All artwork created by Bjorn Copeland
Bjorn Copeland is a visual artist and founding member of the seminal band Black Dice, which has released psychedelic and truly experimental tunes on labels such as DFA, Paw Tracks, and L.I.E.S.
The cult legend recently caught up with the MERRY JANE team and told us one of the craziest stories we've ever heard about cannabis. The artist was once a heavy marijuana enthusiast, smoking up to a half ounce of grass every day at his peak. After about 20 years of regular use, he decided to take a permanent break this past spring. Whereas most longtime cannabis smokers experience mild side effects after quitting, such as super-charged dreams and sleep paralysis, Bjorn started seeing ghosts.
Over several phone calls and IRL conversations, we've compiled the narrative into an As Told To-style essay. This is Bjorn Copeland's true tale about weed and ghosts, and we're honored to publish it here on MERRY JANE. Happy Halloween — don't let the ganja gouls get you, too.
I grew up in Brunswick, Maine, which is an old town on the coast. My family lived in a really old house that was built in 1810, and it was haunted. We know that this older woman named Granny Patch had lived there before us, and she ran a home for wayward boys in it. She ended up drowning in the bathtub. My parents were always tight-lipped about that. They didn't want us to be totally freaked out, so anytime we got scared, they'd stress that there was nothing in the house.
But the older we got, they would sorta be like, "Oh yeah, I remember the stove turning on by itself." There used to be a light string hanging from a bulb in one of the bathrooms, and they said they'd turn off the light, and the next time they went in, it would be all knotted up. My parents told me later that when my younger brother was maybe four, they would go downstairs in the middle of the night, because they would hear him having a conversation and playing cards with nobody in the room, all in the dark. It was so fucking spooky. Creepy experiences seemed to happen regularly in the house.
The ghostly events tapered off for a while when we got older, but then strange stuff started happening when my parents separated. I remember coming home for a summer break during college, and noticing more activity. One night I was going to bed, and I felt somebody sit on my feet; you could see the indentation on the comforter and everything. It scared the crap out of me. I was probably 20, and after that I just refused to go to sleep unless my brother was home. It was a creepy house to grow up in, but I love it now. My spooky experiences would ultimately overlap with another defining part of my life: a passion for smoking weed.
"A lot of our stuff started feeling like it had a heavy drug slant to it, or was commentary on drugs, or written under the influence of or performed on drugs. It seemed like weed ushered in a lot of new ideas and different ways you could think about what you could do with an instrument, and how you could present it."
The first time I smoked pot was at my friend Cole's house, and even then I had a ghostly experience. We were sitting on the roof, passing a bowl around, and then we watched Fantasia for however long that movie is. I remember everybody who got high saw this spectral woman in the room. We heard her open and close the door, and felt her press on our feet. I remember sitting in the middle of the room and feeling somebody come up and blow hot air on my head. It wasn't any of my friends, and it was really unnerving. I didn't want to believe in this sort of stuff because it felt really uncomfortable that there was always someone else in the room, or at least a sort of presence. So I've always believed in ghosts, but certainly didn't want to.
As for my relationship with weed, I had been a semi-regular smoker in high school, mostly on weekends, and in college it became something I grew to really like. I started smoking every day around freshman or sophomore year at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), although now it doesn't seem like a lot. It was mostly just me suckin' on a bowl at night, that sort of thing. We started our band Black Dice in 1996, and smoking weed became something we started doing daily at practice. From there it escalated at a gradual rate. It was present, but it certainly wasn't like we were fiending for grass when we were on tour; we just drank a lot in those days. I think I became an all-day, morning-to-night smoker in 1999 or 2000 — around the time I moved to New York. A lot of stuff happened for me pretty easily. I started getting attention and some respect for the art I was making and for the band I was playing in pretty early on. I felt like I skirted, for better or worse, having to have responsibilities until around 15 years later. The lifestyle afforded me the ability to smoke as much as I wanted.
Plus, grass was influential towards the music we were making. It felt safer to be in this, like, psychic bubble that Black Dice created. We started getting stoned every time before we performed, and it definitely was an important ingredient in the way we wrote music. A lot of our stuff started feeling like it had a heavy drug slant to it, or was commentary on drugs, or written under the influence of or performed on drugs. It seemed like weed ushered in a lot of new ideas and different ways you could think about what you could do with an instrument, and how you could present it.
