Living without love is like not living at all.
Art Pepper, 1958
Writing this in San Francisco, having just come back from San Diego and a heroin Christmas at my mother’s. Not that I used any: there was definitely no blowing, horning, tasting, fixing, goofing, getting loaded or laying out. I’ve always been afraid of serious drugs, knowing my grip on ‘things being OK’ was pretty tenuous already. Back in high school in the early 1970s, when everyone else was dropping acid, I refrained – mainly out of fear that I would be the inevitable freak with no friends who would end up curled up for life in a psychotic ball, or else spattered in ribbony pieces, having flung myself through a plate-glass window. I also wanted to get perfect grades. No: the major dissipations this holiday were candy and coffee and buying things online with just one click. Before I left, Blakey had given me some chocolate cigarettes, and at night, lying on my back under the covers with the laptop on my stomach – my mother had put me in the little upstairs room that used to be Jeff’s – I would reach over and unroll one in a smarmy, bourgeois, sugar-dazed languor.
It was a heroin Christmas because I was reading the greatest book I’ve ever read: the jazz musician Art Pepper’s 1979 autobiography Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper. It knocked my former top pick – Clarissa – right out of first place. As Art himself might say, my joint is getting big just thinking about it. I realise there may be a few lost souls who’ve never heard of him. Forget the overrated (and vapid-looking) Chet Baker. Art Pepper (1925-82) was an authentic American genius. One of the supreme alto saxophone players of all time – Charlie Parker included. A deliriously handsome lover boy in the glory days of his youth. A lifelong dope addict of truly satanic fuck-it-all grandeur. A natural writer of brazen, comic, commanding virtuosity. A proud long-term denizen of the California prison system. And now, no doubt, a tranquil, if desiccated corpse. As his third and last wife, Laurie, notes in the epilogue to Straight Life: ‘Art . . . was afraid to be buried in the ground; he was afraid of the worms. But he was terrified of fire. So I had him interred in a crypt at the Hollywood Cemetery, like Rudolph Valentino. He would have enjoyed the location, the company, and that creepy word, crypt.’ If my mother – now 77, curious and freakishly adept at Internet navigation – ever Googles me and sees what I’m writing now, I doubt if she’ll be pleased.
Some of my liking, I confess, arises from sheer Southern California white trash fellow feeling. Pepper was born near Los Angeles and spent most of his rackety life (as I have) on the West Coast. His father was a shipyard worker and nasty alcoholic; his mother, a dim-witted teenage bride, didn’t want him and late in her pregnancy tried to abort him by leaping off a table. For what it’s worth, my cross-eyed stepsister Lynne did something similar when she got pregnant at 16 in San Diego in 1967: made my stepsister Laura (who was ten at the time) jump off a sofa onto her stomach to make it ‘pop’. The gambit failed to produce the desired effect. Lynne had the baby in a Catholic place for unwed mothers and left it with an adoption agency. She later married Bill, a telephone installer from San Bernardino with a mammoth, Nietzsche-style moustache, and became a compulsive gambler and grocery-coupon clipper before dying of drink at 46 in 1996.
Unlike Art, however, I never mastered a musical instrument. (Plinking guitar accompaniments to ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ and ‘Love Is Blue’ – grimly laid down as puberty loomed – don’t count.) Pepper was a child prodigy. Though neglected and unloved (his parents split up and basically dumped him) he got hold of a clarinet and taught himself to play. By the age of 14 he was sitting in on clarinet and sax in jazz clubs all around LA. After a short stint in the Army – Pepper was stationed in London after D-Day – he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra and travelled around the country as Kenton’s lead alto. You can hear one of his very first recorded solos – brief, free, characteristically ductile – three breaks in after the famous scat-singing vocal by June Christy on Kenton’s thunderous account of ‘How High the Moon’ on the recent Proper Box compilation, Bebop Spoken Here.
After his first small-group recordings in the early 1950s, discerning jazz fans recognised Pepper as a post-bop player of unusual beauty, subtlety and warmth. The fact that he was white, like several other major West Coast jazz musicians, was not generally held against him. Astonishing to discover, especially given how few people outside music know much about him now, that he came second after Charlie Parker in a 1951 Down Beat readers’ poll for Best Alto Sax Player Ever. Even the most partisan Bird-fanciers acknowledged that Pepper’s tone was the most ravishing ever heard on alto. Parker received 957 votes and Art almost tagged up with 945.
But things got wrenching soon enough. Having begun as an alcoholic and pothead in his teens, Pepper got hooked on heroin while on the road with Kenton’s orchestra in 1950. He had found – as he relates in his memoir – that junk was precious indeed, the only thing that made him feel ‘at peace’ with his frightening talent and the unstable world around him.
I felt this peace like a kind of warmth. I could feel it start in my stomach. From the whole inside of my body I felt the tranquillity. It was so relaxing. It was so gorgeous. Sheila said: ‘Look at yourself in the mirror! Look in the mirror!’ And that’s what I’d always done: I’d stood and looked at myself in the mirror and I’d talk to myself and say how rotten I was – ‘Why do people hate you? Why are you alone? Why are you so miserable?’ I thought: ‘Oh, no! I don’t want to do that! I don’t want to spoil this feeling that’s coming up in me!’ I was afraid that if I looked in the mirror I would see it, my whole past life, and this wonderful feeling would end, but she kept saying: ‘Look at yourself! Look how beautiful you are! Look at your eyes! Look at your pupils!’ I looked in the mirror and I looked like an angel. I looked at my pupils and they were pinpoints; they were tiny, little dots. It was like looking into a whole universe of joy and happiness and contentment.
In the mid-1950s Pepper was arrested numerous times on possession charges and spent more than a year in various jails and rehabilitation centres. (He inevitably used his devious charm to hoodwink the docs into thinking he had cleaned up, even though he never did: in jail he shot up all the time.) Out on parole and divorced from his first wife – she’d dumped him over the drugs – he took up with a clingy, bouffant-haired Filipina cocktail waitress called Diane, whom he married in 1957. (He wasn’t in love with her, he confesses. She was dumb and slovenly: ‘Diane – the Great Zeeeero.’ ‘I just wanted to have chicks I could ball when I wanted to ball.’) She, too, soon had a huge habit. (She became suicidal and died a few years later.) For a while Pepper still got paying gigs, and some of his best recordings – Art Pepper Plus Eleven, Modern Art, The Return of Art Pepper and the sublime Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (with Miles Davis’s nonpareil late-1950s rhythm section) – were made while he was high. But after he and poor Diane started nodding out for days at a time, blissfully insensible to the strangulated yips of their miniature French poodle, Bijou, no one would hire him. He started doing solo hold-ups and boosts to keep them supplied, cruising past East LA construction sites and making off with unguarded power tools. He got caught with a condom full of dope after one of these farcical heists and, when he refused to rat on his dealer, was sent to San Quentin, where he spent five brutalising years.
He was released in 1966 – middle-aged, chap-fallen, penniless and still addicted, his numerous scars and track marks supplemented with a conglomeration of scary and absurd prison tattoos. He describes these droll insigniae in a typically deadpan passage in his autobiography:
One guy did one of Pan. Pan played his little horn and all the women followed him. He’d take them into a cave and ball them, and then the women would disappear. They’d never find them again. I had Pan put on my left forearm, and then – I’ve always liked Peanuts – a guy put Snoopy and Linus inside my left forearm. I got the smiling and the sad masks on my right forearm. On my right bicep I got a Chinese skull, with a long moustache and a Van Dyke beard, smoking an opium pipe. Above my left breast I got a naked lady, a rear view of her squatting, but that one faded. And then on my back I got a chick doing the limbo, going under the bar, with little black panties on. That one came out nice. Just before I got released, I was going to get a vampire. A guy had done a drawing of Dracula, and it was going to be on my right arm over my vein. The mouth would be open over the vein, and then when I fixed I could say: ‘Hey, wait a minute! I gotta feed mah man! He’s hungry, jack!’ You know. ‘Come on, baby, I gotta go first. Mah man’s hungry. He needs some blood!’
You can see some of the tattoos in the super-grotty ex-felon pic of him – a cadaverous Nan Goldin-style mug shot – on the cover of Art Pepper: Living Legend (1975).
