In search of Snow Bud
Bong hits, Buddha Thai and killer bud: On the trail of marijuana’s mythical music man
I, Snow Bud, assume the name to hide from the law, an unjust law, treating the free citizen as a criminal for smoking a plant that grows wild all across the world. We must plant more seeds until the entire planet is covered with dense vegetable matter, where one can reach from his window to retrieve a bud to smoke at his leisure, in a country where he is free to make the choice to be high, on whatever type of high he might deem satisfactory to himself.
—The Snow Bud Manifesto
The last time I saw Snow Bud, he was standing in the alley behind Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, popping the top off a plastic film canister he’d retrieved from the black medical bag he always kept in the back of his van. The canister was packed tight with a fat, single bud of high-grade marijuana. He grasped its stem between his thumb and forefinger, extracted it from the canister and held it up for examination in the murky back-alley light.
“This,” he announced with an air of certitude, “is the shit.”
The dank hydronugget shimmered incandescently in the cool night air; he twirled it, and a rainbow sheen swirled across its surface like gasoline on a puddle. The bud had been shipped special delivery by his personal indoor grower in Portland, a genetically superior synthesis of the latest advances in agronomics.
“Cannabaurora borealis,” he informed me. “Northern Lights.”
It was at this precise moment that a hand reached in and snatched the shimmering nugget from Snow Bud’s fingers. The offending appendage belonged to a San Francisco Police Department officer, who, examining the bud between his thumb and forefinger just as Snow Bud had been doing only moments before, then shook his head: tsk, tsk. He walked over to an open garbage receptacle and crumbled the bud over the can, stirring up the refuse so we wouldn’t dive in after it later. Then he turned on his heel and left without ever uttering a word.
That was 1986, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Snow Bud since. Mabuhay Gardens, otherwise known as the Fab Mab, the one-time epicenter of San Francisco’s punk-rock scene, has long since shut its doors. Weary of the constant hustle of the nonstop party, I fled the city in 1990. The one remnant I have of this bygone era is Snow Bud and the Flower People’s Biggest Hits, without a doubt the best stoner-rock album ever made.
You don’t have to smoke weed to understand the genius that is Snow Bud, but it helps. After all, he takes his name from the legendary plant said to grow in a remote region of Nepal. Its flowering tops exude such an abundance of pure white crystals that the entire bud appears to be covered with a fine dusting of snow. Snow Bud himself would not have come into being if not for the prevalence of marijuana use in his hometown of Longview, Wash., a sleepy little village south of Seattle where there’s nothing to do but get high all the time.
Snow Bud was doing just that one night when, while playing around with a couple of guitars, a four-track tape recorder and some drum samples, he had an epiphany.
“It started out with these goofy song titles,” he once told me. “‘Bong Hit,’ ‘Grass is Groovy.’ I was reaching back to my teenage years, to what I had imagined drugs were like back then. I’d smoked a little pot, but back then music was my drug: Country Joe & the Fish, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane—all that kind of stuff. So I’d lay down a bass track, then a guitar track, and record vocals over the top of it. I did it all in one night. I was like so stoned, I thought, ‘What is this I’ve come up with?’ It was scary.”
What he’d done was fuse the psychedelic sound of the ’60s, the aggression of punk rock and his own often humorous lyrics that preached the joys of smoking pot and the hazards of abusing hard drugs. He enlisted a drummer and a bass player and Snow Bud and the Flower People was born. The band’s first self-titled cassette was an immediate hit with the underground music scenes in Portland and Seattle. A second cassette, Vegetable Matter, soon followed. Since then the two original cassettes have been incorporated into one CD, Biggest Hits, which is still available on the Flying Hearts label at Amazon.com.
