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“Dear Vice President Agnew”

Nicholas Johnson

New York Times

October. 11, 1970, sec. 2, p. 17, col. 1

Do we live in a "drug culture" largely promoted and spread by rock music via the communications media? Vice President Agnew, in a speech in Las Vegas recently, cited part of a Beatles' song (" I get high with a little help from my friends") as but one example of how American youths are being "brainwashed" into drug use. Nicholas Johnson, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, replied to Mr. Agnew's charge several days later at a symposium of the United States Information Agency in Washington, D.C. His address follows.


Earlier this week Vice President Agnew revealed that even he has been listening to rock music. I don't think this should be cause for panic -- even though he does. I think it holds out some promise. The administration may just find out what's happening in the country.

Mr. Agnew now seems to think that music is the cause of (rather than the relief from) the pressures that lead people to use hard drugs. Perhaps we can understand and excuse this rather fundamental error as he carne down from his first trip, but I think we can fairly hold him to a higher standard in the future.

The Vice President has asked us to "Consider … the influence of the drug culture in the field of music .... (In) too many of the lyrics the message of the drug culture is purveyed." That's where he makes his mistake. No song writer I know of is urging as a utopia a society in which the junkie's life is a rational option. Most would agree with his suggestion that dependence on hard drugs is as "a depressing lifestyle of conformity that has neither life nor style."

Listen to the music:

Your mind might think it's flying
On those little pills
But you ought to know it's dying
Because ... Speed kills!
That's Canned Heat in "Amphetamine Annie." Here's Steppenwolf, singing about "The Pusher":
You know I've seen a lot of people walkin' around
With tombstones in their eyes
But the pusher don't care
If you live or if you die
If I were the President of this land
I'd declare total war on the Pusher Man
God Damn the Pusher.
Or listen to the Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper," because they're really trying to help you understand what your generation's problem is, as well as giving the kids some good advice:
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she's not really ill
There's a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter
Of her "Mother's Little Helper"
And it helps her on her way
Gets her through her busy day
And if you take more of those
You will get an overdose
No more running for the shelter
Of a "Mother's Little Helper"
They just help you on your way
Through your busy dying day.
There is comparable advice in Love's "Signed, D.C.," "Crystal Blues" by Country Joe and the Fish, and The Who's "Tommy."

No, the real issue, Mr. Vice President, is not the desirability of hard drugs. The issue is whether you, and the rest of the Administration, are -- to borrow Eldridge Cleaver's (and VISTA's) phrase -- part of the solution, or part of the problem. The question is whether you have done anything to alter the repressive, absurd and unjust forces in our society that drive people to drugs. Since you've suggested that "we should listen more carefully to popular music," and quoted from "With a Little Help From My Friends," I'd like to lay a few more lyrics on you.

Listen to Steppenwolf's "Monster," written by Jerry Edmonton, John Day and Nick St. Nicholas (no relation):

Once the religious, the haunted and weary
Chasing the promise of freedom and hope
Came to this country to build a new vision
Far from the reaches of kingdom and pope
The spirit it was freedom and justice
Its keepers seemed generous and kind
Its leaders were supposed to serve the country
But now they don't pay it no mind

'Cause the people grew fat and got lazy
And now their vote is a meaningless joke
They babble about law and order
But it's all just an echo they've been told
The cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is strangling the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can't understand.

®Copyright 1969 by Trousdale Music Publishers, Inc.,

Or Hal David and Burt Bacharach's "Paper Mache" for Dionne Warwick:
Twenty houses in a row
Eighty people watch a TV show
Paper people, cardboard dreams
How unreal the whole thing seems.
Can we be living in a world made of paper mache?
Ev'rything is clean and so neat
Anything that's wrong can be just swept away
Spray it with cologne and the whole world smells sweet
There's a sale on happiness
You buy two and it costs less.

®Copyright 1969, 1970 by Blue Seas Music, Inc., and Jac Music, Inc.

Here's some musical commentary about what the major campaign contributors (Democrats and Republicans alike) have done to America -- Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi":
They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Until it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

®Copyright 1969, 1970  by Slauom Publishing Corp.

I can understand why some wouldn't like lyrics like those.