By the time we started doing the band full-time, we were practicing pretty much every day. That kind of continued until I left New York in the beginning of 2014. Being stoned or getting loosened up kind of became a priority; ultimately, the main priority. We were still always prolific and productive, but it definitely became a concern. I certainly wouldn't have considered going to practice without a bag on me. We would typically meet up for practice, smoke a couple joints, have a few beers, play for 20 minutes, take a break, repeat, and keep doing that throughout. And if I wasn't at practice, I was still chain smoking spliffs elsewhere the whole time. The older we got, the more it became trickier to do that.
My intensified relationship with grass seemed really gradual because we were always smoking and working, but eventually you realize you have a habit you're clinging to pretty tenaciously. All of the sudden, it's not like "I brought enough for a few joints," but instead, "I'll be a little late for practice cause I gotta swing by my dealer's house." And then it became, "I gotta sell a bunch of my records or music equipment to make sure I have enough weed for practice." It was probably my late twenties and through my thirties that it got to the point where I would hit up my guy every single day. And then when we were touring as a band, we wouldn't play unless there were five grams waiting for us at the show by the time we got to sound check. It was probably printed in our rider. We were one of the smallest bands in history that could make those demands, and people would actually acquiesce and make an effort to get weed for us.
By the time Black Dice was releasing albums on DFA Records, I was pretty much a professional pot smoker. I remember a disagreement with James Murphy [of LCD Soundsystem] and Tim Goldsworthy after we got kicked out of the studio before the sessions were even a quarter of the way done, because Britney Spears was supposed to come and do a remix of some single they put up. Eventually they were like, "OK, you don't have to pay for the full studio time, but you guys owe us for a $500 weed tab and you're going to have to cover it." That was the beginning of when I started to get glimpses of my weed use not being totally recreational anymore. But we finished the records, we did all the tours. We were lucky. We were kind of at an age where it was cute to be a trainwreck.
"A lot of people used to complain that if they got stuck in a room with me and my brother, they would have to leave or else they'd inevitably smoke with us and become seriously debilitated. I remember touring with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and they started calling it 'getting Diced.'"
Eventually, my art career started taking off a little bit, outside the band. There was a period when I was going to the gallery and picking up, like, $2,000 every Friday, and it would usually just go to buying an ounce or half ounce or something. For the most part, though, I was always just buying eighths and quarters, which is sort of the kiss of death financially.
I can't do the math — it's almost too traumatizing — but for a long period of my life I was smoking easily a half-ounce a day. At my brokest, I was still smoking at least an eighth or a quarter a day. For what my income was and everything, it was just a totally unworkable amount of money to be spending. The band would go on tours and at the end when we'd be doing the cash breakdown, my cut was always like $600 less than what everyone else in the band was getting because they had fronted me money to buy grass.
I remember getting fines in hotel rooms when we'd be on tour for like stinking up the room. I was totally fuckin' cavalier about my weed use. We were in kind of a druggie band and it sounds stupid, but it almost seemed like it was part of the job to make sure that the music you were making was informed by the lifestyle you were advertising. A lot of people used to complain that if they got stuck in a room with me and my brother [Black Dice member Eric Copeland], they would have to leave or else they'd inevitably smoke with us and become seriously debilitated. I remember touring with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and they started calling it "getting Diced."
This past year, at age 41, there were some big events that happened in my personal life that made me realize weed wasn't helping me deal with change. Being high all the time wasn't helping me move along and attain the things I need in order to be a happy human being. Weed was dictating my life in a massive way. There was nothing little or casual about it. My smoking habit was like this elephant in the room. And then at one point around March or April, I hurt myself on a job and rolled my ankle, leaving me stuck at home and smoking more than ever.
