By Roy Kasten
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An open stretch of desert highway. Two paranoid addicts. A trunk full of narcotics. Over the static of the car radio, "One Toke Over the Line" blares, etching into memory the opening scenes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Its prominence in the 1998 film brought folk duo Brewer & Shipley's 1971 hit single to a new generation of pot smokers nursing Hunter S. Thompson fixations. The song, its drug-friendly lyrics and its inclusion on such subtle compilations as Hempilation 2: Free the Weed branded Brewer & Shipley as raging pro-marijuana-legalization hippies. Being personally condemned by Spiro T. Agnew as "subversives" back in '71 didn't help much either. But hype is just hype.
"I never considered myself a hippie," comments Michael Brewer. "I was a young, married man paying taxes, working, pursuing a career. I wore the clothes of the time and had long hair -- back when I had hair -- but I never lived in a commune. I actually bathed and shaved."
Tom Shipley, however, has no problem with the label. "Back in the days when we were officially card-carrying hippies traveling cross-country and living out of our Volkswagen," he says, "I spent a lot of time on a Hopi reservation out in the middle of Arizona. But I did not take acid and go running naked through any of their pueblos. And I bathed."
When they realized that the title of their first album Down in L.A. reflected not only their geography but their attitudes, Brewer & Shipley headed back to the heartland. Shipley describes their decision to settle in Missouri as one of fortunate circumstance.
"There was a music scene built up in Kansas City, and Michael and I used to come during Christmas and it was great. There would be clouds in the sky -- you don't see clouds in LA, just the haze. There was a significant period of time when we were essentially homeless. Then we set ourselves down with all these old friends to try and get a musical production company going."
And so it went. In 1970 Brewer & Shipley released Weeds, featuring fan-favorite "Indian Summer," which Shipley cites as his favorite song to perform, and the Native American-influenced cover "Wichi Tai To." Inspired by the film, the single "Rise Up Easy Rider" became a regional hit, reaching number one in the Kansas City and St. Louis markets, although their label refused to push the song nationally. Then later that same year came Tarkio, the album that would launch a thousand joints.
Tarkio communicated the beauty of nature and the ugliness of politics through song. With their buttered harmonies and deceptively simple acoustic melodies, Brewer & Shipley created an emotive, enduring record with a lot more going for it than the opening ditty "One Toke Over the Line."
Brewer & Shipley are genuinely delighted to have simultaneously had a Top 10 hit and a condemned record, regardless of the fact that it made them into one-hit wonders and marked men.
"It is a little frightening when the government is coming down on you personally," Brewer says of the duo's fifteen minutes in the Nixon's Most Hated spotlight. "But what really put it into perspective was that at exactly the same time Lawrence Welk performed 'One Toke Over the Line' and introduced it as a gospel song. I guess it was the 'sweet Jesus' part. We'll never know."
"When we wrote 'One Toke Over the Line,' I think we were one toke over the line," says Shipley. "I considered [marijuana] a sort of a sacrament..... If you listen to the lyrics of that song, 'one toke' was just a metaphor. It's a song about excess. Too much of anything will probably kill you."
"There are no documented cases of anybody ever overdosing on marijuana," adds Brewer, "but God knows, I've tried. It just can't be done."
No matter how good the album sounds when you're high -- and that's pretty good -- it is not a collection of dope hymns. Rather, it is a socially conscious record that reflects life for two longhaired Midwesterners on the road in 1970.
"There was a run-in with the police everywhere," says Shipley, in reference to the title track's pointed lyrics about not-so-PC law enforcement. "'Tarkio Road' was more or less a metaphor for all the traveling we did from Grinnell, Iowa to Crete, Nebraska. You walked in a place with long hair and people would give you a hard time. The police would drive around slowly following your car."
In 1979 Brewer & Shipley parted ways to pursue personal interests. They reunited in 1986 before a Kansas City crowd of ten thousand, and in 1993 released Shanghai, their first album of new material in seventeen years. Their most recent release, Heartland, pays tribute to the often overlooked beauty of the Midwest, specifically their personal heartland, the Ozarks.
Still, no amount of evidence to the contrary will change the general perception of Brewer & Shipley as a '70s folk version of Cheech and Chong. The National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML) invites Brewer & Shipley to perform at conventions, and High Times magazine sings their praises. Fortunately for their fans, a dedicated mélange of aging hippies and inspired twentysomethings, Brewer & Shipley don't mind being thought of as perpetual tokers, though they've moved on from such green pastures.
"The success is that our music has influenced people's lives in a positive way," says Brewer. "Their kids really were conceived to 'Wichi Tai To.' If we had made more money, our ex-wives would just be richer."
"I've been famous and I've been infamous," Shipley adds, "and neither one of them is what they are cracked up to be. What matters is that we've been playing together 35 years -- and we're still smoking."
He means that figuratively, of course.