Bopping Toward the Apocalypse: Where Drugs, History and Culture Collide

    Obsessions with heroin and writing have dominated large, if not necessarily concurrent, parts of my life. But one need not pursue either of these things to feel a powerful fascination for the intersection of drug and popular cultures in America. Those who share this interest with me will likely be well-versed in the work of Martin Torgoff. The author of Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000, and his latest book, Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, The Beats and Drugs, is a revered chronicler of this country’s history of drugs and associated cultural developments.

    Bop Apocalypse (2017, De Capo Press) is one of those rare works of social history that’s as exciting and immediate as the very best fiction. With a cast illustrious and notorious—think Billie Holiday, Lester Young (pictured above), Harry J. Anslinger, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac—it’s a multilayered insider’s view of the birth of our modern relationship with drugs. The historical and thematic connections that Torgoff interlinks are dizzying, and this—combined with his knack for making history entertaining—defines a book that’s funny, heartbreaking, at times infuriating, but always brilliant. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in jazz, Beat literature or the War on Drugs.

    “Well, thank you,” Torgoff says when I tell him all of this, “that means a great deal.” He seems sweetly embarrassed.

    Looking younger than his mid-60s with tousled, shoulder-length grey hair, Torgoff has the affable air of a hip university professor, or perhaps a Bay Area hippy-turned-Silicone Valley millionaire. He welcomes me into the office at his Westchester home. Fittingly, it’s stuffed with books and memorabilia related to the areas he’s been fastidiously documenting for the better part of three decades—jazz, early rock’nroll and post-modern literary ephemera fill the shelves and most of the walls.

    “Legend had it that Santana was so high on mescaline that at one point he looked down and his guitar had turned into a snake.”

    “Let me tell you a story,” he says. Back in 1994, Torgoff was in the backstage area of the Woodstock 25th anniversary concert, working as a field producer for the Barbara Kopple-helmed documentary intended to capture the event for posterity.

    “My job was interviewing the artists,” he tells me. “And believe me, I saw the entire range of them, in terms of the drug culture. There were people in recovery, like David Crosby. There were ex-junkies like Greg Almond. There were new-wave psychedelic artists, hip-hop artists whose entire output was basically a celebration of pot culture… they were all there.”

    “In the middle of it all I had a conversation with Carlos Santana. We were talking about how in the ’69 festival, he infamously went out on stage while tripping on mescaline. If you look back at the film of that incredible ’69 performance—they were doing, I think, ‘Soul Sacrifice’—it was an electrifying performance. Well, legend had it that Santana was so high on mescaline during this performance that at one point he looked down and his guitar had turned into a snake—right there in his hands!”

    “Now, I knew about this, of course. So I brought up the fact that there was a whole revival of interest in psychedelics within that new generation playing the festival. As, indeed, there is now. And I said to him: ‘Carlos, how do you feel about all these kids who are here all taking acid?’’

    “And he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘You know—there’s a difference between self-expansion and self-deception. The journey, for all of us, is about learning the difference.”

    “I mean, for me, that’s right on the money,” Torgoff concludes. “You don’t know what it’s like to be an addict until you are. You cross that threshold and then you get it… but it’s too late…. But along the way, if you could learn that difference… ? Well… It could have been a whole different story.”

    Martin Torgoff. Credit: Josh Lehrer.

     

    A Siren’s Call

    In the years since Can’t Find My Way Home, his first major work, was published in 2004, Martin Torgoff has mined a rich vein as a leading documentarian of drugs and American society. He delved into television, bringing us award-winning pop-culture documentaries like The Drug Years (2006), Sex: The Revolution (2008) and Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation (2012). Indeed, DIGAStudios recently acquired the rights to Bop Apocalypse in the hopes of developing it into a television series.

    I hoovered these shows up, in a way that reminded me of how, growing up in England in the 1980s, I craved stories of outlaw geniuses like Lenny Bruce, Chet Baker, Lou Reed and Sid Vicious. Long before I slid a needle into my own arm, I had developed a fascination with the life that remains to this day, years after my last hit of dope.

    Torgoff’s work, I point out, has relentlessly explored his fascination for drug-using luminaries like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. I wonder aloud if there’s a dangerous element, a kind of siren’s call, in our cultural beatification of pop culture’s drug-addled heroes?

