Book Review: Laurie Pepper – Art: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman

Laurie Pepper – Art: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman
(APMCorp, 381pp., £11.84. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Opinion concerning Straight Life, Art Pepper’s unswervingly honest, harrowing autobiography (dictated to, transcribed and then painstakingly edited into literary shape by his wife Laurie) divides sharply along a fault-line largely determined by attitudes to drugs, but also by received truths about race and gender relations.

The legendary saxophonist had a great number of what he regarded as uncomfortable truths to impart about all these deeply contentious issues, and – like Flashman, another great eye-witness chronicler of a profoundly controversial subject (the British Empire) – he was worth listening to primarily because he utterly lacked the besetting sin bedevilling and muddying many such accounts: hypocrisy.

Art begins, in suitably unflinching style, with the heading ‘Suicide’, relating in detail the attempt at self-gassing (while one of Dylan’s greatest songs, ‘Visions of Johanna’, played on her record player) that led to Laurie Pepper checking herself into Synanon, a long-term residential cure for addicts, where she met her future husband. The couple have an unusual affinity, but (starting as she means to go on) Laurie is at pains to point out, in her scrupulously honest, touching manner: ‘People think I was some kind of little wifey-saint who rescued him … But he knew how crazy I could be. We rescued each other.’

Once married and living together, the couple dedicate themselves to putting Pepper’s career back on track, and Laurie’s account of the vicissitudes of the jazz life, with its gruelling touring schedules, often unsatisfactory recording sessions, problems with sidemen etc. – all immeasurably complicated and exacerbated by the saxophonist’s ceaseless craving for the inevitably unattainable ultimate high – is simply spellbinding in the sheer power of its dedication to truth.

Her own description of her reintroduction to coke is worth quoting at length, because it perfectly exemplifies the literary skill and sensitivity that make the book so memorable: ‘My mind was suddenly filled with possibilities, optimistic plans, and with a breadth of love and understanding for everything and everyone, and all of this was rooted in what seemed to be philosophical solid ground on a glorious shore I’d landed on at last after having spent my whole life at sea under some evil spell that hadn’t let me see the world as I saw it now, full of accessible wonders, as it obviously always had been … This experience opened a window onto real, rich, energetic life with all its marvelous complexity, and it made an engine of me for exploring and glorying in it.
‘This lasts about twenty minutes.
‘And then you have to do it again.
‘And again and again for the rest of your life, and it’s never quite the same … you keep trying and trying and trying and trying and trying to get back to that perfect state …’

Such perceptive eloquence is applied not only to her relationship with her husband, the travails of artistic sensibility, the ups and downs of band life etc., but also to apparently incidental matters. Take ‘New Yorkness’: ‘In L.A. we put a gloss on everything, and we insist that the gloss is reality. Everything has to be pretty or at least amusing. In New York it’s generally acknowledged that everything is nasty, and when they put a gloss on it, they understand it’s just a gloss over nastiness. In New York you can be crippled, stupid, diseased, and not at all amusing and still be a member of the human race.’

Such hard-won insights are everywhere in this witty, wise and deeply compassionate book, which not only serves as an indispensable companion volume, equal in stature with but intriguingly complementary to one of the most compulsively readable accounts ever written about the jazz life, but also has a healing quality, perfectly expressed by a born writer, Laurie Pepper herself: ‘If this book is about anything, it’s about how stupid or crazy you can be and still survive. Even prevail. It’s also about luck.’

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