One night Richie Smith showed up at the Top Hat to see us and to celebrate his birthday. Richie, who plays killer bluegrass guitar on an old Martin D-18, had
jammed with me back in Tahoe, and we’d been a duo—“Hobo Fishcamp”—for a couple of months until Richie joined the Choir. When Barkley debarked, Richie did too, to form his own Reggae band.
On his birthday at the Top Hat, I dedicated “our song” to Richie. He and Mescalito had pretty much written it, back in Tahoe: I was just the scribe who wrote it down.
In South Lake Tahoe, on one of those glorious spring days, I’d gone with friend Richie out to the Carson Valley to play guitars and to trip. It was Richie’s birthday that day, and a bag of peyote buttons had arrived from the Havasupai shamans he’d befriended on a trip to the Grand Canyon a couple years prior.
Richie was and remains just about my favorite picker, and that old D18 just called your fingers to do their best. That guitar and that guy—what a combo. I had them both and a share of the buttons, and Nico had agreed to drive the two of us out to the valley, to revel in the wilds and pick till our fingers fell off, the whole adventure inspired by Mescalito.
Members of the Native American church can legally eat peyote—it’s been part of their communion since the Ghost Dance movement of the first generation of reservation Indians in the 1890’s. Ghost dancers would eat peyote and mutilate themselves, seeking visions. Wovoka, a messianic Paiute, tried to synchronize ghost dance rituals, declaring if every Indian danced, the white men and the railroad would vanish and the buffalo return.
By 1974 the injuns still had peyote, and Carlos Castaneda’s recent books about the teachings of the Mexican wizard Don Juan Tenorio introduced a generation of hippies to Mescalito—the spirit of peyote.
So there Richie and I were, watching notes fly like little dragonflies off our guitars, to mingle overhead with the clouds and blossom into colors never seen before. And sometimes I’d just listen to Richie play.
When the shadows grew long and crept across the meadow, we built a small fire, and Richie extolled the virtues of his Vegan lifestyle, speaking of vegetables he’d known. Mescalito cautioned me to listen, and I did, endlessly, it seemed, as Richie spoke of vegetables and their virtues; until, finally, we packed up and Nico drove us back to “the Fort” in her big old Oldsmobile.
The fort was an old clapboard house across the parking lot from the apartment complex where my Bob Wills fan guitarist Frank lived, with his first wife Linda and their dog Sadie. We debarked there into the living room, and stoked a fire in the fireplace. We were pretty dry, so Richie and I got water from the kitchen.
“You shouldn’t drink alcohol with this. But we do need to smoke a ceremonial cigarette.” The tobacco was an Indian calmative and a talk-inducer. Nico pulled out a joint.
“Not yet,” Richie told her. “We want to savor the tobacco, and you want to think, to hold this in you. Later you two can smoke pot and go fuck. But for now, just look into the fire. There will be time, later, for all that.”
As indeed there would be time, time for tobacco’s acrid smoke to snap us awake as, for the next hour, Richie expounded his and his gurus’ views from both East and West.
Carlos Casteneda’s books had been quite the talk of hippiedom in Oregon, where Nico and I had absorbed them. Back then Eugene, Oregon, was a center of psychedelic culture, and Ken Kesey, its prophet, strolled the flea market. Kesey’s brother ran a creamery in the next town—Springfield—where a pool table hung from the ceiling. I bought my first tie-dye there, from a display rack next to organic broccoli, herbs, and yogurt from the Kesey cattle.
By the fireside in Tahoe Richie posited a new goal—vegetari- anism. Richie himself sometimes fell off the veggie wagon and trotted off to MacDonald’s. He was, after all, a Southern Cal boy. But Nico and I listened, intent, as he described how Mung beans, in particular, were a boon to health.
When we left it was to go home and fuck as predicted, but I tried to hold onto as much as I could retain of Richie’s ideas, and of the insights offered me by Mescalito. Then when I slept I dreamed. I dreamed a complete vision, of a vegetable party, and woke next day to scribble down, with my coffee, word for word, my dream.
After writing it all out, I picked up my guitar and sang it to an easy vamp in A minor. Four easy chords except for the F, and you can play that as a partial, using only the highest three or four notes. For G, you need only hit the third fret on your low
E string, strings being tuned E A D G B E, low to high. That’s the easiest way—the way (by the way) recommended by Chet Atkins.
Am G F E Am G F E Am G (keep going just like this)
It was a night bum bum bum bum Like any other night bum bum bum The moon was clear and the stars were shining bright. All of the dies were cast, and the astral signs were right!
On The Night of the Vegetables!
When Frank and I went to work arranging this, we made it as strange as we could, with a libretto leadoff in which I warned of the dangers of various veggie invasions; ending the song with my Boris Karloff imitation and much howling. Later, in Wilmington, I put it on my first album, a 33 RPM LP, with the only tuba solo I’ve ever heard, and sound effects via keyboard played by the producer, Ward Camp.
On Richie’s birthday in the Top Hat, I sent the song out to him. Unfortunately, Richie, unsteadied by all the booze and coke, was on his way to the john in the basement. Hearing his name called, he pitched forward down the stairs and broke his collarbone. At the end of the night we packed up and I rushed to the hospital where Richie, full of peyote, pot, whiskey, and now morphine, thanked me for the song and the visit and swore he loved me.
“Hell, Rich, you’ll love everybody with fuel like that!”
A great teacher, a really funny guy, and insightful, too, Richie Smith (not his real name) remains my favorite bluegrass Rastaman. He has a bitchin’ tune about playing the Top Hat, “Loser’s Corner,” available on Bandcamp.