History doesn’t happen in a straight line. Rather, it’s comprised of intertwined parts, like an engine, a tapestry or a jazz improvisation. In Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats & Drugs, author Martin Torgoff bridges bebop jazz and Beat novels, paranoid cops and junkie prostitutes, and Harlem and San Francisco’s North Beach to tell the tale of how 20th-century American counterculture was born and how the very efforts to stomp it out might have been what sustained it.
Torgoff states, “No single piece of legislation more effectively guaranteed the growth of underground alternative culture in this country than the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and no single piece of legislation more decisively declared war on that culture.” Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger was more propagandist than policeman, penning “news” articles like “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” stoking xenophobia and racism to get anti-marijuana laws passed and to fuel his vendetta against jazz musicians and other counterculture figures.
Characters and scenes spring to vivid life in Torgoff’s prose: The wild, wine-soaked poetry reading where Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl,” or John Coltrane and Elvin Jones nodding away the afternoon eating glazed doughnuts in a Times Square movie house before stumbling into that night’s gig (inventing the hipster habit of quoting movies as the two exchange non sequitur lines from the day’s schlocky Tab Hunter flick). But the less famous are also as well drawn—and as crucial to the narrative, such as an outer-borough kid’s first visit to the Savoy Ballroom: “He felt like a weight was being lifted from him, like the Great Depression itself was just blowing away from him like a thin leaf caught in a saxophone hurricane.” Or Ruby, an abused girl from Brooklyn who descends into the Village netherworld: “She would wear these black patches over an eye that had been blackened badly after a fight and would paint gold glitter in the shape of an eye on the patch like it was some kind of fashion statement.”
Some took drugs for fun or as a “fuck you”; some to escape reality or sharpen the senses; some viewed it as crucial to creation: “[Jack] Kerouac held to the belief that marijuana was a valuable tool that could collapse space and time and render memory and feeling as synesthesia or heartbeat itself.” Interestingly, the book’s histories of those who hit the needle seem to disprove the idea that marijuana leads to heroin—Charlie Parker and John Coltrane went from alcoholic to junkie without much more than a passing toke, while the two jazzbos most devoted to the muggles, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, lived to ripe old ages of prosperity and world renown. We also see the excesses of law enforcement: The dying Billie Holiday handcuffed to a hospital bed as fans outside chanted “Let Lady live!” and beat icon Neal Cassady getting five-to-life for possessing three joints.
In the 1930s, Anslinger called drug users “the lowest scum of the earth.” And in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” The events of Bop Apocalypse may take place in the 1940s and ’50s, but its tale still resonates today.