Various Artists

New Prohibition: A Musical History of Hemp (Viper)

At this point, no one doubts that a lot of great music has been made under the influence of marijuana: As my first exhibit, I present the island of Jamaica. But the history of songs written about marijuana is not nearly as storied; after "Legalize It" and a handful of others, the quality goes downhill fast.

If anyone could produce an exception to this rule, it would be Hal Willner, a man known for assembling intriguing, all-star tributes to many kinds of music -- everything from Disney soundtracks to the compositions of Thelonious Monk. But while New Prohibition is certainly memorable, and it features a noteworthy cast (Wayne Kramer and Taj Mahal are among those involved), it sticks in one's mind for all the wrong reasons. What's meant to be an impassioned salute to weed and an attack on those who would dare to keep it out of the nation's bongs turns out to be one of the goofiest curios this side of Reefer Madness.

The songs here are drawn from Mary Jane, an off-Broadway musical penned during the '70s by co-producer Jonathan Stuart, and most of them haven't aged well -- particularly those that attempt to make strident political points. On "New Prohibition," a tepid blues shuffle, Cy Curnin has the unlucky duty of delivering lines such as "Government studies/All point out the truth/Decriminalize/Get respect from our youth." But Curnin's not as unlucky as Eric Mingus, who must deliver "Monster Marijuana," a gospel sermon in which our cruel and unusual marijuana laws are blamed on William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon and Harry Anslinger. (Don't ask how, or Stuart will explain, in agonizing detail.) And that's not to mention "George Washington," in which John Sinclair, who served time in the '60s for possession of two joints, details the hemp farming done by the father of our country in a bizarre spoken-word piece, and "Pass It to Jah," a Rolling Stones ripoff sung by Dee Dee Ramone, who wasn't his group's lead singer for a reason.

Okay, the most aggressively stupid ditties here, like "On to Something Good," a funk number warbled by Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, and "Music's So Much Better," vocalized by the Mighty Echoes, are tolerable in an aggressively stupid way -- and they'd probably be slightly better if heard under the influence. Unfortunately, spliffs are not included.

 
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