Rock music promulgates life

You see, Mr. Vice President, somebody's trying to tell you something "and you don't know what it is ... do you, Mr. Jones?" (To quote Bob Dylan.) These music people aren't really urging death through drugs; they are urging life through democracy. They believe that governments are instituted among men to promote "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." And many don't think yours is doing it.

As the Chairman of the Bank of America, Louis Lundborg, said recently, "What (young people) ... say they want doesn't sound so different, you know, from what our Founding Fathers said they wanted -- the men who wrote our Declaration of Independence, our Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights, the other early documents that laid the foundation for the American Dream. They said they wanted the freedom to be their own man, the freedom for self-realization. We have lost sight of that a bit in this century -- but the young people are prodding us and saying, 'Look, Dad, this is what it's all about.'"

But this is not all. It's not just that corporate, governmental and other institutions have turned away from our original goals, and that they have created conditions that stimulate the desire to escape. They are actually encouraging the drug life and profiting from it. Senator Frank Moss has observed that: "The drug culture finds it fullest flowering in the portrait of American society which can be pieced together out of the hundreds of thousands of advertisements and commercials. It is advertising which mounts so graphically the message that pills turn rain to sunshine, gloom to joy, depression to euphoria, solve problems and dispel doubt."

And the former Chairman of this Administration's Federal Trade Commission, Caspar W. Weinberger, has noted that, "Advertisements for over-the- counter medicines may be a contributing factor in drug abuse problems in the United States." (TV ran almost $20-million worth of ads for sleeping aids alone in 1969.)

Economy based on emotions

Our entire consumer-manipulating economy is based on a dishonest, destructive exploitation of human emotions and motivations. Television teaches -- with continuous, air-hammer effectiveness -- the dangerous and debilitative lie that the solution to all life's problems and nagging anxieties can be found in a product, preferably one that is applied to the skin or taken into the body. It has so distorted and demeaned the role of women as to make it almost impossible for either men or women to relate to each other in other than a sex-object, manipulative way. It has educated our children to go for the quick solution, to grow impatient and disinterested in developing skills and solutions requiring discipline and training. And it has urged us all to seek "better living through chemistry."

The Vice President is going after the song writers. One cannot help but wonder how he overlooked Ford's urging, "blow your mind," TWA's taking us "up, up and away," the honey company that suggests we "get high on honey," the motor bike company that advertises "a trip on this one is legal," or the Washington, D.C., television station that promotes its programming as great "turnon's." Perhaps the critical point is that young song writers and performers don't make political campaign contributions, but that Ford, TWA, and other drug-image merchandisers do.

The Vice President might better turn his attention to the corporate campaign contributors (of both parties) who finance their fat campaign donations with the profits they make from worthless or harmful drugs, and from cigarettes and alcohol that first "addict" and then kill hundreds of thousands of Americans a year.

Parties ignore drug problem

The Vice President has urged each of us to do our own part, to "set an example" within our own families. How about the "political families" of the major political parties? To what extent is the Vice President's own party prepared to refuse to accept contributions from (or do special favors for) those politically influential corporate interests that feed, and feed upon, the artifically-induced thirst for drugs, pep pills, tranquilizers, alcohol, cigarettes, and other contemporary commercial "panaceas"?

The Vice President has pointed with pride to what the Administration has done to crack down on "drugs." But what has it done to deal with our number one drug problem, alcoholism? It is, perhaps, symbolic of the basic hypocrisy in government today that he chose Las Vegas as the battlefield to attack drugs. For the only thing that flows faster than the gamblers' money in Las Vegas is alcohol. There are estimated to be at least five million alcoholics in this country. There are more alcoholics in San Francisco alone than there are narcotics addicts in the entire country. If you're interested in "law and order," one-third to one-half of all arrests by police in the United States are for chronic drunkenness. More Americans are killed by drunk drivers every year than are killed by murderers and the war in Southeast Asia combined.  And, of course, the economic loss through absenteeism, the physical damage to the body (cirrhosis is the sixth leading cause of death; psychosis due to alcoholic brain damage is irreversible), and the impact upon family and friends, are far more severe from alcoholism than from all other hard drugs combined.

