On a blue, windy morning in April, Robert Baldori, attorney-at-law, climbs into his black BMW for a drive to Hastings, Michigan, where he’s defending a family charged with growing and selling marijuana. Baldori doesn’t dress like a lawyer: his courtroom outfit, which he’s likely to wear two days in a row, consists of a wicker-colored sport coat, chinos that taper to a halt an inch above his crinkled loafers, and a richly cut white oxford with “BOOG” stitched on the cuff.
“BOOG” is short for Boogie Bob, a nickname he earned pounding the piano in Chuck Berry’s backup band. In his hometown of Lansing, Michigan, Baldori has been a local hero since 1967, when his college band, the Woolies, released a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” that hit number one in Detroit and even swam around the depths of the Billboard Hot 100. I’m Almost Famous, his blues-rock musical about a piano player’s journey through record-industry purgatory, debuted at Lansing’s BoarsHead Professional Theater and has been revived several times. But he’s just as well-known for the 1990 pot bust that culminated in what the Lansing State Journal called “one of the more notorious marijuana trials in Lansing history.” A decade later he’s devoted to rescuing smokers and dealers from the kind of legal trouble that could have cost him his home and his law license.
Not only is he one of the leading drug-defense lawyers in the state, he’s the local coordinator for passage of the Personal Responsibility Amendment, a statewide referendum that would allow Michiganders to possess up to three marijuana plants or three ounces of dried marijuana for their own smoking satisfaction. If it gets on the November ballot and passes, Michigan will have the most liberal marijuana laws in the country. Other states have passed laws permitting medicinal use of marijuana, but the PRA’s supporters are, as Baldori puts it, “going for the whole enchilada.”
Although the Woolies have been numbered among the pioneers of psychedelic rock, accused of peddling psychedelia to college kids, Baldori insists he’s not aiming to turn on the entire state of Michigan. He just wants to end the drug war that’s been eroding American civil liberties since Nancy Reagan told kids to just say no in the early 80s. He considers himself a victim of “secret police”–in his case, the Tri-County Metro Narcotics Squad, who raided his rustic compound in suburban Okemos on January 16, 1990. The drug agents had recently arrested one of Baldori’s friends and, Baldori alleges, offered to reduce the man’s sentence if he planted marijuana in Baldori’s house.
“My door exploded off its hinges,” Baldori wrote in an unpublished memoir of the bust. “Twenty-six screaming, howling, lawless madmen wearing ski masks, armed to the teeth with assault weapons, came crashing through it….They shoved gun barrels into my neck and ear….Of course, I wasn’t the least bit happy staring down the barrel of a gun in the hands of [a] nervous, pathological, and excitable young man….His exact words, the one with the gun to my head, still ring in my ears. ‘Don’t move or I’ll blow your fucking head off.’ He bellowed repeatedly, nervously, hysterically. ‘Don’t move, motherfucker!'”
The narcs found 88 pounds of marijuana, $160,000 in cash, and an abundance of gardening equipment. Baldori maintains that he’d been preparing to go on vacation and was allowing his pal to use the house for a deal with a third party. (The pal later testified that he’d done five previous dope deals with Baldori.)
“This is the norm,” says Baldori. “Because it’s a consensual crime, the main method of law enforcement is to have a secret police, another reason in a democratic society why it shouldn’t be illegal. This isn’t somebody robbing a bank, and it’s directly at odds with all the fundamental freedoms this country is based on. It’s turning families against one another and people in the community against one another, and how do you do that? You bust somebody, and here’s your way to help yourself: you create a drug deal so we can bust somebody else.”
A month after the raid the cops returned with a warrant for Baldori’s arrest, but Boogie Bob had gone ahead with his “vacation,” which turned into a 13-month sojourn to London and Toronto. In March 1991 a longing for old friends, not to mention an extradition order from the U.S. attorney’s office, brought him home. The story of his flight had been in the papers nearly every week, so he came back more popular than ever.
“There was overwhelming support,” says Baldori, who at 57 still wears the same wavy black bangs he sported on Woolies concert posters. “Overwhelming. Everybody was, ‘Give ’em hell.’ You walk around and they’re still doing it, ten years later. I’m in Meijer’s trying to buy a bottle of milk and people come up and shake my hand. I never know why they’re coming up. It could be, ‘Oh, man, I saw Almost Famous ten years ago.’ Or it could be the case. I’m buying gas in this gas station in Perry, Michigan, and a guy walked in. He goes, ‘You’re Boogie Bob!’ Some biker or truck driver.”
Baldori ended up pleading guilty to two misdemeanors–possession of marijuana and conspiracy to possess marijuana–and serving 30 days in a work-release program. In a newspaper interview following his return Baldori predicted that his reputation would take years to restore. Now that he’s living the life of a well-to-do north country bohemian, he can’t believe he ever thought that way. “It made me a local hero,” he says. “I have more law business than ever. They created this persona, and then everybody saw what happened, and so every time someone got busted, they’d call me and say, ‘I want you to do the same for me.’ They created an instant criminal practice for me.”
