No Joke
By R. D. Flavin

I've come on a few years from my Hollywood Highs
The best of the last, the cleanest star they ever had...

Heathcliff Andrew Ledger - April 4, 1979 to January 22, 2008.

      Australian born actor Heath Ledger died this week.  After a few lurid attempts by the media quoting their “sources” to imply suicide and/or the use of illegal drugs it now appears he accidently took too many sleeping pills.  Well, doctors do recommend and prescribe sleeping pills (Herbert 1983), however even the popular and commonly used sleep aids zolpidem (Ambien) and zopiclone (Lunesta) are increasingly involved in fatal overdoses, especially when combined with such other legal drugs as asalprazolam (Xanax) for anxiety, diazepam (Valium) for anxiety and stiff muscles, and doxylamine (Donormyl) for runny noses and insomnia.  It seems Heath had trouble falling and staying asleep.  All the above mentioned prescription drugs were found in his apartment, but it’s not yet clear if he had taken some of each or just one or two of the drugs.  Early reports prominently mentioned the presence of a rolled twenty dollar bill and a package of powdered zolpidem.  I guess snorting Ambien might knock one out faster.

     Heath was the star of the medieval action picture, “A Knight’s Tale,” with its anachronistic rock n’ roll soundtrack, and a co-star in Ang Lee’s follow-up to “The Hulk,” the acclaimed gay cowboy movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” which was based on a short story by Edna Annie Proulx.  Last year, he appeared as one of six different Bob Dylans in Todd Haynes’s “I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan.”  He had completed filming the role of ‘The Joker’ in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie, “The Dark Knight” and had been acting in the still in production fantasy film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” for director Terry Gilliam.   

     Although the idea of a “Superman Curse” still crops up from time to time, I’ve never heard of any bad luck befalling an actor who has played a super-villain.  Cesar Romero, who played the Joker in the 1966-1968 television series, “Batman,” died from a blood clot on New Year’s Day in 1994 five weeks shy of his 87th birthday.  He was way gay, but that’ll never be classified as a “curse” in Hollywood.  Jack Nicholson, who danced to an uninspired song by Prince in Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, also assumed the role of the Joker.  Jack has had some relationship issues over the years, he’s got the cover of the March/April 2008 AARP The Magazine, but with his latest buddy flick, “The Bucket List,” with Morgan Freeman, no one could seriously suggest that Jack was cursed because he once played the “Crown Prince of Crime.”  Of course, death is no joke and if only the massage therapist who found Heath unconscious had called an ambulance right away instead of calling one of the Olsen Twins four times, the 28 year old actor might still be with us.  It’s said that flumazenil can help with an overdose of zolpidem.

I'm stiff on my legend, the films that I made
Forget that I'm fifty cause you just got paid...

      I just reached the ‘L’ mark.  No, that’s not a sideways reference to Chicago’s ‘El’, the Windy City’s elevated train system, or even an attempt to coin a new text messaging term.  ‘L’, the Roman letter used to represent the Latin numeral quînquâgintâ, or fifty, was originally formed by dividing ‘C’, the Latin numeral centum, or one hundred, in half.  So, I’m now half of a hundred years of age.  Yeah, it’s a middling achievement which won’t change how I regard those who are older than me, though I do notice how many more young people are out there.  That, in and of itself, isn’t bothersome.  That so many young people are dying is, however, sad.

Crack, baby, crack, show me you're real
Smack, baby, smack, is that all that you feel...

Amy Winehouse - going, going and, wait, ...almost there.

      Every now and then we break something.  It could be our word, a promise, someone’s spirit (including our own), a heart, bone(s), or an object or thing.  Sometimes it’s just a crack which can be fixed, while at other times the crack is irreparable and it’s the fast-track to downhill from there.  Amy Winehouse, the young British r & b slash jazzy punky pop singer who refues to go to “Rehab,” has again become a tabloid sensation with recent video showing her apparently taking a substantial pull on a glass pipe.  Ah, Amy?  Try not to do bad things around cameras...

