Book Reviews

BOP APOCYLYPSE: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs

bop apocalypse

Bop, Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs (by Martin Torgott, Da Capo Press) is a rather large subject, but author Martin Torgoff soft pedals his main thesis–that drugs were an essential ingredient in the creation of bold new music and literature by black musicians and white writers–with a light touch. Instead of weighing his subject with burdensome cliches, Bop Apocalypse at its best provides is an anecdotal history. It’s a narrative that jumps through time, cutting between jazz musicians and beat writers, in a series of essays and recollections that seek the precise moment when the artists were introduced to drugs and, more emphatically, it attempts to explain how drugs motivated musicians and poets alike to challenge themselves to create new, nerve rattling work.
Those expecting a continuous timeline will find this book a bit exasperating, as Torgoff prefers to present his history and his argument in something of a cinematic style, with jump cuts, flashbacks, and fast-forwards. There is the sense that he is attempting an impressionistic approach to how particular events are linked to creating the mythos that has brought about hip culture. It’s a fractured, frustrating but fascinating narrative. Early in the book Torgoff covers the details about the federal criminalization of marijuana, a action initiated by Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Needing a visible symbol of the threat to convince the country of the menace drugs posed, they portrayed African-American jazz musicians as deviants, criminals, and moral reprobates due their drug use. These were the perverts aiming to sully American innocence and lure youth into lives of moral degradation. Later, emerging white writers of the Post War Era discovered the same chemicals, many of whom indulged in them as a means of coping with the crushing conformity of the Eisenhower 1950s. Drugs, whether marijuana, heroin, or various forms of amphetamine, were seen as a means of self discovery that freed poets and painters and playwrights from their inhibitions, allowing them to capsize the old rules and create bold new work in their stead. Anslinger is revealed as the unwitting creator of the modern idea of hip, the aesthetic, the pose, the manner of being that artists have assumed for decades–the idea of artist as outsider, as outlaw, as iconoclast. The American avant garde now had a hook to hang its bulky coat on.
Readers familiar with Beat aesthetics–their emphasis on spontaneity, improvisation, a Zen mindfulness free of distortion and subterfuge– will be relieved as Turnoff goes lightly on the usual apologies made on the Beats behalf. Bop Apocalypse works best when the stories are told of central personalities in the period at crucial moments in their lives. The joy of the book is in the wealth of telling detail, such as those of writer Terry Southern (Candy, Blue Movie, Red Dirt Marijuana) when he discovered pot as a kid, which grew wild on his cousin’s Texas farm, or how saxophonist Charlie Parker was introduced to heroin, or Kerouac blitzing himself in clouds of marijuana while he rattled off On the Road in a spurt of super human productivity.
Miles Davis, Hubert Huncke, John Coltrane, Mezz Mezzrow, Billie Holliday, William Burroughs, Lester Young, and others have their tales told, some details well-known and others likely apocryphal, the scenes from their lives revealing a similar scenario, their respective introduction to pot, heroin, and amphetamines as a means of coping with their marginalized existence and of forcing their wits and instincts to the edge. What is obvious through the book is Torgoff’s premise of drugs being critical to the creation of art at the end of the chapter on Jack Kerouac, making the claim that the greatness many have given to Kerouac’s body of work would have remained unwritten had he not taken up the tea habit. As Kerouac remarks, “I need Miss Green to write; can’t whip up interest in anything otherwise.” For myself, I’ve always found Kerouac’s fiction and poetry problematic at best, a writer who often mistook breathlessness for beauty, Torgoff’s association of being stoned with quality sounds more than a little day dreamy, likening the author’s body of work as that which would be considered to be “…likened to Proust’s, Melville’s and Shakespeare’s.”

