Beatniks, Beboppers and Bennies and Their Tight Connections

Charlie Parker onstage in New York, 1947. Parker's heroin use was so much a part of his persona, other musicians tried it in an effort to sound like him. That's Miles Davis - who had his own issues with the stuff - next to him.
Charlie Parker onstage in New York, 1947. Parker's heroin use was so much a part of his persona, other musicians tried it in an effort to sound like him. That's Miles Davis - who had his own issues with the stuff - next to him.

Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, The Beats, and Drugs
By Martin Torgoff
432 pp.
$26
Da Capo Press

The nexus between artistic creativity and drug abuse is hardly a new or unplumbed concept. Nor the discussion of whether certain art can is created either because of or in spite of the usage of the creator.

But in this fascinating book – part musical and literary biography and part fast-moving sociological treatise — Torgoff delves into two occupations whose practitioners both soared to heights and were demolished by drugs: Beat writers and jazz musicians of the ’30s through the ’60s.

While laughable today (and indeed appreciated even more by stoners), ’30s films like Marihuana and Reefer Madness purported to show the effects of the drug upon the impressionable. A few tokes turning a normal person into a criminal, murderer or wild sexual deviant (with an even “scarier” subtext: white women might want to sleep with black men!!). Government crusader Harry Anslinger led the charge that would result in the 1937 act effectively making pot illegal.

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Jazz musicians were among marijuana’s first proponents, with Louis Armstrong’s 1930 arrest becoming the first celebrity drug bust (though his advocacy and daily usage of pot until he died didn’t stop him from becoming one of music’s most beloved figures).

Torgoff’s revelation that the word “muggles” was known slang for a joint might even throw Harry Potter fans for a loop. “Bennies” (or benzedrine speed tablets) were also popped like candy among players to keep the party going into the late, late night club shows and early-morning jam sessions.

However, soon pot was accompanied by harder stuff. Torgoff quotes jazz historian James Lincoln estimating that as many as 75 percent of jazz musicians used heroin in the ’40s and ’50s, and among its users are counted the absolute cream of the crop: Billie Holiday, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Chet Baker.

Most famous among addicts was Charlie Parker, whose heroin use became as much a part of his legend as his music, and actually inspired younger players to take up the drug in a misguided effort to transfer Parker’s seeming magic to their own playing. He even titled a song about his actual dealer, “Moose the Mooche,” with the thought of signing over half the royalties to him to cover his tab.

Jack Kerouac in 1956. The author of "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums" lived a life fused with sex and drugs, and credited both pot and speed with helping him write.
Jack Kerouac in 1956. The author of "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums" lived a life fused with sex and drugs, and credited both pot and speed with helping him write.

Heroin was viewed as not only recreational but a “working drug,” and also carried a cool factor. These guys had their own sense of style in clothes, attitude and language. In fact, Torgoff credits the sleepy-eyed Lester Young with first coming up with the now-familiar words “bread” for money, “crib” for house, “The Big Apple” for New York City, and even “cool.”

That Parker died at age 34 of an overdose and the attending physician famously thought it was the cadaver of a man in his late sixties is fairly telling. And when Billie Holiday ran out of places to shoot her needle of dope, she began injecting the drug into unlikely places, including her fingertips and the veins of her vagina.

Yet, after an early arrest, sentence and release, Lady Day could still sell out Carnegie Hall, twice. How many came for the music and how many to see an actual heroin addict is another story. Torgoff’s retelling of her last few months is truly harrowing stuff. And yes, Billie Holiday died with 75 cents in her bank account.

Holiday’s story is paralleled by the even more horrid experiences of Ruby Rosano, a “junkie whore” who knew the singer and whom Torgoff seemingly spent considerable time interviewing for the book decades after events took place.

Here, Torgoff talks about these artists and more dances with Mr. Brownstone and how it affected their lives and art. But also interesting are portraits of those around the fringe of the music whose instruments were pens and typewriters.

On the other hand, “Beat” writers like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others – all also advocates of pot, speed and heroin — viewed drug usage more as a way to open doors to creativity and perception. The scoring on dodgy street corners, in filthy hotel rooms and in all-night bull sessions as avenues to creating great literary works, like the shocking-for-the-time novels On the Road, Naked Lunch, Junky and The Dharma Bums.

Torgoff also recounts this group’s personal, professional and sexual links. Lording over it all is Neal Cassady – the real-life inspiration for Kerouac’s “Dean Moriarity” character – a real-life, wild, free spirit who never published a word.

So really, Bop Apocalypse (its title is taken from a phrase in Ginsberg's “Howl”) is kind of three books in one as Torgoff weaves the narrative strands that bring the whole story together. Dig it, readers.


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