The story has the teensiest little glimmer of a happy ending. After hitting the skids yet again, rupturing his spleen on stage (he’d started playing intermittently with the Buddy Rich band) and nearly dying, Pepper managed to get himself into Synanon, the celebrated Santa Monica rehabilitation centre and Atlas Shrugged-style beach commune. He lived there for several years in the early 1970s and met Laurie, a fellow resident who became his third wife. He gradually cleaned up – at least partially – and began a heroic if truncated musical comeback. He made some new records, started touring again, and as a quasi-rehabilitated éminence grise, gave jazz workshops at colleges and universities. (Even in his worst dope-fiend days he had enjoyed tutoring young saxophonists.) He played in Japan in the late 1970s and developed there a new and enraptured cadre of fans. ‘My reception,’ he notes in a revealing aside at the end of his memoir, ‘was overwhelming and frightening. I feel a strong obligation to return to Japan again and again and to justify, in my playing and recording, the devotion of the Japanese fans.’ Accepting the love of others was always painful for him, but towards the end of his life he managed to open up a little bit.
He also began dictating Straight Life to Laurie, a kind and meticulous young woman who, along with being a cokehead, had fortuitously trained as an anthropologist. (The title Straight Life – addict argot for living without heroin – is the name of one of Pepper’s musical compositions from the 1950s.) Once he’d laid out the basic narrative for her – a strange uncensored flow of childhood reminiscence, jazz and junk lore, obscene sexual anecdotes and fearless, often japing self-revelation – Laurie, with Pepper’s permission, asked some of his old bandmates, producers, drug dealers, prison cronies and girlfriends to add their own insightful (and often unflattering) comments. The resulting feuilleton was hailed as a poetic masterpiece: a riffing, scabrous, West Coast Season in Hell. As Whitney Balliett, the doyen of American jazz critics, wrote at the time in the New Yorker, Pepper had ‘the ear and memory and interpretive lyricism of a first-rate novelist’. Balliett was right. Unfortunately the literary glory was short-lived. Though mostly off junk, Pepper continued to consume pills in great quantities and shot up, quite brazenly, with coke and methadone to the last day of his life. He died in Panorama, California, of an exploding brain, in June 1982, at the age of 56.
Which isn’t to say I meant to get hooked on Art this holiday – I had tons of other things to do. I was worrying about shoulder-fired missiles and water supplies. I was trying, despite the exigencies of the season, to reduce my astronomical credit card debt. I was brooding over various intellectual and personal failings. I was also supposed to be writing a London Review of Books essay about Madame de Pompadour. The big exhibition of Pompadour pictures at the National Gallery was almost over and I was embarrassingly late with my piece. I’d invited Bev to go with me to San Diego – Blakey was flying off to visit her dad – and so we ended up taking Bev’s cushy, landau-like Ford Taurus, the tiny trunk of my two-seater being comically insufficient for everything that needed transporting: a Santa-Claus-sized sackful of presents for my mother and the cats; numerous bottles of boutique olive oil for Tracy and Gilbert; the melancholy Charlie, small yet dignified in his plastic pet-carrier; piled-up copies of the TLS and World of Interiors; the computer and its many accoutrements; a space cult’s worth of junk food (it’s a ten-hour drive); the Goncourt brothers. I was hoping that Edmond and Jules would help me get somewhere with the Pompadour and all those ghastly Bouchers.
I also threw in an unopened copy of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, picked up on a whim a few evenings earlier at the Stanford Shopping Center. (I once spotted Condoleezza Rice there, smoothly circumnavigating the potted ferns and plashing fountains: a well-dressed zombie on a mission.) I’d found it – somewhat surprisingly, along with the paperback of Straight Life – in one of those depressing ‘HEAR’ CD stores, so evocative of the late 1990s US economic boom, where you put on headphones and sample various glossily repackaged ‘classics’ while sipping on your Starbucks. Some poor drone in the stock department must have let these hipster items in by mistake. I’d been on a private little jazz kick for a while, and had in fact just finished Ashley Kahn’s absorbing history of a date, ‘A Love Supreme’: The Creation of John Coltrane’s Classic Album.Trane was a nice sheets-of-sound antidote to the ormolu, love-nests and scheming courtiers of the Ancien Régime. Yet despite having a workable assortment of Mulligans and Bakers and Konitzes, I was also feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the West Coast ‘cool’ side of my collection. Wasn’t it a bit thin and dilettantish? And wasn’t the whole school, pre and post-Getz, in need of (my) reconsideration? I had known about Art Pepper vaguely; but as I riffled through the pages of his autobiography and saw he was writing about Oceanside and Norwalk and Huntington Beach – all those exit signs just up the freeway from my birthplace – I suddenly decided, with a certain prim sententiousness, that I’d have to explore his work.
There was also, I admit, the lesbian factor: I found him madly attractive. I’d never seen a picture of Art before, and here he was – on both CD cover and book – in the sort of dapper outfit that must have driven dykey lady jazz lovers of the 1950s insane with covetousness. He stood outdoors, leaned up against a eucalyptus tree, in a crisp, open-necked, pinky-white Coronet-style shirt (window-pane check) and a gorgeous pale tweed sports jacket, dotted with tiny delicate flecks of brown and black. He held his alto gently in the crook of one arm. He smiled faintly at me – a low-rent Lucifer – and was humming quietly. You’d be so – o – o – o – nice – to come home to! He reminded me at once of those hunky young hard-drinking sailors, packed into fresh clean whites and reeking of Old Spice, whom my mother somewhat recklessly dated before she finally got together with Turk in 1967. When I wasn’t riding my skateboard in front of our apartment, I was always jumping all over them in a passion.
In Straight Life Pepper is frank – and hilarious – on the subject of his looks. Detailing his stay in an expensive detox sanitorium in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, he recalls prinking about in the nude after getting some huge shots of morphine to mitigate the symptoms of heroin withdrawal:
I stood in the bathroom for hours looking at myself and giggling, saying: ‘Boy, what a handsome devil you are!’ I had a beautiful body. I’d get in the shower and bathe and get out and take a hand mirror and put it on the floor and look at my body from the floor. I’d look at my rear end and the bottom of my balls and the bottom of my joint, and I would play with myself until I got a hard-on and then gaze into this mirror and say: ‘What a gorgeous thing you are!’
It’s a fact: as soon as female-to-male transsexuals get their stubby new little tubercules, they instantly want to become gay men.
The problem with Bev’s Taurus is no CD player, so I had unplugged my office boom box, crammed it with six new giant batteries and brought it along too. In addition to all the jazz stuff – Bird, Dexter, Dizzy, Sonny, Miles, Ornette, Dolphy, the delectable Jimmy Giuffre – I’d filled several shopping bags with a small sampling of the rest of my CD collection, designed to satisfy whatever kind of recondite musical fix I might need on the road. Thus, all stacked up and ready to go were Conlon Nancarrow, Fatboy Slim, DJ Cheb I Sabbah, Ludwig Spohr, Amalia Rodriguez, Johnny Cash, Dame Myra Hess, Sigur Rós, Verklärte Nacht, Brenda Lee, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Gus Viseur à Bruxelles 1949, the Pogues, some early Leontyne Price (yum), White Stripes, Charpentier, Delalande, Coney Island Baby, Historic Flamenco, Rusalka, the Bad Plus, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Son House, Reynaldo Hahn (the real guy, quavering away at the piano!), Busoni’s Bach arrangements, Ginette Neveu, the Stanley Brothers, Tessie O’Shea, Milton Babbitt, The Rough Guide to Rai, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Charles Trenet, Ska Almighty, John Dowland, the organ music of Johann Fux (heh heh), Ian Bostridge, the Ramones, Astor Piazzola, Ethel Merman’s Disco Album, Magnetic Fields, Flagstad and Svanholm in Die Walküre, Lord Kitchener and the Calypso All-Stars, Sonic Youth, Youssou N’Dour, tons of the Arditti Quartet, Kurt Cobain, Suzy Solidor, John McCormack, Cretan rembétika music, Jan and Dean, Los Pinguinos del Norte, Shostakovich film scores, Some Girls, Wunderlich doing Butterfly (in luscious, spittle-ridden German), Cuban contredanses, Planet Squeezebox, some croaky old Carter Family, Morton Feldman, Beatrice Lillie (and fairies at the bottom of the garden), Elmore James, Giulio Cesare, Miss Kitty Wells, Vespro della beata vergine, South Pacific, Pet Sounds, Les Négresses Vertes, Dusty in Memphis, Ferrier’s Kindertötenlieder, Toots and the Maytals, Têtes Raides, Lulu, Lulu – even Gurdjieff’s potty piano ramblings. He always makes me think of Katherine Mansfield.
