In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily ever aftering
Than … here … in …
OK, our little Happy Valley ain’t exactly Camelot, but it’s got a lot going for it. Even in the midst of quarantines and arguing over masks and putting up with the finger-wagging scolds of anti-social media, not to mention the endless Zoom-fests—“Joe, your mic’s not on. Joe, you’ve got to turn on your mic! Can anyone hear Joe?”— the Valley’s got a whole lotta places where one can escape. And in the Age of Legal Marijuana, escape one must.
Since we can talk about things such as weed freely and amicably now, way more amicably than, say, any other issue, we thought it was time to ask some of our local icons to think of a spot, that special Valley location, where they found themselves under the influence of grass, and were giddily grateful for it. Of course, one does run the risk of being branded a pothead.
“Sure, why not?” said Bill Dwight of Northampton. “No rep left to mangle.”
He has been called the conscience of the Valley, a benevolent Sasquatch who held court with patrons and passersby at Pleasant Street Video for 25 years (“I enjoyed customer service”) and put in 18 years as a Northampton city councilor, the last six as president. “It’s the most important and valuable thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said, upon retiring, “which may speak to the paucity of my accomplishments.”
Of the video job, he said, “It gave you a better sense of what was happening on the ground.” Of the council, he said, “None of us are special or better than anyone else — just neighbors discussing important issues with the power to make change.”
As a kid growing up in Holyoke, whose idea of a public servant was someone you razzed and heckled at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Dwight had other things in mind.
“We all got high in basements and attics,” he said, “but the Mt. Tom Reservation was a great place to get stoned and contemplate the bigger questions in life.”
One of Dwight’s earliest jobs was working at the Mass Game farm in Wilbraham, where reefer came like a sky-dropped relief package. “We raised pheasants only to see them get blasted away,” he lamented. “Everyone there was stoned, ripped, really, and most of us were on work release.”
“‘ALRIGHT, WHO’S TAKING MY MARIJUANA?’ Not the thing you want to hear coming out of your mother’s mouth,” Dwight says. He and fellow scamps rifled a neat bagful of his mother’s stash. “We felt entitled. You could always take vodka and replace it with water. Well, you can’t replace pot.”
But you can take it to Mt. Tom in the meantime. “To be honest I was doing hallucinogens,” he recalled. “They closed the gate after sunset. Me and my friends are tripping and couldn’t get out. The sun came up and we scrambled out in cars. At that point we were crashing. I stagger home. There’s my mother. ‘Where were you? Your dentist appointment is right now!’ The dentist is slathered in pHisoHex and starts drilling while I’m crashing. This is old school — no Novocaine. I’m levitating, connecting with the astral plane and it wasn’t pretty,” says Dwight. “But it put me off hallucinogens.”
A few years later he’d had it with weed, too. “My kid was in diapers, and I kept getting trapped in these boring cyclical thoughts.”
He soon learned that he could relate to just about anyone, while expressing himself on all number of things without weedly interference, and the bear-like figure with the overalls and Amish whiskers became Northampton’s answer to Big Papi. (Also retired.)
“I live a life of leisure,” he smiled, “and I don’t have to deal with aggravating shit.”
His family hideaway in Hawley comes with an old tractor and a backhoe. Along with son, Eli, “we dig holes and fill ‘em back in — somewhat similar to council business.”
But for the Bill Dwights of the world, who saw the light and changed accordingly, there are many others who saw something else, and found no good reason for breaking up a good thing.
“Every solo album I’ve ever written and recorded in the last 25 years I was under the influence of cannabis,” said Northampton’s Russell Brooks, better known as Lord Russ, the flamboyant leader of the ’60s-tinged power pop outfit Aloha Steamtrain and show-closing mainstay of Transperformance, using his pipes and charisma to portray Bowie, Bryan Ferry and other big-voiced belters.
But the one who lives inside Lord Russ is Elvis Presley. “He was my first musical love,” says Russ, whose earliest memory is dancing on his bed and shaking his hips to Jailhouse Rock. “I wanted to be Elvis. I even had a book: ‘How to be the King.’”
