The laugh is instantly recognizable. It sounds like a Volkswagen skidding through slush on a gravel road.
‘How’s Van?” asks Cheech Marin, the voice equally familiar, if less exaggerated than we’re used to.
Van is becoming a playground for the rich, I answer, during a call to the comedian/actor/weed entrepreneur at his home in Los Angeles.
“Every place is becoming a playground for the rich,” he shoots back, that laugh threatening to devour all our bandwidth again. “I think the idea is to get rich yourself!”
Fair enough. Getting rich himself is nothing you could ever hold against the East L.A.–born Mexican-American itinerant who landed in Priddis, Alberta, back in 1968, when a poor-ass Cheech Marin first hit the cold north to avoid the draft.
His recollection of E.C. Manning’s Alberta in the ’60s: “I was expecting Sgt. Preston of the Yukon and Eskimos on their bobsleds, and it looked like Bakersfield. Cause it was oil and cattle country. It was northern Montana. It was country-and-western, but Ukrainian.”
He adds: “I wasn’t ready for the big city of Calgary.”
The better-known origin story has Marin eventually establishing himself in a somewhat bigger city than Calgary as “a broke hippie that was doing improv theatre in a topless bar on Main and Pender”. The Shanghai Junk was run by the one-time musician Tommy Chong, and the rest is memory-impaired history.
“Now it’s a bank,” he notes wryly. No kidding, we note back.
“Vancouver was the San Francisco of Canada,” continues Marin, fondly recalling, among other things, the early days of the Georgia Straight. “The counterculture revolution was happening there. But they didn’t have a war to protest against, so the galvanizing fact was that they were all young and had that sensibility in common.”
Marin came back to the city recently—he describes 21st-century Vancouver as “Pacific Rim cosmopolitan”—to make the exceptional, locally set weed-noir thriller Dark Harvest with actor-writer-director James Hutson (lovingly reviewed by the Straight here). A would-be facetious inquiry into whether or not he thinks his new bud Hutson is a “flash in the pan” prompts another slushy round of laughter.
“It’s kinda like Cheech and Chong. Everything we did and every benchmark we achieved was thought of as a flash in the pan,” he says. “We were the number-one grossing comedy act for years in movies and records, and every time we did it, it was: ‘Ah, they just lucked out.’ But we just kept lucking out. For 30 years.” Here comes the laugh again. “It cracks me up.”
More than 30 years, actually. Cheech gets back on-stage with Chong at the Hard Rock Casino on Saturday (March 24), marking both the latest reconciliation for the sometimes estranged duo (“Forgiveness is one of the great attributes of the human condition,” he remarks, only half-ironically), and a chance to assess our through-the-looking-glassware era.
In 2003, Tommy Chong began his nine-month sentence inside a U.S. federal pen for promoting the sale of bongs—not seeds, not plants, but bongs. Fifteen years later, Chong’s old partner is sitting pretty with Cheech’s Private Stash, legally purveying Marin-curated smokables across a good chunk of the American Southwest. This is not your grandparent’s counterculture.
“We are now involved in the cross-counterculture,” Marin quips. “That’s how you access weed: across the counter. I was kinda laughing at our attorney general Jeff Sessions’s fight to stamp out weed. I’d like to see him take on 29 well-funded states.”
Significantly enough, Marin is talking to the Straight the day after one Canadian cannabis company was listed on the NASDAQ while another signed a distribution deal with Shoppers Drug Mart. How does Marin feel about the entry of our favourite, formerly not-very-legal intoxicant into the legitimate business world?
“The corporatization of weed is occurring because of the demand,” he answers. “You can’t service that demand with little mom-and-pop shops, or little private growers, people who grow 20 plants at a time… It’s industrial now, ya know? I don’t think it has anything to do with the aesthetic of the marijuana experience, but they’re bringing agricultural elements into its growth. It’s a big industry. It cuts through every category of people in North America and probably around the world that you can think of. Doctors, lawyers, homeless—it doesn’t matter.”
Going overground with reefer is only one of Marin’s current pursuits. Weeks prior to this interview, Hutson told the Straight that he was down in L.A. heading to a private art exhibition with Marin and Steve Martin. Cheech adds, “Yeah, I’ve been to a lot of them here. That part of my life is growing and really kinda taking over everything.”
Indeed: if there’s a project that seems closest to Marin’s heart, it’s the Cheech Marin Centre for Chicano Art, Culture, and Industry, set to open in Riverside, California, in 2020, where it will house, in the Riverside Art Museum’s own words, “the finest private collection of Chicano art in the United States.”
“This is the first centre and museum that’s specifically devoted to Chicano culture,” Marin says. “And the definition of Chicano culture is expanding as we speak, and I want to address that as soon as we open, and then have that dialogue. But it’s hugely influential. Because the essence of being Chicano—which is a voluntary category; you can’t check off a box on the census that says ‘Mexican American/Chicano’—is you get to make your own rules of who is and who isn’t a Chicano.”
Great, can I volunteer?
“Sure!” answers Marin. “Because in this context, and throughout history, Chicano basically means ‘other’. Many people identify with ‘other’. And it was politically defiant. You could be an honorary Chicano, man. I’ll send you the application, just give me your details. You can pay in the form of weed.”
Fuckin’ A! (Beats being white.)
Ultimately, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find this 71-year-old renaissance pachuco handling such a diverse portfolio. The truth about Cheech and Chong, of course, and if it really needs stating, is that they only acted like idiots. Watching their fragrant picaresque Up in Smoke—Marin recently contributed a commentary track with director Lou Adler for an upcoming 40th-anniversary Blu-ray edition—can be a poignant experience these days, if you start counting the number of participants who didn’t survive that particular era of Hollywood Babylon: Rainbeaux Smith and June Fairchild among them. He’s still with us, thankfully, but even Sgt. Stedenko himself, Stacy Keach, had his public struggles.
Does Marin feel lucky to still be around?
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” he says. “It was by design that we survived. We were health enthusiasts. When we were on the road we belonged to the YMCA. Every town we went into, we checked into the YMCA and worked out ’cause that was how we grew up. I was an athlete, Tommy was a bodybuilder when I met him, and that was just another aspect of our personalities. It wasn’t the weed that killed everybody, it was the cocaine. Cocaine came in like the wrath of God.”
And what about Alice Bowie? Did he make it, and will we see him at the casino on Saturday?
“Oh, yeah, absolutely man,” promises Marin. “If we can get him out of rehab.”