While Baldori was on the lam, the county prosecutor tried to seize his house, but Boogie Bob was one step ahead of the law. The week after the bust he’d sold it to some friends (who later sold it back to him). Hidden at the end of a dirt driveway, it’s sheltered by woods on all sides. Pine trees grow in the front yard, and tulips with pursed bulbs loll on long stalks in front of his recording studio. Leaves and flowers, painted by his wife, Kelly, cover the door and mailbox. His two children have abandoned their bicycles in the yard, and piles of stove wood are stacked all over. Inside Baldori’s office you’ll find an upright piano and posters for I’m Almost Famous (which he performed in Lansing last year). His bookshelves are lined with novels by Nabokov and Conrad, primers on global economics, and an old copy of Grass Roots: Marijuana in America Today by Albert Goldman.
This seems like the estate of a legal go-getter, not a career stoner. Asked if the drug bust caused him to change his habits, Baldori looks confused for a moment, then shakes his head. “I’m like Bill Clinton,” he says. “When I was in college, I smoked it once or twice.”
This statement draws a big laugh from a local musician who recorded an album at Baldori’s studio in the 1980s. “I remember seeing marijuana plants on the property,” he says. According to the Lansing State Journal, the booty from the 1990 raid included a videotape called Garden of ’86. It wasn’t about Baldori’s prizewinning tomatoes.
Now that he’s a father with a law practice, though, Baldori describes himself as a “health nut” who works out at an exclusive gym and runs three miles a day. “I couldn’t be effective in what I do,” he says. “I’ve got a family. I’ve got to be clean.”
“Bob’s probably the most savvy and connected activist that we have going for us,” says Gregory Schmid, the Saginaw lawyer who wrote the Personal Responsibility Amendment. To get on the ballot the amendment needs 302,711 signatures by July 10. Schmid, a self-described “conservative Republican,” has assembled a coalition of libertarians and potheads for his crusade. Every head shop from Monroe to Sault Sainte Marie has Schmid’s petitions, and he spoke at a May 6 “Millennium Marijuana March” at the state capitol. Lansing drew both heads and straights that week: alarmed antimarijuana forces came to town for a two-day seminar titled “Training the Trainers: Putting the Brakes on the Legalization Movement.” And on Friday and Saturday, Tommy Chong did a pair of shows at Connxtions Comedy Club.
Schmid believes the drug war has become a business for cops, prosecutors, and wardens, who are shanghaiing potheads to fill court dockets and jails. “To me, the war on drugs is a $50 billion fraud on the taxpayers. It’s poison for America. It feeds the growth of bureaucracies. In Michigan, because we privatized so many prisons, we have a prison-industrial complex now. Because prisons have privatized, business needs expanding, so we lobby for more laws to put more people in prison.”
Matt Davis, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, points out that there’s only one privately run prison in the state and says that from 1991 to 1998 the percentage of drug felons who drew prison terms dropped from one-third to one-fifth. Davis worries that legalization would erode the moral fiber of the working class and possibly lead to more crime. “We get into a slippery slope of: if marijuana, why not cocaine, and does legalization amount to approval? Certainly a lot of white pseudointellectuals in Washtenaw County, smoking marijuana in their hot tubs, they’re not going to commit crimes. But poor kids outside Detroit, already afflicted with bad schools and broken homes, have less of an opportunity to compete for schools, jobs, and enfranchisement in our society.”
Whenever Baldori stops at his local coffee bar, the Cappuccino Cafe, he brings his petitions. Almost everyone in town knows Boogie Bob, so most of the customers are acquaintances. One afternoon he offers the petition to a retired professor from Michigan State University. “Can I get you to sign a petition for the legalization of marijuana?” he asks the white-haired woman, who’s hovering over a fat book.
“You’re challenging me,” she responds, lowering her head and glaring at him. But after a moment she accepts his pen. “Oh, well, I’m not actively employed,” she sighs, signing her name. “Frankly, I think if they legalize all drugs, it would be the best. I started teaching in 1967, and my class was all stoned. I’m not saying that’s the way to go, but they should take off the onus.”
The Personal Responsibility Amendment would be bad for Baldori’s business, but he doesn’t care. “A lot of my practice is marijuana cases, and I’d be happy if they all went away.”
From musician to attorney isn’t as twisted a career path as it might sound. Baldori became an entertainment attorney so he could negotiate contracts for his fellow musicians. Not surprisingly, clients started coming to him for help with their drug hassles too.
Although he’s a slick blues pianist–he was given his nickname by a newspaper reviewer who praised his boogie-woogie playing style–Baldori has spent most of his career as a sideman. The Woolies’ one hit, “Who Do You Love,” was only big in a few cities. Baldori first heard the song when folksinger Tom Rush played it at the Fat Black Pussycat, a coffeehouse in East Lansing. Soon after, the Woolies won the “Band of the Land” contest, an amateur talent hunt sponsored by Vox amplifiers. First prize: a recording session in Los Angeles.