The North Carolina native not only became Presley in countless performances, he wrote a slate of original songs for his one-man musical “Queen Elvis” and you could hear Elvis doing them, even while applying lipstick.
But stick Lord Russ in the water and you have a transformation of another kind. “My favorite thing to do, period, is to smoke some Mother Nature and go jump in the Mill River. Such a heightened state, with a spliff in one hand and water on every inch of my skin.” A recent video from Russ —“It’s So Nice to Get Stoned” — drives this point very much home. The water, the grin. He also speaks wistfully of the rope swing that used to be down by Smith College.
Like millions during “Prohibition,” Brooks behaved as though it were legal anyway — it had been a billion dollar industry long before it became an official billion dollar industry — but he still welcomes the legitimacy it now commands. “It was totally ridiculous to make it illegal in the first place, something that puts people in a peaceful mood … those in power don’t want any of that.”
The unspoken byproduct of marijuana, though, is the sudden inspiration for minor mischief. Russ and like-buzzed friends found a way to pop open the electrical box in Pulaski Park one late, late night many years ago and caused the towering city Christmas tree to light up prematurely, getting a jump on the Christmas season. “Then we drove by in all our glory,” says Lord Russ.
During the corona shutdown, “I smoked too much pot, burned incense, had a wood stove and a dog with its dander — my lungs may have taken a beating,” he laughed.
But he took advantage of the downtime too, and combined his many loves — Elvis, dogs and artistic expression — and came up with new ways to make a living in unpredictable times. You can find him on Elvis Videograms, where he’ll record just about any Presley number, in authentic voice and Vegas sequins, for weddings, birthdays and all get out. And he’ll give your dog the haircut it has always dreamed of at his downtown venture, The Green Groomer in Northampton. That said, “You don’t get stoned on this job and I wouldn’t condone it with employees. Razor-sharp scissors in dogs’ eyes — no way.”
Though Lord Russ released three albums in 2020, these days he’s “getting lost improvising on a nylon-stringed Flamenco guitar.” The cannabis, he says, allows him to channel the universe through the ringing strings. “An hour seems to go by in 10 minutes.”
WHERE JESTERS GO TO LAUGH
When told that a photographer might be stopping by her house, Amherst comedian Kim “Boney” DeShields said, “Make sure they give me a heads-up. I’ll have to do my hair — I’m Black!”
After Northampton’s Tim Lovett founded Comedy as a Weapon in 2015, as a way to heal pain and despair through the power of laughter, it didn’t take long for DeShields to join forces. They quickly built a showcase for up and coming and established comics, with a nod to local ones, like Lauren Cahillane. The upbeat pair, who’ll host the second of two outdoor shows on Sept.10 at J.J.’s in Florence, have great chemistry during interviews and will often finish each other’s thoughts.
“I’m 56 but it feels like 28, I can’t tell from what,” says DeShields.
“Is that the truth,” echoes Lovett. “and the last few years don’t count anyway, with Covid.”
DeShields grew up in Amherst, a childhood she describes as “extraordinarily white, but very cool. I had the time of my life in Amherst.” She later was a Nick at Night semifinalist for America’s Funniest Mom, kicking off her set with a friendly smile and: “It’s my first time here and it’s all white, I mean, it’s all right!” Then, “I was married to a white guy; coz that’s the law in Massachusetts.”
She did the Midday Mix at Cool Jazz 106.3 for 13 years.
Tim Lovett, 44, grew up in the streets. “I had a tough time,” he said. “I was either homeless or in jail. My life wasn’t funny. I was not allowed to be funny.”
“He’s still not funny,” says DeShields, and everyone laughs.
Both are serious devotees of the substance known as marijuana but neither would dream of performing comedy whilst high. “Never onstage,” says DeShields. “You’d be worried about your delivery, trouble remembering your material, trouble reading the audience.”
“First time I met Kim was at Bishop’s Lounge, open mic,” says Lovett. “I was the only Black person in there so I gravitated to Kim.” He was checking out the “competition,” sort of a gathering of brave souls whose “friends maybe think they’re funny. Suddenly there’s Kim going ‘Yeah! Give it up for Tim Lovett!’ I didn’t have time to be nervous, my mind was working faster than my mouth — but they LAUGHED!”
