of college brought me down from the clouds — I landed with a thud — and my romance with marijuana came to an end. Normalcy was a difficult adjustment — I often felt depressed and occasionally paranoid for the next year or so. But I was too damned scared of going nowhere had I continued the party. I suspect that my maturing frontal lobe — the part of the brain that considers the future consequences of present actions — finally kicked in. I cut off much of the hair from my head and face, lost weight, and began focusing on a career in computers. While I’ll never know what would have happened had I chosen a straighter path through those formative years — perhaps destined to become U.S. Senator Shaberman? — I survived being a pothead without too much irreparable harm.
But, I’ll always remember that inaugural night in my black-lit bedroom with an exquisite buzz and the sonic wonder of “Wish You Were Here” in lo-fi. After about two hours, my first case of the munchies hit hard, so I headed for the kitchen to nab one of the custard-filled éclairs my mother brought home that evening from the local Jewish bakery. Well before I reached the dining room, I realized I was far more wasted than I had thought. I felt like Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. Who turned the gravity off? I was ripped! But I was determined to keep my shit together.
After floating by my mom and four other menopausal Jewish women sitting at a card table filled with Mahjong tiles, I heard the screech of “Benny! I haven’t seen you in years! You’re so BIG!” It was Hilda, who made up for her diminutive stature with the vocal chords of a Pteradactyl.
“I remember when you were only this high!” she said holding her hand, palm down, about two feet off the ground.
“I’m much higher now,” I replied, grinning sheepishly as I reached into the large brown paper bag filled with delectable bakery.