     A long, long time ago (i.e. the ‘60s), Dr. Timothy Leary promoted LSD and many prominent folk from JFK and Cary Grant to the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, experimented with the mind and mood altering hallucinogenic drug.  In the disco ‘70s sniffing cocaine was a societal norm, during the ‘80s it was smoking really good pot, snorting China White heroin became commonplace in the ‘90s and in the ‘00s (the “oughts”) the current fad seems to be crystal meth.  Sure, there’s other drugs out there that are being abused (e.g. MDMA or Ecstacy, oxycodone or hillbilly heroin, Salvia divinorum or Sally-D).  Yet, since the 1980 accidental scortching of Richard Pryor while attempting to “freebase” cocaine (though other accounts have Richard dousing himself with booze and attempting self-immolation), and furthered by the 1990 arrest of Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry after being video-taped smoking "crack" (an easily prepared “freebase” version of smoke-able cocaine), we've become aware that besides inhaling or injecting cocaine, there are those who smoke it.  And, reflecting the “laugh at it or leave it alone” cynicism of these uber-hip times of ours, the animated television program, The Simpsons, began to make frequent references to crack cocaine.  I seem to recall seeing kids wearing t-shirts depicting Bart Simpson on a skateboard, the top half of his derriere exposed, asking something like, “Anyone want some crack?”  Tragedies become marginal, abusers are caricatures, and we forget to give thanks for what tricks us into believing there really is a difference between us and them.

Suck, baby, suck, give me your head
Before you start professing that you're knocking me dead...

Coca growing in Peru (Jones 1929, p. 279), Sherlock doing chemo in 1892 and ...Ike.

     Benzoylmethyl ecgonine, or cocaine, is derived from the South American leafy shrub,  Erythroxylum coca and is thought to have been domesticated as early as 1500 BCE (Boucher 1991, p. 72).  Used since antiquity by a variety of Native South American tribes as a mild labor stimulant (and as a medicinal and divinatory plant, as well), coca leaf chewing or drinking a tea-like beverage made from the leafs were first attacked in 1552 by aghast Catholic missionaries who had complained against the “pagan” practices of the Native South Americans to the Spanish authorities (Gagliano 1963, p. 44).  Inquisition, New World style!

 [Note: Some years back there was lively debate surrounding evidence of trace amounts of cocaine and nicotine in ancient Egyptian mummies.  Some suggested that this was proof of transoceanic contact between the Old and New Worlds before Columbus.  While the matter was never definitively settled, a consensus was eventually reached in which certain Old World plants from Africa and/or Madagascar containing insignificant (though measurable) amounts of cocaine and nicotine, perhaps 'sacred' aromatics, were used in a “lost” mummification recipe.  A forensic analogy might be a urine test being positive for opiates from a consumer of poppy seed bagels.  Even the potato, another New World plant, possesses trace amounts of diazepam (Valium), though its improbable anyone would be foolish enough to eat the several bushels of ‘tators necessary for a “time-out” moment.]

     Cocaine was first isolated from coca leafs as a chemical oddity in 1852 by the German chemist, Albert Niemann and deemed to be of “no medical value” by a British commission in 1880 (Leake 1925, p. 308).  Still, the new chemical product  quickly gained in infamy and notoriety with its usage as a literary adjunctive in the 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and as a 1890s' character embellishment with the unreasonable habit of the detective, Sherlock Holmes.  However, real life usually surpasses reel life with numbing straightforwardness, as Herr Docktor Sigmund Freud scored his first buy of cocaine in 1894 and continued to experiment with the drug for the next nine or ten years.  Cocaine (soon to be “Coke”) is now regarded as another escapee from the chemical corner of Mom Terra’s box.

     The annual death rate from cocaine abuse probably drops somewhere between death from food poisoning (approximately 5000) and the combined total of fatal shark attacks and lightening strikes.  I think it's in the low thousands, btw, which is still a horrible number resistant to twisting.  Way too high...  I won’t even attempt to sketch a list of famous folk who have had their last dance with the White Lady, but I will mention the latest tango which ended six feet under as the San Diego Coroner’s Office recently issued a cause of death for Ike Turner as a cocaine overdose with the "significant and contributing factors" of pulmonary emphysema and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.  Ike made it to 76 years of age. 

You caught yourself a trick down on Sunset and Vine
But since he pinned you baby you're a porcupine...

David Bowie as the Cracked Actor, the Thin White Duke, and as a survivor.

      The multi-media entertainer and singer, David Bowie (b. David Robert Jones), came off age in the psychedelic ‘60s, and has made significant contributions to the Arts in every decade since.  Morphing from folk/jazz/pop/rock, to a glam otherworldly persona, then assuming an American urban character (ie. his “Philly” period) which immediately seguewayed  into his Thin White Duke persona, which is thought to have highlighted his dependence on cocaine.  From there, David experimented with minimalisim and then returned to his pop/rock roots where he more or less continues to have fun with writing and performing to this day.  

