Thirty-Nine Years Of Short Term Memory Loss

Thirty-Nine Years Of Short Term Memory Loss

A few years back, I was buying pot from a lovely young woman. I mentioned that I had gone to University Of Wisconsin At Madison, and she asked if I knew a friend of hers who went there around the same time. “I figured maybe you’d know her, since you’re both stoners,” she reasoned.  

I felt strangely insulted. How dare this woman suggest I was a stoner just because I bought pot from her on a regular basis? I then experienced an epiphany: People who don’t smoke pot tend to hate stoners. Then again, people who smoke pot hate stoners as well. Stoners ruin it for the rest of us. Thanks to stoners, when people imagine the typical pot-smoker, they envision a chubby, unshaven pizza-delivery man in sweatpants and a tie-dyed shirt, covered in Cheetos crumbs, and falling asleep on the couch while cradling a bong like a newborn baby.

Stoners have become the red-eyed, heavy-lidded, just barely awake face of cannabis consumption because they are by definition the most vocal marijuana enthusiasts. The vast majority of adults who smoke pot are Secret Stoners. They’re your college professors, mailmen, teachers, doctors, and long-distance truck drivers. You just don’t know they get high, because unlike stoners, they don’t feel the need to make a big deal out of it. They’re unlikely to commandeer the microphone at a PTA meeting to loudly enthuse, “Dude, I got wicked baked last night and ordered a pizza and then watched Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too, and it was fucking awesome. That is why I am in favor of allocating money for metal detectors in the hallways.” 

Stoners, on the other hand, broadcast their love of the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana, shouting it from the mountaintops. It defines them. To pot-smokers, lighting up a bowl after a hard day at work is something they do: To stoners, it’s who they are. Doug Benson is a stoner comedian; David Cross is a comedian who smokes pot. There’s a difference, though it’s open to debate just how big it might be. 

People hate stoners in part because of books like Thirty-Nine Years Of Short-Term Memory Loss, Tom Davis’ maddening, shambling memoir. It’s a drug book first and a book about comedy a distant second; even its title qualifies as a wink-wink nudge-nudge drug reference. (Dude, he has short-term memory loss ’cause he’s fucking baked, man!) Davis’ book is ostensibly about his formative days writing for Saturday Night Live, but it’s really all about how he got super fucking high and smoked this black pearl of hash at this spot in Bangladesh and then later was fucked up on LSD while he watched the Grateful Dead, and then he went backstage and did rails with Jerry Garcia. As an inventory of all the illicit substances its author consumed and the beautiful women he slept with, Memory Loss is thorough and successful. In every other conceivable sense, it’s an abject failure.

A great writer can transform a trip to the grocery store or a lazy Sunday-afternoon drive into a fascinating meditation on the nature of existence and society. No subject or experience is so inherently compelling, on the other hand, that a bad writer can’t fuck it up.  Accordingly, Davis performs a remarkable feat of reverse alchemy here by turning literary gold into rust.

Like a perpetually stoned Zelig, Davis mixed it up with many of the defining cultural figures of the past 40 years. As Al Franken’s partner in the comedy duo Franken And Davis, he was part of the Comedy Store generation that changed stand-up forever. He became a rock star of comedy as a writer and sometimes performer on the original incarnation of Saturday Night Live while still in his early 20s. He went from following the Grateful Dead as a footloose and fancy-free hippie to smoking cocaine and co-writing an ill-fated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens Of Titan with Jerry Garcia. He hobnobbed with The Rolling Stones and comic icons, befriended Timothy Leary, and traveled the world. He partnered for decades with a brilliant Jewish jock who made an unlikely transition from late-night smartass to junior senator from the great state of Minnesota. Yet Davis somehow managed to emerge from these experiences with a shocking dearth of funny anecdotes or penetrating insights. 

Davis was there. He saw it all and did it all, then came away with an incongruously tedious tale. He doesn’t seem to realize that drugs aren’t inherently fascinating: It’s what people experience and do and say while on drugs that’s sometimes interesting. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas isn’t a masterpiece because its author took a lot of drugs; it’s a masterpiece because Hunter S. Thompson’s words and ideas are electric and alive. Drugs might have kicked Thompson’s imagination into high gear, but he had to do most of the heavy lifting. Memory Loss suggests it isn’t what you write about, but how you write about it. If Davis had embarked on that fabled lost weekend instead of Thompson, I suspect his account would read something like this: 

I went on a trip to Las Vegas with an attorney to cover a motorcycle race. We brought along two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. I picked up a waitress at a diner later and we had sex. Then I returned to Los Angeles.

