From Woodstock to Betty Ford to 25 Years Clean and Sober: What a Long strange trip it’s been…

A Look Back by Leonard Buschel

August 6, 1969 – “Do you want to go to Woodstock?” Joe asks.

“Well, we sure can’t go back to Atlantic City to do our radio show, might as well get out of Philly.  It starts in a week.  We’ll go a couple days early and get tickets there.  We can scope out a good place to camp near the lake.  We can take our rods to do some fishing. Maybe can catch some bass and throw them on the Coleman”.  Bethel, New York was about 3 and a half hours from Philly.  We asked my brother if he wanted to go, but he was a little fed up with rock n’ roll at that point.  And so began part two of a very thrilling summer.

That June, my brother Bruce, best friend, Joe D. and I had begun doing a radio show on the Jersey Shore.  We found a country and western station that went off the air at midnight and the owner agreed to let us do a show from midnight to 2am during the week and midnight to 4am on the weekends. All we had to do was sell some advertising to pay for the studio, hire a licensed engineer and keep our listeners entertained.  There were no rock stations on that late along the South Jersey shore.  I had a good record collection to get us started.  My university, well actually, Philadelphia Community College was located in the defunct Snellenberg’s department store downtown, with four working elevators.  Around the corner on Market Street, was Jerry’s Records – all albums $2.99.  Every time a new Beatles, Dylan or Led Zeppelin record came out,  there were lines around the block with people passing hash pipes back and forth.  We also had a contact at Columbia records who was giving us everything he could … dozens of albums a week, new and old.

The quality and wealth of music that summer was transcendent. And Woodstock was about to strike the planet. We played Al Kooper’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, Mahalia Jackson, Barbara Streisand, Miles Davis too, lot’s of Miles. Johnny Cash at San Quentin, Tony Bennett, Dylan’s greatest hits, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, The Chamber Brothers, and Thelonious Monk. Of course we couldn’t get enough of Marvin Gaye, Sly, the Doors or the Beatles. We also played some routines from the Fireside Theater’s “How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, When You’re Not Anywhere At All.” We called the show, “The Midnight Express.” We mainly played music, sometimes read crazy articles from the newspaper (thank you Mort Sahl) and occasionally had special guests for our radio audience, to appreciate or hallucinate.  We presented the Flying Wallendas doing some of their most dangerous routines (sound effects only), had local magicians doing their acts and Marcel Marceau killing it.  We had a lot of laughs…until one night.

Oh, what a night…. The three of us lived together in a boarding house in Atlantic City. One night, I didn’t go to the radio show because I had arrangements at midnight to meet Willie at the Club Harlem and buy some real Panama Red. That evening, while I was out at the Lou’s Restaurant  having a black and white malted, cops raided our apartment looking for drugs.  All they found was some sticky black incense. It was called Opium Incense, with absolutely no opium in it.

 Not being adept at discerning thick black incense from thick black hashish, the cops put out an arrest warrant for Bruce and me as our names were on the rental agreement. When I got back to the boarding house, the nervous residents excitedly told me, “You better get out of here,” they warned me, “the police have an arrest warrant for you and your brother.”

“What about our best friend Joe?”

“No,” they explained. “His name wasn’t on it.”

I immediately called Bruce at the station and told him what happened.

“You want me to forget the deal and come grab you?”

“Hell, no.  If that’s real Panama Red, we’re gonna need it now more than ever!” I took the Jitney to the Club Harlem and scored some real Panama Red.

As we got closer to Philly on the White Horse Pike, the sun rose behind us, and the radio played the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”  Written by Stephen Stills, and based on a spontaneous conversation with his friend, P.F. Sloan, when the two stepped outside of Pandora’ Box nightclub, and into a riot on Sunset Strip.

“Hey! Stop. What’s that sound?”

“There must be a thousand people in the street.”

“There’s a man with a gun over there!”

