Marijuana, Seattle and the arts

Now that Seattle's new mayor has come out for marijuana legalization (and the new city attorney for decriminalization), I've got to ask: what's in it for the arts? Does marijuana give more bhang for the creative buck? Or does the chronic make artists moronic? The evidence is ambiguous.

One of the great Seattle actors (I'll spare his shade the shame of naming him) used to spark up a lot, and some say it helped him tap into his talent, unlock his emotions, get loose and spontaneous. All I know is, he was superb onstage, and he forgot his lines a lot more than less talented non-puffers. Alanis Morissette just came out as a pothead in interviews with High Times and Runner's World; she's undeniably creative, but she sure had bigger hits before she went to pot. Also, how do we know she's not just promoting her big acting break in TV's Weeds, or that she's right that pot's an actual source of her creativity?

Under the influence, people often think they've made creative breakthroughs, as Paul McCartney did that famous night when Dylan rolled him his first joint. As Paul recounts in Peter Ames Carlin's brilliant new bio, "I discovered the Meaning of Life." He scribbled it down, and the next morning discovered he'd written gibberish except for four words: "There are seven levels." When he went from room to room in the hotel suite, visiting Dylan in one, Ringo in another, it seemed like each was a separate little world with separate conversations, each in an ascending order of genius. But in the morning, the pot-influenced meaning turned out to be stupid. On the other hand, it inspired him to write "Got to Get You Into My Life," his immortal love song to marijuana, "another road where maybe I could find another kind of mind." On the third hand, New Republic critic John Lahr argue that getting stoned every single day of his life is why Paul's post-Beatles music is "spun from rotten satin." And it could have helped make him dumb enough to put a half pound of the stuff right on top of his shirts so that when a Tokyo customs guy opened his suitcase, the bag of contraband bounced out at him "like a pop-up book," as Paul recalled — damn near landing him in prison for years.

Another artist who toked pretty much daily was Northwest titan of letters Raymond Carver, as revealed in Carol Sklenicka's brilliant new bio. Granted, he was way better off as a pothead than when he was swilling vodka every two hours, as his first wife Maryann Burk Carver recalls in her excellent memoir What It Used to Be Like. (To see what Ray and Maryann's drinking days were like, see their doppelgangers Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin in Robert Altman's masterpiece adapting Carver's masterpieces, Short Cuts.) And marijuana scents some of his finest work, like the first classic he wrote after beating the bottle, "Cathedral," about a guy who gets stoned with a blind man and finds a new way of seeing. In the earlier, very funny Carver story "What's in Alaska?" the potheads get more munchies than insights (as Carver did the day he first got stoned in Berkeley in 1963 — Maryann writes, "Everything made him laugh, and man, was he hungry. First he ate almost a whole pan of brownies, and then he tied into the spareribs. All before dinner."). But how do we know Carver's gift was actually enhanced by the drug? When he gave up booze, his style opened out, became more fully and generously human. What would have happened if he'd given up pot? Alanis Morissette says she's now writing a "non-linear book." Might Carver's style have become more linear? Might he have veered from Hemingwayesque compression to Faulkneresque efflorescence? We'll never know.

And here's another ambiguous example: you can't read the topnotch new Robert Altman bio without thinking he might have made even better movies had he not been swacked more or less 24/7. Marijuana may be why he didn't worry about the fact that he seldom bothered to think of an ending for his movies until the last possible second. Altman was a guy so stony, he once sat smoking with a friend in his car waiting for a red light to change, only to discover at length that the red light they were waiting for was actually a little red light on the dashboard of the car. And yet, he owed the superb conclusion of his comeback hit The Player to a stoned insight that struck his star Tim Robbins when poor Robbins was trying to keep up with old hand Altman in the puffing department. Why not have it end with a guy pitching Robbins' studio chief character the story of the movie we've just watched — basically the same ending of Altman's M*A*S*H? It worked. The scene was the gift of ganja. But we'll never know what ganja stole from us while the artists were asleep.