This brings to mind something I’d read years ago in a Downbeat magazine interview with jazz guitar virtuoso Joe Pass, talking about his drug addiction and eventually getting clean. The interviewer asked if he thought he was actually better and more imaginative when he was high. Pass offered a cautious answer all the same–that while he couldn’t say he definitely played better, he certainly thought he was playing brilliantly while he was high. I kept this in mind while reading this otherwise engaging and well-researched book and remain convinced that the gift to create music or to write poetry are aspects of a personality that exist separately from drug use. That someone can produce chorus after chorus of hard bop jazz a la Parker or compose a monumental poetic masterwork, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, has more to do with the talent that’s already in place, not because the drugs aided these artists to their particular style of genius. Torgoff does us the favor, though, of presenting the polemic evenhandedly, although there are times when hyperbole gets the best of him. Raising Kerouac’s literary value to Shakespeare and Proust is an example, as is an incident related in a section about Charlie Parker. An intriguing chapter overall, with the sort of telling details of clubs, cities, characters of interest on the risks they took to pursue an art form on the outskirts of what was considered the American mainstream, Torgoff relates the tale of jazz producer and promoter Norman Granz and his organization of a series of concerts billed as “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in Los Angeles, in 1946. At this period in his brief life, Parker’s behavior was erratic due to the complications of his heroin habit. Parker had barely managed to make it to the West Coast from New York. He quickly disappeared–looking to score drugs in a city where he had no connections–and arrived late for the concert, which had already started. Torgoff writes:

“…having found what he was looking for, he showed up 28 choruses into ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and stepped on the stage to play a chorus that brought the music to a whole new level and the audience to its feet, then he stayed on to play alongside Lester Young on ‘Oh Lady Be Good’ …Bird’s choruses astounded musicians and jazz fans everywhere. Everything he played that night would become part of the basic syntax of jazz…”

This is the kind of over praise even the most ardent admirer winces at, as curious readers are given soft-shouldered platitudes and proclamations instead of colorful, clear, and precise explanations of what the artist is up to, an idea of the tradition that a musician is breaking away from and how he’s creating new music based on the traditions he’s learned from. This is a gift jazz critic Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddens, vividly highlighting artistry and contribution over sensationalism, a subtler approach that Turnoff does not take on. Worse for Bop Apocalypse is the not-so-subtle idea that the artists who matter–the artists who break tradition, create new forms, innovators whose avant garde experiments command respect and influences generations many decades after they’re deceased–have to be chemically deranged in order to have that latent genius become activated and find its fullest and fatal expression. It should be noted that not everyone covered died tragically or fell prey to the foul clutches of permanent addiction–as the biographies of Coltrane, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Ginsberg, and Burroughs attest–but Bop Apocalypse provides a constant suggestion that it’s not enough for committed artists to engage their craft to the best of their ability, but that in doing so one must knowingly risk their lives to achieve a genius level of expression the merely sober amongst us cannot. Torgoff’s underlying premise crystallizes much of what is afoul with the contemporary notion of romanticism, that the kind of lethal idealization of the drug-related deaths of writers and musicians creates an allure that is seductive and wrongheaded. It is, on the face of it, irrational to consider an early and preventable death of an inspired creator as confirmation of their genius.

Torgoff, though, brings a wealth of research to the subject and, despite the periodic wallowing in cliché and unexamined proclamations, creates an entertaining mosaic through an electric period of American history. What the book lacks in supportable thesis or in establishing how these artists actually influence each other’s work is made up for by Targoff’s storytelling skills. Imagine this as a film by Robert Altman at his best, a diffuse but alluring tour of the rich details of an aspect of our legacy we must continue to engage. One does wish, though, that the author avoided the unintended irony of writing about artists who changed the way we think about the world with old ideas that merely reinforce our worst habits of mind.

Martin Torgoff’s generous gifts as a storyteller are superb when he remains with the tale; he is nearly cinematic in his ability to set up a scene and follow the action through. It’s unfortunate that his stories, one after the other, are too often hobbled by his pet theory, an idea that cannot be made compelling regardless of how many times it gets repeated.