Cheech & Chong - Biography
BY Tony Goldmark
As the sixties turned into the seventies, the irreverence of the youth culture movement was starting to mandate, rather than just influence, the tastes of the music industry. While soft music still got mass-produced as much as ever, almost every ACTUAL musical genre started getting harder – Motown soul turned into funk, British rock turned into punk, and comedy records, the mainstay of safe comedians like Allan Sherman and Vaughn Meader less than a decade earlier, shifted heavily towards bolder countercultural attitudes. Sex, drugs and rock & roll weren’t going away anytime soon, and the newest big vinyl comedy superstars were going to have to acknowledge and celebrate it – and they did. Over the course of fifteen years, seven albums and six theatrical films, Richard Marin and Tommy Chong – better known as Cheech & Chong – became the top-selling comedy record act of the 1970s (on par only with Steve Martin) as well as poster children of stoner comedy, a title they still arguably hold despite so many would-be usurpers to the throne.
Thomas “Tommy” B. Kin Chong was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on May 24, 1938, the son of a Chinese man and a Scots-Irish woman. His family moved to Calgary shortly thereafter, where Chong played country and R&B guitar in his teens, and dropped out of high school as a sophomore. He supported himself by playing in bands, including one of Calgary’s first R&B acts, The Colours (renamed The Shades), who according to Chong got forced out of town by the police after a rowdy gig. Chong moved to Vancouver and played guitar with Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, a Motown cover band that attracted the attention of Berry Gordy, who signed them to Gordy Records (a Motown subsidiary) where they scored a top 40 single, “Does Your Mama Know About Me” co-written by Chong. Chong got fired from the band after missing a show, and they broke up shortly thereafter – today, Bobby Taylor’s biggest claim to fame is bringing Berry Gordy’s attention to a singing family act called The Jackson 5.
While still working in Vancouver in 1968, Chong met Richard Marin, a Mexican-American born July 13, 1946 in Los Angeles, who developed the nickname “Cheech” after the Mexican snack “chicharron,” a spicy fried pork skin. Unlike Chong, Marin was an exemplary high school student, with a strong interest in improvisational comedy. Cheech played in Los Angeles bands with names like “Captain Shagnasty and his Loch Ness Pickles,” attended California State University, and dropped out to flee for the Canadian border in the late sixties to evade the draft at the height of the Vietnam War. He met Chong at Vancouver nightclub The Elegant Parlour, and the two hit it off. By this time, Chong’s musician friends had exposed him to Lenny Bruce and The Committee, and Chong decided to try his hand at comedy, forming the sketch variety troupe City Lights in Vancouver with Cheech, a mime, and four topless dancers. Before long, the troupe fell apart, but Chong and Marin decided “Cheech & Chong” was a nice alliteration. They formed a two-man improv troupe and started touring, going as far east as Toronto and as far south as Los Angeles.
In 1970, record producer Lou Adler saw Cheech & Chong perform at The Troubador in Los Angeles. Adler was the founder of Ode Records, and had produced albums for Sam Cooke, Carole King and The Mamas And The Papas. He was looking to produce a comedy album that would mesh with his hip, countercultural sensibilities, and in Cheech & Chong, and their brazen caricatures of everyone from dogs to stoners to every possible ethnicity, he found the “hard rock comedy” act he was looking for. After building some publicity for the duo by booking them as opening acts for the Allman Brothers Band and The Rolling Stones, Adler produced their first self-titled album in 1971. The album, and most of their subsequent ones, was recorded through a unique improvisational technique: they never wrote full scripts for their sketches, but they had the characters and basic beats worked out ahead of time. Then they approached the microphones, improvised the dialogue, edited it down and added a plethora of unique sound effects, both overt and subtle, to create a true “theater of the mind.”
Cheech & Chong contained some of their funniest and most well-known pieces, including “Blind Melon Chitlin’” (in which a record producer discovers that recording an old blind bluesman is like pulling teeth), “Acapulco Gold Filters” (in which a commercial voice actor insists on way too many takes of taking a hit) and “Cruisin’ With Pedro De Pacas” (in which they introduce their alter egos of Pedro and Man, two stoners who haphazardly wander through existence in a smoky haze). But the piece de resistance was “Dave,” a sort of stoned Abbott & Costello routine in which Cheech’s Dave knocks on a door, whispering “It’s me, man. I got the stuff.” Chong responds, “Who is it?” Cheech: “It’s Dave, man. Open the door, I think the cops saw me!” “Dave?” “Yeah.” “Dave’s not here.” Appropriately, the album’s cover art featured familiar Mexican and Chinese symbols. Despite receiving very little radio play (though “Dave” got some exposure on FM stations) the album was a smash success, and in 1972 they released their follow-up, Big Bambú, an even bigger smash, landing at #2 on the Billboard album chart.
