Editor’s Note: This review of Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, The Beats, & Drugs (De Capo Press, 2016) comes courtesy of Emily Dufton, Points managing editor emeritus.
Martin Torgoff’s early experiences with drug history began as a family affair: he was first introduced to marijuana by his older sister on November 5, 1968, the night Richard Nixon was elected president. The 16-year-old got supremely stoned and experienced a new kind of ecstasy when his sister placed his head between the speakers of her stereo and played the Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way.” He “felt the music and the lyrics… to the very roots of my soul,” Torgoff explains in the introduction to his new book, Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, The Beats, & Drugs (Da Capo Press, 2016), and this fascination with music and drug use has lasted the rest of Torgoff’s life, transforming itself, successfully, into a writing career.
Torgoff is the author of several previous works about music and drugs, including American Fool: The Roots and Improbable Rise of John “Cougar” Mellencamp and Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000. Indeed, the seeds for Bop Apocalypse were planted in the second chapter of Can’t Find My Way Home (hereafter CFMWH), which carried the same name and explored the early rise of American marijuana and heroin use in Harlem and California from the 1930s to the 1950s. From Herbert Hunke shooting up William Burroughs to Charlie Parker’s saxophone and the rise of the Beats, Torgoff suggests that drug use in the first half of the twentieth century created a kind of secret society among users — a knowing, winking, self-destructive cabal of artists and musicians whose desire to pursue the “wild form” brought powerful elements of improvisation and mysticism to jazz and writing, many of which continue to wield influence today.