Recently on GloNo, the point was made that Steely Dan was arguably the best Drug Rock band of the 70s. While I won’t dispute the point, it raised another question in my mind: what happened to Drug Rock? What a long, strange trip it’s been…
Where are the blacklit rooms, adorned with florescent wall posters of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin? What happened to that guy who lived at the end of the block in his divorced parents’ vacant house – Doug, was it? – who always had the really good weed? The guy who drove the brown Nova with the bitchin’ Realistics in the back, and was always hanging around in the back of the school parking lot behind the tennis courts? Don’t tell me Doug didn’t pass the torch of knowledge to his younger brother, cousin, or nephew. Say it ain’t so! Don’t tell me that today’s American youth have no Wooderson-esque drug mentor, willing to provide his own ganja-laced Afterschool Special?
I DIDN’T learn it from you, alright?! I DIDN’T learn it from watching YOU!!
Yes, the days of the teardrop window’d conversion van are over. Whether your Drug Rock heroes are Steely Dan, Jimi, Led Zeppelin, or even Syd Barrett, the sad truth is that their legacies were beat up and left for dead by the excesses of the 1980s. She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie: Cocaine. Studio 54 begat disco, which begat New Wave, which begat the sharp angles and jarring colors of 80s pop culture. There wasn’t any room in this world of pink satin and skinny ties for the medium cool of a good bong hit. Do you think Bud Fox would’ve still jumped Darryl Hannah’s bones if he’d lured her with kind bud? Hell no! Greed is good. But not when you’re out in the forest preserve, passing the dutchie from the left-hand side. 70s Drug Rock was about those sublime moments of introspection, when you can see the inside of your mouth while realizing exactly why that side of the moon was dark. But the extended musical freakouts of 70s AOR didn’t jibe with the angular, hyperactive pop of the ensuing decade, and by the late 1980s gatefold LPs, concept albums, and 21-minute drum solos were only a memory.
But inevitably, the Sheen wore off of the 80s. The stock market had crashed, Republicans weren’t running the show, and Aqua Net was out of style. Across America, distortion was ringing, heralding the return of the guitar. But Drug Rock wouldn’t be resurrected by feedback. No, the only one who could ever save the Drug Rock vibe was…Dusty Springfield.
In 1991, “Cypress Hill” dropped with the unforgettable pairing of Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and B-Real slurring “hits from the bong…”. Cypress Hill was all about the Mother Nature, and wanted everyone to know it. The album’s production was on par with 70s-style noodling, as well. Hazy beats combined with wacko sound effects and B-Real’s smirking, loopy delivery to create a new kind of Drug Rock that got all the kids hooked. The West Coast continued its dominance the following year with Dr Dre’s “The Chronic.” If “Cypress Hill” had brought back Drug Rock production, then the hilarious skits, thematic flow, and Parliament-style G-funk of “The Chronic” really got the 70s weed vibe back onto the high road. Listening to “Chronic” was like imagining Cheech & Chong fronting Parliament at a one-night only gig on the Mothership. Maybe now it was endo, but Snoop Doggy Dogg’s laid back drawl let everybody know it was the same vibe: a day not wasted is a wasted day. Tanqueray and chronic? Yeah, I’m fucked up now…
Unfortunately for weed (and music in general), the popular emergence of the G-Funk style did nothing to raise the bar of creativity. Legions of imitators followed Dre’s seminal work, and even Cypress Hill ran into trouble following up the grand tradition of its first release. Sure, everyone was smoking tons of weed, but the beats just weren’t that tight, and the music suffered.
Even more unfortunate is the state of Drug Rock today. A particularly disturbing side effect begotten in part by New Drug Rock pioneers such as Dre or Cypress Hill has been the formulation of the rap-rock movement, currently in vogue on Modern Rock stations and in undegraduate dorms throughout America. Groups like Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, and Incubus seem more enamored of the 70s approach to formulaic guitar-based music than any vaunted Drug Rock history. In fact, their link to the demon weed is tenuous at best. Lots of lip service is paid to the drug, but the dynamics of, say, “Pretzel Logic” or “Aja” are a lot easier to zone out to than the he-said she-said bullshit of the Bizkit. The shit’s just too aggressive, man.
So maybe Steely Dan did deserve that Grammy, if only to please an older, paunchier Doug, who shed a lonely tear into his TV dinner as he thought back to the days of hanging out in the back of the school parking lot, polishing his Nova and listening to “Barracuda” as he separated the seeds from the stems…