'Bop Apocalypse': What Happened When the Beats and the Boppers Set Out to Change the World
Fifites' jazz and the Beat Generation are often linked. Aside from the drug use, however, this new book on the history begs to differ.
Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and DrugsPublisher: Da Capo
Length: 412 pages
Author: Martin Torgoff
Publication date: 2017-01
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...
He wasn’t talking about jazz musicians. But had he wanted to, almost none of it would have had to be changed.
Such was life and culture in the pit of the American '50s, a decade popularly sentimentalized for suburban, bobby-soxed innocence. Actually, there was much subversion going on in various locales and in various ways, including New York City, where black jazz musicians and white writers were expanding the possibilities of their respective crafts. Aside from their aversions to the mainstream (and exclusions from it), however, they shared little directly in common. But their art captured a restless mood in the post-World War II air, and set the foundation for much of what the next years of jazz and literature would bring.
Also, they did a lot of drugs. So much so, their drug use defines them almost as much as their art.
This is a shame, on several levels. But it's also part of their legacy, as Martin Torgoff asserts with detail in Bop Apcoalypse, an engrossing tale of how two distinct artistic subcultures interacted with drugs, and vice versa.
Torgoff’s work here, which takes its title from the end of the Footnote to Howl, began as a mere chapter in his book, Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000 (2004). The prior volume attempted to map out how drugs became such a pervasive part of American life, and what happened to that American life as a result of that pervasiveness. But as revealing as that book is, it’s also a bit scattershot, trying to cover so much ground (and so many drugs) in only a few hundred pages. Bop Apocalypse benefits greatly from a narrowed focus. There are a lot of stories to tell, and Torgoff does a masterful job of telling them.
Those stories ultimately fall into two separate buckets: the white writers who would christen themselves the Beat Generation, and a legion of jazz musicians who would span big band swing, bebop and the years after bebop’s ascension. Torgoff does such a great job of pulling the individual and collective histories into focus, it’s not immediately apparent that, for all intents and purposes, these are two trains running on parallel tracks.
Yes, Lester Young and Jack Kerouac shared a taxi in 1943, a moment during which the already-legendary saxophonist introduced the aspiring writer to marijuana. But while jazz influenced how the Beats approached language and the practice of writing, these communities weren’t actively in concert with each other. Instead, Bop Apocalypse alternates between the lives of Ginsberg, Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and their assorted companions and muses, and Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Jackie McLean and other jazz musicians and their far different lives. If their paths crossed at all, aside from Beats taking in some live music, it was in the process of scoring dope, not making art. The only thing these two worlds seem to have in common is a desire to get and stay high as part of their respective creative lives.
Jazz didn’t just suddenly discover drugs in the ‘50s. Weed was prevalent 30 years before (and probably well before that), championed without reservation by Louis Armstrong (Torgoff notes his 1930 arrest for possession as America’s first celebrity pot bust) and in numerous novelty songs from stars as big as Fats Waller. In a forerunner to the late-century War on Drugs and targeting of black communities for drug offenses, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics declared such rampant miscreancy as America’s most pernicious scourge. Under the leadership of Harry J. Anslinger, the bureau sought to enact the harshest anti-drug laws possible, and demonize drug users -- including those pothead Negro jazz players -- at every opportunity.
None of that exactly stopped anyone from inhaling. In fact, Torgoff relates the 1937 all-star studio session featuring Holiday, Young and others, in which weed played a critical role. There was some skepticism about whether this disparate group would be able to get along harmoniously enough to record the four songs due that day, so someone lit up a joint in the studio (much to the consternation of the studio’s proprietor, but cooler heads prevailed). With the ice successfully broken, the session yielded four fine tunes, most famously the eternally precious “I Must Have That Man”, the beginning of the Young-Holiday musical telepathy.
Using drugs to make great music went to several new and disturbing levels in the form of Charlie Parker. The indications are that Parker was deep into drug use as a teenager, before he ever left his native Kansas City for New York. But none of that hindered his ability to coax astonishing sounds from his sax. Bebop was jazz’s first major disruption, and for all the conceptual and technical brilliance of Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and the rest of the cohort, Parker was the player who captured everyone’s imagination.
Just as some musicians tried to intentionally catch a cold so they could sing like Armstrong, many figured it was heroin that made Bird fly so free, and started shooting up in hopes of achieving even a measure of his artistry. Take his darkly luminous version of “Lover Man” from the fabled 1946 recording session in Los Angeles. Unable to score any heroin, he downed some Benzedrine, then somehow pulled it together enough to record one of the most poignant solos ever. Musicians marveled at how he’d managed to get at something so raw and elemental in such a gorgeous way. But five days after the session, he was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where he did six months of detox.
None of that deterred anyone trying to follow in his musical wake. In short order, heroin became the drug of choice among the bebop generation (except Gillespie, who refused to do hard drugs). It became a status symbol, a way of defining themselves apart from the square mainstream as if they were the only ones courageous enough to opt out of the bleakness of everyday life. It seems perverse, if not appallingly insane, to think that taking a drug that could kill any user at any time could be seen as making a grand social statement, but Torgoff quotes trumpeter Red Rodney declaring heroin ”was our badge”.