“That feeling onstage is like the first time you got high,” he said, “people hanging on your words, a real rush.”
“Then all the comedians go out on the Bishop’s Lounge porch and smoke weed,” said Lovett.
“Snitch,” said DeShields.
“I call ‘em revolutionary,” said Lovett.
“No one was philosophical after shows,” said DeShields. “No ‘Oh I’m so high.’ Just giggling comedians out on the porch.”
“If they got all philosophical and shit,” said Lovett, “we’d leave ‘em on the other side.”
But Extravaganga, the long-running annual festival dedicated to legalization, really did the trick for Kim DeShields. “I had a good time that first year, and all of ‘em since. I have pix of just laying out in the grass, soooo relaxed.”
Away from Extravaganga and nightclubs, the uneasiness and paranoia experienced by lots of potheads crept in. “Weed was frowned upon,” said DeShields. “You always had the sense that you were doing something wrong, so (your habit) was kept hidden. I was afraid of the mailman, let alone people on the street.”
“I think I’m well over that,” laughed Kim DeShields.
WHEN WORK IS DONE
But for every chronical user of the “chronic” there’s just as many casual ones. Joan Holliday, the longtime late afternoon dee-jay and program director for WRSI The River is the perfect example. Her personal code, that of many in the limelight, is to not touch the stuff while working, and since the work at a radio station never actually ends, Holliday’s indulgences are limited, a far cry from her teen years in Illinois, toking and cruising “the Strip” in the backseat of her friend’s Monte Carlo.
Holliday can think of only one time when she went on the air high, in her much younger days at WHCN. “I don’t know how it went, I was so nervous! Were (listeners) going ‘Omigod she’s so stoned!’ or will no one ever know?”
Since she’s hung out with any number of bands at various venues, you’d expect she might’ve shared a doob or two with rock stars. “Oh, it has happened,” she said, but she’s not one to name names. “Nah, I don’t do that.”
Not even when she met Brian May of Queen, lead guitarist for her all-time favorite group? “It was late enough in his career; he was completely sober by then, so no,” she laughed.
But for Joan Holliday, the magical moment in question transpired a few years back at the annual Green River Festival, on a grassy hillside on one of those sunny Greenfield days worth singing about. “I was just thinking, such a beautiful spot … for a little herbal remedy.” The indie folk quartet Darlingside was onstage, their four-part harmonies crisp in the air. “So lovely, just wafting over. I’d gotten all of my work out of the way. I had no more bands to intro. All was right with the world. Yeah, there are problems everywhere but there are still beautiful moments like this,” says Holliday.
PUSHING THE CANNABIS
“The universe is always pushing the cannabis on me,” said Easthampton comedian Rob Murphy, co-founder of Disturbed Theatre. “The first place I lived in western Mass, to the most recent, I’ve got pothead neighbors. No matter where, I immediately find myself in a smokers’ community.”
“Everybody gets high!” he once told his landlord, who snapped, “No, everybody does NOT get high!”
Like most, Murphy can remember his first time. Figuring that Senior Skip Day would work just as well for juniors, Rob and his underaged friends convened on Highland Falls, right next to West Point, and just drove around giggling and passing joints. “Security was not big on the just driving around part, but I remember feeling, this is so f–ing good. I was literally laughing for eight hours.”
The Falls likely started it but, unlike Lord Russ, Murphy only needs to be near water, not necessarily in it, to fully enhance the buzz. “By a body of water, or anywhere outdoors in nature. The Hudson River Valley was great, but Nashawannuck Pond will suffice,” he laughed.
Murphy grows his own grass, marveling at the concept of “seeds turning into towering plants.”
An earlier Prohibition-era growing operation ended when the place got hit by thieves, creating the classic conundrum: finding yourself a victim of crime while committing one. “Whattya do — call the cops?” Murphy asks.
Like Lovett and DeShields, Murphy’s not one for performing stoned. “I’ve never done sketches high,” said Murphy, “but the most fun was had hanging out after the show. Disturbed Theatre and Trailer Park put on a Zombie Prom on Halloween at the WW2 Club — many sketches coming out as zombies.” Then the tree-splitting storm named Alfred hit. “They pulled the plug early, postponed it to next weekend. The whole lustre of Halloween gone out the window. Then Tom Mahnken (of Trailer Park) came over and said, ‘We’ll have a good time — you want a pot cookie?’”
