Criticism — From the September 2014 issue

The Tale of the Tape

The miracle of Straight Life

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This is an essay about an autobiography (Laurie Pepper’s ART: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazz Man) that is in large part about the creation of another autobiography (Art Pepper’s Straight Life), and I’m going to open with an excerpt from yet another autobiography (my own, title to come): I spent my entire ninth year reading Straight Life. I stole my bebop-fanatic father’s copy because I liked the cover, how Art looked on it — that handsome face, those flashy clothes — and every night I took the book from its hiding place under my mattress. Each page was oh boy and oh wow. (His mom tried to abort him by doing what? He put his tongue where on that teenaged groupie? Pouring shoe glue on a rag and sniffing it — that was fun?) And as soon as I came to the end, I’d flip right back to the beginning. At some point I moved on to Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club — books more in keeping with my identity as a fourth-grade girl with a canopy bed and a Schwinn ten-speed living in one of Boston’s leafier suburbs. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that Straight Life and I had a second run-in. I was helping my parents pack up their house when I found it on the dusty bottom shelf of a corner bookcase and slipped it into my bag instead of into a U-Haul box. I took it back to my apartment, where I stayed up the entire night rereading. It was oh boy and oh wow all over again.

Left: The desk at which Laurie Pepper wrote Straight Life, circa 1973 Right: Photo-booth portraits of Art and Laurie Pepper, circa 1974. All photographs © Laurie Pepper

Left: The desk at which Laurie Pepper wrote Straight Life, circa 1973 Right: Photo-booth portraits of Art and Laurie Pepper, circa 1974. All photographs © Laurie Pepper

Straight Life isn’t widely known, but its fans are ardent. High-toned, too. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky compared passages in it to Dickens, Joyce, and Dostoyevsky. The film director Mike Figgis, who attempted to adapt it in the late 1990s after his Leaving Las Vegas earned a best-picture nomination — “[Art’s] widow and I did not see eye to eye” was his dry assessment of why the adaptation never came to be — placed it among his “six best books.” In the London Review of Books, Terry Castle called it, simply, “the best book [she’d] ever read.”

These are serious people, not given to hyperbole. And as their responses suggest, Straight Life is something more than the typical penthouse-highs-gutter-lows memoir of a successful musician, though Art Pepper was that: second only to Charlie Parker among the Best Alto Sax Players Ever, according to the readers of DownBeat (it was a squeaker, 957 votes to 945). Art was a player of unusual delicacy and lyricism who, at the same time, was soulful and could really swing. He was also, and every bit as majorly, an addict.

Here he is on the moment he found his Holy Grail in a bathroom on the fourteenth floor of Chicago’s Croyden Hotel:

I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and horned the rest of them down. I said, “This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I’m going to do, whatever dues I have to pay . . . ” And I knew that I would get busted and I knew that I would go to prison and that I wouldn’t be weak; I wouldn’t be an informer like all the phonies, the no-account, the nonreal, the zero people that roam around, the scum that slither out from under rocks, the people that destroyed music, that destroyed this country, that destroyed the world . . . I realized that from that moment on I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie. That’s the word they used. That’s the word they still use. That is what I became at that moment. That’s what I practiced; and that’s what I still am. And what I will die as — a junkie.

He’s turning the stereotype of the craven, sniveling addict on its head: heroin isn’t the weakness he submits to; it’s the passion he revels in. And while he realizes that if he follows this passion — and at no point does he stop following it, not truly; he is at his cleanest only clean-ish — there will certainly be moments in which he’s down and out. He vows he’ll never be less than stand-up. And he never is. Unlike Chet Baker, long rumored to have been a police informant to avoid jail time, he doesn’t rat or squeal, doesn’t violate his code or principles, his sense of honor, even though he pays the price, again and again, spending many of the best years of his life rotting away in a five- by nine-foot cell.

The book is filled with such passages. But as you’re reading along — flying along, really — getting higher and higher listening to Art recount his hustles and scuffles, fuck-ups and misadventures, there’s this question tugging at you, pulling you back down to earth: How did that guy write this book? Clearly Art has the intelligence and intensity and chops. The energy, too. His energy, though, is of the manic sort. It’s not the sustained, plodding, grind-it-out-till-the-bitter-end kind you need to produce a memoir of nearly 500 small-print pages. Enter Laurie Pepper, at the time Laurie Miller.

