Art Pepper, the jazz saxophonist, wrote, with his wife Laurie Pepper, one of the great books about art and addiction, his memoir Straight Life. After describing his childhood, and his discovery of music, and his development as a musician in the Central Avenue "scene" of the 1940s, and his stint in the Army, Pepper writes, with great frankness, of the sexual compulsions he struggled with as a rising star in jazz. Then he writes about the first time he got high on heroin, and how, in a flash, he realized he had "found God."
"I loved myself, everything about myself, " Pepper writes. "I loved my talent. I had lost the sour taste of the filthy alcohol and the feeling of the bennies and the strips that put chills up and down my spine. I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked at Sheila"—Sheila Harris, the singer who was getting Pepper high—"and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and horned the rest of them down. I said, 'This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I'm going to do, whatever dues I have to pay...' And then I knew that I would get busted and I knew that I would go to prison and that I wouldn't be weak; I wouldn't be an informer like all the phonies, the no-account, the nonreal, the zero people that roam around, the scum that slither out from under rocks, the people that destroyed music, that destroyed this country, that destroyed the world, the rotten, fucking, lousy people that for their own little ends—the black power people, the sickening, stinking motherfuckers that play on the fact that they're black, and all this fucking shit that happened later on—the rotten, no-account, filthy women that have no feling for anything; they have no love for anyone; they don't know what love is; they are shallow hulls of nothingness—the whole group of rotten people that have nothing to offer, that are nothing, never will be anything, never were intending to be anything."
In Pepper's unstuck-in-time rant of resentment (the actual scene is set in 1950, but his voice goes ahead to his stint in prison, and speaks to a number of attitudes he was still coming to terms with as he was composing the book) will of course remind one of Lou Reed's song "Heroin," in which the protagonist, asserting his intention to "nullify [his] life," sneers at "you sweet girls with your sweet talk," and celebrates the fact that "when the smack begins to flow/then I really don't care anymore/abouts all the Jim-Jims in this town/and everybody puttin' everybody else down/and all the politicians making crazy sounds/and all the dead bodies piled up in mounds." The key phrase is "really don't care" and the key word is "really." The ecstasy of heroin, if ecstasy it in fact is, is the ecstasy of genuine indifference. You REALLY just don't care. And really not caring can seem like an exceptional blessing to people of exceptional sensitivity. Hell, to people of average sensitivity, even. Who knows.
Arguably, indifference does not enhance creativity; it shuts out creativity. True indifference creates the craving for more true indifference, because giving a shit about anything, you've figured out once you've properly numbed yourself, is just too fucking painful as it turns out. Who needs it? I turn to Pepper again: "All I can say is, at that moment I saw that I'd found peace of mind. Synthetically produced, but after what I'd been through and all the things I'd done, to trade that misery for total happiness—that was it, you know, that was it. I realized it. I realized that from that moment on I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie. That's the word they still use. That is what I became at that moment. That's what I practiced; and that's what I still am. And that's what I will die as—a junkie."
And Pepper did die, in 1982, a junkie who had been up and down and up again and who created some great music along the way; and he created that music, it's pretty clear, in spite of being a junkie. Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, with Paul Chambers and Red Garland, a milestone of hard bop recorded in 1957, made by a strung-out Pepper who hadn't picked up a sax in six months and whose instrument had old dried cork stuck in its neck. And so on. The book has plenty of such stories, and it ends on a particularly good one, in which Pepper recounts being challenged to a cutting session by the great altoist Sonny Stitt on a bandstand in San Francisco. Stitt, Pepper writes, "did everything that could be done on a saxaphone, everything you could play, as much as Charlie Parker could have played if he'd been there. Then he stopped. And he looked at me. Gave me one of those looks. 'All right suckah, your turn.'"
"And it's my job; it's my gig," Pepper writes. "I was strung out. I was hooked. I was having a hassle with my wife, Diane, who'd threatened to kill herself in our hotel room next door. I had marks on my arm. I thought there were narcs in the club, and all of a sudden I realized it was me. He'd done all those things, and now I had to put up or shut up or get off or forget it or quit or kill myself or do something." He concludes: "I forgot everything, and everything came out. I played way over my head. I played completely different than he did. I searched and found my own way, and what I said reached the people. I played myself, and I knew I was right, and the people loved it, and they felt it. I blew and I blew, and when I finally finished I was shaking all over; my heart was pounding; I was soaked in sweat, and the people were screaming, the people were clapping, and I looked at Sonny, but I just kind of nodded, and he went, 'All right.' And that was it. That's what it's all about."
"I was given a gift. I was given a gift in a lot of ways," Pepper writes at the beginning of this section of the book. "I'm one of those people, I knew it was there. All I had to do was reach for it, just do it." Heroin creates nothing; rather, it obliterates, among other things, the inclination to reach for anything, except more heroin.
I only tried the drug once myself. It was 1993 or 4 or so. I was hanging out at Sally's Hideaway, the old drag bar on 43rd Street, the old ballroom of the Carter Hotel—it was later transformed into The City, the nightclub where that schmuck Sean Combs got into his gun trouble, and I don't know what it is now—and I was in the company of a charming preoperative transsexual who went by the name of Christina Piaget, and she was undergoing some sort of personal paroxysm of self-disgust that ended with her spoken resolve to never do heroin again, and handing over to me a small glassine envelope containing the substance, and then quitting the venue. Soon as she was out of sight I scurried to the first available lavatory stall and hoovered it up, and I have to say that my direct experience of it was pretty much as Pepper describes. Although my articulation of delight was decidedly more banal: more along the lines of "Wow, this is the greatest thing ever!" And of course my subsequent resolve was a different: "Good thing I don't know where Christina got this, because if I did I'd be in a cab on my way there now and I'd never come back." And for a good decade and change after, I got a lot of venal self-congratulatory personal mileage out of the fact that I hadn't been "stupid" enough to become addicted to heroin. It's kind of funny. But not really.