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The Ecstasy of Indifference

 art pepper

From Glenn Kenny:

Art Pepper, the jazz saxophonist, wrote, with his wife Laurie Pepper, one of the great books about art and addiction, his memoir Straight Life. After describing his childhood, and his discovery of music, and his development as a musician in the Central Avenue “scene” of the 1940s, and his stint in the Army, Pepper writes, with great frankness, of the sexual compulsions he struggled with as a rising star in jazz. Then he writes about the first time he got high on heroin, and how, in a flash, he realized he had “found God.”

“I loved myself, everything about myself, ” Pepper writes. “I loved my talent. I had lost the sour taste of the filthy alcohol and the feeling of the bennies and the strips that put chills up and down my spine. I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked at Sheila”—Sheila Harris, the singer who was getting Pepper high—”and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and horned the rest of them down. I said, ‘This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I’m going to do, whatever dues I have to pay…’ And then I knew that I would get busted and I knew that I would go to prison and that I wouldn’t be weak; I wouldn’t be an informer like all the phonies, the no-account, the nonreal, the zero people that roam around, the scum that slither out from under rocks, the people that destroyed music, that destroyed this country, that destroyed the world, the rotten, fucking, lousy people that for their own little ends—the black power people, the sickening, stinking motherfuckers that play on the fact that they’re black, and all this fucking shit that happened later on—the rotten, no-account, filthy women that have no feling for anything; they have no love for anyone; they don’t know what love is; they are shallow hulls of nothingness—the whole group of rotten people that have nothing to offer, that are nothing, never will be anything, never were intending to be anything.”

In Pepper’s unstuck-in-time rant of resentment (the actual scene is set in 1950, but his voice goes ahead to his stint in prison, and speaks to a number of attitudes he was still coming to terms with as he was composing the book) will of course remind one of Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” in which the protagonist, asserting his intention to “nullify [his] life,” sneers at “you sweet girls with your sweet talk,” and celebrates the fact that “when the smack begins to flow/then I really don’t care anymore/abouts all the Jim-Jims in this town/and everybody puttin’ everybody else down/and all the politicians making crazy sounds/and all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.” The key phrase is “really don’t care” and the key word is “really.” The ecstasy of heroin, if ecstasy it in fact is, is the ecstasy of genuine indifference. You REALLY just don’t care. And really not caring can seem like an exceptional blessing to people of exceptional sensitivity. Hell, to people of average sensitivity, even. Who knows.


1 Sliced Bread   ~  Feb 4, 2014 11:47 am

I think the ecstasy of genuine indifference he's referring to really the ecstasy of genuine self-indulgence. I feel less sorry for people who go down this road, than the people who love and care about them.

2 Ben   ~  Feb 4, 2014 12:35 pm

Some people feel that if they have no internal conflict, they've won. I can relate, and it's a wonder that I never got intersted in H. Would've been a great drug for my early twenties when I didn't want to deal. I just consider myself lucky that I never got so turned around and humiliated that I needed to apply the ultimate psychological ointment that H seems to be.

3 GaryfromChevyChase   ~  Feb 4, 2014 12:47 pm

[1] bravo. well said. Ask any member of a user's family.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 4, 2014 1:21 pm

I never tried it either. Always scared me.

5 Sliced Bread   ~  Feb 4, 2014 3:02 pm

I was in grade school in Queens in the early-mid 70s, toward the end of the last big heroin epidemic. Teachers scared the crap out of us, telling us how dangerous it is. The drug was nowhere to be seen or heard of when I was going to college in the mid-late 80s.
I'm stunned how widespread this latest epidemic is.

6 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 4, 2014 3:10 pm

It was back in the early 90s...not like earlier though.

7 Sliced Bread   ~  Feb 4, 2014 3:22 pm

yeah you heard about it in the early and mid 90s, Kurt Cobain, Bradley Nowell, and I remember being surprised then that the drug had made a comeback, but I thought it was more of an underground thing that you really had to seek out. These days you can get it at suburban strip malls if you know the wrong kids.

8 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 4, 2014 3:58 pm

7) Wow. That's nuts, man.

9 glennstout   ~  Feb 4, 2014 4:06 pm

It's the oxycontin and the like being pushed by big pharma that end up getting people hooked. Those pills go for $25-50 each black market, which is unsustainable for most junkies, so they then turn to heroin, which is cheaper. Here in rural VT they run heroin up from NY, or Springfield, Mass., or Hartford, and even though a $5-$10 bag down there goes for 2-3 times that up here, it's still cheaper and easier to get than the pills. Heroin is everywhere up here.

10 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Feb 4, 2014 5:23 pm

[0] Intense and frightening book in many ways. Art never really kicked his addictions, it's shocking he actually lived to be 57 before dying.

Len Bias' death scared me off hard drugs.

11 Matt Blankman   ~  Feb 5, 2014 12:36 pm

[10] Yep, Len Bias did it for me, too.

[1] You should read the entire piece, which goes out of its way to suggest that the idea that heroin makes people better artists is a load of b.s.

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