But things went AWOL from the start. Stopping for gas at Casa de Frutta, between Highway 101 and 5, I found the batteries in the boombox weren’t working. I’d held off playing anything up to that point because it was too early in the morning for serious listening – we’d left at dawn – but now, after coffee, I was craving something. Imprecations, followed by ferocious jerking out of batteries in the Chevron parking lot. Fumbling attempts at reinstallation, in every possible permutation of plus and minus – even, despairingly, plus to plus. Bev, watching patiently, said: ‘Well, we can listen to my tapes.’ Tapes! I glared at her and peered into the shoebox of dusty old cassettes in the trunk. Could I survive for ten hours solely on Sylvester, the soundtrack from The Crying Game and The Greatest Hits of Etta James? Now ‘Down in the Basement’ is a major song and Etta one of the supreme live performers. Once, at a surreal outdoor concert at the Paul Masson Winery, marooned among pre-tech-stock-crash Silicon Valley yuppies dutifully sipping Chardonnay, I watched her do the plumpest, most lascivious cakewalk imaginable. But I could hardly live on her for the rest of the day. I started squawking like an infuriated baby vulture.
Back in the Taurus it went from bad to worse: the dashboard tape deck wasn’t working either. Perhaps there had been a nuclear explosion somewhere: that, I knew, immediately shut down car electrical systems. We’d all have to swallow some potassium iodide. I resigned myself, imperfectly, to a day of protracted misery. Miles and miles of interstate wilderness (complete with a nasty tyre blow-out): wintry fields and irrigation ditches along 5, greyed-out almond orchards, the California state prison at Avenal, then the three-hour, eight-lane chaos of LA: Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, Anaheim, Irvine, Long Beach, Oceanside and Camp Pendleton. All along the southern coast the Marines were doing sea-to-land exercises. Bev, at the wheel and the long-suffering target of my ire, turned on the radio in self-defence at one point and began flipping from station to station with the seek button – derangingly – every two or three seconds. Burbly soft rock, stale oldies, Dean Martin singing Christmas carols, Mexican polka music, endless mirthless ads for Petco and Wal-Mart – the full auditory wasteland of American popular culture assailed us. Shades of when we used to be girlfriends. We bickered most of the rest of the way. By the time we rolled up, exhausted, in my mother’s driveway, trundled in with the packages and admired the Christmas tree, so loaded with decorations and synthetic flocking you could hardly see the branches, my assaulted ears needed a thorough washing out with a flannel.
Yuletide in San Diego was the usual: sunny and soporific, the suburban ennui immediate, dazing and total. The cats, senile and comatose, took up most of the available seating. (They had long ago given up trying to pull low-hanging ornaments off the tree.) Charlie moped in the yard under the orange tree; Bev read old copies of the National Enquirer and crunched on Mrs See’s California Brickle. I found myself perusing Via, the official newsletter of the American Automobile Association, in a state of morose torpor. Every now and then an F-18 from Miramar Naval Air Station, just a couple of miles to the north, would scream over the house on one of its morning practice flights, rending the sky with a colossal sonic boom.
My mother, oblivious to the booms, prattled away happily and brought up her favourite websites for us to look at on the television screen. Since Turk’s death six years ago and the invention of Prozac she’s morphed into the Merry Widow. In 2001 she started subscribing to Web TV and now sits, portable keyboard perched on lap, two feet in front of her giant set, avidly surfing the Internet for seven or eight hours a day. She’s got her ‘Brit Group’ to talk to – a gang of elderly ex-pats who maintain a busy online chatroom about the doings of the Royal Family and how to find Marmite in Kansas – as well as a small legion of Martha Stewartish arts and crafts sites that she checks out daily. My mother’s heavily into polymer clay jewellery-making and rubber stamp art. I managed to work up a vague enthusiasm for rubber stamps during the three days we were there, and on the day before Christmas accompanied her to a craft supply shop in Old Town in search of new ones for her collection. I found some blocks with Vitruvian capitals on them and decided they were actually quite tasteful – more so at least than the ones with kittens and dolphins and little frogs asquat on lily pads – and bought several myself, along with some rainbow-coloured inks. If I ever wrote a real letter again, I decided, I could decorate the envelope with them. Or perhaps make facetious greeting cards celebrating Thermidor and Fructidor.
At a certain point I realised that the Pompadour essay wasn’t going to happen. The books I had been reading about her were perfectly fine but I was losing interest in the lady herself. She had become pink and odious. I started wondering if she had ever existed. She could be a totally made-up person: some elaborate hoax. I got ratty and rough and churlish: so much so that one evening, after I blew my stack in the car on the way to the Indian restaurant, my mother was forced, like a weary civilian reaffixing a gas mask, to assume her classic Deeply-Wounded-by-Unpleasant-Daughter-but-Carrying-On-Bravely look. She said I needed anger management therapy. (‘It’s not just for men now – women get it too.’) I knew I wasn’t being very festive. But the Goncourts weren’t helping much either. Apart from reprising Diderot’s great line on the Boucher portraits – ‘they have everything, Monsieur, but the truth’ – the brothers seemed strangely dull: more feeble and syphilitic than I remembered.
Perhaps it was true: I was tiring of the 18th century. For twenty years it had been my academic meal ticket. But I seemed to be twisting, torquing away from it. Starting to like it only when it got marred and eccentric – a kind of broken, perverse, junk rococo. Singerie. Pockmarks. Freemasonry. Chess-playing automatons. Ultra-creepy things like Marat’s skin diseases. (He spent all his time in that hip bath on account of a maddening case of dermatitis.) Maybe because my psoriasis has flared up so badly this past winter – every morning when I woke up in San Diego I discovered a drift of huge white flakes on the pillowcase – I have developed an unwholesome interest in the epidermal problems of historical figures. My mother says my skin ailments are identical to hers. Naturally! Had Jack the Ripper preferred dandruff to intestines she – and I – would have been the perfect victims.
But the jazz thing was also getting obsessive. My reveries were becoming increasingly boppish and monomaniacal. In one of the Pompadour books I was reading, the author explained the fey jargon affected by Louis XV and his courtiers at Versailles: ‘Court language and pronunciation were quite different from that of Paris; courtiers said roue for roi, chev soi for chez soi; certain words and phrases were never used, cadeau should be présent, louis d’or should be louis en or, and so on.’ Lots of room here, obviously, for some LRB-ish, off-with-their-heads moralising: how we loathe the upper classes! But what I found myself thinking about instead was the sad and dreamy little language invented by Lester Young – Absolute Monarch of the Swing Tenor – after his disastrous nervous breakdown in the US Army in the 1940s. According to David Perry in Jazz Greats (1996),
Many claims, some of them vague and inflated, have been made about the linguistic originality of black American English, but in the case of Lester Young’s language, such claims seem to have some substance. Buck Clayton believed Lester coined the usage of the word ‘bread’ to mean money, when he asked of a job: ‘How does the bread smell?’ To express his own hurt feelings he would say he had been ‘bruised’ – a frequently heard word in the Young vocabulary. Another favourite expression was ‘Ivey Divey’ which signalled a rather bleak, stoic acceptance of some misfortune. Lester also used the title ‘Lady’, which he had bestowed on Billie Holiday, as a rather unnerving handle to the names of male friends and colleagues. It was a habit which along with his rather languid, camp manner, gave the wholly inaccurate impression that he was homosexual.
Especially when my mother’s jabs began hitting the mark, I found myself moodily adapting some of Lester’s plaints. ‘The other ladies make all the bread.’ ‘I ain’t groovy like the other ladies.’ ‘Those LRB cats goin’ to give all their reviewing gigs to the other ladies.’ It was a struggle to be even halfway ivey-divey.
