- Steve Beitler for DRCNet
Ronald Reagan's death and Bill Clinton's book have sparked a collective flashback to the 1980s and '90s. Drug reformers (and others) can be excused for not leaping aboard this unctuous bandwagon; they may be struggling to ride out a media bombardment that activates memories many would rather keep dormant. Sappy tributes to the Gipper exclude the Reagan whose transgressions include the vigorous launch of the modern dark age of the drug war. And when it was to spiff up the legacy, Bill Clinton, whose tenure brought a 100% increase in marijuana arrests, didn't devote a lot of space in his new book to drug policy.
Torgoff and his subjects frequently recapture the feel of different moments. "There was a short period of time... when it felt inevitable that our kind of life was going to grow until the institutions fell and we would simply be taking care of each other on a block-by-block basis," recalled Lynn House, who moved from New York to San Francisco just in time for the Summer of Love in 1967. Torgoff also weaves in his personal story without intruding on (or deepening) the larger narrative.
And a large narrative it is, organized chronologically and spanning a vast and raucous scene. Torgoff begins in New York after World War II, when Herbert Huncke and Alan Ginsberg and the Beats were finding their voices. He encounters and writes about (all lists are partial) the pioneers (Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Ann and Sasha Shulgin), the artists (Charlie Parker, Grace Slick, Andy Warhol, Oliver Stone), the one-of-a-kinds (Wavy Gravy, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, Hunter Thompson), the scholars (Terrence McKenna) and the reformers (Keith Stroup, Rick Doblin, Marsha Rosenbaum). Torgoff also brings to life some lesser lights such as Tom Forcade, drug smuggler and founder of High Times magazine, and Lance Loud, who became an amphetamine and amyl nitrate fan after he had arrived on and departed America's radar screen in 1973 as part of the first-ever reality TV show, "An American Family."
The book has a lot of good stories. Oliver Stone tells about the time he slipped LSD into his father's Scotch. "He was scared," said Stone, "but he was having a ball and suspected I had done it. He talked about it until the day he died." But Torgoff's encounters with regular folks are often more compelling. Sylvia Nunn, aka Rambo, is an OG – Original Gangster – who has been gangbanging as a member of the Bloods "since the very start of the scene... When she became Homecoming Queen [in high school], her mother gave her flowers and her father presented her with a sawed-off pump shotgun." Dawn Reynolds attended the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival as an 18-year-old "alabaster beauty" who was known as an "acid angel" in Los Angeles and who "looked sophisticated way beyond her years and exuded a bold open sensuality." Reynolds was in San Francisco for the Summer of Love, after which she "wandered from scene to scene, drug to drug, man to man, up and down the California coast." By the early '70s, Reynolds made the discovery that so many others would come to and that would give that decade its peculiar stamp: "The path was within, and the subject was me."
Torgoff recounts a conversation with his father "that would inspire this book." His father challenged him to "go ahead and tell me -- what did any of it really mean?" This is where Torgoff's book loses its freshness and lapses into platitudes. "... as a society we face enormously difficult and complex problems concerning the use of illicit drugs," he writes. "Only through the most rigorously honest appraisal of this subject will we ever be able to make sense of the past." True enough, but hardly new. Torgoff's book scores high for its profiles and its social history; readers looking for compelling interpretations of that history will be disappointed.