As for comedy, “My kids make me laugh all the time,” he said. He and his 15-year-old have an entertaining and ongoing banter and even vacation together, one learning about the 1970s, the other learning, learning, learning. “A 60-year-old man and a teen hang out in New York City and have a great time,” he laughed. “We’re going again the end of August — 10 days.”
And then there’s the super casual user, Hadley’s Hilary Price, creator of the wildly successful syndicated comic strip Rhymes with Orange, familiar to readers of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Price has been drawing the strip since 1995, the youngest woman to have ever been syndicated. You might surmise that a person who dreams up and draws a gag strip seven days a week for 27 years would “wake and bake” on a daily basis. Nope. As for that iconic Valley location …
“My bed!” she cried. “The few times I’ve used edibles, they were to sleep. And since only a select few are allowed (on the bed), Kristin, the cat and the dog, I can’t really recommend it to others.”
And then we come to the disappointed user, one Monte Belmonte, longtime morning host at The River, a dude who’ll pop a cork on a bottle of wine faster than you can say Spo-Dee-O-Dee. (his wine column can be found in these pages) Monte is known for camping out in the winter (modified now to a bed-in) to raise money for the Cancer Connection and for walking from Springfield to Greenfield to help alleviate hunger. Hmmm…camping, hiking and hanging bed, all three a glove-fit for cannabis enhancement.
“As you know,” said Monte, “cannabis and I don’t really agree with each other. Most recently, I was at a friend’s house late one night after a double feature at The Shea. We were playing a board game called Skulls. I took ONE toke and, almost immediately, got disconnected from the space/time continuum. I asked my friend “How long is this game?” And then, an eternity later, I asked “What is this? Monopoly? HOW LONG IS THIS GAME?!?!” She told me it was literally one minute since the last time I asked. I got a ride home. But reenacted a scene from the film I had just seen when I jumped out of the car.”
All this on ONE toke? OK, maybe you’re on to something, Monte, but, listen, you can’t base…
“Then there was the time I was ironing my clothes while watching the Patriots and I took ONE toke. I saw an Apple Computers commercial … the logo is an apple with a bite out of it … like the apple in the Garden of Eden … and then it dawned on me how all of human knowledge is now accessible via an Apple in your pocket. I went for a walk in the woods near the Mighty Connecticut River to contemplate my prophecy. My wife went with me to make sure I made it home safe.”
Then someone went face-to-face with Monte and asked, “Are you the voice?” causing Monte to wonder if he’d suddenly become “some Biblical prophet. He told me his name was Blue Sky. I asked my wife if this was actually happening or if it was all a weed induced hallucinogenic experience. It was actually happening!”
Well, prophecy and herb-toking often go hand in hand, Monte, and, besides …
“Then there was the time I smoked half a bowl, saw my life flash before my eyes, saw how everything in the world fits together, how all The Beatles songs are true and how 42 IS the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Then I thought I was going to die and my friend called 911 and I was rushed in an ambulance to Baystate Franklin, where I came out of it fit as a fiddle.”
OK, life flashing by and ambulance rides — just say no, Monte, JUST SAY NO!
And then there’s me. I got a million of ‘em. I could just as easily rave about the Elvis Costello show the other night at the Pines as to recall that (shudder) night in ’97 watching PayPerView in an Easthampton living room full of stunned stoners when boxer Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear, but I won’t.
In the late summer of 1981, Annemarie and I were planning to move out of our triple-decker apartment in Dorchester and set sail, with no money or prospects, for western Mass, excited but wracked with doubt. Then we found Skinner State Park. We were in town just to get a feel for the area, and we climbed up to the Summit House, took in the Valley and all its possibilities in one mighty breath, and, naturally, sparked a bone. Down below, the strum of a guitar, and a rangy, soulful singer launched into a song we’d not heard before, “Time For a Cool Change.” We rented a U-Haul two weeks later.
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the 2nd on the dot
By order, summer lingers through September