The universe had certainly given me several signs that it was time to stop smoking, but the idea of quitting weed was pretty terrifying. Usually if the universe was telling me something, I'd dig my fuckin' heels in and not do it. But soon I realized there are some things in your life that you actually have control over, and some things you don't. If you're not willing to make the changes and address the things that you do have control over, then, to some extent, it's on you that stuff's not going so well. That became more and more apparent to me. I don't think I've ever sort of demonstrated the self-control where I can do anything particularly casually. So, in my mind, I felt like the only way I could deal with quitting was to entirely stop smoking. Not just a "vacation," but stopping all together.
Artwork by Bjorn Copeland
I remember the last day that I called my weed dealer. That's when things started getting… weird. My LA dealer is a total sweetheart — a really smart, fucking funny, creative, amazing dude. I remember telling him, "I gotta try to really curb this for at least a while," even though I knew in my heart that I just needed to view it as quitting for good. He came over to sell me a bag of weed for the last time, and I hadn't gotten high yet that day. I put on this Robert Palmer album called Clues. It started playing "Four Words," and then about 30 seconds into it, the record started playing backwards.
I asked him, "Are you hearing this?"
My dealer responded, "Whoa man, that's kinda weird."
That was the first creepy thing to happen to me that coincided with quitting weed.
Later that day, I finished the last bag of grass and decided to quit for real. But the first night I went without smoking, I got really bad sweats. I definitely had to change my t-shirt multiple times and I put a towel down to sleep on. I also had terrible insomnia. I couldn't sleep at all. It probably sounds like I was detoxing off heroin.
It wasn't long before the intense dreams started kicking in. They were all unsavory — nightmares, but of a really personal nature. The type of shit you hadn't dealt with in your emotional past, then all of a sudden it was coming in Technicolor. When I finally did fall asleep, I'd wake up feeling like someone was hovering above me and there was weight on me. I'd try and scream, but nothing would come out and I couldn't move for several minutes.
Then the spooky record thing happened a couple more times, again with the Robert Palmer album, and also an Alton Ellis "Greatest Hits" album, which is a rock-steady record. It was weird that it was only these two records, and they'd play in reverse at strange times. Like, I'd be listening to records all day, then I would put on one of those and it would happen. Eventually, I just took those records and put them in the closet 'cause I didn't want this to happen anymore. I even videotaped one of 'em playing backwards. To this day, I still don't know how it happened or why.
But other strange things started to happen, too. I began hearing noises in my apartment. I'd feel like someone was there. And then this thing started happening before I'd fall asleep that really fucked me up. I would be in bed, sleeping on top of the comforter, and I'd see this really dark figure come into the room. At first, it was perfectly still. Then, the figure would come over to me with an outstretched finger and scratch X's into the bottom of both my feet; I physically felt a scratch in both feet. It wasn't sleep paralysis — I wasn't asleep when this would happen — but I felt like I couldn't move when the figure was there. Maybe because I was petrified. Eventually, the figure left the room.
Having had ghostly experiences occur in the past, and it being a while since the last one, this happening sort of opened the floodgates. The figure appeared in my room another four times over the next couple weeks. Every time it scared the shit out of me. I later found out that the area I live in is not far from the Chavez Ravine. Apparently, tons of people had been buried there, and a lot of construction was done over the resting site afterwards.
"When I finally did fall asleep, I'd wake up feeling like someone was hovering above me and there was weight on me. I'd try and scream, but nothing would come out and I couldn't move for several minutes."
I grew up being really spooked out all the time, and it felt really nice being in California and living in a place that I assumed wasn't stained with like a bunch of weird fucking history. But to have supernatural stuff happen there, too? When you start to get the feeling that your place is not your place anymore, it's just an unnerving situation to be in.
For a lot of people, quitting grass would be uncomfortable just because it's something that you lean on and it's the headspace you're used to occupying. But, for me, it felt slightly more monumental, especially because there were a lot of things happening that I wasn't able to explain in any kind of rational way. It already seemed like a profound shift for me to cut smoking out of my life, but the haunting made it seem even more significant. The inexplicable events seemed to confirm that it was the right time to end a certain chapter in my life. I'm lucky that this sort of trip happened to me. A lot of people would just write it off and say it's just bullshit or their imagination, but I don't believe that to be the case. I think the fact that these experiences have resonated so strongly with me is a good indicator that the time was right for this to happen. The ghost knew it was time for me to put down the joint.