The Far-Out World of Tommy Chong
"A lot of Americans chase the buck so hard, they become rich, but they don't know how to relax-they have to hire people to teach them, "says the master of laid back laughs. At least he still knows how to mellow out-and now he does it in style.
Tommy Chong's phone machine had given me hope. "Go ahead and leave a message," it instructed. "But speak slowly.These ears have listened to a lot of rock 'n' roll."
These ears have listened to a lot of rock 'n' roll." I knew Chong's house was in the flush highlands of Pacific Palisades, in a neighborhood of big-ticket houses with landscaping on steroids, but I figured that would only boost the effect of what I imagined the place might be: a slapdash bungalow with a vagrant sofa in the front yard, a couple of freerange chickens on the loose, maybe a VW van jacked up in the driveway.
A cliched notion to be sure, but kind of inevitable, really. I mean, this man is to sinsemilla what Wolfgang Puck is to woodfired pizza. In the early seventies Chong and ex-partner Cheech Marin became the clown princes of dope humor. The success of their first movie, the self-effacing, hilarious Up in Smoke-a virtual paean to a Just Say Yes philosophy-spawned a series of smoke-filled comedies that ended in the mid-eighties when the pair split up, more or less amicably. But guys who followed the Cheech and Chong lifestyle are supposed to be living in their cars by now, or trying to remember where they parked them-not ensconced in the sort of beautiful, well-kept place that Casa Chong turns out to be. Then again, one should remember that the ratty-shoestring Up in Smoke sucked in $100 million worldwide.
Inside, the house is quite stylish-floor-to-ceiling windows and pyramidal skylights, chic furniture, lots of contemporary art-but casual, even playful. Past the front door, beyond a neon squiggle, are painted columns, one blue, one green. There's a wheeled cart, a Memphis piece, that looks like it's rolling even when it's not. The dining room has whimsical, counterweighted lights balanced like tightrope walkers on two low-voltage wires. By the time Tommy Chong appears, tan and super fit, with a salt-and-pepper beard, I've begun to adopt a revisionist view of a doper's fate.
"It's a fun place", says Chong, waving off my comment on its stylishness. "I don't care where I live as long as it's warm. "When I ask about the Laddie John Dill painting over the fireplace, he shrugs. "We worked with a consultant named Debbie Mannis who took us to meet artists at their studios. Most of them were cool-guys like Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha, Laddie John Dill. We got along real well. Turns out Moses used to listen to Cheech and Chong records while he painted." I ponder this as I look at the jagged spikes of color in a work by Moses.
With its late-modern furnishings and expanses of glass, its swimming pool surrounded by lush bamboo, eucalyptus, and banana palms, Chong's house looks like something out of a movie. In fact, he used it as a location for his upcoming film, Far Out Man. The title character is a musician/roadie who has barely gotten with the sixties, much less the nineties. "This guy is not Tom Cruise," says Chong. "He just likes to hang out. There's a scene where they do a brain scan on him and find out that a plant a shows more activity. But, he does know how to wire a Marshall amp really good to make it louder."
Chong admits, "We had to take some of the stoner humor out of Far Out Man because it didn't play with the younger audience. The test crowd was mostly under eighteen, and their background is, don't do this stuff. To them dopers are guys doing crack. But I managed to get it in there. When we screened it for older people, they howled."
The film is chockfull of Chongs. The romantic lead is his real-life companion, Shelby Chong. Two of Chong's children-daughter Rae Dawn and son Paris-play his children in the movie. C. Thomas Howell plays Rae Dawn's boyfriend (he's her husband in real life). "When Cheech and I split up, I figured my priorities were my family and my work, and they should go together," Chong explains. "If I'm gonna work with people other than Cheech, it might as well be my family."
After directing several Cheech and Chong movies, Chong felt he had to tighten up on Far Out Man. "This one was lower budget like film school-that's why I call my company Student Films. I don't think I'll ever direct another movie that I'm in again. The kind of director I'd like to work with is someone who really knows film, knows comedy, and is desperate. Desperation is the main tool in film."
