Drugs, race, and music collide to produce American drug culture


 Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs by Martin Torgoff, Da Capo Lifelong Books,  US $25.99, Pp 448, January 2017, ISBN 978-0306824753

American drug culture was born with herbal jazz cigarettes aka joints at the Savoy Ballroom and the Beats high on Benzedrine in Times Square. In Bop Apocalypse, Martin Torgoff tells the story of the rise of drug culture in America that encompasses the birth of jazz in New Orleans, Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Louis Armstrong, the Chicago of the 1920s, Mezz Mezzrow. He also includes the tea pad culture of Harlem in the 1930s, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the Savoy Ballroom, Kansas City and the birth of swing, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and the birth of bebop, the initial conjoining of the group of principal Beat Generation characters in New York that included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs, the coming of heroin to the streets of Harlem. He especially focuses on the addiction and fate of a generation jazzmen and the impact of heroin on a whole community, the policies and popular attitudes surrounding addiction, the creation of the three jazz-imbued masterworks (on the road, Howl, and the advent, by 1960, of a new bohemian culture in cities and on college campuses across America.

Torgoff writes, “Although a century has passed since marijuana first appeared in New Orleans and a heroin powder became available on our streets, I see this as a living history in the truest sense.” Seventy-five years after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed and the era of pot prohibition began, Colorado and Washington became the first states in American history to allow sale of marijuana for recreational use in 2012. Then Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia followed. This year there will be ballots to legalize pot in six more states: Nevada, California, Massachusetts and Maine. A Pew poll reported in 2014 that 75 percent of Americans believe the repeal of marijuana prohibition is now inevitable, predictions that up to a dozen states will have legal marijuana by 2017 suddenly do not seem all that far-fetched.

At the same a new wave of heroin has arrived. Since the arrival of heroin in the Harlem of the 1940s, any uptick in the population of heroin addicts in America is reflexively labelled an “epidemic” or a “plague,” and each one has its own identity. Torgoff says this one is serious and notable for fatal overdoses, which have tripled in three years to more than eight thousand a year. It’s a strange version of a heroin wave that has plateaued for years on an epidemic of prescriptions opiates largely among white middle- and working-class people that has taken root in places like Staten Island and in small cities and towns across New England and the Midwest.

The debate on the legalization of drugs in America continues and heats up but nobody seems to have a clear idea about how the drug culture was born. Torgoff has written the first authentic history of how drugs became part of American culture. In this highly readable book, he tells the fascinating story of how the collision of drugs, race, and music produced a culture of drugs. After reading Bop Apocalypse you will know how little you knew about the drug culture. Reviewed by Jonathan T. Rich