Monday, August 22, 2016

Tommy's Side

I just read Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography by Tommy Chong. Published in 2008, it's mostly Chong's life up until he and Cheech split up in the 1980s.  It's written in just the style you'd expect from an elder hippie--free-flowing, somewhat nostalgic, and still full of wonder (not to mention poorly edited--lots of repetition, and names spelled wrong: Ned Tanen is "Tanin," James Komack is "Komax"--but hey, it's the spirit of things that count, not the exactitude, dude.)

Chong is known as the second half of the biggest comedy team of the 70s, but he had a lengthy career before teaming up with Richard "Cheech" Marin.  Born in 1938, of Scots-Irish/Chinese stock, he was raised in Calgary.  Like many in his generation, he was excited about rock and roll and R&B, and in the late 50s started working as a guitarist.

People loved his band, originally called The Shades. Canada needed whatever entertainment it could get, and Chong and his group moved to Vancouver and opened up a nightclub.  The group, now called The Vancouvers, was even signed by Motown and opened for The Supremes.  And Tommy got his Green Card, so he was ready to take America by storm.  But he was fired and, in any case, the band didn't make it.

He traveled around, eventually back to Vancouver, where he started an improv troupe.   He'd seen Second City and The Committee and loved comedy--often doing their bits, since he felt humor was meant to be shared.  That's where he met Cheech, who was American-born but living in Canada to avoid the draft.

They worked well together and became a comedy team.  Chong was the hippie stoner and Cheech the Chicano lowrider.  Cheech at first resisted the character, considering it demeaning, but it was so popular he had little choice.

They moved to Los Angeles and Cheech, who'd broken a leg skiing in Canada, was able to get 4-f status, taking care of his worries about the draft. The two scrounged around for a while, performing at various clubs, learning what worked and what didn't.  They were a hit at the Troubadour, and record producer Lou Adler asked to meet them.  They came to his office and he asked what he could do for them.  Chong said Give us a thousand dollars and a tape recorder and we'll make some comedy.  That's how it all started.

They came to the studio to make up material (they used improv to develop their act).  Cheech went outside to come back in for a bit, but the door was locked.  He asked to come back in and Chong pretended he didn't know who he was, and thus their first famous routine, "Dave," was born.

Cheech & Chong were different from other comedy acts.  They were part of the counterculture, but their characters were there from the inside, not commenting from the outside.  And they were more rockers than comics--not only that they played music, but that they had hits that were played on music stations:  "Sister Mary Elephant," "Basketball Jones," "Earache My Eye" and so on.

On the way to stardom, we learn about the women Chong loved, married, had kids with.  And, of course, he talks about his other love affair--with drugs, mainly pot.  Chong is still a big proponent, but he also believes in eating healthfully and is a body builder.

Their first four albums went gold.  Their fifth didn't do as well, and it looked like they might be moving downward in the late 70s, but that's when they turned to Hollywood.  They realized only they could make their own feature--featuring the classic Cheech and Chong characters, it would have a loose structure and they'd have to make up large parts of it as they went along.  They wrote it and got manager Lou Adler to direct it.  The film, Up In Smoke (1978), was a smash. However, Chong and Adler had a falling out over how the film should be done and Adler quit as their manager.

From now on, Chong would direct their films.  They made one a year in the first half of the 1980s.  The films made money, but with diminishing returns.  On top of that Cheech was getting restless--he wanted to prove he was a real actor.  The team split up and Cheech has since played numerous roles in TV and movies, but Chong believes he's "acting" now whereas he was authentic in the duo.

They've done a few things here and there since they split up, but the two (according to Chong) don't seem to get along any more.  Just as well--they were a team of the 70s that conjured up the spirit of the 60s.  That should be enough for anyone.

web page hit counter