One Toke Over The Line. Who would have thought that a joke, written to make our friends laugh, would become the hallmark in the lives of Brewer and Shipley? The writing was about as easy as it gets. What followed was a career full of explaining to people what a “toke” was. A huge number of people thought we were saying toe. That made sense but it was the wrong answer. Eventually, most folks understood but not before the question had been asked a million times.
Brewer and Shipley had started to achieve a fair amount of success with their “Weeds” album. We had become one of the “alternative” groups of our time, opening for some of the larger and louder groups that were emerging. Quicksilver Messenger Service was one I remember because of the change it made in our onstage performances. After the soundcheck at a Detroit theater, we approached the sound man. At that point, acoustic guitars still sounded “wimpy” on stage. After hearing Quicksilver’s volume we pointed at our guitars and said this is our band. “We want our band to be as loud as their band,” we told the sound man. He obliged and our guitars filled the auditorium.
The results were immediate. We held our own that night and proceeded to point this out wherever we played. In doing so we became a prime opening act for the rock bands that were making their appearance and could play anywhere including rock festivals and other big venues. In doing so we gathered a fan base that added rockers to the folk music followers who had been our mainstay. It was as though we had become an “electric” acoustic group.
We had become popular enough that we were invited to play Carnegie Hall. We did extremely well that night. Way better than we could have hoped for. We got several encores and ran out of songs. When Michael asked, what the hell are we going to do now,” I replied “let’s do that new song. One Toke Over The Line.” So off we went into the unknown.
The president of our record company was in the audience and told us after the show “that’s the single.” We were getting ready to work on our Tarkio album so One Toke was thrown into the mix. Obviously, he had talked to our producer about the song and he was ready. When we arrived in San Francisco he set up some “rehearsals’ at a bar in North Beach. This was unusual for the way we had done it with Nick. And the song we rehearsed. One Toke Over The Line pretty well worked.
By the time we got into the studio, Nick had gathered more players. Not only did we have Michael Bloomfield, John Kahn, and Mark Naftalin to play with but Nick had added Niky Hopkins, the Rolling Stones keyboard player to the mix. No pressure there. The recording went well for San Francisco, a place where getting loose in the studio was commonplace. Not only did we have great musicians to work with but got Steve Barncard, another Kansas City boy, to engineer the sessions. Steve was without a doubt the best engineer we had ever worked with. And we were recording at Wally Heider’s studio in the heart of San Francisco’s tenderloin district Home to some of the greatest music to ever come out of the bay area.
Because everybody in San Francisco recorded at Wally’s there were always musicians around who were happy to sit in on a session. No money changed hands. Just music. The The New Rider Of The Purple Sage with Jerry Garcia was working in the studio across from ours. At one point, when we were recording “Oh Mommy I Aint No Commie,” we asked Jerry if he would play pedal steel on it as he had done on CSNY’s “Teach Your Children.” Love to,” he replied. Jerry was one of those guys that played continually. When recording at Wally’s there was no telling who was going to play on your album.
When One Toke was finished and it was time to mix, we came to a horrible conclusion. The song was too long for a single. So it was time to do some more work. The song we had recorded had three verses and one of them had to go. So we cut it out if you will. This was before the days of digital recording so out came the razor blade. After some serious, and very careful marking on the tape the cut was made. It worked but you could “hear” the edit. A click. Not very loud but still a click. What to do? Overdub a cymbal splash where the click was and no one would hear it.
So One Toke Over The Line was finished. We continued on with the album and decided to call it “Tarkio” after the song “Tarkio Road” which also appeared on the album. There were several more songs to record including the last one “Can’t Go Home,” which we wrote the morning of our last session. We were pretty much on our own for that one. Janis Joplin had died the night before and Nick who was a friend had written several songs for her including one to appear on her “Pear” album. Nick had to go to LA to help out with the song “Buried Alive In The Blues,” the only song on the album which has no vocals.
By the time we had it recorded we had run out of time to mix. David Crosby and Grahm Nash had the studio booked for the next session and though we pleaded with them to give us a few hours to mix they declined. When I kidded with Grahm about it several years later he jokingly told me we had been outranked. I couldn’t disagree. We ended up mixing the song in a side room designed for assembling masters.
The following night was insane. Word had arrived in San Francisco that Janis had died. A concert was held at Winterland with the bands that made the city famous. Big Brother minus Janis, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead. all there to celebrate Janis Joplin with music, a huge amount of cannabis, and Heaven knows what else. It was a night I will never forget. And the end of the recording of our Tarkio Album.
The Brewer and Shipley documentary “One Toke Over The Line and Still Smokin’” is now available on VIMEO on demand. It covers our lives before and after One Toke. Given that my next few stories will be comprised of other things…until I pick up on some more Brewer and Shipley stories.