A field day for “the Heat” and the line, “paranoia strikes deep,” captured the fear and emotion Bruce and I were experiencing. We had tears in our eyes. The Panama Red had kicked in. We were sobbing so hard we had to pull over, wipe the tears away, gain our composure and take another hit.

After a few days back in Philly, Bruce decided to go back and do the radio show.  That’s dedication.  That’s also unwise as Bruce being arrested live, on the air, with Joe doing play-by-play commentary as handcuffs were slammed on Bruce’s wrists and he’s hauled out of the station and off to jail. Before the cops had left the studio, Joe had the presence of mind to grab The Beatles’ WHITE ALBUM and put George Harrison’s Piggies on the turntable.

Bruce made bail, but we needed to get him a lawyer, but we was broke. I was still back home, and I see a newspaper article in the Philadelphia Bulletin about cops finding wild marijuana plants growing in a vacant lot in South Philly. Where there’s pot growing in one vacant lot, there must be pot growing in another vacant lot.

My buddy Tony grabbed his dad’s car and we went cruising around South Philly for some tall sexy pot plants. Eureka!  Sort of. Finding dozens of plants, we armed ourselves with blades and saws, chopped ‘em down, and stuffed them in the trunk. No one knew what pot plants looked like in 1968. However, these were not the sexy female plants we had hoped for. These were skinny male plants without a single grain of THC rich pollen anywhere on them. With the branches and green leaves hanging out of the trunk, it was if we shook a tail feather and split out of the neighborhood. Nobody paid any attention. Just a couple young Jewish and Italian punks trying to earn some money to pay for my brother’s lawyer.

It was all leaf but we sold enough to fund Bruce’s successful defense. They had no case as incense is not illegal. At the beginning of August, we all met up at the first (and last) Atlantic City Pop Festival at the Atlantic City race track as Janis Joplin took the stage. We realized our careers in radio were over. That meant we could go to Woodstock later in the month. 1969 thus far. Nixon sworn in as President. John and Yoko get married. Stonewall riots in Manhattan, humans walk on the moon, Manson Family murders and then Woodstock. Heavy year, and it’s only August.

25 years ago I wondered into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage – definition: something illusory, without substance or reality. The temperature reached 112˚ – 115 ˚ everyday, this was not an illusion.  But was it hell? I was in a dorm with 19 other men.  Nearby, there were 3 more dorms with twenty women in two of them and 20 more men in one.  All wounded,  in various stages of nervous breakdowns muttering to themselves. “How did I get here, How did I get here?” I knew how I got there.

Exactly 25 years before I was naked in a lake surrounded by 500,00 hippies and music lovers. Not too many of them were watching me swim, most were watching Richie Havens, the opening act at Woodstock, on Max Yasgers farm in Bethel, New York.  Joe and Eric and I had driven there a couple days earlier to get a good camping spot near the lake.  NO one was expecting the half a million who showed up.  For 3 days it was the 2nd most populated and SAFEST city in NY State.  Weed enough for everyone, acid and mescaline, too-oh my!  If anyone was drinking they were doing it in their tents.  If anyone was drinking at Betty Ford they were doing it in their dreams.

I hitchhiked home to Philly from Bethel on Saturday night.  My asthma was bothering me and I was afraid of the traffic jam that would happen on Sunday when the massive throng of people was going to pack up and all start their cars, vans, mobile homes and motorcycles at the same time.

I missed Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner on Monday morning at 9am but the rest of the world didn’t.

I thought of leaving Betty Ford when I couldn’t get the hang of the Lord’s Prayer.  I had driven there from Studio City but when I tried to check in I was sternly corrected by the admissions team, “this isn’t a hotel, you are being admitted and please give us your car keys”.  I surrendered my car keys, not mentioning that I had an extra ignition key hidden between my left foot and sock, tucked into an innocent looking pair of brown loafers.  I had left my black pointed-toe Italian shoes at home, not wanting to tip them off about my real identity, whatever that was.  