While most jazz histories acknowledge Parker’s use and the ubiquity of heroin in general without looking too closely, Torgoff paints a much bleaker picture, based heavily on interviews he did with McLean, who in the ‘50s was both a prodigy on the sax and a heroin addict. One can’t help feeling some degree of sadness upon reading stories like how Miles Davis, who had kicked his heroin habit, caught McLean in a lie about his.
These figures -- not only Parker and Miles, but John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and many more -- are black cultural heroes because of the music they made, and the odds they overcame to make it (by the way, Rodney and plenty of other great white players shot up, too). But did their drug use open their psyches and enable them to create that wonderful music, or did it simply help them self-medicate given the harshness of their lives as artists? And either way, what toll did it take on them?
We are fortunate beyond words that not all of the best minds of this particular generation were destroyed by this ravage. Would we ever have had Giant Steps or “Chasin’ the Trane” or A Love Supreme, not to mention all the music those works inspired, had not Coltrane kicked his habit? By that standard, what wonders might Parker have concocted had he lived even two years longer?
Yet no such “what if?” cloud seems to hang over the Beats. Yes, there were tragedies: David Kammerer; Joan Burroughs; Neal Cassidy, the muse of Kerouac’s On the Road. Herbert Huncke, the career junkie who provided entrée into the drug life to Burroughs (who in turn introduced him to Kerouac), cannot possibly be seen as a heroic figure (he admits as much in his time with Torgoff). But their drug use comes across as adventurous and romantic, with Ginsberg discovering peyote, Burroughs off in Tangiers, and all of them rewriting the art of the written word.
It’s a dynamic that was in play well before the ‘50s and has resurfaced time and again since then. There has always been an element of thrill-seeking white America that found rebellion in black American disdain of the norms -- think of the lyric in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” about the “colored girls” singing as the soundtrack to white kids shedding all manner of convention -- and saw drug use as part and parcel of that rebellion. That attitude implies a life of experimentation without consequence, a luxury black folk historically have not been able to afford. It’s the difference between escaping from and escaping to. The Beats were trying to expand their conscious realities, while blacks were seeking relief from theirs. Whether or not the Beats recognized that minor distinction, and all that brought it into play, is anyone’s guess.
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Not that the Beats didn’t have their share of legal troubles for possession, but none of them seem to have suffered for their art as cruelly as did Parker, Holiday (who’d been ingesting one drug or another, and then another one, virtually her whole life) and the boppers. The “because of / in spite of” argument about drug addiction and high achievement is by no means a recent one; while Torgoff doesn’t dive down that rabbit hole, he evokes a sense of pathos about their conditions well beyond the “Bird Lives” and “Let Lady Live” memes that would later emerge.
But while he makes no judgment on any individual’s behavior, Torgoff is clear on this point: anyone who romanticizes the addict’s life has no idea what that life really is. It’s personal for him: the introduction of Bop Apocalypse begins with an account of his own drug life, from a bored teenager on Long Island to recovery as an adult. Later, he introduces us to “Ruby Rosano” (not her real name), a woman who lived the life of every fictionalized heroin junkie-gone-bad. Her tales, including once landing in the same shooting gallery as Holiday, weave through the exploits of the artists as a counterbalance to their daring achievements, reminding us that for every Parker and Burroughs who did mass quantities and made great art, there were many who lost whatever they had in search of that next fix, and disappeared without leaving a mark.
By the end of the ‘50s, the extent of the divergence between the two trains couldn’t be clearer. Excerpts of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch are denounced as perversion, but the book gets published nonetheless. Howl beats back a censorship charge. On the Road propels Kerouac into literary stardom. The Beats become a movement. Ginsberg lives to the ripe old age of 70, pushing for drug legalization until the end. Burroughs makes it to 83, showing up on a Laurie Anderson album and shilling for Nike in his latter days.
The boppers of Bop Apocalypse did all right for themselves artistically as well. McLean eventually got off junk and became an elder statesman of jazz until his passing in 2006. But Parker died at 34 in 1955, his body finally done in by his years of excess. Kerouac wrote that Parker “Looked like Buddha” in his coffin; the medical examiner who pronounced him dead thought he looked like a senior citizen. Holiday, whose music always rose above her personal dramas, died at 44 in 1959, in a hospital under arrest for possession, hiding her last money on (or in) her person (Rosano was among those keeping vigil outside the hospital). If there was any saving grace, discussion of Holiday’s case in the New York courts became one of the first times addiction was argued to be a medical condition rather than a criminal act.
Thus does Bop Apocalypse set the stage; we already know how the story ends without reading Torgoff’s prior volume. Drugs became part of American counter-culture in the ‘60s, and mainstream culture not long afterward. Public opinion about them shifted over time: you can now legally own weed for recreational use in eight states, and use it to help with medical ailments in several others. Addictive drugs still aren’t anything to fuck with; a sequel to Can’t Find My Way Home is writing itself right now, all over Opioid America. But the Obama administration dialed down much of the War on Drugs, and even if the Trump administration dials some of it back up, the horse has long since left the barn.
Torgoff traces how we have the Beats and the boppers to thank for all this. Both camps set out to reorder the world and how we see it, and that they did, famously, and in more ways than one. But for all the stories he uncovers and characters he celebrates, he reminds us that sometimes, genius happens at a horrible cost.