The late afternoon sky over Amsterdam was beginning to darken as the impromptu 4:20 group gathered around a couple of tables at the Coffeeshop Amnesia. Just outside the front door people are bicycling down the cobblestone street along the Herengracht canal, while male pedestrian traffic thickens on the block-long side street where a series of red-lit windows are staggered on both sides of the lane to display the considerable charms of a corresponding number of professional sex workers.
There's a charming display on array in the Amnesia as well, but it's laid out behind the hash counter in the back of the room and it points toward another sort of pleasure center: the one in your brain that gets lit up when the tetrahydracannabinol hits your bloodstream and drifts up into the cranium. Of course, this nexus sits very near the sex gratification center itself, but THC also helps enhance creative activity, music and art appreciation, and intelligent conversation, which is what we're after at the Amnesia today.
I feel right at home at this particular setting because it's owned and operated by my friend Sissi, the only female coffeeshop proprietor in the city and one of the first people I met on my first visit to Amsterdam as High Priest of the 1998 Cannabis Cup festivities. Sissi was managing the incomparable Quentin Hotel near the Leidseplein at the time, and she knows how to make people feel comfortable.
Now it's a month or so before the 2004 Cannabis Cup is to convene, I'm determined to become a permanent resident of the Netherlands, and my fellow celebrants at the 4:20 table comprise a disparate bunch of American expatriates of various tenure here whom I've just recently met. They get together at the Amnesia, Sensi Seeds, the 420 Café or elsewhere in the Centrum virtually every afternoon at 20 after 4:00 to get high, have a coffee, tea or juice, compare notes on their various interlocking activities, and talk plenty shit, as we used to say.
The dean of the gathering is the man they call the Cannabis Poet: Lee Bridges, 77, who fled the United Snakes almost half a century ago and has habitated a very wide world ever since. But he bases himself in Amsterdam and keeps ends together by writing, performing, and hustling his little books of poetry - Oooo-weeee, Whew and others - and his new volume of memoirs titled Me, Two on the streets and everywhere he goes. The love and respect everyone feels for Mr. Lee is almost palpable in any setting he may visit, and he's clearly an important member of this well-seasoned collective.
Then there's the dude they call the Hemp King of Ohio, a shaggy lawyer from Athens, Ohio named Don E. Wirtshafter who's a pioneer in the modern-day world hemp industry, a veteran combatant in the War on Drugs, proprietor of The Hempery and frequent visitor to Amsterdam, where he seems to know everybody in the local cannabis community. Don E. has recently embarked on a new adventure as a grass-roots patron of the arts and is helping Mr. Lee realize the publication of his book of memoirs after the original sponsors have faded out of the picture.
Don's also assisting another member of the circle, a character called Eagle Bill who's been active in the cannabis movement here for years and has just published his own memoir, a slim volume titled 10% THC. Eagle Bill, most widely noted as the developer of the cannabis vaporization technique that's gaining increasing popularity among potheads, has been suffering serious health problems - including a couple of heart attacks and a crippling foot infection resulting from diabetes - that temporarily curtailed his regular duties as the house vaporizer at the Hash, Marijuana, Hemp Museum operated by the founders of the Sensi Seeds company.
While Eagle Bill was out of action earlier this year, his position behind the Museum's vaporization mechanism was filled by a woman known as Zoe, an inventive visual artist, marijuana activist, professional clown and calligrapher from Connecticut who now splits her tome between Ohio (where she lives with Don E.) and Amsterdam. Zoe is also a fierce proponent of Mr. Lee and is currently busy organizing an exhibit of her visual works to open at the Homegrown Fantasy coffeeshop during Cannabis Cup week.
Helping Zoe mount her painting show is another key member of the consortium, Henk Botwinik, a closely-focused creative presence, stage producer, webmaster and wild idea man who has all the skills and persistence required to bring his conceptions to life. Henk heads a production company called Creative Resources and has been deep into the life of the imagination since he was a boy, when he broadcast a little radio program and published a neighborhood newspaper from his command post in his bedroom.