Same experience, only one is an incredible yarn rife with black comedy and poetry and the other a dispassionately written description of drugs procured and consumed. Reading about someone else’s drug experiences is like watching a friend play videogames, or looking at a neighbor’s vacation pictures: the entertainment to be gleaned is vicarious at best, nonexistent at worst. Davis devotes giant swaths of his memoir’s first half to an endless chronicle of a trip to India. That sounds promising in theory. In practice, all we learn is that Davis went abroad, it was very exotic, and he scored some windowpane acid at this one place and some primo hash at this coffee shop. 

The Saturday Night Live section is the book’s money shot, but Davis once again seems more interested in documenting the drugs he took and the beautiful women he had sex with than in illuminating the creative process or culture behind the early years of the venerable comic institution. Even worse, many of the book’s most dramatic and telling moments have been chronicled extensively elsewhere in far superior books about Saturday Night Live, from Chris Farley telling a mortified Davis that it’d actually be pretty cool to die young like John Belushi to Davis lighting up a joint after re-upping with Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980s, and being politely but sternly informed that smoking was no longer allowed in a workplace that used to be a veritable wonderland of mood-enhancers.

Memory Loss is readable largely because Davis’ life overlapped and intersected with so many fascinating, contradictory figures. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Michael O’Donoghue, and Timothy Leary are inherently fascinating, even though Davis’ attitude veers toward fanboy worship. He’s especially sycophantic about Leary, whom he sees as a magical sprite of a father figure whose every utterance is as manna from the countercultural heavens. 

After leaving Saturday Night Live along with the rest of the original cast, Davis pursued film projects that unfortunately never panned out, and films that unfortunately did. Yet through it all, Davis is never afraid to assign blame where it belongs: with everyone else. Davis and Franken’s ill-fated 1986 vehicle One More Saturday Night, for example, was doomed by a hapless producer and a director who so was not the cool drug-happy rock ’n’ roll badass the script required. Here’s Davis on future Larry Sanders Show co-creator Dennis Klein, the film’s eventual director:

Dennis was amiable enough, but he was a compulsive eater of second-rate food, didn’t smoke or drink, projected an indeterminate sexuality, and at this point of his career had never directed a movie. 

On a similar note, Davis thoughtfully has others fall on his sword when he blames the failure of the Coneheads movie on its director, his co-writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, producer Lorne Michaels, and a studio that posited it as a kids’ movie when everyone knows that, in Davis’ immortal turn of phrase, the Coneheads are all about “sex and violence.” 

Late in the book, Davis has the following exchange with Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia:

Carolyn: I really liked your book, and I liked you even more after reading it. Of course we always loved you, but I didn’t know you were such a little acid head!
I: I know. Everyone thought I was a coke dealer for the longest time. 
Carolyn: All these amazing things happened to you—and you hardly ever mention your feelings. 
I: That’s deliberate—my technique is understatement.

So there you have it, folks, Davis intentionally wrote a book in which he makes a remarkable life dry, unemotional, blandly written, and incredibly unsatisfying. Because his technique is understatement. Memory Loss consequently has the strange distinction of being sordidly confessional, yet strangely impersonal. Davis includes a lengthy, painful description of Jerry Garcia preparing cocaine to freebase, yet there’s never any real sense of intimacy. Davis remains a cipher; he’s essentially a nondescript, not particularly likeable supporting player in his own life story, just a guy who’s bitter and immune to self-deprecation, and really, really likes getting high, having sex with attractive women, and hanging out at rock ’n’ roll shows with big celebrities. 

It could be argued that Davis’ book should be graded on a curve, since his preferred medium is sketch comedy, not memoirs. Then again, Davis’ ex-partner Franken began as a sketch comedy writer and evolved into an accomplished author and senator. Franken was a guy who used to smoke pot, while Davis is the kind of guy who gives stoners a bad name.