Decades later, Dave’s still not here: A conversation with Tommy Chong
Dave’s not here.
For more than a generation, for both the young and the not-so-young anymore, those three words have become synonymous with a state of chemically induced confusion.
They’re the brainchild of Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong, the up-in-smoke comedy duo who in the 1970s first captured the spacey hilarity and wild wonderment of being high on pot, stoned to the bejesus.
“Dave’s Not Here,” Cheech and Chong’s first recorded comedy riff back in the days of vinyl, involves a pothead so bonkered he doesn’t know where he’s at or who he is, bedeviling a friend who shows up at his door.
Not long ago, Chong shared the story behind the 11/2-minute routine that’s still religiously recited today, even by people who’ve never smoked pot.
The 77-year-old Chong had come to Las Vegas for the second annual Hempfest Carnival and Marijuana Expo. While he was discussing a new cannabis-based business venture, the conversation wandered, appropriately, and somehow turned to Dave.
(Soft knocks at the door)
Chong: Who is it?
Cheech: It’s me, Dave, man. Open up. I got the stuff.
Cheech: It’s Dave, man. Open up. I think the cops saw me come in here.
Nowadays, the longtime advocate of legalized marijuana isn’t just smoking pot to get high: Chong says regular use of the drug helped him beat back prostate cancer in 2012. This year, Chong announced that he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer and had started a new cannabis regimen.
In fact, Chong was stoned when he talked about his partnership in a new venture called Cannabis Club TV, or CCTV, founded by two Santa Cruz partners who want to place their marijuana-themed programming in pot dispensaries from coast to coast.
Looking thinner than the days when he sported a gnarly beard and bandanna along with fellow Grammy Award winner Marin, Chong didn’t flinch when asked to estimate how much pot he figured he’d smoked in his life.
“We calculated it when we had nothing to do,” Chong said of himself and his partner, as he sat in an RV parked not far from the Strip.
“Maybe a little over … definitely a little over a pound.”
And his preferred delivery vehicle: bong or joint?
“My favorite way of getting high,” he explained, “is inhaling.”
Chong: Who is it?
Cheech: It’s Dave, man. Will you open up? I got the stuff with me.
Cheech: Dave, man. Open up.
Chong, a native Canadian, says he was living in Vancouver in the 1960s when he met Marin, an American who had fled there to avoid the Vietnam draft.
At the time, Chong ran a strip club he later converted into an improv theater. The two hooked up and began smoking pot together, laughing and dreaming up comedy bits.
When asked whether he ever dreamed back then that marijuana would one day be legal in some states, Chong replied: “I never really accepted the fact that it wasn’t legal. When I began smoking pot, it wasn’t illegal because nobody knew what it was.”
He added: “I’d tell people that funny smell was a new kind of Italian cigarette.”
Eventually, Cheech and Chong signed a contract with record producer Lou Adler. In the early 1970s, they holed up in the old Charlie Chaplin Studios in Los Angeles, then the headquarters for A&M records, and got down to writing comedy.
They’d show up for work in the afternoon.
“We’d look at each other for a while and then one of us would finally say, ‘Are ya hungry?’ And we’d go get something to eat,” Chong recalled. “We’d talk about things going on in our lives till we got back to the studio.”
Then one would have to go to the bathroom. Oh, yeah, Chong added, almost as an after-thought, that’s where they’d toke up.
“We’d come out of the bathroom with an idea,” he said. “We recorded it on a little tape player. We’d play it back; see what it needed.”
One sweltering summer afternoon, in their little room at the studios, one that Chaplin himself once used, Marin stepped out onto the studio lot for a bit, presumably to score some pot.
“Cheech was a Method actor,” Chong recalled. “He had to put on costumes when he does a bit to become that person, even if it’s a hat or an overcoat.”
Marin was gone for a while, and it was 110 degrees in the courtyard, the sun beating down hard. The studio door locked from the inside.
“So he knocked on the door, and I was supposed to let him in, but I wanted to make sure the recording was working,” Chong said. “The second time he knocked, I saw that the needle was moving, so I started the bit.”
Marin had no idea what was going on.
“Who is it?” Chong asked.
“It’s me, man. Open up. I got the stuff.”
Chong continued to play dumb.
“It’s me, man. Let me in, man. I think the cops saw me.”
Chong, gleefully recalling what happened next, said: “Now I got him right where I want him. When he knocked again, I asked, ‘Who is it?’ in that stupid voice.”
He continued: “I could hear the anxiety. He was dying of heat exhaustion. The last time I told him I wasn’t there, he blew it. He went nuts.”
Chong opened the door.
“I really feared for my life,” he said. “For a second, I thought he was going to kill me.”
Violence was averted, however, when Chong told his partner: “Listen, listen, listen. Play back the tape.”
The two roared with laughter, replaying the tape for an hour or more. They took it to Adler, who also liked it but wanted the pair to re-record the riff in a big studio.
Chong recalled it as a missed opportunity.
“The one you hear on the record is funny,” he said. “But it’s nowhere near as funny as the one I recorded — the original one.”
They used the name Dave, by the way, in honor of a comedian they worked with back in Vancouver.
Cheech: Dave! D-A-V-E! Will you open up the … door!
Cheech: Yeah, Dave!
Cheech: Right, man. Dave. Now will you open up the door?
Chong: Dave’s not here.
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