Art Pepper performing at Donte’s in Los Angeles, circa 1976

Art Pepper performing at Donte’s in Los Angeles, circa 1976

She and Art met squalid in the summer of ’69. Art was forty-four and fresh out of San Quentin, where he’d done a five-year stretch after getting busted with a condom full of dope. He was a wreck and a ruin, not only a junkie but a juicehead. Unemployable as a musician, he’d taken to driving getaway cars in stickups for chump change to support his habit. Once a dead ringer for Marcello Mastroianni, he’d become a death’s-head, sunken-eyed and hollow-cheeked, with a body covered in track marks and freaky prison tats: a skull smoking an opium pipe; a girl doing the limbo; a woman naked, squatting; and, freakiest of all, Charles Schulz’s Snoopy. Heroin and liquor had done a number on him. There was also the ruptured spleen, the herniated belly. He was sick in other ways as well, a voyeur and masher, a compulsive masturbator and occasional rapist. The wife he’d been wild about had left him for a drummer. The wife he could barely stand had snitched him out to the cops, then died. His girlfriend had dumped him at his mother’s door, and his mother had refused to open it. He was out of work, out of bread, out of love, out of luck. Also, out of drugs. The last place he wanted to be was some hippie-dippy institution like Synanon, Santa Monica’s rehab-commune-by-the-sea, except at that point it was pretty much Synanon or the grave.

Laurie wasn’t in quite as bad shape when she walked into Synanon. (Art’s tough to beat when it comes to bottoming out.) Pretty bad, though. She was twenty-eight, twice-divorced, and she’d just lost custody of her young daughter. She’d been working in Hollywood as a music photographer, shooting Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, among others. On learning that a friend had stolen her cash and her pills, she’d sealed up the house, turned on the gas, and arranged her body on the floor. She got bored, though, before she got dead. And after throwing open all the windows, she’d fished the loose change from her purse, and headed to the local Cap ’n’ Cork for a bottle of Chablis — “I drew the line at Muscatel” — admiring the fragrance of the tiny white blossoms on the trees as she trotted along in her snakeskin heels.

She’d been at Synanon for nine months when Art’s mom’s husband, Merle, borrowed a truck from the gas station where he worked and drove Art out to Santa Monica. Most women wouldn’t have looked at Art — rolling around on one of the kicking couches, puking into a trash can, snarling at the other residents, non-addicts in the main, middle-class types with coping issues (“life-stylers” in Synanon parlance; “wide-eyed, stupid little broads and idiotic assholes” in Art parlance) who’d come to peer at him — and seen Mr. Right. But to Laurie, Art looked better than Mr. Right. He looked like Mr. Cool. No, he looked even better than that. He looked like the Real Thing.

Soon Art would be off that couch and looking right back at Laurie. The two would, in more or less this order: embark on an affair, fall deeply in love, leave Synanon, move in together, get married, revivify Art’s musical career, publish Straight Life. Which brings us back to the original question: How did that guy write this book? The answer, as you’ll discover in Laurie’s considerably more streamlined memoir, is that he didn’t. Not surprising. Very surprising, however, is that she didn’t either. And most surprising of all is who did: no one.

Before I explain that, though, an aside that’s really to the point. I realize that I’m supposed to be giving you an assessment of ART: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazz Man and instead I’m chewing your ear off about Straight Life. So my verdict doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, I’ll say right now that ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazz Man can be read as a stand-alone book, and an excellent one — poignant, beautifully observed, sharply, triumphantly funny. It also, however, and perhaps most illuminatingly, can be read as a companion to Straight Life. It’s part of the same emotional setting, and it dwells in serious and loving detail on Straight Life’s creation. In fact, in many ways, it serves as an expansion of the afterword Laurie wrote for Straight Life’s 1994 Da Capo edition, an afterword so beguilingly understated it left you wanting more.

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  • tmc

    Great piece! Like Laurie P, you are literary equivalent of jazz musician. Love the rhythm throughout this piece, the slangy phrasings — “She and Art met squalid … ” — never heard that one, but it’s so evocative. And that line “His girlfriend had dumped him at his mother’s door,
    and his mother had refused to open it” is one of best I’ve read in long time. Brilliant. As Isaac Babel said, “No iron spike can pierce a human heart like a period in the right place.” And you know where to put the periods. I’m ordering both of Laurie’s books asap. Thanks for making my day, hell, my week.

  • JMerchant

    I agree with the previous comment. I have been reading Harper’s for two decades and this might be the best article yet in a magazine with consistently superb writing. The “writing” of Straight Life, capturing the cadence of Art Pepper’s speech and his idiom as well as the devotion of one person to another’s art (“both uppercase and lower”). Lili Anolik’s own voice is there, subjugated to the story of Art and Laurie and, by doing so, their narrative is the better for it. Jazz. lyricism, redemption, language, and so on. Thank you.

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