This book, published in 2017, grew from the seeds of an earlier, and very good, book that Torgoff wrote titled Can’t Find My Way Home (2004). The title of the second chapter is the title of the current work. It deals with his and America’s drug use after WWII to the end of the 20th century. But his current book is even better than that.
This is a book that I think everyone should read. From the subtitle one could think that Jazz and The Beats are ancient history, if they even know who the Beats were. Even a concise history of these for subjects could take up a few thousand pages, but Torgoff cooks it up boils it down to less than 350 remarkable pages. I’m a fan of modest chapters and he divides the 347 pages into 30 Chapters.
Each chapter bleeds into the next much like my remembrance of reading Grapes of Wrath. Both are books I didn’t want to put down. These four subjects are intertwined so gracefully they seem like one couldn’t exist without the other and perhaps the apex of each couldn’t. With race and drugs so much in the news and fabric of current everyday life, this was a perfect time for this book to appear. Both the issues and conflicts of race and drugs have been around for centuries but it is the invention of Jazz that really brought both to the forefront in both. Black musicians found a new freedom in Jazz and marijuana. But people of all colors and social strata were doing drugs, although race and position always played a part in how the legal apparatus handled the drug user.
What is great about this book is that you will meet all kinds of REAL CHARACTERS. Many are famous, but some you may not have heard of before. Members of the Underclass don’t get much notice unless it is a small article for an arrest or they get notoriety later for being a poet, musician, etc. With my background in The Beats and other outsiders, I had heard of most of the people, but even with the ones I knew, I learned many new things.
You get to meet:
- A 12 year old Texas kid, Terry Southern, discovering weed for the first time.
- Mezz Mezzrow, the “White Mayor of Harlem,” a Jazzer himself, and Louie Armstrong’s dope dealer.
And then there are the Jazz Geniuses:
You will find things about them you probably didn’t know unless you read tell all bios. Some of the things that are included in here about Billie Holliday are still messing with my mind. But I came away with a deeper love for her and Lester Young.
And the unknowns too:
- Ruby Rosano is my favorite chick whose chapter 19 title is Blues for a Junkie Whore. When asked what was heroin like, she replied, “Like being back in your mother’s womb. Like being in this place where nothing could ever touch you.”
My favorite (unknown, then known) hipster is in here too:
- Herbert Huncke, the Original Beat who used the word Beat to mean down and out, tired, which he was. Kerouac picked up on that use of the word and added the Christian Beatific to it and coined the phrase BEAT GENERATION. It began as a small group of friends who were writers, and later became a sort of literary movement that had worldwide social significance.
All of the original Beats were drug users and most were Jazz lovers and they are here too.
And then there is the Greatest Enemy of them all:
- Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He attacked race by attacking drugs.
Anyway, Just READ IT! You will thank me.
Reviewed by Tom, Main Library