Sunday, April 16, 2017

A 21st-Century Look at Art Pepper's Straight Life

It took me about six weeks but I finally finished Art Pepper's memoir Straight Life, which he co-wrote with his wife Laurie Pepper in 1979. It's not that it was so dense that it took me six weeks to finish. My ability to pop open a book and plow through it is severely limited these days. And I'm one of those people who falls asleep while reading, which bugs the hell out of me.

But to sum Straight Life up in one word: zheesh. Pepper was a driving force on West Coast jazz during the 1950s, the premiere alto saxophonist of that scene. He was also the product of a loveless marriage by two people who really didn't know how to raise a child. And like many of his peers, he succumbed to a live of heroin addiction, which was interrupted by stints in the Los Angeles County Jail and San Quentin.

Pepper doesn't spare the reader of any details of his drug use, his sex life, his prison life or his attitudes about people (which get fairly racist and sexist). It's all there in graphic detail. I remember seeing my dad reading this book (chances are, he read the same copy, as we both checked it out of the Carnegie Library, and this copy still has the card pocket on the inside page) and it makes me wonder what Pop thought about all those graphic sexual escapades and drug use. And the anger. This was the '70s, back when men were accepted as toughs, who could freely admit the physical abuse they practiced on women. A particular target comes with Pepper's second wife Diane, who joined him in the world of drugs just to be closer to him. He repeatedly talks about the way she screwed up his life and screwed up on him. Frequent references are made to things that happened "before she died," without ever mentioning when she died, how or how he found out.

These days we're accustomed to the Behind the Music story arc where the fame precedes by a fall to rock bottom, followed by redemption and sobriety along with the greater perspective on what came before. Spoiler alert: that doesn't happen in Straight Life. (The name comes more from one of his best songs, more than his outlook.) It just kind of stops, with some final commentary from friends on how Pepper must have heart because otherwise he couldn't play the way he did. But really, years in prison, failed marriages, even cirrhosis of the liver, a hernia... none of stops him from getting a bottle on his way out of Synannon, back into the world, with more drugs on the way. In listening to his amazing Village Vanguard sessions or Blues for the Fisherman, the latter the sixth two-disc set that's part of Laurie's "Unreleased Art Pepper" series, I thought that he was clean by the time of the recordings. Maybe things had changed by the time of Fisherman (1980), but in the book he says he barely made it to the last night of performances at the Vanguard.

But maybe I'm looking at all of this with a 21st-century perspective on drug addiction. Maybe we know a lot more know about how to deal with addiction issues than we did back then. Maybe people didn't want to face them or really know how. Or to take into account the way childhood affects what comes after. I almost wish my dad, who worked in the mental health industry for a few years and hospital administration prior to that, was here so we could dissect it.

All that being said, one quote that really killed me and made me think, "What are you talking about," comes from drummer Shelly Manne at the end of the book:
"Musicians should really sit down by themselves and realize what a great life they have. They're doing something they want to do. They're being creative. Very few people have an outlet for their creativity. They're getting paid for it, and, when gifted, get paid very well for it. they can travel all over the world, expenses paid. They eat the best food in the world. They have it made, especially when they have talent and they're available and working. To destroy that by being irresponsible, unreliable, which are the main reasons that guys end up down the tubes..."

Say what?! Who is Manne talking about? Sinatra? Dave Brubeck? Miles Davis? Three Dog Night? Maybe musicians that played at Shelly's Manne Hole, the late drummer's club in California, got treated like royalty. But the stories I've read about every jazz musician who has fought to push the envelope, who has really worked on creating something new, always includes the unhappy tales of hustling for gigs, the shady record label people, club owners, managers, booking agents, to name few. Not to forget racial prejudice that is usually there too. Shelly seems a little naive, especially following all the candor that Pepper has laid down, up to this point, which comes about three pages from the end of the book.

In conclusion, the book has made me want to go back and listen to more of Art's work. Despite the demons he was fighting at any given time, he almost always manages to create some really amazing music. And I'm thinking of reading Laurie Pepper's more recent memoir, Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman.

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