“We got about five tunes out, and [“Who Do You Love”] was the one everybody thought had the best shot.” Propelled by Baldori’s wheezing, Memphis-style organ, the Woolies’ version has a spooky energy similar to hits by the Amboy Dukes and ? & the Mysterians, two other Michigan garage bands. “Who Do You Love” topped the charts in Detroit, but that two-minute single was the biggest the Woolies ever got. Their record company, ABC/Dunhill, split apart soon after the single was released, and the band couldn’t move to LA because their guitarist, Baldori’s 15-year-old brother Jeff, was too young. The Woolies’ hit is still cherished by fans of the lava lamp 60s, though. The All Music Guide calls it “an enduring cult favorite among today’s collectors,” and it’s included in Rhino Records’ boxed set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-68, along with tunes by the Count Five and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. (Baldori rejects that company: “We were an R & B band.”)
One night in the mid-60s, Chuck Berry–another musician who’s been on the wrong side of the law–came to Lansing for a five-night stand at the Dells, a nightclub the Woolies had played themselves. Berry didn’t have his own backup band and picked up sidemen for every gig. “We were there the first night,” Baldori recalls. “He was one of our heroes. And the band that was booked just didn’t work out. They were terrible. So the owner said, ‘Bob, can you fill in?’ And we hit it off great.”
After that, whenever Berry came to the midwest, Baldori was behind him, pounding the piano on “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and the rest of Berry’s classic repertoire. They played for tens of thousands at Wrigley Field and the Arie Crown Theater. They recorded two albums together: Back Home (1970) and San Francisco Dues (1971). The partnership continued even after Baldori became a lawyer: in 1998, Berry took him to the White House to play at the 30th reunion of President Clinton’s graduating class. (Boogie Bob posed with Clinton for a photo that now hangs on his office wall.) Berry was “the founder of rock and roll,” says Baldori. “Every date is a historical event for me.”
Between dates with Berry, though, Baldori did a lot of scraping along. He chronicled his frustration with the rock ‘n’ roll life in I’m Almost Famous, in which he starred as a struggling keyboard player trying to score a hit with a song called “Rock Bottom.” The music industry grotesques–among them Odd Todd, the Quadrisexual DJ–were played by Baldori’s buddies from the BoarsHead Professional Theater, a small company that served as an asylum for actors too wild or too self-destructive to hold together big-city careers. The show debuted in the early 80s, and Baldori continues to revive it, most recently in 1998. Along with “Who Do You Love,” it’s a cornerstone of his fame. Some say that the new productions lack the chemistry Baldori shared with the original cast, but he’s negotiating to mount the show in Toronto, Detroit, and New York.
Law school gave Baldori a “vacation” from the music business, though he still picks up gigs here and there. Sometimes he sits in with Willie Kent & the Gents at Blue Chicago. But overall, he says, he can make more money talking to a client for an hour than “beating my brains out in a club until three in the morning.”
When Baldori arrives at the courthouse in Hastings, his clients are waiting for him in the hallway. The mother, a woman wearing a blouse so sheer you can see right through to her tattoos, got Baldori’s number from Schmid. She’s wan from crying: this is the second time she’s been arrested for dealing marijuana. The first time she turned state’s evidence against her husband, and now she’s terrified she’ll be targeted as a snitch if she goes to prison. She’s facing up to 15 years on charges of possession, possession with intent to deliver, and maintaining a drug house. Police also found four plants in her basement, which she claims her son was growing without her knowledge.
“We smoke pot, so what?” she says. “We only sold it to people we know. It’s not like we made any money off it.”
Baldori meets privately with the assistant prosecutor for 20 minutes, then jumps back into his BMW to drive to his next appointment, in Grand Ledge. “She’s gonna do jail time,” he predicts. “It’s gonna be something you can do standing on your head. It’ll be weekends, work release. The judge is gonna give her a taste, just to scare her.”
According to Baldori, everyone in Hastings knew the family sold pot, but the deals were so small and unprofitable that they barely constituted a business, much less a criminal enterprise. These weren’t the Corleones, just some rural folks who liked to get high with their friends. The cops caught them the usual way: one of their customers got arrested and agreed to make an undercover buy. He copped a $20 bag, and the police followed a few hours later. “Twenty dollars for an eighth ounce? Gimme a break.” Baldori shakes his head. “You have to do a lot of these to pay the rent.”
In Grand Ledge, Baldori’s going to meet with a team of lawyers to discuss a much heavier case: his client is facing life in prison because the cops found seven pounds of cocaine in his van. Under Michigan’s “650 Lifer Law,” possession with intent to deliver more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin is punishable by life in prison without parole (the same sentence doled out for first-degree murder). Baldori plans to argue that his client didn’t know the van was carrying drugs. “Chasing around the back roads, defending drug cases,” he sighs, as the BMW speeds east on pastoral M-100. “I guess you could be doing worse things.”
For more on Lansing see the Visitor’s Guide on page 34.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.