     Bowie’s said that he first starting doing cocaine during the American leg of his immensely successful 1972-1973 “Ziggy Stardust” tour.  Songs written on the tour formed the basis for Bowie’s next album, Aladdin Sane, which produced many successful singles (though my personal favs are “Cracked Actor” and “Panic in Detroit,” though despite the latter being recorded during the Aladdin Sane sessions, it was excuded at the time and not released for over a year).

     It was during in his Thin White Duke period that Bowie consumed dangerous levels of cocaine, his friends say his behavior was exceptionally agitated, he lost a considerable amount of weight, but his artistic genius survived the physical and mental abuse brought on by the cocaine.  He questioned the legitimacy of cocaine intoxication (along with the paths of the Qabbalistic Sephirot or "Tree of Life") in the title song from his 1976 album, Station to Station.

     While we will always mourn the premature passing of all, be they common or not, however much like our evening television news-casts consists of primarily bad new, we seldom acknowledge and the good news and credit those who have maintained perseverance and survived.  Bowie is a survivor and should be congratulated.  I await his future efforts.

Soured milk carton advertisements: Bill, Fred, Dennis, Dick and George.
     In his online column this week, “
No Surrender,” the social commentator, Bill O’Reilly, chose not to discuss accidental sleeping pill overdoses or the subsequent postponement for a week of a speech by Pres. George W. Bush against the abuse of prescription drugs due to the death of Heath Ledger, the ups and downs of the Stock Market, or the narrowing of the presidential candidate field with Thompson and Kucinich dropping out.  The week before, his column coughed up something about the Democrats being split into an “establishment” faction which supports Hillary Clinton and “Yoko Ono Democrats” who, he claims, are divided between Barak Obama and John Edwards.  He guessed that the Democratic ticket this autumn will consist of Senators Clinton and Obama, as he regards them as the front-runners and are likely to be selected as having the best chance to beat the Republican ticket.  Instead, his column this week concerned the heroic qualities of the coach of the New York Giants and how, whether or not the Giants beat the New England Patriots in next week’s football Super Bowel XLII, we should all praise the coach of the New York Giants for trying so hard.  Our main concern should be closely watching the current administration so that something of a government is still in place after the next election.

     According to his biography, Bill has an MA in ‘Broadcast Journalism’ from Boston University and an MA in ‘Public Administration’ from Harvard.  Common knowledge has it that no one can serve two masters.  Wordsmiths would debate describing Bill as either poser or poseur, but I’ll ‘’ and dismiss him as both.  Undoubtedly accustomed to soiling himself, this recent lukewarm pile of sophomoric punditry will continue to add to Global Warming.  Electile Dysfunction (the inability to choose a candidate) is a serious problem and Bill and his "The Cracked Factor" should seek help before it’s too late.  And, that's no joke...

You sold me illusions for a sack full of cheques
You've made a bad connection 'cause I just want your sex...
(From “Cracked Actor.”  Words and music by David Bowie.  Aladdin Sane.  1973; RCA Records.)

Chelsea Clinton in Boston last week, cut-throat pundit Ann Coulter, and the recently assaininated Benazir Bhutto.

Boucher, Douglas H.  1991.  “Cocaine and the Coca Plant.”  BioScience.  41, 2: 72-76.
Gagliano, Joseph A.  1963.  “The Coca Debate in Colonial Peru.”  The Americas.  20, 1: 43-63.
Herbert, W.  1983.  “Science News of the Week: Scientists Give Nod to Sleeping Pills.”  Science News.  124, 22: 342.
Jones, Clarence F.  1929.  “Agricultural Regions of South America. Instalment V.”  Economic Geography.  5, 3: 277-307.
Leake, Chauncey D.  1925.  “The Historical Development of Surgical Anesthesia.”  The Scientific Monthly.  20, 3: 304-328.

Further Information:
Grinspoon, Lester and James B. Bakalar.  1979.  Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered.  New York: Basic Books.
Grinspoon, Lester and James B. Bakalar.  1976.  Cocaine: A Drug and its Social Evolution.  New York: Basic Books.
Grinspoon, Lester.  1971.  Marihuana Reconsidered.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schultes, Richard Evans.  1969.  “Hallucinogens of Plant Origin.”  Science.  163, 3864: 245-254.  For Salvia divinorum, see p. 252.    


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