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Published: 2008/07/22
by Dean Budnick

Shirley Halperin Embraces Pot Culture

You now work at Entertainment Weekly, after some time at Us Weekly. Were you ever concerned that writing this book would carry some of stigma with those publications or others?

I worry about that but I’ve been fortunate in that my bosses have all been very, very cool. Us Weekly is published by Jann Wenner who started Rolling Stone. I would be shocked and extremely disappointed if he was an anti-pot guy. Its one of the reasons I went and worked there. I look for companies that are going to be cool, that are not going to insist that I change my lifestyle. So Us Weekly was one of those places because Jann Wenner runs it. I started working on the book before I got the job at EW but they were very cool about it too. EW is an arbiter of pop culture and this is the ultimate assessment of pop culture, so it kind of fits in a weird way.

You mentioned Phish a while ago. I remember there was that piece in Smug a long time ago

Yeah, 95.

*Can you talk a bit about your perspective on the band over the years? *

I have a long history with the band. I met them when I was in college but I was a huge fan even in high school. I was a very early adopter of Phish. I didn’t completely drop the Dead but made the transition from Dead stickers to Phish stickers way earlier than a lot of other people I knew. I was a huge fan, they changed my life, they really did. Going to those shows completely opened my mind up to this world.

I met those guys when they were on the H.O.R.D.E. tour and Fishman and I became friends. We spoke on the phone and I went to a bunch of shows, as many East Coast shows as I could. Then I went to Israel for a year abroad and he came and hung with me for like 10 days. He came and just did a tour of Israel which was awesome. That’s where I learned about the music business, all that time in the car driving around, he just taught me how the music business worked and I thought, Oh, I can work in the music business. I was 19. (laughs)

And as the years went by I really did get to know those guys. When they were making the Rift record they wanted to put the song “Jerusalem City of Gold” on in it at the end but they didn’t know the words. So while I was still living with my parents, I got a random call at midnight on a weeknight from Mike Gordon. They were literally in the studio recording Hoist and he asked me if I could transliterate the song and speak it out for him so that they’d sing it properly.

I had all these really crazy experiences with those guys and I was a huge, huge fan and believer but I kind of dropped out of it after I started the magazine and kind of went indie rock. We did that interview for Smug but I wasn’t so much involved in the scene, although I still went to New Years shows.

When I worked at High Times I did some stuff with them but then I kind of lost touch with those guys. But they still made a huge impact on my life, so I wanted to acknowledge them in the book. I gave them that page and I really wanted to use a C Taylor Crothers photo, so I went to great lengths to get permission to use that picture. I just think theyre great and such a special cultural phenomenon that who knows if well see again. And now that its not here, I miss it.

I hope they get back together and do another tour, I think that would be awesome. I had such great times on Phish tours, really some of the greatest moments in my life. And at the Jammys the cool thing was seeing all these people I havent seen in ten years, and it felt very inclusive, very welcoming.

Speaking of the Jammys, what moments stood out for you either backstage or on the stage?

When the four guys were about to go to accept their Lifetime Achievement Award, I was standing next to them. I hadnt seen Fishman in a long time, we were sort of catching up and I hadnt exchanged words with Trey in a while. Everything just looked perfect, exactly as it was. Maybe they were a little greyer, a little less hair whatever, it really was just such a flashback. Not an acid flashback, just a regular flashback (laughs).

That and Leslie West backstage watching people play Rock Band, requesting that they play Mississippi Queen. It was just so surreal. (laughs)

You mentioned Heads earlier, can you talk a bit about your experience there? I can remember your enthusiasm when it was all set to launch and then things took an unpleasant turn. Unless dredging it up is too much of a drag for you

Its a little bit of drag. Its one of my big regrets that I couldn’t quite make it work. Basically I was working at High Times and they had this magazine Hemp Times which was their sort of way of doing a non-weed stoner magazine but it wasn’t really the right formula because who wants to read about rope? (laughs) I was trying to pitch High Times on the idea of doing a cultural magazine that’s all about travel and music and movies and TV shows that has everything to do about pot but its not about pot, its about the people. And that was my big catch phrase, Its not about the plant, its about the person.

So that’s what I was trying to do with Heads, make a magazine for stoners that’s not all about centerfolds and prices and growing and all that stuff. Its about the cultural impact that stoners have had and that keeps regenerating.
So I wanted to do this magazine and I found a willing investor in Canada but we had opposing thoughts on parts of Heads and Smug, which I was publishing with him as well. And when we decided to shut down Smug, I gave him the rights to Heads. I just couldn’t do it, it was too difficult. Being an independent publisher is one of the toughest businesses to get into. So I let it go and I kind of always regretted it because it would have been a great product and I think they actually had a pretty good magazine. I don’t know if its still around but I used to see copies of it and it looked fantastic and I still feel that theres room for it. I wish High Times would have jumped at the concept when I first threw it out there but c’est la vie.

It’s sort of what I was trying to do in book form and it really came out exactly the way I wanted it to. The way it looks is exactly how I had envisioned this thing for a long time. It looks great, it reads the way I wanted to, nobody gave me any trouble in terms of we have too many photos, so Im psyched. Things work out the way they’re supposed to ultimately and I think that’s what happened.

In terms of writing the book, how did you divide up the workload with Steve?

That was pretty clear cut. Steve handled almost everything that came before 1980. He did all the 60s stuff, he did all the major people in the marijuana movement. He had his generation that he was writing for and speaking to and I was doing more my generation. We do have 20 years between us, were a generation apart. I handled the Harold and Kumar end of things. I handled most of the celebrity interviews because those are the people I have a lot of contact with, so it was a very clear division of labor. It worked out perfectly because I didn’t know enough about pot in the 60s and 70s to write about it with any sort of authority but Steve certainly does. Hes had 25 years as an editor at High Times, he knows what hes talking about. And were really good friends. We’ve stayed really good friends after all this time and we’ve been through a lot of drama together, especially with Heads and I’m so happy that Steve’s a part of this, hes a really great guy.

Final question, now that its been published, do you have a favorite entry or one that stands out for some reason or another?

I really like Rob Thomas essay on how to score when you don’t have weed because he was the first person to sign on for the book. When I talked to him about it years ago he said, I would love to write an essay about how to bring up pot in casual conversation, how to do that dance where you need to figure out if someone partakes or not. It was his first idea and we never changed it. With some of the celebrities I sat down and said, Can we do this instead of this? because we needed things to fill in certain places. But with Rob, his idea was the original one. It was so funny and well-written and its probably my favorite thing in the whole book because it was an idea that we had so long ago and it actually came to be. You see, we stoners follow through.

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