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.
When I saw Torgoff speak about Bop Apocalypse at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, this past February, he said that this period had fascinated him for quite some time, and that he had done a considerable amount of research into these decades that didn’t make it into CFMWH. Expanding on his single chapter, Bop Apocalypse turns this period of underground drug use into the basis for an entire new book, showing the history of how substances like marijuana and heroin entered the national imagination among the bluesy avant-garde long before they dominated college campuses, music festivals, and street corners. It is a romantic project, full of descriptions of smoky jazz clubs, the early years of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac at Columbia, and Billie Holiday’s excessive, destructive, and mournful drug use.
But Torgoff gives us something else as well – the origins of the modern drug war. Bop Apocalypse focuses on drug use from the 1920s to 1960, as the Beats gave way to the rise of the hippie. In doing so, he examines the advent of drug prohibition, Harry Anslinger’s control of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. It is always useful to know how the drug war – which, despite widespread and current national rates of opiate abuse and addiction, is slowing after forty years of being waged at a breakneck pace – became what it is: an inherently racist, oppressive battle that criminalizes certain behaviors when they are performed without the buffer of white skin.
But Torgoff also points out is how drug use has always been a site of remarkable diversity, and punishment for drug use hasn’t always fallen as exclusively on non-whites as it has since the 1980s. As he says in his author’s note, when drug use coalesced with music and literature, “the use of marijuana and other substances became a truly interracial and multicultural nexus of American experience.” Drug users were many transgressive things at this time – African American, Jewish, homosexual, bisexual, rebellious, anti-authoritarian, drop-outs, and cast-offs – and their experience with intoxicants was, as Torgoff puts it, “revolutionary because it became a vital part of the development of an alternative vision and pursuit of freedom that have shaped our cultural landscape ever since.” Whether they were black, white, gay, straight, male, female, writers or musicians, those who chose this alternative vision often suffered mightily for their cause, either from police persecution or the ravages of addiction. Torgoff’s romanticism and celebration of his characters doesn’t come without an implicit understanding of the downside and the dangers of drug use and subsequent addiction – something Torgoff himself has suffered from, and cites as a driving cause for his work.
CFMWH was stuffed with juicy quotes from interviews Torgoff completed with hippies, radicals, and the people associated with America’s ongoing drug culture in the second half of the twentieth century. Bop Apocalypse has fewer of these, and relies more on other sources. But Torgoff’s use of archival quotations and factual stories still feels natural, since the research has clearly been done well and it’s difficult to conduct new interviews with people who have been dead for decades. But the pace of Bop Apocalypse remains much the same as CFMWH; it moves rapidly and scoots from scene to scene as quickly as a Charlie Parker solo or a Beat poem. Torgoff’s writing is cinematic and speaks to his years working as a consultant on popular culture for film, television, and multimedia events. He treats the past not as prologue – indeed, he recognizes the value of understanding our history without necessarily construing it as a forerunner of what’s to come – but instead as a fascinating tale, full of fascinating people doing fascinating things. And, with writing as crisp and swift-moving as Torgoff’s, it is easy to believe that this is entirely true. Reading Torgoff feels good, like being swept away on an exciting ride with the people who came before us, joining them on their intoxicating adventures, feeling as moved to write lucid dream poems as any Beat or jazz musician.
Torgoff ends his book in 1960, at the beginning of the decade that would find Neal Cassady dead on those memorable Mexican railroad tracks and Jack Kerouac hemorrhaged to an early grave. But he also ends on an uplifting note, one that speaks well to our current era of social activism and calls to action. “In 1968,” Torgoff writes, “one of Harry Anslinger’s successors, John Finlator of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, reported hearing a certain chant becoming familiar on college campuses across America –
Creator of farces
Kiss our arses!”
In 2017, with Jeff Sessions declaring that “good people” don’t use marijuana and arguing that he thought the KKK was fine until he found out certain members smoked pot (we must wonder how Donald Trump would feel about the alt-right if he discovered that they, too, periodically used marijuana or, god forbid, the same opiates he’s sent his son-in-law to conquer), it wouldn’t be difficult to replace a few names and keep the chant going. Indeed, maybe that’s precisely what we should do. And we can thank Torgoff for digging up this gem and reminding us that drug use has, surprisingly, long been one of the few places where Americans have come together, and that the drug war hasn’t always been so black and white. There is much to learn from our past, from our best moments to our most bleak, and Torgoff is our entertaining historical storyteller, keeping tales of intoxication and imagination alive. Bop Apocalypse is the logical forerunner to CFMWH, and a welcome one, too.