Two of the living room's artworks have a fluid quality that hints strongly of the Mediterranean. "Those are by a Greek artist named Fassianol," explains Chong. "He used to come to parties we'd throw in Paris. Didn't talk to anyone, just watched videos." Chong lived with Shelby in Paris from 1983 to 1985. The country that embraced Jerry Lewis made Tommy Chong feel completely at home. "The French have a beautiful way of living," he says. "Their philosophy is, it's better to have a little money and a lot of time than a lot of money and no time. They need their long vacations, their two hours for lunch. They need their long vacations, their two hours for lunch. They'll close the door in your face at lunchtime, it doesn't matter how much money you have. A lot of Americans chase the buck so hard, they become rich, but they don't know how to relax-they have to hire people to teach them."
No danger of that here. Chong might need tension lessons, judging by his manner. He's relaxed, instinctively hip. In his study upstairs are an electric guitar and amp, near a photo of Lenny Bruce, one of Chong's inspirations. "I discovered Lenny, jazz, and marijuana at about the same time," he recalls. There weren't many examples of hipness back then for a teenager in Calgary, Alberta, but at least the local cops could still be persuaded that pot was "Italian tobacco." Chong took up music, inspired by Elvis Presley as well as jazz greats like Mingus and Coltrane, and ended up in a Motown group, writing songs and touring. The experience gave him a graduate degree in cool, with people like jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Redd Foxx as tutors.
He reminisces about meeting Cheech Marin, who was laying carpet in the late sixties. They both did "topless improve"--comedy with their shirts off--in the Vancouver nightclub owned by Chong's family. The two joined forces and went to L.A., where they developed their Zen doper personas while performing at the Troubadour and other clubs. Discovered by producer Lou Adler, they made comedy albums and opened for rock groups like the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers Band. "When we started out in 1969, everyone was hip," says Chong. "We performed in front of rock audiences, not Comedy Store crowds. It was a hard-nosed counterculture scene. That was a great time, a party time. Carl Gottlieb, of the improv group The Committee, got it right when he said, 'Anybody who remembers the sixties wasn't really there.' "
We walk past a sunny stairwell to the master bedroom, where a chrome-and-leather sofa faces a sleek fireplace and a muted Ed Ruscha painting. The bookcase includes volumes ranging from The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy (a favorite writer) to Man Ray Photographs. There are some tribal-looking lights and a Memphis clothes valet that resembles a functional hal¬lucination. A beautifully crafted pipe and tobacco case rest on a table. "This is a Japanese opium pipe, carved out of antler horn," Chong says. "I collect pipes-- this one is my favorite. I like to carve myself."
I ask Chong if he's uneasy about living in the Just Say No era. "We never took a lot of heat for our dope humor, and we still don't," he says. "We played these sort of airhead low-rider hippies, and everybody has had one in their family at one time or another--the guy who staggers into the family meal and says the wrong thing or shows up with the wrong kind of girlfriend, or appears at the border with a bag full of stuff he shouldn't have, carrying a surfboard and nothing else. No, we were always harmless. The cops in Canada used to use Up in Smoke as a training film."
Chong sees humor as the key to making drug-themed movies that find sympathetic audiences, such as Drugstore Cowboy and Sid and Nancy. "You can't hate guys like that."
And it's hard to hate a guy who keeps a rabbit on his roof. We go up there to check out the view and the rabbit, who entered the family two years ago as an Easter bunny. The roof also supports a sundeck with some exotic plants (no, just cactus). The Chongs plan to expand the house upward to gain more wall space for art, leaving room for a rooftop garden and a rabbit hutch. Chong indicates where the screening room will go, and the waterfalls in the back. "And I want a basement because I'm a Canadian," he adds. Shelby Chong elaborates: "He likes to get down in the ground because he's an old weirdo."
But it may be some time before the remodeling begins. "We're waiting for the earthquake to happen before we redecorate so we know exactly what we have to do," Chong explains. "And we'll save a few bucks on demolition."
Jeffrey Book is the Senior Editor at Angeles Magazine.