Nicotine addiction unsolved

Or how about nicotine addiction? There are 300,000 deaths a year related to cigarette smoking. What is the Vice President doing to cut down on these pushers? One recent survey found that of seventh graders, only 30 per cent of the boys and 40 per cent of the girls had never tried tobacco. There are a lot more kids who are being exposed to drugs because of the deliberate efforts of greedy, immoral television and tobacco company executives to hook 'em on nicotine -- executives who are revered as the pillars of our society, and whose activities are sanctioned by the Federal Government -- than there are those who get pot "with a little help from their friends."

So who's kidding whom? If we're really serious about doing something to alter the drug culture in America, let's get on with the work and stop worrying about the music. Let's not indulge the hypocrisy of going after the drug users who are poor, black and young with a vengeance, as if they were criminals, without even providing them adequate treatment centers, and ignore the far more serious problem of the hard-drug pushers (of alcohol and cigarettes) who are respectable, rich and middle-aged. Let's stop accepting the campaign contributions of the "respectable" liquor manufacturers with one hand while we're imprisoning some of our finest young people with the other.

Advertisers glamorize chemicals

Above all, let's stop going for help to advertising executives who sit around, after their three-martini lunches, coming up with ad campaigns that preach the get-away-from-it-all qualities of caffeine, nicotine, aspirin and other pain killers, alcohol, stomach settlers, pep pills, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills (plus the whole range of mouthwash, deodorant, cosmetics, etc.). How, in the midst of the chemical life they've glamorized, can they absolve their consciences by telling our kids that a 16th or 17th chemical will bring the downfall of their lives and the Republic? They can run it up your flagpole, Mr. Vice President, but nobody's going to salute it.

The forces of censorship are subtle. This Administration repeats and repeats that it is not censoring -- just as the Russians did when they rolled their tanks into Czechoslovakia in August, 1968. But when the Vice President starts criticizing television, pretty soon the "analysis" of the President's speeches is watered down or disappears, and President Nixon builds up a record of (free) prime time television usage that exceeds every other prior President. The President shows up on a Bob Hope Special; the Vice President opens the Red Skelton show. Now they are moving in on radio. FCC Chairman Burch says he's interested in "obscenity" in lyrics; the Vice President is concerned about mentions of drugs. That's the way you do it. You don't come right out and say, "Cut the controversial stuff, guys. We don't like the people getting that social criticism set to music." Of course not. You talk about obscenity and drugs. But the radio station owners get the message: the Administration's listening to them, just like it's watching their big wealthy brothers, the TV stations.

Life is more important

If we really want to do something about drugs, let's do something about life. Because if we make an effort to strike at the real causes of addiction to alcohol and other less prevalent and dangerous drugs, we will find that we have also made a big dent in mental illness, divorce and suicide rates, and the other statistical indicia of social disintegration. Let's get on with the job of giving people the physical, mental and spiritual environment they need in order to grow closer to their full potential. That means more money (not vetoes of appropriations) for rebuilding our cities, education, food programs, urban transportation, welfare, job training, and health care. It means more meaningful job opportunities for all Americans -- white and black; a meaningful attack on the problems of underemployment and meaningless employment as well as unemployment. It means appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for parks, libraries, and beautification programs.

The song writers are trying to help us understand our plight and deal with it. It's about the only leadership we're getting. They're not really urging you adopt a heroin distribution program, Mr. Vice President. In fact they don't think that you can "spray it with cologne and the whole world smells sweet" either. It stinks. They want us to help them clean it up.

The song you quoted, "With a Little Help From My Friends," is not a joyful pitch for drugs. It contains the lines,

Do you need anybody
I need somebody to love.
Could it be anybody
I want somebody to love.
How many Americans seek in drugs the solace from a vicious cruel world they did not create, but cannot escape? What are you doing to change that world?

Some song writers are hopeful. Mama Cass sings,

Yes a new world's coming
The one we've had visions of
And it's growing stronger with each day that passes by
Coming in peace, coming in joy, coming in love.

By Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. ®Copyright 1970 by Screen Gems-Columbia Music Inc.

She's holding out optimism. She's giving you a little more time, Mr. Vice President. But we can't wait much longer if history is not to record our presiding over the decline and fall of the American empire -- complete with words, music, and a drug culture sold to the American people by large contributors to Presidential campaigns.