Monday, October 23, 2017

"I want to be high when I die"

Art Pepper, "Arthur's Blues" live

"We were put into a cubicle in the emergency area.  Art jumped up on the examining table and told me he was starving.  He asked me to buy him a candy bar.  I left, found one for him, and returned to find him sniffing a line of coke.  He said, jokingly, 'I want to be high when I die.'  I took the coke away from him.  Suddenly he cried out.  He said he couldn't see out of his left eye and he couldn't move his left side."
I've been on a definite musician biography / band documentary kick over the past few years.  From the expectedly and unexpectedly good (Bob Mould and Moby's biographies), to a truly outstanding and authoritative work on The Replacements, to a mostly good series of essays on L.A. punk, Pepper's biography was a bit of a left turn for me into jazz, the 40's and 50's, and drug, drink, and sexual abuse that is disturbingly unapologetic.  There's a bit of a redemptive arc here, but it's purely musical.  He's high out of his mind until the very end, literally.  And that's strangely refreshing -- while O.D.s are nothing to laugh about, I couldn't care less about musicians who get sober and then, supposedly, start making their best music ever.  (Hint: post-sobriety music is never the best work a musician will ever make.)

Anyone who's read the book (at a rather hefty 500 pages) knows that the word "jokingly" in the quoted passage is far from it.  The book begins and ends with Pepper pretty much saying that he is, above all else, a junkie first and a musician second.  (Sexual deviant third!)  He died at 57 but, true to form, still played masterfully on the alto sax up until the end.  The Youtube link here is merely one year before his death.  (I think you'd have to be really charitable to say that Miles was making significant music in 1990.)  During the final tours, he "held it together" with daily binges of alcohol and cocaine, and probably less frequently heroin and / or methadone.  He lived on candy bars and take-out.  If there's a music cliche I do approve of, it's that he found his final musical redemption by touring Japan and discovering, much to his own surprise, that he was something of a living legend there.

While many music bios will incorporate recorded interviews, an interesting thing about Straight Life is that the whole thing was done as an audio recording by his wife, Laurie, who me he met in one of his many stints in rehab.  (She admits that she was still using herself at the time of his death, in pretty much the Platonic ideal of a co-dependent relationship.)  She had majored in sociology, and while the writing comes off as very smooth and straightforward it's easy to forget that these hundreds of pages were dictated rather than composed by the subject, and that the whole thing is a borderline ethnography of sorts.  It also incorporates interviews with other musicians, family members, and junkies, and those passages are much more hit-and-miss.

The passages where he simply talks about music, and specifically what makes for great music and musicianship, are sublime.  No doubt one appeal of the book is that the transitions between utterly depraved drug abuse and sexual perversity glide seamlessly into meditations on what makes for great art.

Not an easy read by any means, but definitely worth the effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment