Book Reviews

Martin Torgoff — Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, The Beats & Drugs

(Da Capo Press)

imagesWe’ve all known, even the hard core non-vipers among us, that America’s seven-decade war on drugs, especially everyone’s favorite innocuous little weed—marijuana—is, when stated simply, honestly—bullshit. The draconian Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 – a set of dire, fear-mongering, right wing edicts from the racist and fact-denying brain of Harry Anslinger, head of the Bureau of Narcotics, was meant to keep challengers of the status quo and people of color, down, marginalized and, if all went according to the unspoken Master Plan, imprisoned. Can’t be having wild orgies between the races. Can’t have people seeing beyond the democratic illusion and family values theatrics. Enslave creativity! Make soldiers! Lock’ em up! Lock ’em up!

It was bullshit then and bullshit now and bop apocalypse gives a robust and vibrant retelling of the geniuses, innovators, and cultural rebels who led the charge from New Orleans, Chicago, KC, to Harlem and beyond. Satchmo didn’t conform. Weed was a linchpin to his personality and Zen-like ambassadorship. Dizzy didn’t conform. Bebop didn’t conform. Ginsberg, Keroauc. . . the men and women who uprooted America from its righteous, rigid roots and sent generations upon the search for self. And within that self, the art and spirit it would create. The spirit of a nation.

Sure there were casualties along the way but it wasn’t from marijuana. It was the needle, the spoon, and very often booze that destroyed talent. Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Keroauc, ‘Trane. And that devil’s triangle threatened to silence Miles, Jackie McLean, damn near the whole bebop generation. Bop and Mary Jane cracked open the sky of illuminating thought for The Beats and those they inspired generations on. (The chapters on the creations of Howl and On The Road are essential reads.)

And while these names and other luminaries shine bright, Torgoff weaves in the tales of those names we might never know who skirted the scene for kicks and the thrill of the never-ending American night. Like Ruby Rosano, a junkie hooker who couldn’t snap back (the chapter on Rosano’s slide into addiction and whoredom would be a noir classic if it weren’t so ugly and painfully true.) You could say this subject has been covered before but not quite as vividly, or compellingly, as bop apocalypse.

—Mike Jurkovic

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