Big Bambú opened with “Sister Mary Elephant,” a riotously funny sketch about a Catholic school teacher nun and her excessively rowdy class, which she has to silence every now and then by yelling “SHAAAAAADAAAAAAAAAAP!!!” with the force of a hundred air control sirens, in stark contrast to her otherwise calm, placid demeanor. The sketch became a HUGE FM radio favorite, and when a single was released in 1973 it climbed to #24 on the Billboard singles chart. The album ended with a montage of Pedro and Man flipping through TV channels, watching such shows as “Let’s Make A Dope Deal,” in which contestants compete for more pot, and there’s a police officer behind door number three – as Cheech Marin said in an interview, “we use dope the same way Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin use booze.”
Big Bambú began Cheech & Chong’s habit of clever, unique album packaging – it was named after the Bambú rolling paper company, and the LP sleeve was designed to be a giant replica of a rolling paper package – in the first pressing, they even included a free sheet of rolling paper with each album. The following year, their third album Los Cochinos featured even more unique packaging – at first glance the cover shows Cheech & Chong sitting in a car, but then the inner sleeve shows that underneath the car door are baggies of marijuana (“los cochinos” is Spanish for “the pigs” – a derogatory term for cops). The back cover featured the tracklist and credits printed in graffiti. Unfortunately, both of these albums’ cover concepts were lost in the CD reprints, as both simply reprinted the surface cover art.
Los Cochinos, which matched Bambú’s #2 Billboard peak, mostly continued stories and characters introduced in their previous two efforts – Pedro and Man go to the drive-in, Sister Mary Elephant’s class is visited by a narcotics officer, etc. But it closed with their most ambitious production yet, “Basketball Jones featuring Tyrone Shoelaces.” A parody of “Love Jones” by Brighter Side of Darkness, “Basketball Jones” has Marin, doing a beautifully politically incorrect impersonation of a black youth, talking at length about Shoelaces’ longtime obsession with basketball. The track featured an all-star roster of musicians, including George Harrison on guitar, Carole King on piano, Billy Preston on organ, and Darlene Love and Michelle Phillips on background vocals. “Basketball Jones” reached #15 on the Billboard single chart, and Los Cochinos won a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording. Cheech & Chong’s highest grossing single, however, didn’t come until 1974’s “Earache My Eye Featuring Alice Bowie,” a top ten hit that mocked pretentious, pseudo-rebellious musicians who sing about hating the world while buying apartment buildings and shopping centers, and only knowing three chords. Halfway through the song came the sound of a disciplinarian father scratching the record, and beating his slacker son for not getting ready for school faster.
The album “Earache” came from, Cheech & Chong’s Wedding Album, didn’t do nearly as well as its two predecessors. It’s follow-up, 1976’s Sleeping Beauty, did even worse – it failed to even make the Billboard charts, despite having some of their most ambitious material yet. Clearly, the formula (which remained largely unaltered) was starting to wear thin. Undaunted, Lou Adler was convinced that what they needed was to branch out into feature films. When their first film, the ultra-low-budget Up In Smoke (directed by Adler), was released in 1978, it immediately became a smash among midnight audiences, and more films followed in quick succession – Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie (1980), Nice Dreams (1981), Things Are Tough All Over (1982) and Still Smokin’ (1983). Alas, these movies also played to diminishing returns, and they wouldn’t be smokin’ for much longer – their next film, Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers (1984), was their first project to make no reference whatsoever to drugs (thanks largely to Cheech’s newfound clean lifestyle) and it was the biggest flop of them all. After testing the waters with one last album, 1985’s Get Out Of My Room (also drug-joke-free) and a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Cheech & Chong decided to call it quits for good, citing creative differences.
Room did have one triumph however – “Born In East L.A.,” a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” about a Mexican-American who is accidentally deported. But even this was hardly a Cheech & Chong track, for Chong had no involvement at all. The “Born In East L.A.” music video became an enormous MTV hit, and led to a hit feature film of the same name, written and directed by Marin himself. Since then, Cheech has been heavily in demand as a character actor, especially for Robert Rodriguez projects like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and Disney animated films like Oliver & Company, The Lion King and Cars. He also played Joe Dominguez on “Nash Bridges” and Hurley’s father on “Lost.” Chong, meanwhile, appeared in The Spirit Of ’76 and Half Baked, and played Leo Chingkwake on “That ‘70s Show.” Since 1985, the duo has only “appeared” together three times, all in voiceover form – the animated feature Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, the videogame Scarface: The World Is Yours, and an episode of “South Park.” In all three cases, neither knew the other would also be doing a voiceover as well.
In 2003, just as Cheech & Chong were starting to consider a reunion tour and movie, Chong was thrust into the news again when he was arrested for financing and promoting Chong Glass/Nice Dreams, a company that sold bongs and water pipes online. Chong pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to sell drug paraphernalia in exchange for the non-prosecution of his family, and was sentenced to nine months in federal prison. He was the only one convicted, out of fifty-five people nabbed in the investigation, because he had contributed more money and more celebrity promotion to the products than anyone else. Sensing conspiracy to arrest a well-known drug advocate, pot advocate groups nationwide started a “Free Tommy Chong!” movement, protesting his arrest, proving just how much influence thirty-year-old funny pot jokes can have over a nation obsessed with drugs.