Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, The Beats, and Drugs
By Martin Torgoff
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
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
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.
Heroin was viewed as not only
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
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
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.