On my 2nd day at Betty Ford two really interesting things happened.  During the afternoon water volleyball game there was suddenly a half-smoked joint floating in the pool.  The guys were immediately told to go back to our dorm, called McCallum Hall.  Grown men, including a tackle from the San Diego Chargers backed away from that roach so quickly you would’ve thought it was a bomb or a turd.  Back in the hall at the emergency meeting, I realized the joint had floated out of my baggy swim trunks.  I always had swim trunks with pockets for my stash and asthma inhaler.  So when the counselor asked, “whose pot is this?”  My hand flew up in the air because I didn’t want the whole crew to take the heat for my mistake.  My mistake being I should have smoked the whole roach before I checked into a rehab!      

The next interesting thing that happened that day changed my life forever!  I am reluctant to share this experience at certain meetings because I know how difficult it is for some people to get sober.  A few minutes before the guys were supposed to line up and head towards the dining room fro dinner, I went outside alone and as the hot desert air surrounded me, all desire for drugs left me. For good!  It felt like toothpaste being gently (but completely) squeezed out of a tube, or a tooth being pulled with the perfect amount of Novocain and nitrous.  I could “feel it” torn out of me, but it was painless.  I knew in that instant that I would never smoke another joint, take another Percodan, snort another line of MDMA, chew a magic mushroom or pop some Valium.  I had used drugs everyday for 26 years and I suddenly knew it was over.  The psychic shift I experienced was so physical that I looked around to see if anyone else had seen the “me” I had been since I was 17 leave my body.  I had not done a step, said a prayer, made amends or helped a newcomer.

There is a term used in AA, it is “struck sober”.  It usually refers to an alcoholic, who upon attending their very first AA meeting never picks up another drink.  It has happened to tens and tens of thousand of people.  On my 2nd day at rehab, I was “struck sober”.  My teacher’s teacher, George Oshawa said, “Everything turns into its opposite at its extreme. Everything changes”. You need to change with it.

That’s what happened to me.  Carlos Santana would probably call it grace, Jesus would have called it a miracle.

I had already taken my life’s supply of drugs and booze. I was supersaturated and stopped on a dime.

The only reason I went to the Betty Ford Center was because I thought I was having a nervous breakdown, and the Feds were about to bust me.  I had no intention of giving up drugs.  I just needed a rest.  I didn’t even know that rehabs preached, “complete abstinence”.  Sometimes it pays off to be a fool. If I had known about that abstinence nonsense at the time, I would never had gone. I had a Plan ‘B”. Go to England for the summer and only drink lager and smoke hashish. What really had a hold on me was snorting Alexander Shulgin’s laboratory pure MDMA, way too often. The last time I was in the UK, I brought 60 hits, for two people for three weeks. We ran out.

Now 50 years later and older, I am totally buzzed to celebrate 25 years without a chemical or ethanol buzz.  Luckily, the desire to drink was not removed, so I see alcohol as a liquid drug, and attend those anonymous booze hounds meetings a few times a week.  What a blessing!  When my son was 19 years old and decided he had crossed the line, he too went to Betty Ford and just celebrated 19 years clean and sober.

Whenever the amazing film this life is. Woodstock was certainly a highlight. Rehab was like a railway turntable, where you pull in on one track, stay still, and a giant (God-like) turntable redirects the train to travel in the opposite direction. 

 When the film Woodstock plays in an art house cinema, I force my son to come with me.  I just sit there and cry, remembering how fucking lucky I was to have been there. And how I am even luckier to be alive. Ben gets to see the Who, and Janis, The Jefferson Airplane, Carlos and Jimi as the Gods they were.

Let’s not forget Sha-Na-Na and all the others.

To this day, I make holy every line, every double, every whiff of heroin off a shiny island of tin foil, every joint, each tab of acid holy by staying clean and sober – one day at a time. Everything I’ve done in my life that got me to the rooms of AA and NA, is holy. Sobriety is a gift that never stops needing to be nurtured and loved. Like a plant that needs a little water and sunshine each day.

I never thought I would fit in. Fit in anywhere. Little did I know that eventually I would fit in through the eye of the needle.