And from the opening track, “Bong Hit,” it’s clear that the party’s on. It begins with the sound of a bubbling bong and a shoot bowl being toked clean. As a heavy-metal guitar riff kicks in, Snow Bud exhales the monster hit and is suddenly seized by an enormous coughing fit. As anyone who has ever sucked on the business end of a bong can immediately discern, it’s completely authentic—Snow Bud performed all of his own stunts. After recovering his composure, he launches into the tune with a raspy baritone:
Bong hit, pass the shit
Bong hit, yeah, that’s it
Bong hit, wanna do it tonight
Bong hit, that’s outta sight
Gimme the bong, four feet long
Fill it with bud, you can’t go wrong
Acid-drenched lead guitar burns like a white-hot needle in the background. Snow Bud wastes little time establishing the pot-good/other-drugs-bad theme, making his intentions clear in the first bridge of the first song:
Don’t drink much whiskey
Cocaine is a drag
Pass the bong, you can’t go wrong
Thirteen is my bag
Thirteen, for uninformed readers, refers to the 13th letter of the alphabet, “M,” as in “M” for “marijuana.” Like those joints you buy down at the bus station, Snow Bud’s songs are liberally laced with counterculture references, particularly when it comes to the names for various strains of high-grade marijuana. Various appellations are often paired with their own regional music. For instance, the instrumentation on “Blue Hawaiian” includes ukulele and slack-key guitar. “Thaied Up,” an ode to Buddha Thai stick, is composed around an Asian scale. “Black Congo” sounds like the score to an old Tarzan movie. “Killer Bud” offers the listener a crash course is cannabis horticulture:
I smoked Alaskan thunder fuck, Acapulco gold
Panama red was the best I was told
I smoked Maui Wowie till my eyes turned red
But the killer bud knocked me dead
Although I lost track of Snow Bud the man, I followed his career arc through a series of underground CDs—Green Thing, Ripped Van Stinkle—and frequent appearances in High Times magazine, including a 1991 centerfold and a string of mentions in the annual “Hemp 100” poll. More than once, I tried to track him down to no avail. I did get in touch with his mother, who told me he was in Amsterdam. She didn’t know when or if he was ever coming back. Snow Bud seemingly had vanished off the face of the Earth.
There were rumors that he had succumbed to the very same hard drugs he preached against, that he was living a hermetic existence under a tarp in Golden Gate Park, leaving only to play an occasional gig in the Pacific Northwest before returning to his subterranean lair. I quit smoking pot myself, and although I still gave Biggest Hits the occasional spin, I’d pretty much given up on the search for Snow Bud. I don’t really know what prompted me to Google him a couple of weeks ago, but I did, and there he was, with his very own MySpace site.
Long story short, I e-mailed him, and he sent me his phone number in Portland. I called and we talked for 30 minutes before he remembered who I was. Then he opened up, and we talked for hours, about how we’d get so stoned we’d forget our own names, how we’d steal each other’s girlfriends, how that cop outside the Mab destroyed a perfectly good bud. As we spoke, his own story, the rise and fall of Snow Bud, began to slowly trickle then pour out, like a melting ice cap.
“For a while there, we were the darlings of High Times,” he said. “There was a couple of issues where they did a special one-page comic that I did for them. Then they put out a green vinyl 45 of ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘Pot Tattoo.’ We were getting tight; they were sending me Christmas cards every year. We were in the Hemp 100 all the time. Then one time I called them, we had done this cheesy video. This guy tells me, ‘You guys are old news. The happening thing now is Cypress Hill.’ He just kinda shut me down. But we really were the darlings for a while. There weren’t too many bands dedicated specifically to promoting recreational pot smoking with an anti-hard-drug message.”
He paused, swallowed hard, then continued.
“It was kind of hypocritical of me, because I was using hard drugs all the time,” he admitted. “I was really preaching to myself the whole time.”
The rumors were all true. He had lived in Golden Gate Park for years, spare-changing in the panhandle to pay for the black tar he’d become hopelessly addicted to. Musician friends in Portland would send him bus fare to come up and play gigs, then try to convince him to stay. But for whatever reason, Snow Bud returned to his tarp. Finally, in 2003, his sister and mother traveled to San Francisco and searched among the homeless denizens of the park until they found him. Somehow they convinced him to return to Portland and enter a recovery home.
It’s been touch-and-go since then. Just when his musical career seems to be back on track—Snow Bud released a new CD, Holy Smoke, in 2004—the monkey climbs back on. He’s recently shaken it off again, and Snow Bud and the Flower People have reformed. The band plays the Geezerfest in Seattle this Saturday. As it happens, I’ll be traveling home from vacation in Vancouver about then, and I just might be able to drop in on the show.
“I sure hope you can come to the gig,” he said. “Cuz I still got it, baby!”
I didn’t doubt it for a second.