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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I've been looking for it for a couple of years now, and Bloomington proved to be the place where I found "Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper" (by Pepper and his wife, Laurie). It is as good an autobiography as I have ever read in many ways-- Pepper's wife taped his reminiscences, then supplemented them with anecdotes from friends and family, and interviews and articles about Pepper from Downbeat. The effect is something like a Dos Passos novel, but it wouldn't have worked if Pepper had been anything less than as candid as his allowed himself to be. In some sense I suspect that the honesty he showed came about as a result of his time with Synanon, and that turns out to be the problem with the book. While it is certainly true that when you think of Art Pepper you think of heroin addiction, (true of a lot of alto players, actually) what makes him interesting is his music. "Straight Life" is a book that allows Pepper's addictions to define him instead of his art, and while the stuff about being a junkie, and committing crimes, and going to prison is really interesting, and as well-written as anything William S. Burroughs did along those lines, I'd have liked more detail on recording and touring and some of the people he played with.

Of course, that would have been a very different book. Pepper does give some detail about the "Meets the Rhythm Section" side, for example, and the influence he felt from John Coltrane after getting out of San Quentin, but his priority for almost his entire life was finding drugs. Actually, even if there had been more about playing, it probably would have been like the story he tells about "Meets the Rhythm Section": his wife and his producer set up the date without his knowledge, because he was strung out. His horn had been put away dirty, because he was strung out. He didn't have a set list-- you get the picture. A book like this really drives it home: junkies are little better than animals, even charming, talented junkies like Art Pepper. Compelling stuff-- I raced through the 500 pages, even though I knew that it would end badly. He died on methadone maintenance, which mostly kept him off smack, but to compensate he continued to drink like his ass was on fire, and added a charming cocaine addiction in his last years. His first wife divorced him when he went away for his first stretch, and his daughter was adopted by her second husband. What happened to his second wife is just miserable to read about -she followed him into addiction, and he is completely unsympathetic to the fact that he destroyed her life. That's just how it is when you are a junkie, even though neither Art nor Laurie ever comes out and says it. You don't care about other people, you only care about the next fix. He almost never mentions another musician, but he has plenty of kind words for the people in prison that brought him drugs.

My shelves have "Meets the Rhythm Section", "Smack Up" and "Village Vanguard Friday". I think there is room for two or three more, because he really did play beautifully. I'm just glad I never knew him.

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