    “If you couldn’t see the beauty in the madness then, to me, you were missing the point.”

    “There was no doubt that the icons of my youth were all associated with drugs and alcohol,” he says. “They were all lawless, they were all drug users. Absolutely, there was a romanticism about it all that we all bought into.”

    So how does he view that romanticism now?

    “There is a part of it that was completely valid,” he replies. “After all, these people were doing groundbreaking things that changed the culture. They were addressing themes that needed to be addressed. They were absolutely authentic and committed in their creativity.”

    “But there was also a part of it that was delusional. That was completely over the top. That was, for the lack of a better word, mad. But it was a beautiful madness. If you couldn’t see the beauty in the madness then, to me, you were missing the point of what made them so powerful.”

    It’s hard to argue. After all, if it came down to a choice between Lou Reed and Cliff Richard… “There are some people who embraced drugs and destruction as a kind of destiny,” Torgoff says, with a sly grin. “I mean, look at Burroughs.”

    Few, I agree, can claim to have lived so unrepentantly, changed the face of American literature, and lived to a ripe old, drug-addled age of 83. But even though Burroughs is an outlier, there are other iconic figures, like Hunter S. Thompson or Timothy Leary, who underline that drug-taking seems to be embedded as much in American literary culture as it is in rock ‘n roll.

    “That’s why I find the whole concept of the drug war to be so insane,” Torgoff exclaims. “To me, it was the epitome of insanity and denial. The idea that in 1986 we passed a law in this country—the Anti-Drug Abuse Act—which basically states that the law is now for America to be a drug-free nation.”

    He lets that absurdist concept hang in the air for a moment. “I mean, there has never been a drug-free society in the history of the earth!”

     

    A Drug-Warrior Lineage

    As well as the renegade drug users who—via exploits in jazz, beat literature and vanguard poetics—acted as pied pipers for the new drug age, there were also those whose very lives were dedicated to fighting what they perceived to be a biblical-level scourge.

    Depending on your point of view, the villain—or perhaps antihero—of Bop Apocalypse is a man who has cast a long shadow over American society in the years since he first came to prominence. We’re talking, of course, about Harry J. Anslinger, the man who founded what would become the DEA and kicked off the War on Drugs before it had been given that name, way back in the 1930s when he outlawed marijuana.

    Although Anslinger was deposed as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1962, his hatred for drugs and drug users poisoned subsequent administrations, right up until the election of President Barack Obama. Then, as marijuana became legal in state after state, it finally looked as though America might be moving past Anslinger into some brave new world of sensible drug policy.

    Until the election of 2016, that is. What was Torgoff’s reaction to the arrival of Trump, in drug policy terms?

    He sighs, “Plus ça change…  I mean, when you come right down to it, there’s very little difference between Harry Anslinger and Jeff Sessions, is there? If Sessions had his way, all of the tremendous progress that we’ve seen in recent years would be simply… wiped away.”

    “People who lived through the original drug war and that previous generation of crack users and dealers are doubtlessly looking at what’s going on today in utter disbelief.”

    I ask Torgoff, given the country’s current backward steps, whether or not he believes we will ever see a sane approach to drug law in the United States.

    “I can tell you that I never thought we would have legalized recreational marijuana as we do now. I never thought we would see that in my lifetime. That shows that real change is possible. When I finished Can’t Find My Way Home back in ’04, I had been working on it mostly through the ‘90s…  So we’d been through the rave culture at that point, and ecstasy, and the return of meth to certain areas of the country, and it was the most obvious thing in the world to me that drugs were going nowhere. It was so embedded in our DNA by that time. And it was multi-generational.”

    “And just as drugs weren’t going anywhere, it looked like the drug war wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, it had been escalating since the 1980s…”

    Indeed, I nod, back then being “tough on drugs” was one of those rare ideals that seemed to unite both political parties.

    “Yes! The Democrats were drug warriors, just like the Republicans,” Torgoff says with a dry chuckle. “They were on board with it, 100 percent.”

    And suddenly, support for the drug war seemed to collapse. Today, over 60 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization.

