Can't Find My Way Home is a history of illicit drug use in America in the second half of the twentieth century and a personal journey through the drug experience. It's the remarkable story of how America got high, the epic tale of how the American Century transformed into the Great Stoned Age.
Martin Torgoff begins with the avant-garde worlds of bebop jazz and the emerging Beat writers, who embraced the consciousness-altering properties of marijuana and other underground drugs. These musicians and writers midwifed the age of marijuana in the 1960s even as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) discovered the power of LSD, ushering in the psychedelic era. While President John Kennedy proclaimed a New Frontier and NASA journeyed to the moon, millions of young Americans began discovering their own new frontiers on a voyage to inner space. What had been the province of a fringe avant-garde only a decade earlier became a mass movement that affected and altered mainstream America.
And so America sped through the century, dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms at home, shooting heroin and ingesting amphetamines in Vietnam, snorting cocaine in the disco era, smoking crack cocaine in the devastated inner cities of the 1980s, discovering MDMA (Ecstasy) in the rave culture of the 1990s.
Can't Find My Way Home tells this extraordinary story by weaving together first-person accounts and historical background into a narrative vast in scope yet rich in intimate detail. Among those who describe their experiments with consciousness are Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Robert Stone, Wavy Gravy, Grace Slick, Oliver Stone, Peter Coyote, David Crosby, and many others from Haight Ashbury to Studio 54 to housing projects and rave warehouses.
But Can't Find My Way Home does not neglect the recovery movement, the war on drugs, and the ongoing debate over drug policy. And even as Martin Torgoff tells the story of his own addiction and recovery, he neither romanticizes nor demonizes drugs. If he finds them less dangerous than the moral crusaders say they are, he also finds them less benign than advocates insist.
Illegal drugs changed the cultural landscape of America, and they continue to shape our country, with enormous consequences. This ambitious, fascinating book is the story of how that happened.
Torgoff challenges what he calls America's "cultural amnesia" about recreational drug use during the last half-century, staking out a rhetorical middle ground that acknowledges both the pervasive cultural influence and the costs of overindulgence. The problem with his panoramic account is its focus on celebrities, especially among the creative classes, whose stories have already been told. That makes for a series of often stunning images Charlie Parker in the grip of heroin addiction, Wavy Gravy confronting Charles Manson, John Belushi snorting cocaine on live TV especially given Torgoff's skills as an interviewer (and the good fortune of getting to talk with key figures like Herbert Huncke and Timothy Leary before their deaths), but at the expense of discovering what happened once various drugs made their way to ordinary folks in the suburbs. Torgoff (who won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for American Fool, about John Cougar Mellencamp) does touch on that by opening with his own early drug use on '60s Long Island and closing with a poignant encounter with an aged homeless junkie, and the book could have used more stories like that. The discussion of the government's "war on drugs" is somewhat scattershot; though detailed on President Carter's flirtation with relaxing the laws and the militancy of the "Just Say No" era, there's nothing about Nixon's policies a particularly stunning omission since the DEA was created during his administration. Torgoff creates compelling juxtapositions, and he's not afraid to ask difficult questions, but he hasn't truly broken new ground.
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Ten years later after reading it and I still reference this book.
I picked up ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ as a straight-edge high school student and learned everything I ever wanted to know about contemporary drug culture in America.