Art, it turned out, was my salvation, though not in the way I expected. There’s no CD player at my mother’s: she’s still got – believe it or not – the same wacky fake-wood-grained cabinet-style phonograph we had in the Buena Vista apartments in the 1960s. It has spindly metal legs and space-age styling and looks like something the Eameses might have designed on a not-so-good day. Granted, I can get all weepy and nostalgic just looking at the thing. Back in the eighth grade, I was so addicted to surreptitious music-listening, I would get up at 6 a.m. and in the hour or so before I had to go to school glut myself (ever so quietly) on cherished selections from my small and eccentric LP collection. (I had to keep the volume absurdly low so not to wake up my mother or Tracy.) Prized possessions back then were a budget Everest recording of Beethoven’s Seventh, the complete works of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, some huge, breakers-rolling-into-shore Rachmaninoff, and my favourite, Elizabethan Lute Songs. (My mother noticed the record jacket of the last-mentioned one day and informed me – with a strange stare – that Julian Bream and Peter Pears were ‘pansies’.) In my current technological fix, however, it was obvious that the ancient family sound machine wasn’t up to much. The boombox was still non compos mentis. Forced to adopt emergency measures – under normal circumstances I loathe listening on headphones – I ended up buying an ugly red Discman at the Rite-Aid on the morning of Christmas Eve.
I won’t say too much about Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section: even the most garrulous bride needs to keep a few things about her wedding night a secret. Suffice it to note that as soon as I pressed the Discman ‘play’ button in bed that night I started having the Parsifal Reaction: the overpowering sense that I knew the music already, that it had been laid down in my heart in advance of my coming into consciousness, that I was somehow – uncannily – bringing it all into being as I listened. (Hearing the Wagner for the first time at a 1982 screening of Syberberg’s adaptation, I became lost, in private druggy transport, for five straight hours.) I also knew that Art’s moves were too beautiful and prodigious to absorb all in one go: I was going to have to ration him carefully in order to make him last a lifetime. Even the slightest, most gestural songs were like being delicately rocked in a cradle. Life was warm and good! I had to call Blakey to tell her. I quit listening on the fourth cut, ‘Waltz Me Blues’, quite overmastered by the handsome jailbird’s groove.
I began devouring Straight Life the same night and by the time I fell asleep had read a good two hundred pages. Like his music, Pepper’s verbal style was thrilling: licentious, colloquial, and so painfully human I could hardly bear it. Christmas turned into a vague blur of turkey and crumpled wrapping paper: for the next 48 hours – till Bev and I loaded up the car again for San Francisco on the 26th – I was mainlining Art nightly without shame. True, he was Orphic and amoral and narcissistic – prone to a pervasive, mad, jazzy self-servicing. (In his introduction to the 1994 paperback reissue of Straight Life, the jazz critic Gary Giddins warns that it is often hard to admire Pepper: ‘he whines, justifies, patronises and vilifies’ and goes ‘overboard . . . with intimate revelations’.) But along with the spleen and pussy lore Pepper offered himself up with such astonishing vulnerability I found my eyes welling up repeatedly. I read away at a frenetic bebop pace – up tempo all the way – but also felt curiously mangled by the experience: inwardly appalled to realise just how contemptuous I could be, I’m afraid, towards people less fortunate or comfortable than myself. Yes, I had survived – almost fifty and not dead yet! – but at what cost? In my professional life I was becoming a mini-bigwig. (Or perhaps a biggish mini-wig.) So why in middle age was I still so frightened and so cruel? The usual cosy, bespectacled, reading-in-bed smirk kept getting wiped off my face.
Some of it was just the chastening rush of the style: so plain, blatant and free. Startlingly, the epigraph to Straight Life was from Pound. ‘What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking. There is no end of things in the heart.’ But Pepper (or his amanuensis Laurie) might easily have chosen something from Swift or Defoe – so blunt and Anglo-Saxon, pitiless and fine, his narrative of life’s enormities. From the first pages on – a short dispassionate sketch of the shipwreck of his childhood – Pepper goes straight indeed to the heart of things that have no end:
One time when my father had been at sea for quite a while he came home and found the house locked and me sitting on the front porch, freezing cold and hungry. She was out somewhere. She didn’t know he was coming. He was drunk. He broke the door down and took me inside and cooked me some food. She finally came home, drunk, and he cussed her out. We went to bed. I had a little crib in the corner, and my dad wanted to get in bed with me. He didn’t want to sleep with her. She kept pulling on him, but he pushed her away and called her names. He started beating her up. He broke her nose. He broke a couple of ribs. Blood poured all over the floor. I remember the next day I was scrubbing up blood, trying to get the blood up for ages.
After his parents split up, he relates, he was shunted off to his grandmother’s – to the tiny redneck town where she lived with an aged swain:
Nuevo was a country hamlet. Children should enjoy places like that, but I was so preoccupied with the city and with people, with wanting to be loved and trying to find out why other people were loved and I wasn’t, that I couldn’t stand the country because there was nothing to see. I couldn’t find out anything there. Still, to this day, when I’m in the country I feel this loneliness. You come face to face with a reality that’s so terrible. This was a little farm out in the wilderness. There was this old guy, her second husband, I think. I don’t even remember him he was so inconsequential. And there was the wind blowing.
Not so far off again: I remember a hot dusty day in the mid-1960s when my mother drove us out to Poway see a friend of hers, a young woman named Donna, our former downstairs neighbour, who’d moved out of the apartments with her newborn baby when her husband, Mike, had shipped out to Vietnam. She’d found a kind of shack on a brush-covered slope where the rent was only 50 dollars a month – cheaper even than the apartments. Poway is a strip-mall suburb now, looped around with freeway sound walls and indistinguishable from the rest of the eastern San Diego County sprawl, but in 1965 the feeling of rural desolation was just as Pepper describes. I spent the afternoon scratching in the dirt with a stick.
Pepper’s account of his early jazz and dope life – complete with stark portraits of some of the greatest talents of the era getting high and getting off (and often not getting back) – was shocking in its matter-of-factness:
I was hanging around with Dexter Gordon. We smoked pot and took Dexedrine tablets, and they had inhalers in those days that had little yellow strips of paper in them that said ‘poison’, so we’d put these strips in our mouths, behind our teeth. They really got you roaring as an upper: your scalp would tingle, and you’d get chills all over, and then it would centre in your head and start ringing around. You’d feel as if your whole head was lifting off. I was getting pretty crazy, and right about that time, I think, Dexter started using smack, heroin.
And he was upfront, sometimes brutally, about yearning to imitate the flip, dandyish, hipster style that Gordon and other black postwar players cultivated so effortlessly:
Dexter Gordon was an idol around Central Avenue. He was tall. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that made him seem like he was about seven feet tall. He had a stoop to his walk and wore long zoot suits, and he carried his tenor in a sack under his arm.
He had these heavy-lidded eyes; he always looked loaded, he always had a little half smile on his face. And everybody loved him. All the black cats and chicks would say, ‘Heeeeeey, Dex!’ you know, and pat him on the back, and bullshit with him. I used to stand around and marvel at the way they talked. Having really nothing to say, they were able to play these little verbal games back and forth. I envied it, but I was too self-conscious to do it. What I wouldn’t give to just jump in and say those things. I could when I was joking to myself, raving to myself, in front of the mirror at home, but when it came time to do it with people I couldn’t.
Here, with a jolt, I saw him pin it down: the mortifying craving I (still) had for a certain uncensored verbal fluency. Nothing worse than the puerile, inhibited, what an idiot I am sensation you get when the words don’t come out in time and the world, blast it to hell, has moved on. And yet here he was acknowledging the failure and in the process somehow exorcising it. When it came time for me to ‘do it with people’ would I ever manage so well? A deep wish impelling autobiography since Rousseau must be just this: the hope of pulling out, however unexpectedly, some last minute psychic victory over l’esprit de l’escalier.
This said, I have to admit that what enthralled me most about Straight Life were the sex parts. From the beginning Art could be counted on to go way, way too far:
I had my first sexual experience I can remember when I was four or five. I was still living with my parents in Watts. They had some friends who lived nearby, Mary and Mike, who had a daughter, Francie, about four years older than me. Francie was slender, she had black hair, she had little bangs cut across and a pretty face, and she had a look about her of real precociousness. She had a devilish look about her, and she was very warm. Hot. She had nice lips, her teeth were real white, a pink tongue, and her cunt was pink and clean. A lot of little girls smell acid or stale, but . . . I remember sometimes we’d be playing together on the front lawn – there would be other kids around – and she would sit on my face in her little bloomers; nobody acted like they noticed anything. She’s sitting there, and I’m sniffing her ass and her cunt and her bloomers, and it always smelled real nice and sweet.