    “Of course you still have the old school,” Torgoff points out. “I mean, you can be in Colorado, and all you have to do is go next door to Kansas to see what I’m talking about. What you can be doing freely in Colorado, over in Kansas they’ll throw you in jail for as long as they possibly can.”

    “I think that’s what’s happening—like so many things in this country, we’re seeing two Americas. Where drugs are concerned, the America that is more willing to be open-minded about drug policy has grown.”

    And of course, the recent opioid overdose crisis has surely gone a long way toward changing the whole tough-on-drugs mentality in this country.

    “Of course! I mean, you just look at how that has changed. What is so amazing about what we’re seeing happen today is that there are no romanticized heroin icons. The people in today’s opiate epidemic are just doing drugs. And these are people who are from the rust belt, from depressed rural areas. It’s completely unprecedented if you know anything about the story of heroin. And what is it that’s finally prompting action, shameful as it is? It’s that opiate addiction has finally become a ‘white’ thing. And that’s offended a lot of people, and rightly so.”

    He elaborates: “In reality, back in the 1980’s there were just as many white people using crack cocaine as there were black people, but [black people] were the ones who were getting thrown in prison and given draconian minimum sentences. I mean, they were sent away for decades.”

    “People who lived through the original drug war and that previous generation of crack users and dealers are doubtlessly looking at what’s going on today in utter disbelief. They’re seeing cops walking around with naloxone, saying, ‘Well, these are people too, and we need to save lives…’”

    Martin Torgoff—a man who has chronicled several iterations of the War on Drugs and may yet be around to witness its endgame—shakes his head, speechless for a moment at the rank hypocrisy of it all.

    “I mean,” he says, “Just think about all of the survivors of the drug wars… the mothers and fathers of those who lost their lives, or were sent away for decades over a gram or two of crack cocaine… Can you imagine what’s going through their minds as they are seeing all of this change happening in 2018…?“

    He trails off. What does he suppose they are thinking, I ask?

    He smiles sadly.  “I suppose,” he says, “they’re probably thinking something along the lines of: Where the hell were you when WE needed you?

     

    Drug Experiences as Fuel

    Martin Torgoff’s personal journey with drugs began when he first smoked pot as a teenager (“It was November 4, 1968,” he informs me, with typical sharpshooter memory). In the ‘70s he embraced the poly-drug excesses of the post-psychedelic era, before it all came screeching to an end when he “crashed and burned on cocaine” sometime in the 1980s.

    “When I came to the end of it at the age of 37, I realized that I needed to change my life. I couldn’t go on doing what I was doing,” Torgoff tells me. “It was obvious to me that I had to just… give up everything. … It was after that I went through a period of evaluating my journey through drugs. I really set out to understand it—first, of course, in terms of its impact on me.”

    So his books grew directly out of those personal experiences?

    “After all,” he confirms, “I had 21 years of dabbling in different substances in ways that both benefited and damaged me. On a positive note, drugs brought me into contact with different kinds of consciousness and ideas—poetry, art, and politics… There was a whole package of things associated directly with drug culture.  I was also aware that, by the time it was over, my use of drugs like cocaine, Quaaludes, and alcohol had damaged me. Luckily for me, they didn’t damage me to the same extent that they did others! But, the damage was still… significant.”

    The tone of his voice suggests, though, that it wasn’t all bad. There’s a gleam in his eye when he talks about those first ever experiences with marijuana, for example. I put it to him that many people who’ve gotten to the point of quitting everything are left with a deep—almost visceral—revulsion for the drugs they once wholeheartedly embraced. He, on other hand, used these experiences as a kind of fuel.

    “It was a very complicated relationship,” he replies. “There were things about the drug culture I really liked and felt were valid. There were things about it that turned out to be seriously delusory. Mostly I was aware that [drugs] had changed me. The whole odyssey of these books and the documentaries was really to see how they changed me, how they changed my generation… and then, how they changed the whole cultural landscape.”

     

    • Tony O'Neill

      Tony is the author of several books of fiction and non-fiction, including Sick City, Down and Out on Murder Mile, and Black Neon. His journalism has appeared in Vice, Black Book, The Guardian, The Fix, The Influence and Playboy.

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