I met Henk in the Amnesia late one afternoon while I was ranting and raving about radio broadcasting - one of my life's central passions since I was a teen-age disc jockey back in the late 1950s - with another new American friend in Amsterdam, a cat from the mountains of Colorado named Larry Hayden who spends four months each winter supplying oxygen injections to skiers and then slowly squanders the proceeds over the course of the next eight months as a resident of Amsterdam.
Larry is one of the kindred spirits I'm always seeking - and finding! - in my travels, and we've hit it off in a flash over a carefully-assembled joint of tobacco and hash. While I'm speaking my dreams of getting back on the airwaves after 18 months of silence since I left WWOZ in New Orleans last year, a slight little fellow sort of staggering by looks over and mutters, "We could do that right here."
"That would be Henk," Larry explains, performing the requisite introductions and preparing a new smoke for Henk. It turns out that Henk has a primitive radio production setup that includes his laptop and a couple of Shure stage mikes. He can borrow the other stuff, he says, "and we can set up right here around the table and conduct our broadcasts. I'll record them 'live' on the hard drive, create us a website and post the programs on the site that night."
Voila! We're about to be on the air with our own radio show, beaming out into the universe from our own tiny spot on the world wide web. Hayden spots a 5-cent piece on the table and announces that will be our budget, because we can do the whole thing among the three of us with no capital outlay required: Henk, as producer, will provide the equipment, technical know-how, website development and broadcast production skills; Larry will serve as executive producer, seek sponsors, line up guests and somehow pull everything together; and I'll bring the music, sit behind the mike, interview the guests and provide the continuity.
Just over a month later we're actually broadcasting the John Sinclair Radio Show from the Amnesia, the 420 Café, Sensi Smiles, Homegrown Fantasy, Barney's Breakfast Bar and the Cannabis College for the entire week of Cannabis Cup 2004. We cut 16 one-hour segments in six days of live broadcast production, and after a week Henk has them all posted on our website, www.JohnSinclairRadio.com
, along with several installments of this column and other pertinent information.
But however immediately successful our little guerrilla broadcast project may be, it pales in comparison to the carefully-developed long-range plan of the group's eminence gris, the guy they call "Arkansaw Sam," to launch his long-awaited Genesis Project, a subject to which no end of 4:20 conversations have been - and will continue to be - dedicated. Sam's master plan calls for the creation of a large integrated environment which will provide space for growing cannabis, preparing and packaging it, selling the seeds to growers and the produce to coffeeshop outlets and individual smokers, and applying the net proceeds from cannabis sales to funding neighborhood health care, job training, arts and cultural activities and educational programming for community residents.
Sam's been working on perfecting his plan since before he left Arkansas for Amsterdam, cultivating contacts in the local political system who might be able to help him realize his dream, studying the growing process, scouting locations for the Genesis Building, relentlessly preaching the plan to friends and casual acquaintances. But it's a great idea, and I for one am praying that Sam will be able to bring it to fruition in our lifetime, because I wanna be on board when it happens.
But that opens up a train of thought and a chain of events that must be explored in a subsequent column, because it's time to get outta here for this month's installment. Maybe next time we'll take a closer look at the coffeeshop culture and how it evolved, as well as introduce some of the Dutch artists, musicians and cultural workers encountered so far. Happy holidays, everybody!
Tomorrow (December 5th) is Sinterklaas Day in Holland and the hundreds of Black Peter characters - mostly Dutch persons in severe blackface - who have flooded the streets of the Centrum for the past couple of weeks will celebrate their Grand Finale for another year.
The legion of Black Peters is an inescapable visible reminder of the ugly racial history of the Dutch people, who excelled in shipping slaves from Africa to the Americas and, of course, established the universally reviled system of apartheid to facilitate maximum exploitation of the human and natural resources of South Africa, among other atrocities.
The great American novelist Ishmael Reed examined the Black Peter issue in depth in his book The Terrible Twos, written to commemorate the 200th birthday of the United States of America. Reed said some consider Black Peter the brains behind Sinterklaas, running the show while Santa shills for Pete's underground radical organization. If that's the case, this deeply disturbing Sinterklaas thing would be a whole lot easier to take. (c) 2004 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.