Alternative music: the original medicine

by Sep 10, 2019

Cannabis and music: they’ve always been united in the public imagination. And if you look at them closely, they move together, often towards the same destination. I’m glad that I have the chance to work with both of them, for once I learned how to work with them both, they accelerated my healing and my enjoyment of life.

Of course, before I had cannabis, I had music. Growing up in the ‘90s, I and my friends participated directly in the birth of alternative culture. I was directly primed for it, thanks to the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. Back in those days, we rocked cassette tapes, and that tape accompanied me just about anywhere – my friend’s home, a car, anywhere I could find a boombox. Their producer, Rick Rubin, would also produce Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the first LP I bought with my own money. Alongside extreme sports, their music would inform everything that excited me and got me looking forward to adulthood. Up until then, I had grown up with my father’s music: the Allman Brothers, Hendrix, Zep, the Stones. I loved them then and still do today, but upon jumping feet-first into RHCP’s sexy, grimy and funky-ass swagger, I claimed my own space of liberation and fun. 

While some other group or act or MC may have activated you, it’s likely that something else set you off, too, once puberty hit. Holding onto that spark as aging takes hold takes no small degree of  grace and wisdom to pull it off correctly, especially as life starts taking shots at you right and left. But it can be done, and best of all, now that we’re working with the fine new artists of Jam in the Van, I’m also able to give a little back.  I dedicate this blog post to them, and to all of the artists that have touched me along the way. I truly couldn’t have pulled this off without you.

Beastie Boys License to III
RHCP Blood sugar sex magik
Phish Junta

The Phish years

I first encountered Trey and his boys around the time I started learning guitar in my freshman year of high school. At the point in 1994, the Grateful Dead still dominated the jam band scene, and Phish held it down as a quirky, underground phenomenon with loads of talent who were slowly building their rep in neighboring Vermont. One year later, Jerry Garcia passes away. Tragic as his untimely passing was, it gave groups like Phish the opportunity to reach a brand new audience. 

I have a very vivid experience with seeing this play out right in front of me. Jerry had died in August, and I witnessed my first Phish show in December of that year at the Civic Center in Portland, ME. At that time, I was starting to find my voice with the guitar, and in front of me, playing to 3000 people, Trey was bringing it all together – all the freeform jam energy of my father’s generation with the grooves that lit me up as a kid. Not too soon after that, I started my band Homegrown with some high school friends, and we worked with many of the same musical elements Phish did: funk, soul, rock, all tied together with a free-flowing jam aesthetic. 

Of course, we took flak for being Phisheads. Back in those days, TOOL, Nine inch Nails and Marilyn Mansion were big, and those guys didn’t respect anything that wasn’t super-aggro and loud. To this day, Phish has its many critics, and they don’t understand the culture or the music any more than those guys did (although eventually, I was able to convert some of them, and even brought a few of them to their first shows!). However, people are still keeping the torch lit. On Instagram, there are some great accounts that epitomize the whimsy and goofy fun I love about the shows, @phishdanceparty, which overdubs videos of people dancing with Phish tracks. And in my car, SiriusXM has not budged from its Phish channel. As I write this, Phish is playing dates on their summer tour, and I’m still hooked after all these years.

EDM and Burning Man

By now, I reckon you’re starting to see a pattern here. Funk. Soul, Dancing, Counterculture vibes. At some point or another, it all leads to a hot, sweaty dancefloor, and that experience was waiting for me once I shipped off to Phish’s hometown of Burlington, VT for the University of Vermont. I went to my first underground dance party in Montreal in 2000, just two hours away. Four floors, every imaginable style of electronic music you could imagine. The lights and the sound and the raw connection to everyone I felt on the dancefloor began a new chapter in my life, one that would eventually lead me to Burning Man seven years later.

At that time, I was already fully immersed in the Tahoe underground, which centered around the quarterly parties Keep Tahoe Deep. By then, I focused on four-to-the-floor and breakbeat – the latter which for me bore the closest ties to the classic rock I grew up loving. Burning Man at that point pre-social media was still a relatively underground phenomenon, and for many years, I wanted to go, but the owner of the bar/restaurant I bartended at couldn’t stand the festival and would fire anyone who wanted to go, or attempted to cover shifts so they could attend. Bear in mind, the Labor Day weekend, when Burning Man happens, is NOT that busy here in Tahoe, and our bar was always overstaffed, but that wasn’t the point. My boss epitomized The Man, fighting against a form of freedom and self-expression he found deviant, and forcing his employees to conform to it.

alternative music

It would make sense for me to eventually rebel against this, and eventually, I did. I covered all of my shifts, and even found backups for my backups. After I did that, I called a meeting with the owner and all of the managers and told them I was GOING. And that year, in 2007, I did. And my mind was BLOWN. I camped with the folks at Tahopia, and FreQ Nasty and Bassnectar played on our art car. Once again, that night, riding with the Deep crew and even just riding my bike around the open playa, it all came together for me again. All of my rock star fantasies were in full view, and the connections and experiences I had out there would strongly influence the life I wanted to lead from there on out.

By the time this comes out, Burning Man 2019 will have come and gone, without me along for the ride. Believe it or not, I am not feeling the FOMO. I will always cherish the experiences I had while I was out there, but I’ve been able to carve out my own space of rebellion, fun and self-expression with Medicine Box, one that also keeps me grounded and centered. Interestingly enough, the cannabis industry seems to be headed in the same direction, and many of today’s musicians, I’m noticing, are coming along for the ride.


The musical cure

Of course, as I and most of my musical heroes can easily tell you, there was always a dark side to the party we all embraced. Practically all of the musical acts I just mentioned – RHCP, Nirvana and Phish – ended up struggling with addiction issues. Some of them, like Chris Cornell, didn’t make it.

Back in 2017, when news of Cornell hit, I wrote a blog post on the very bad and sudden news we all faced at that point. Two years later, I’m even more convinced it was the antidepressants that did him dirty. Like many grunge artists of his generation – Kurt and Layne Stayley come immediately to mind – Cornell fought his own inner demons, and what did they give him? Ativan for his, wait for it…. sleep disorder. Having just kicked Prozac, it truly broke my heart to hear that Cornell had attempted to kick a pharmaceutical as well. And while I can’t peek into his psyche, I can assure you that moving away from benzos can not only be excruciatingly painful, but fatal as well, depending on how often you’re using them. Yet as open as he was about his addictions, it pains me to realize that iconic voice of his, which had thrilled me ever since my dad introduced me to Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden as a kid, is silenced – especially since I know there is another way.

That’s why I’ve committed myself to the path I’m on now. The artists and fans of the ‘90s did not have any other model for their culture other than live-fast-die-young and getting high. The wellness phenomenon has changed this game, and I’ve been able to witness this with the groups we work with through Jam in the Van. It reminds me that no matter how many years we’ve used this plant, we’re still just learning about its potential to heal and improve our lives. If you ask a few neuroscientists, like VICE did a while ago, to explain why music sounds different to people using cannabis, they can give you some general ideas, but nothing conclusive. For me, cannabis is tied to spirit and creator and serves as a catalyst for expansion of creativity and softening the edges of our egos, which only leads to more truth, authenticity and vulnerability. Utilized properly, this can only strengthen a musician’s mental health and lead to a more socially conscious, self-CONSTRUCTIVE culture. As a lifelong musician and music fan, I know of no better way to give back, and keep the party going long after I’ve gone to jam on with Chris and the gang in that Great Gig in the Sky.



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