‘Years and years later, when I was divorced from my first wife,’ he remarks, ‘I ran into Francie, and I wanted to ball her, but she was in love and she wouldn’t do it.’
As an adult, Pepper screwed compulsively: waitresses and cocktail hostesses, women he met in all-night theatres, errant members of his teenage fan club, a female prison clerk at San Quentin, druggie chicks. He even went through a period as a peeping Tom. ‘Sex was in my thoughts all the time,’ he admits, ‘and because of my upbringing I felt it was evil. That made it even more attractive to me, and the alcohol and the pills I took made my sex drive even stronger. I was obsessed.’
An especially filthy yarn he recounts – about seducing a hotel maid when he was on the road with Stan Kenton – reminded me of the time when I came home from junior high and found Hopper, one of the pre-Turk boyfriends, asleep and nude and snuffling in the little single bedroom that my mother and sister and I then shared. (This must have been on Waco Street.) It was only three in the afternoon but Hopper obviously had had a lot to drink and was sleeping it off. Maybe he was afraid that if he went back to the Navy base he’d get busted back down to Seaman Third Class. (As a 12-year-old, I was obsessed with such details of service life. The whole set-up sounded marvellous to me.) In Art’s story, the maid, a pretty young Latina woman, arrives one morning to clean the room when he is sitting in his bathrobe, hung over and bleary after a hard night of bingeing and blowing:
She had green eyes. I’ll never forget that, black hair and green eyes. I sat in a chair opposite the bathroom door. The door had a full-length mirror on it, and it was opened in such a way that I could see her in the mirror, but I was half in a daze. I really wasn’t paying much attention because I had a heavy hangover. When I woke up I always had a hangover, and if I could get to a bar, I’d have a Bloody Mary. If not, I’d have a few shots in my room. So I was having a drink when I looked up and looked into this mirror, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was cleaning the toilet bowl. She was standing, bent over but with her knees straight, which caused her dress to come up almost over her rear end, and she had black lace panties on, and I could see the beginning of this little mound and some wispy black hairs sticking out the sides of these little panties. She had gorgeous legs. It was a beautiful sight, and I thought: ‘This is too good to be true!’ When she came in, she’d closed the door behind her. Some of them leave the door open a little bit. When they leave it open you’ve got to sneak over and try to push it closed and catch their reaction if there is one. You hope there’s no reaction.
I went and stood in the bathroom door, just looking at her. She’s cleaning away. After she finishes the toilet she bends over to get the floor. She’s wearing one of those half-brassieres, and with that button loose, I can see her breasts. I can see everything but the nipples. I can see down her dress to her navel. Needless to say I’ve got an erection. I move a little closer to her and she bends over the bathtub, and her uniform is all the way up over her ass. It was too much for me. I had my drink in my left hand; I put my right hand inside my robe and started playing with myself. If you can picture this . . . I’m standing in the bathroom right behind this beautiful creature who’s bent over so her ass is practically in my face, with those lace panties, with hair sticking out of the panties, and I’m jerking myself off, and I came that way, and as soon as I came I looked down, and she was looking at me through her legs. Her hand was on her cunt, and she was rubbing her cunt.
Hopper appeared to be completely out of it – no one else was home – so I had an excellent opportunity, Cupid and Psyche-like, to scrutinise his penis up close. It was red and big and mottled and poked up weirdly out of the bed sheets. What a horror show! I hate San Diego! How am I supposed to do my homework! Let’s go back to England! Leaving my books on the kitchen table, I stomped outside and for an hour or two patrolled the little apartment complex playground, brooding resentfully, till my mother came home with Tracy. I never mentioned any of it. Forty years later I still wonder: was Hopper feigning sleep?
Reading through Art’s super-prurient adventures – and I find them irresistible – your mind starts going to pot and strange new thoughts crowd in. Wow! Why not get a big tattoo of a squatting lady in high heels? It might look good! Or: how about making friends with that stripper at the gym, the funky Asian chick with the blue hair? (The one who’s always doing handstands and practising the splits!) She might be fun to get drunk with! It all starts to seem normal: the strange fan-dance of chicks and booze and sex and looking for a toilet in which to tie on a tourniquet. Once, when we were first dating, Blakey got querulous about something – really hostile – and informed me, rather menacingly, that she was ‘a red-blooded American male’. Pepper makes you into one, whether you like it or not. It’s like changing all of a sudden into a werewolf.
All the more surprising, then, the pathos the writer achieves when he describes courting Laurie, his last and ‘greatest love’, at Synanon in the 1970s. Synanon itself – the most celebrated rehab programme of its day – sounds like a Southern California cult nightmare: all rules and regulations and not being able to go to the bathroom without permission. At the Santa Monica ‘campus’ – where Pepper lived for two years – there were the usual cult trappings: a charismatic guru (named Chuck) and army of live-in disciples; elaborate rewards and punishments for performing (or neglecting) communal household chores; and daily Khmer Rouge-style group therapy sessions in which the goal was to drive your fragile fellow addicts into a state of mental meltdown.
You’d be in a game with ten or fifteen people and if somebody, like, pissed on the toilet seat in their dorm or something like that, you’d tell it. You’d accuse him of it in front of the girls. When your covers are pulled in front of women it’s really a drag, so there’d be some wild shouting matches. They made up a lot of things, too, just to get you mad, to get you raving. Somebody’d accuse you of farting at night so loud they couldn’t sleep, or some chick would accuse some broad of throwing a bloody Kotex in the corner of the bathroom, leaving it laying there. The idea was that ranking you and exposing your bad habits would make you eventually change. And it worked, you know, it worked.
‘Innumerable people,’ Art notes, ‘were brainwashed like this.’ Yet some kicked the drugs. I’m not sure I would have done so well.
But it’s waterworks time when Pepper gets to wooing and winning Laurie. After staying sober and drug-free for some time, male and female Synanon residents who wanted to start a sexual relationship could petition the counsellors to let them go on ‘dates’ together – little walks around the neighbourhood, trips to a nearby shopping mall, chaste bike rides. The formal courtship period accomplished, they might then request permission to spend a couple of hours together in the commune’s designated trysting place: a private room, known as ‘the guestroom’, upstairs in one of the barracks-like dorms. Pepper was immediately attracted by Laurie, a former college student and music photographer, after meeting her one day on the Synanon bus. But on their first official date, he recalls, he nearly blew it completely:
Laurie was very friendly and sweet and she really turned me on. We sat down on a bench and watched the merry-go-round. We made small talk, and I reached over and put my hand on her knee. She seemed to stiffen a bit, but she didn’t say anything. I left my hand on her knee, and it really turned me on. I started moving my hand up her thigh under her dress. She let out a roar and jumped up. She said: ‘I think we’d better go back.’ We started walking back. I kept trying to put my arm around her, put my hand down her dress. She wouldn’t let me. I said: ‘Look what you do to me.’ And I looked down to my front, and her eyes followed mine. I was wearing bathing trunks, and my pants were standing all out. I had a hard-on. She said: ‘Oh!’ She really got embarrassed. I said: ‘Boy, I sure feel comfortable with you. I really feel relaxed.’ She looked at me and said: ‘You feel relaxed? I don’t feel relaxed. I feel like I’m with some wild animal.’
