Straight Life

Heroin addiction is not high on my list of Things I Enjoy Reading About. Every time I crack a book about the lives and loves of a junkie, I find myself thinking that the front cover should be marked somehow. They should issue a warning, like the words that Dante once carved above the gates of Hell:

“Through me, you go into the city of grief,
Through me, you go into the pain that is eternal,
Through me, you go among people lost.”

Art Pepper’s famous autobiography, “Straight Life”, is no exception to the general rule. In many ways, this is a journey into the depths of human misery. The subject, hero and villain of the story is Art Pepper, a gifted jazz musician who sacrificed a significant portion of his life to his love of heroin.

For 473 pages, the man pours out his heart and his history; the result is a harrowing book which carries the reader through a wide range of emotions: lust and disgust and anger to joy and laughter and pity. Some reviewers have referred to the act of creating this book as “writing”, but Art was no writer—and honestly, I wouldn’t really call this book an “autobiography”, if I had a choice. Art never put a pen to paper or laid his hands on the keys of a typewriter; “Straight Life” is an oral history, a transcription of the spoken word, and it reads accordingly. It’s obvious from the first page that this was not authored in silence. It’s a performance.

Pepper’s speech pattern is captured on paper just as it was caught on tape. His accent, his attitude, the slang of his era—it’s all here. This is rich and evocative as prose, but some of the lingo takes a little getting used to; when Art says that a woman was “playing with his joint”, for example, he isn’t talking about his elbow.

What’s beautiful about this book is that it’s the biography of a jazz musician, and it READS like jazz. Art talks exactly the way he plays: his words come in sharp staccato bursts, in wry well-turned phrases, or in long, passionate, relentless riffs that spiral up into emotional crescendo. And when the man of the hour has said his piece, other voices break in and add to the story—there are all sorts of players from Art’s past that give additional commentary for this book. Sometimes they flesh out the details of some long-forgotten episode; sometimes they give us a different perspective on events; sometimes they just contradict Art outright—just the way the supporting players in any jazz ensemble might do, once the headliner has finished a solo.

The book and its format are a significant artistic achievement, but only half the credit goes to Pepper himself. Yes, he lived the formidable life that’s recorded in these pages, and survived long enough to tell us the tale—this alone is amazing, because the things he suffered on the streets, in hospitals and in prison would have killed a lesser man a dozen times over. Yes, he dredged up the kind of ugly truth that very, very few human beings are capable of telling to anyone. Yes, he sat through the exhausting bull sessions with a tape recorder in front of him, for hours, talking about sex and drugs and jazz and prison.

But this book would never have existed if it were not for Art’s wife, Laurie Pepper. It was her idea to create this oral history of Art’s life, to capture the voice of the man she loved and to tell his story to the world. She was the one who chose the format, based on the famous sociological text by Oscar Lewis, “The Children of Sanchez”.

Laurie tracked down all the old players in Art Pepper’s life, and solicited comments from them on such a wide range of subjects; she knew it was necessary to flesh out the portraits of so many important people in his life. She was the one who assembled the 35 pages of photographs in the middle of the book–some of which actually seem to have been pieced back together out of torn fragments.

Assembling an oral history of this kind is hard work, and requires a kind of creativity which is difficult to appreciate until you’ve tried to do it yourself. A project like this produces countless hours of tape, and you have to transcribe it all and then arrange it into the coherent story of a life; there’s a hell of a lot of splicing and editing involved. Laurie Pepper went back to Art again and again, recording “fill-in” sessions when she knew that she was missing an important part of his story.

Time after time, her patient probing draws out the most intimate details: his love life and his sexual exploits; the pain of his childhood and the nightmare of his addiction; the hate he endured on stage and in prison; the thrill of armed robbery; the fear of failure and the grief that accompanied the loss of wives, children, friends, opportunities—even beloved dogs.

It’s difficult to comprehend the kind of love that makes a book like this possible, or to imagine how deep and how mutual such a love must be. Reading a passage about the sex games that Art played with his first wife, Patti, the reader has to take a step back for a moment and actually THINK about what Art is saying, and who is sitting there with a tape recorder while he says it. For a man to be so honest about the details and the emotions of a past relationship is very rare; it requires a level of intimacy and trust with his current lover that most people can never achieve.

This kind of mutual faith between any two human beings is incredibly rare. There aren’t many wives who could sit without comment or judgment while their husbands told a story about having sex with a teenage groupie, or raping a London girl during the war.

But Laurie Pepper loved to listen to her husband riff, regardless of whether he was using his voice or his horn. As she put it, years ago, “Art talks like Gertrude Stein would have written, if Gertrude Stein had been a junkie jazz musician.” The fact that she wanted to bring his voice and his music to the world explains just about every detail of her relationship with Art; she was with him for thirteen years, serving as a combination nursemaid, mother, lover, confessor, manager, dealer—anything and everything he needed her to be.

Art died in 1982, at the age of 57. Before he went, he gave us a solid decade of dedicated and concentrated musicianship. This would have been impossible, if it had not been for Laurie; he wouldn’t physically have survived that long without her constant care, much less been able to sustain his drive to create. Given that the music he made from 1970-1982 is really what established him for all time as one of the great alto sax players of the 20th century, I would say that Laurie Pepper is an unsung hero of jazz—her gift to Art was a gift to all of us, and so is this book.

Even if you don’t like jazz and aren’t interested in Art Pepper per se, “Straight Life” is a powerful experience. It’s one of the best books about the causes and effects of heroin addiction that I’ve ever read; the chapter on Art’s childhood alone says more about why people become addicts than any number of scientific studies ever will. And by the time you’re done reading Laurie’s touching Afterword, which has been added to this latest edition (the first was published while Art was still alive), the supreme irony of the title of becomes clear.

Art called his autobiography “Straight Life”, but he never spent a day straight that he didn’t have to: he was almost continuously high from the age of fourteen until the day he died.. As the song goes:

“You know how it is with me, baby…
Sometimes I just can’t stand myself
And it takes a whole lotta medicine, darlin’
For me to pretend that I’m somebody else.”

copyright 2011 Arinn Dembo, all rights reserved

About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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2 Responses to Straight Life

  1. Arinn says:

    Ma’am, it was my pleasure.

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