Bop Apocalypse seeks to answer the question of how drug policy and attitudes toward drugs were shaped by racial and social stereotypes.
It’s no secret that some jazzers and beats were notorious herb heads, hopheads, speed freaks and junkies. All that’s easy to point out, but what’s more difficult is providing context and a clear-eyed examination of what that all means. In his book Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs, documentary filmmaker, author and producer Martin Torgoff takes a long look at the men and women of these intertwined worlds while also considering race and the social climate of the last century.
Torgoff has in some ways been here before. In 2001’s Can’t Find My Way Home, he wrote with passion about how recreational drugs became a part of the cultural landscape. It was neither a commercial nor a cautionary tale but rather a wider look at something many have long believed: Drugs are not inherently bad, and yet, though they may work magic for some, the results can be deadly for others. Similarly, Martin A. Lee’s examination of LSD in the wonderful Acid Dreams shows how the lysergic world became villainized before it could be properly understood. The synthetic psychedelic rendered some stark raving mad while offering others a sense of salvation. So maligned was this once-legal substance that its medicinal possibilities have only recently come under reconsideration. We know, too, the debates about marijuana and its reputation as a gateway drug and, now, an economy booster.
In Bop Apocalypse, Torgoff doesn’t entirely revisit previous subject matter even if he touches upon some of the same characters. He wrote of Charlie Parker in Can’t Find My Way Home, but here he works harder and digs deeper to emerge with a fuller vision of the world in which he immerses the reader. This time we go back to Chicago in the 1920s, land a decade later in Harlem and get a fine overview of the Marihuana Tax of 1937. There’s room in there for discussion of Burroughs and Naked Lunch, Kerouac’s On the Road and the music of Parker. Drugs played a major role in the writing and origins of those two American classics and, perhaps regrettably, in the musical evolution of a jazz giant.
Torgoff suggests that a saner approach to drug use and treatment may be on the horizon, though he bemoans the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans on drug charges. He cites a statistic that black men are, in some states, convicted of these offenses “twenty to fifty times greater” than their white counterparts. This, he notes, despite drug use being a factor in the lives of Americans from all sectors of the racial spectrum. (With a new White House administration promising to be tough on drugs, it is likely that there will be an increase in incarcerations in the coming years; the more cynical may take that to mean less attention to treatment and prevention, a trend that was evident in the era of Just Say No.)
Bop Apocalypse then seeks to answer the question of how drug policy and attitudes toward drugs were shaped by racial and social stereotypes that were deeply embedded in the culture less than 100 years after the end of slavery. What’s as remarkable as how Torgoff comes to those answers is the way in which he carries the reader through various locales and dots in time and allows us to breathe in the atmosphere of Parker’s early life in Kansas City and the thick particles of the days when Burroughs walked among us. There’s also a particularly well-rendered scene at the beginning of the book involving a young Terry Southern that demonstrates our author’s cinematic sensibilities and ability to relate significant events in a way that is both illuminating and entertaining.
Though he writes about important figures in the worlds of words and music, this isn’t a simple trip through the who’s who of the turned on. There’s real consideration of the shock created by jazz’s arrival and the consternation the beats gave the establishment. There are also passages that remind us of history’s slow plod to the present and our equally horse-and-buggy pace toward the future. Just how many failings do we share with our ancestors?
We travel distances far and wide in these pages and one wonders at times if Torgoff will be able to maintain his focus and deliver the goods promised in the introduction. He gives us a somber and sober portrait of the sometimes seductive and sometimes shocking elements of the world he describes. Often, he manages this better than in Can’t Find My Way Home. It is difficult to know what impact books like this will have as drugs continue to move deeper into rural America while attitudes about use and users remain shrouded in suspicion and stigma. Whatever happens going forward, Bop Apocalypse will provide us with a better sense of where we’ve been.