Many apologies later, he convinces Laurie to sign up for the guestroom with him. In the anxious lead-up to this assignation, he worries incessantly about his potency (‘I couldn’t remember the last time I’d balled without liquor or pills or dope’) and wonders if Laurie will be repulsed by his body. (Because of liver cirrhosis and the surgery he’d had to remove his ruptured spleen, his abdomen was permanently scarred and distended and lacked a belly button. ‘It was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen . . . It got to the point where I’d never take my shirt off. I hated to take a bath or a shower because I couldn’t stand to see myself.’) But all is well that ends well. After getting past a teasing gaggle of other residents – it’s the middle of the day and everyone knows exactly where he and Laurie are going – he finds the acceptance that he craves:
I went for coffee. Everybody was saying: ‘Yeah! Work out, Art!’ And: ‘Boy, I know you’re going to enjoy that!’ It was really far-out. I liked it. But all the attention got me nervous again. What if I couldn’t get a hard-on being sober? I carried the coffee up the stairs, trying not to spill it. Six floors. No elevator. By the time I got there I was just panting. She’s got the bed made and the shades pulled. She said: ‘Look what I got.’ She’d lit some candles, really pretty. I put the coffee down. We looked at each other for a moment. There was no strangeness at all. All of a sudden we had our clothes off and we were laying on the bed making love, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world. And it was so vivid. There was no numbness from juice or stuff. After we finally separated, we lay there looking at each other and I tried to cover up my stomach. At first I’d had a shirt on, but Laurie’d made me take it off; now I reached for it, but she said: ‘Oh, please don’t. I think it’s beautiful. That’s you. You look real. I like the marks around your eyes, everything about you. I don’t like a pretty man without wrinkles or scars.’ She stroked my stomach, and she kissed it.
Listening to ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ – tender, tenebrous, ensorcelling – on Modern Art: The Complete Art Pepper Aladdin Recordings, Volume Two, one can imagine the scene. Love leads the way.
Now wet blankets everywhere will be saying, This is all such a load of crap. The dope, the tattoos, the goofing, the living without a belly button, the creepy redemption through a good woman: what a self-destructive (and self-deluding) bastard Art Pepper must have been. And what’s up with you, Terry Castle, that you claim to like this guy? I admit it: it is strange. And I probably can’t keep wriggling out of it by joking about it being a sex thing. Towards the end of Straight Life there’s a long and absorbing interview with one of Pepper’s old Synanon pals, a 1960s-style dyke named Karolyn. Despite never having had any ‘interest’ in men, she reveals, she once considered sleeping with Pepper anyway – mainly because he was funny and intelligent and ‘a kindred soul somehow’. I know what she means. The tenderness between lesbians and straight men is the real Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. (Consider Stein and Hemingway, Bishop and Lowell, k.d. lang and Tony Bennett, or me and my best pal Rob.) But even she acknowledges that Art had a ‘sadistic streak’ and liked to play nasty games with people. She disses poor Laurie (the interviewer-wife) for falling in with Pepper’s ‘egotistical’ demands. Like all ‘macho men’, Karolyn complains, ‘Art needed to have a ma’ – someone he could ‘be a baby around’.
When I started to do some research on Pepper – as soon as Bev and I returned to San Francisco – I found that a number of prominent jazz writers held similar views. One of the books I’d bought before going home for Christmas was Ben Ratliff’s recent New York Times Essential Library Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings.I now perused it in detail and was dismayed to discover that Ratliff – the Times’s impressive, frighteningly savvy, thirtysomething jazz critic – was a pretty major Art-basher. True, he listed Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section in his top 100 CDs, but mainly, it seemed, so he could take youthful swats at certain canonical jazz classics (such as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue) that he thought too arty and studio-fied: ‘If you’re interested in the great unmasterpiece, workmanlike toss-offs of jazz, if you feel like you have to enter a soundproof chamber before you can properly deal with carefully considered concept records like Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme or Take Five’, then, he says, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section ‘is a good place to start’. As for Straight Life itself, Ratliff seemed irritated by its very existence. Since I was in the throes of instant fandom – having just picked up eight more Pepper CDs at Tower Records in the Castro and begun blabbering about the memoir to everyone I knew – this cool-guy jadedness was disconcerting.
The issue for Ratliff seemed to be Art’s honesty – or lack of it. He takes issue, in particular, with a famous passage in Straight Life in which the saxophonist describes the taping session for Meets the Rhythm Section at a Hollywood studio in early 1957. Pepper hadn’t played for half a year, the mouthpiece on his alto had rotted away, and he was completely strung out (he says) on heroin and booze. The hapless Diane had to drag him out of their apartment. (‘She said: "It’s time to go.” I called her a few choice words: "You stinkin’ motherfucker, you! I’d like to kill you, you lousy bitch! You’ll get yours!” I then went into the bathroom and fixed a huge amount.’) At the studio he was too dazed, he claims, to even know what music he was supposed to be recording. But there was no place to hide: ‘I was going to have to play with Miles Davis’s rhythm section.’
They played every single night, all night. I hadn’t touched my horn in six months. And being a musician is like being a professional basketball player. If you’ve been on the bench for six months you can’t all of a sudden just go into the game and play, you know. It’s almost impossible. And I realised that that’s what I had to do, the impossible. No one else could have done it. At all. Unless it was someone as steeped in the genius role as I was. As I am. Was and am. And will be. And will always be. And have always been. Born, bred and raised, nothing but a total genius! Ha! Ahahaha!
You have to hate yourself for quite a while – and then somehow move beyond it – to get this loose and crazy in print. But Ratliff seems to dislike both the junkie melodrama and the whole comico-grandiose Pepper persona. Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section may be an ‘honest record’, or so he grudgingly allows, but ‘if you believe the story of its making you’d have to conclude that Pepper, unprepared and unarmoured, was forced to pull the music out of himself, since tepid run-throughs and stock licks weren’t going to work in such exalted company.’ In the end one gets the feeling that Pepper is just too much for Ratliff, that the old guy has to be defended against: not only for playing the sax, doping up and balling chicks to startling excess, but for describing it so unambiguously, with the ludic genius of a trailer-park Villon. He’s an outlandish daddy-o from some time before les neiges d’antan – if Southern California can indeed be said to have had them.
Against such scepticism I can only counterpose – however naive it must sound – my own readerly intuition: the faith developed over a lifetime of bookworming that even when an autobiographer is prone to distorting or embellishing the facts, it is still possible to locate some core emotional truth in the writing. Why read a memoir otherwise? Nobody would bother with Rousseau’s Confessions if they didn’t believe there was something to ‘get’ about Rousseau by doing so. Somewhere in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud remarks that if a patient in an analytic session tries to deceive the analyst by concocting a dream for discussion and interpretation, the fake dream will be just as revealing as a real dream. You can’t invent a dream-story, in other words, without drawing on exactly the same repressed material present in the ‘authentic’ dream. Your grimy psychic fingerprints will still be all over the steering wheel.
I like this idea: in part because it relates to something I’ve come to believe more and more about both writing and music-making – that in order to succeed at either you have to stop trying to disguise who you are. The veils and pretences of everyday life won’t work: a certain minimum truth to self is required. Pepper makes a similar point in his life story when he observes that jazz musicians really only play themselves: the greatest and most fertile improvisations are transmissions from within. Describing the impact of John Coltrane on his playing in the late 1960s – in emulation of Coltrane he actually took up the tenor for a while after getting out of San Quentin – Pepper acknowledges that the overpowering Coltrane sound was not something, after a while, he could afford to get lost in:
It enabled me to be more adventurous, to extend myself notewise and emotionally. It enabled me to break through the inhibitions that for a long time had kept me from growing and developing. But since the day I picked up the alto again I’ve realised that if you don’t play yourself you’re nothing. And since that day I’ve been playing what I felt, what I felt, regardless of what those around me were playing or how they thought I should sound.
You can hear Art playing himself everywhere in his oeuvre; just load up the player and start in any place: with ‘You and the Night and the Music’ or ‘Tickle Toe’ or ‘All of Me’; with ‘Surf Ride’ or ‘Nutmeg’ or ‘These Foolish Things’; with ‘Junior Cat’ or ‘Angel Wings’ or ‘Why Are We Afraid?’; with ‘Zenobia’ or ‘Chili Pepper’ or ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me’ or (one of my huge favourites) ‘Long Ago and Far Away’. Magical she may be, but Jo Stafford has nothing on Pepper in the truth and beauty department.
Core Emotional Truth Time: why am I obsessed with Art Pepper? The first reason should be obvious: because he’s dead and I don’t have to deal with him. He’s a safely freeze-dried genius. I can sample him when I like and don’t have to clean up the vomit or piss or deal with the discarded works on the bathroom floor. He’s as predictable now as a 20-bit digital transfer. He’s always ready to talk, in his own way, but only when I put in a request. (Hey, Art, let’s have ‘Suzy the Poodle’!) You can hear him talk, literally and often hilariously, on the four-volume live set, The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions, from 1977. But the words never change. He has never asked me yet to get a bouffant or wear shiny pink nail polish. He’s the perfect man for me.
