I just got back last night from a fantastic trip to Amsterdam, where I got to see the Patti Smith Band perform four times in three days, all of which I had to sit down and write about for Paste magazine, as mentioned in the previous post, this morning. The first of her gigs was at the Cannabis Cup, the competition High Times magazine in the States runs during pot-harvest week, which culminated on Thanksgiving evening, Nov. 24.
Because a friend of mine was visiting Amsterdam and would leave on Friday morning early, and in order to be able to see him, I came in a day early, and after setting up a time to meet him, I decided to wander over to the Sugar Factory, a club across from Amsterdam's famous Melkweg club, to see what the hoo-hah was all about. For €20 I got a flimsy laminate which allowed me unlimited entry to the trade show for the next two days. For €110 I could have gotten a judge's pass, which would have entitled me to sample the entries, but that would have been both self-indulgent and counter-productive, since I would have been too paralyzed to do the job I was being paid to do. But I was still curious about what was going on.
Turns out the Sugar Factory is a rather small venue, and despite exhibitors setting up in a balcony and on the stage, it was pretty much too crowded to walk around in comfortably. As for the exhibits, they were pretty lame. There was a machine which allegedly "bubbled" the THC out of your waste products and made a sort of hash thereby, and a group of chemists who were selling a kit which enabled you to extract all the THC from pot or hash and turn it into a substance which could be ingested via a capsule ("I almost ruined my lungs forever," said one of the crew at this table, "but I haven't smoked anything in two years."), but mostly it was seed companies (four or five seeds from a good strain can set you back a couple of hundred Euros) and people with gewgaws like pipes and stash boxes and the like. The unhappiest exhibitor I saw was a mammoth black guy in the balcony who was trying to sell t-shirts and sweatshirts with a pot theme from his radio station, Alaska Hip-Hop. I don't think he moved a one of 'em.
Sure, you could get samples to smoke from the seed companies, but, again, I was wary of having to be alert and knew all too well how strong this stuff was. I probably picked up a bit of a contact high because the air in the Sugar Factory was thick with smoke, and I admit, it smelled good. It was against the law to be selling any or giving any away to be taken away, however, all part of the bureaucratic maze the Dutch have set up for the cannabis industry.
What was creepy was the crowd. Just walking around the Leidseplein, the general area in which it was held, you could pick out the C.C. attendees even without their laminates. For one, lots and lots of them were American. This makes sense because High Times sells tour packages from the U.S. For another, they were acting very, very stoned. This makes sense because unless they were being as puritanical as I was, they were very, very stoned. Third, they were dressed appallingly. Nearly every single person under 50 at this thing looked like they'd picked up their clothes from a heap on the floor and shrugged them on. This was because they were overwhelmingly male, of course. There was one hugely obese father-son couple, dressed in overalls, who were staggering around looking like stoned farmers. Of course, there's every reason to suspect that they were, and would perhaps smuggle back a few dozen of those expensive seeds to fund next year's expenses.
Now, you'll notice that I singled out people under 50. There was an interesting gap here. There were all the young stoners, vaguely hip-hoppish, but I'd say their cohort peaked at about 35. Between 35 and 45 there was virtually no one there. And then it picked up to people who were obvious veterans of the '60s. For the most part, they were rather straight-looking; I got talking with one during the awards ceremony (the first show that Patti played) and he claimed to have been a road manager and techie for dozens of bands during the '70s, now out of the biz and doing something he didn't specify based in Houston and Las Vegas. There was one prominent Texas writer, there out of curiosity. I only spotted one beads-and-bells hippie type, and he was apparently a beloved Amsterdam counterculture icon named Cosmos or something. But yes, there was a bit of grey hair around.
In the end, I decided that my pre-visit characterization of the event as being like Oktoberfest was pretty accurate. Like Oktoberfest, it celebrates only the local product, although Moroccan hash, illegally smuggled in but tolerated once in the country, was one of the categories being judged. Like Oktoberfest, once you've attended you'll likely not want to attend again if you have any taste or self-esteem, because no matter how much you may like the product being celebrated, you don't want to be associated with the, uh, "overserved" masses. (Unlike Oktoberfest, there was no equivalent to the "you must be seated to be served" rule which promotes and maintains a certain level of order in Munich). And, again like Oktoberfest, I'm willing to bet that any number of the coffeeshops in Amsterdam would be just as happy if the Cannabis Cup didn't happen next year, since they're doing quite well being the equivalent of a friendly neighborhood bar.
What irks me slightly, though, is that I wasn't able to sell a story on this event. I tried, sent out a damn good pitch letter, but was turned down flat. I wasn't interested in promoting the damn thing: in the pitch letter I said I'd be interviewing police, emergency medical folks who deal with over-stoned tourists, and the proprietors of little coffeeshops, as well as such celebs as might be around. But, whether it's the pall of conservatism which is still sitting over America, or the lack of interest in stories about Europe which I've always had to deal with, or the fact that nobody read far enough down in the thing to see that I wasn't asking to be flown in from New York, but to take a simple €68 round-trip train journey, I can't say.
So instead I did the story someone was willing to pay for, at least in part, and did a little half-assed snooping around to write the sadly incomplete and one-sided blog entry above. I'm not complaining; the Patti Smith shows were great, and it was wonderful to see my old pal Lenny Kaye again and hang out with him a little, and I got to go to my favorite Indonesian restaurant and my second-favorite Indonesian restaurant, and even have a bacon cheeseburger on Thanksgiving at the Hard Rock Cafe (hey, they make decent hamburgers, and when you live over here you occasionally let your base desires overwhelm your sense of good taste). I also picked up two liters of Beerenburg (see previous post), so I'm set for the winter.
Nope, not complaining. I just wish the U.S. media was a little less blinkered, that's all.