The second reason may be less obvious: because he’s not my stepbrother Jeff. I’ve managed to leave Jeff out of this piece thus far – or almost. (He appeared briefly, like a stowaway, in the first paragraph.) But I’ve been thinking about him constantly, somewhat awkwardly, as I’ve been writing. This process of composition, needless to say, has been more protracted than I originally intended. Christmas is now long past; a second Gulf War has intervened; I’ve lost twenty pounds by kicking my chocolate habit; and I’m still here at the keyboard. I’ve put off finishing for so long, I suspect, because the only ending I can see is not very pretty. Looks to be more like a set of honks, squawks or bent notes, or one of Art’s grubbier self-revelations.
Grubbiness in a moment: first, the uncanny. The uncanny part of my heroin Christmas came as Bev and I were driving back to San Francisco on the morning of the 26th. We’d decided to take 101 all the way for a change, though it makes the overall journey an hour longer. I’d done Highway 5 so many times over the past few years I couldn’t face it again, especially since, as on the trip down, we were going to have to go the whole way with no music other than the radio. At least on 101 you get to drive next to the ocean for longer and at one point pass through Santa Barbara. I’ve always liked Santa Barbara: even if it’s mainly 1920s fake-Spanish, it reminds me of how California used to be when I was a kid, before my parents split up.
You also go up the western rather than eastern side of Los Angeles. That was how we ended up whizzing by the familiar freeway exit (just past Mulholland Drive) for Van Nuys and Burbank Boulevard. Not so far beyond Getty Land. David Hockney Land. Isherwood and Bachardy Land. But so different. I thought at once of Lynne and how I’d stayed with her and Bill for two months in the summer of 1983, just before I took up my job at Stanford. Their house, a pokey little tract home on a cul-de-sac off Van Nuys Boulevard, abutted at the rear onto a huge new car dealership. I used to sleep in the tiny spare room back there, on a fold-out couch next to the gun cabinet and pinball machine. Every night till midnight, while I tried vainly to sleep, a strident female voice – loudly amplified over the car-lot paging system – would regularly summon various salesmen to the white courtesy telephone. The huge fluorescent light towers illuminating the cars bathed the objects in my room in a strange spectral glow.
I’d just come from Harvard – where I’d been lonely out of my mind for three years at the Society of Fellows – and had a summer research fellowship at the Clark Library at UCLA. I was a scholar of the 18th century! I had a job at Stanford! I was writing my second book! Yes, ahem, it’s about the masquerades of the period. You know, masquerades. Each day I trundled off to the Clark in Turk’s turquoise Mustang, which he’d loaned me for the summer. I stayed every day until closing time because being at Lynne and Bill’s depressed me. Lynne never worked and so she was always there, drinking and eating and watching television, with the odd little foray out into the alley now and then to snoop through her neighbours’ garbage cans. I didn’t know anyone else in Los Angeles, and was still a fairly timid young woman, but even so, I’m not quite sure why I ended up staying there. I hadn’t got much money and I guess I wanted to please my mother. My mother had suggested it, maybe as a way of symbolically marking my return to California after 12 years away at school. Back within Hailing Distance and Even Residing (Temporarily) with a Member of the Family! Of course she didn’t like Lynne either, although unlike the rest of Turk’s offspring – Tee the crack addict, Laura the abused wife and Jeff the sociopath – Lynne had at least married someone halfway decent. Bill was actually good-looking in a Tom Selleckish way; no one could figure out what he saw in Lynne. Lynne was fat and smelled bad; her teeth were brown from smoking. She wore big sweat-stained tank tops and stretch pants. Bill’s most thrilling moment, he once told me, had been installing Burgess Meredith’s telephone system at a house in Beverly Hills.
Jeff had died six months earlier, at their house. He’d been living with them for a few months beforehand, had even, unbelievably, found some sort of pathetic job in Van Nuys, working as a delivery boy for a caterer. (My mother told me later the caterer was an older gay guy who thought he was cute.) All Christmas Day till late Jeff was out delivering things: Lynne and Bill went away somewhere overnight. When they came back on the morning of the 26th they found him in the middle of the living-room: brains, wet hair, odd gobbets of flesh, scattered around on the furniture and carpeting. He hadn’t left a note but had propped up his high school graduation equivalency certificate near where he lay.
By the time I stayed there, of course, the carpet had been replaced. Lynne only mentioned Jeff a couple of times. (Bill never did at all.) The first was to say that he had been ‘murdered’ by some evil black men. She got up in my face as she said it – a female Uriah Heep – and I was disgusted by her. The second was to excoriate a spur of the moment visit my mother paid me in Boston right after Jeff died. (I remember that visit well: we went out of the house one cold sunny Cambridge morning and, without warning, my mother threw up some weird orange stuff in the snow. She laughed and we went on to Harvard Square as if nothing had happened. We ate lunch at Dolphin Seafood, even though it was the middle of winter.) My mother hadn’t been able to face Turk’s bottomless despair. Lynne was foul-mouthed and critical.
As soon as Bev and I passed the exit it struck me: almost twenty years to the minute – 10 a.m., 26 December 2002 – since Jeff killed himself. He had now been dead almost as long as he’d been alive. And I’d had exactly that long too – two decades – to think about him dead: always with the deepest sense of relief. You have to understand that Jeff was a nightmare: Turk’s youngest child and his only son, grotesquely doted on by Turk, though Turk was mostly away at sea on submarines during Jeff’s infancy and early childhood. By the time Turk’s first wife dropped dead in the yard in front of the kids – a few months before Turk and my mother started dating – Jeff had already started to go to the bad. At the age of eight or nine he was a smoker and heavy drinker, prone to pilfering vodka and mixing it with cough syrup. He took up drugs in junior high. Since Turk came over every evening to see my mother, Jeff and his sisters – nominally under the care of Lynne, the eldest – ran wild. I hated it when we had to drive across San Diego to see them, or go along with them on some grisly group excursion; I was already a ghastly prig. But somehow I adjusted. We were (to me) mortifyingly poor – my mother barely kept things going on the $200 a month she got for child support from my father – and after a while Turk started picking up groceries for us at the Navy base. Whenever he came over, plump and tan and amiable in his khaki chief’s uniform, he usually brought Tracy and me M&Ms. He was hoping my mother would marry him – kids and all – and she ultimately did: four years later, in 1971, when I went away on a scholarship to college and the child support from my father abruptly fell to $100 a month. She didn’t work; she felt she had no choice.
Granted, Jeff never did heroin – or not that I know of. Even so, my mother and Turk had plenty to cope with throughout the 1970s. The violence started in his early teens. He skipped school whenever possible and one day broke into a house down the street. The owner, a youngish divorcée with two small children, was home: he lurched drunkenly after her with a hunting knife. He reviled her, said she was a bitch and he was going to kill her, chased her round her living-room, then slashed her couch wide open in a fury so all the stuffing came out. When he was arrested, he seemed sullen and indifferent – even mute. He never had any explanation for what he did and wouldn’t answer questions.
Jeff didn’t seem to be motivated by anything sexual. Nothing obvious anyway. Though by the age of fifteen or so he had grown into a tough, hard, butch-looking young man, he never had a girlfriend or indeed a friend of any sort. He was muscular and short with close-cropped hair. (His head was often shaved in the youth detention camps in which he was periodically incarcerated.) From some angles he looked a bit like Genet, though wasn’t like him in any other way. I am tempted to say – knowing how ruthless it must sound – that Jeff had no interiority. He never seemed to be thinking or feeling. He rarely smiled; hardly ever spoke; seldom evinced an interest in anything – at least when at home. He had no humour or fantasy. Whenever he was around he ignored my mother and Turk and sat balefully on the couch, watching television. I never saw him reading or talking on the phone. One of the first psychiatrists to examine him – Jeff must have only been about twelve at the time – said he had the same psychological profile as Charles Whitman, the guy who shot 16 people from the clock tower at the University of Texas in the mid-1960s.
I was away at school; I managed to stay mostly out of it. During my five years in graduate school, especially, I hardly ever went to see my mother. I studied for exams and listened to music. I lived alone and sometimes smoked hashish by myself. I got some of my first jazz LPs: the late Billie Holiday sides on Verve, The Gentle Side of John Coltrane, Betty Carter, Ornette’s Dancing in Your Head. The latter had just come out and I listened to it a lot when I was trying to get over Ellen. I loved Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona. But I heard about Jeff all the time: how he’d drunk up Turk’s booze, smashed cars, stolen money, lied compulsively. My mother had an emotional breakdown in the mid-1970s – she and Turk fought constantly over Jeff – and she was in the Navy hospital for a while. I didn’t go to see her. Turk usually defended Jeff, and had long fatuous father-son ‘talks’ with him, during which Jeff would not respond. Turk was a kindly man but weak. I developed a private theory that Jeff was brain-damaged – a lobe incorrectly folded somewhere. He seemed mentally defective. He spoke with a strange, slurry, adenoidal sound, as if his throat and nostrils were full of phlegm. For most of the 1970s and into the 1980s I lived with the recurrent fear that he would kill my mother or Turk or both.
In the late 1970s Turk somehow pulled some strings and got Jeff into the Marines. Jeff learned hand-to-hand combat and sea rescues and pugil stick fighting at Camp Pendleton. Not long after his unit shipped out to Australia, he beat up a prostitute in Sydney so savagely she almost died. He was in the brig for a while, then the Marines tossed him out. Turk, ever hopeful, wangled another billet for him – this time in the Navy Reserves. Jeff went to sea again for six months, during which time he got into a bar fight in Hawaii and killed a Samoan man with his bare hands. Throttled the guy till his eyes almost popped out. The military lawyer argued it was self-defence – successfully – but Jeff received a less than honourable discharge. Soon after that, I guess, he went to live with Lynne and Bill in LA and started working for the gay caterer.
I think of Jeff as someone who had no language, or no language other than brutality. Not that he couldn’t read or write – on a primitive level. One of the strangest things about his death were some crude letters – presumably sent back and forth between him and another Marine – that turned up in a closet afterwards. They could only be described as billets-doux, but sick, obscene ones. Full of things like, I going to fuck you cunt, you fuckin cunt, I want to suck yor dick, scrawled in pencil. My mother told me about them once – how upset Turk had been. Turk himself idolised other men but his homoeroticism was sentimental and unconscious. He was short and diabetic and had soft, bosomy breasts. He didn’t like taking his shirt off. He used to say he wanted to kill all the fags. (He politely pretended not to know about me.) The happiest time in his life had been when he was under the North Pole for months in a nuclear submarine. It was so hot and claustrophobic down there, he said, he and the other guys spent most of their time in their skivvies, and sometimes even polished the torpedos in the nude.
But it was Jeff’s fate to stay locked up inside himself. He did not have the genius – the munificent resources – of an Art Pepper. Art has a story in Straight Life about almost killing somebody, just before he got out of San Quentin. He’d been put in the prison ‘adjustment centre’ for glue-sniffing and overdosing on some contraband pills called black and whites:
It had a lot of romance, being in the adjustment centre. People look up to you for being there and being cool, not whining. There were guys in there waiting to go to trial for murder or for shanking people, and I was digging this whole scene. I’d hear the others talk, and I started thinking how great it would be to kill someone and really be accepted as a way-out guy. All the guys that were really in would know about it. ‘Man, that cat, Art Pepper, he wasted a cat, cut him to ribbons. Stabbed him and stabbed him, blood pouring all out of the guy. Don’t fuck with him, man.’ I started dreaming about it and thinking about it and seriously planning it. I was all ready to do it and could have done it. I had the nerve. I had the shank, and I was in the process of choosing my victim when I got my date to get out.
Blame it on bureaucracy: somebody’s date with the shank was not to be.
In spite of the torments he suffered, Art, you would have to conclude, was blessed by life. This has to be one reason I’m so drawn to him. In lots of ways he was just plain lucky: witness the dumb moral luck in the foregoing. It’s exhilarating to see people escape disaster in some goofy and arbitrary fashion. But Pepper was also blessed by having a language. Not just one language, but two. He could play and he could talk. He did both things well enough: so gorgeously, in fact, that despite all his flaws people came to love him and wish him well. And being loved he somehow managed to survive. On account of his honesty (or brilliant stab at it) he was granted a second life. (Art, Laurie Pepper writes in the afterword to Straight Life, ‘valued honesty above fame, even above art’. He was ‘obsessed with knowing and with being known and believed that a failure of honesty in his life would contaminate his soul and his music’.) Jeff had no human utterance and was cut out from the love side of things from the beginning. He was granted only a miserable smidgen of a life. Frail Watteau – not to mention Mozart – outstripped him by quite a bit. Who’s to say what’s fair or why things turn out the way they do?
I pride myself on having a language, of course, and on being able to put my thoughts into words. It’s one of the genteel ways I like to stomp on people: a kind of evil hobby, the downside of taking an interest. I’ve been going after my mother for some time now: I’ve been a hard daughter for her to love. She deserves a lot better. For years I cherished (and often recounted to gratified therapists) a disreputable episode I witnessed one Christmas during her marriage to Turk. Jeff was there and about fifteen, so I must have been in my early twenties. Jeff was fooling around on the upstairs landing, on the little balcony overlooking the living-room. The rest of us all sat below. Somehow he had hoisted himself up onto the balcony ledge, and was balancing there precariously when suddenly he lost his grip and flipped over the railing about fifteen feet to the ground. I jumped up along with everybody else and saw him on the floor next to the stairs, whimpering bizarrely. He was OK, it turned out, but had fractured his leg in three places. For several months afterwards he had to wear a large plaster cast up to his hip. To my mother’s annoyance he had to use her bathroom during that time: it was downstairs and he couldn’t get up the stairs on crutches. She used to complain about how he scratched the toilet seat with the top of his cast and left drops of dark brown urine all over the place.
As soon as Jeff fell I looked over at my mother in amazement and saw a reflexive zany grin flit across her features. She instantly suppressed it and assumed a look of stepmotherly concern: I was the only one to glimpse it. Turk had leapt across the room and was already busy yelling at Jeff for scaring him half to death. Yet to me her smile was fairy gold: the perfect illustration of something that Freud (whom I was avidly reading at the time) was always talking about – how when people try to hide their real feelings, the feelings slip out anyway, in involuntary tics and small, incriminating gestures. It was the kind of thing that characters did in the novels of Richardson and Laclos. What a hypocrite my mother was! As bad as Madame de Merteuil!
Self-satisfaction of this sort wears thin, however, when you get older. I told Blakey the other day that I was designing this piece so the conclusion would be like a heavily laden truck: it would start rolling backwards right at the end, and I would be crushed beneath the wheels. On purpose. All the important stuff rear-loaded – then I’d show the brakes failing. It will seem like I’m criticising my mother again but it will really be myself that I’m attacking! Blakey looked dubious, so I changed my tune – several times. It’s really about music! . . . It’s really about California! . . . It’s really about addiction! . . . It’s really about lesbians! . . . It’s really about why I became an 18th-century scholar! . . . It’s really about making up wild stories! It’s really about being moronic – like Madame de Pompadour, surrounded by putti and cooing doves, admiring herself in a hand mirror.
The thing is rolling to a stop now, I realise, and all that’s left for me to do perhaps is to put myself in the way of it and smile. Sometimes in raucous old bebop recordings from the late 1940s – the grotty straight-ahead bootleg ones with murky nightclub sound, people talking and glasses clinking in the background – the music doesn’t end properly, with the usual reprise and nail-it-down final chord. It just breaks off abruptly in the middle of a solo or chorus, as if someone had knocked over the mike. You’re left with the sense of a close-packed human chaos, now terminated. Art Pepper is a kind of mannikin or decoy, I guess: the sort of mummified icon that even a person as terrified by mortality and other people as I am can latch onto and worship. It’s true: I love his deftness and valour and craziness, and the exorbitant beauty of his playing. I love the quick, creamy sound he gets out of his alto. I love his shame-free storytelling. I love his handsome young male face. But I too was glad when Jeff fell off the landing. I hated the fucking punk – frankly wished him gone from the earth – and would have laughed out loud if I could.