Interviews

Martin Torgoff, author of Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age

Martin Torgoff,

author of

Can’t Find My Way Home:

America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945 – 2000

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Illicit drugs have transfigured the American cultural landscape in the past half-century, leaving their mark on everything from art, music, literature, sexuality, spirituality, pop culture, the economy, and politics, to crime, public health, and national law enforcement policy.  In Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945 – 2000, documentary filmmaker and writer Martin Torgoff traces the tangled trajectory of illegal drug use in America, as it spread post-World War II from the Beats and bebop musicians, all the way to the Ecstasy-fueled rave culture.

Torgoff’s personal experiences with drugs inform the book, and, without apologizing for the drug culture or condemning it, Torgoff takes readers from the jazz clubs during the heyday of New York’s 52nd Street, to the halls of Timothy Leary’s Harvard, from the hippie pads of the Lower East Side and San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, to the jungles of Vietnam, from gay leather bars and sex clubs, to the Miami of the Cocaine Cowboys, from the Humboldt County of the sensimillia growers, to the gang-ridden neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles, prison cells, rehabs, and finally, the coming of a new generation, and the warehouse-sized cyberpunk raves of San Francisco.

Torgoff writes, “The story of illicit drugs in this country is a winding and murky tale that’s been shaped by laws, manipulated by politics and bureaucracies, fueled by black market capitalism, and forged in the collective imagination of national dream and nightmare.  It’s a story told at different times by the saxophone, the typewriter, the electric guitar, the movie camera, and the gun.”#

We chose to interview Torgoff because of the undeniable connection of drug use to the American culture we were part of during the mid-to-late twentieth century.  Its affect on the icons of the era — many of whom impacted our own lives in dramatic fashion — certainly contributed to our curiosity about them and the ground breaking art they created.  Preparing for the interview was a fascinating reminder of  where we came from and, most importantly, who we have become.  The interview took place on August 27, 2004, and was hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

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The Summer of Love, 1967

“The story of drug taking constitutes one of the most curious and also, it seems to me, one of the most significant chapters of human beings. Everywhere and at all times, men and women have sought, and duly found, the means of taking a holiday from the reality of their generally dull and often acutely unpleasant existence. A holiday out of space, out of time, in the eternity of sleep or ecstasy, in the heaven or limbo of visionary phantasy…”

– Aldous Huxley

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Purple Haze, by Jimi Hendrix

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JJM   You write that your book is “not a formal history but rather a journey through the experience and culture of illicit drugs in the country during the second half of the twentieth century, from roughly 1945 to the present.” How did you conceive this book?

MT  It began as a result of my own experiences. It is a classic case of how your life becomes the book and the book becomes your life. I was a teenager in 1968 — the year I smoked marijuana for the first time, in the basement of my parents’ suburban home. It was my oldest sister who first brought the sixties down to that basement, and marijuana was a part of the sixties experience. It was an immensely important night in my life for many reasons, and it sent me off on a twenty-one year relationship with drugs that ended with me crashing and burning at the age of thirty-seven, and having to pick up the pieces of my life as a result.

As I was going through that, I became very interested in understanding how drugs had impacted my own personal life. I knew that in some very important ways they had opened me and enhanced experiences, and in other very important ways they had shut me down and damaged me. I began to seriously think about how that may be true for many people in my generation, and how it might be true for the American culture at large.

It was out of that desire to understand that which led me to tell the story of how drugs had gone from being used by an inconsequential number of people in a few subcultural enclaves in the country, to something that roughly one-in-four Americans had come to experience. Approximately seventy-million Americans have admitted to using an illicit substance at one time or another, whether it was smoking pot for a number of years, taking psychedelics, snorting a line of cocaine, or even becoming a full blown heroin addict. From where we were after World War II to where we find ourselves today, I believe that is a major change in the cultural landscape of this country.

It is a story I wanted to write about, and I decided to go about it by following the proliferation of the drugs. I looked at every decade and examined all the cultural scenes that had coalesced around different drugs — bebop and heroin and other drugs during the “beat generation,” then filtering into the psychedelic era, the cocaine age, the crack epidemic of the eighties and the appearance of ecstasy. It culminated in an examination of the war on drugs and the recovery culture.

JJM   It is a huge endeavor, and it’s an interesting social history wrapped around the theme of drugs. It is also a reminder about how drug use impacted each era. It must have required a tremendous amount of research on a topic people aren’t always forthright about. For example, Judy Collins told you, “This is the sort of book I’d be very interested in reading but not something I really want to talk about.” Was it difficult to get people to admit to their use of drugs?

MT  With some people, yes. The people who were closely identified with some aspect of the drug culture had no problem with it, whether it was an Allen Ginsberg or a Tim Leary or a Terence McKenna. Other people were not so open. The whole climate around drug use became so toxic in the eighties. I started this book in the early nineties, and it was still very difficult to get people to talk openly and candidly, which is a situation that we have in the culture at large. One of the main reasons I wrote the book was because I felt that a tremendous amount of wisdom and knowledge about this experience had been accruing for generations, but it wasn’t being passed on. The reason that it wasn’t is because we live in a country where a drug culture was never supposed to exist in the first place. Since the early eighties, a serious war on drugs has been going on. We have spent in the neighborhood of half-a-trillion dollars trying to make the country drug free, so it is not easy for people to acknowledge their experiences in public forums and schools, and people are reluctant to talk about it in their homes as well.

JJM  Earlier in this interview you talked about how sixty to seventy million people have admitted to using drugs. Its popularity grew with the use by a few very key people. You chose to begin the book with Herbert Huncke, about whom you wrote, “Huncke frowned and put his feet up on the bed. Somehow the whole journey of illicit drugs through the culture and consciousness of mid-century America seemed to begin with those very feet. What long, hard mileage they logged, what wear and tear as he searched so relentlessly for the junk that he pumped into his veins over the course of a lifetime, haunting the parks, squares, bars, cafeterias, coffee shops, the endless pacing of jail cells, cheap hotel rooms, methadone clinics.” Why did you start this story with him?

MT  Huncke was a fellow who encountered William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in 1945, when they were part of the scene that was coalescing around Columbia University. Kerouac and Ginsberg were students there at the time, and Burroughs was hanging out with them. These guys were interested in drugs for various reasons, having to do with creativity, aesthetics, sensibility, sensuality and consciousness. Huncke started using drugs in the thirties in Chicago, and he became a teenage heroin addict at that time. He went on the road and learned what it was like to be a junkie “on the bum” in Depression-era America, which, needless to say, was not an easy experience. He was kind of a hustler, basically, but a harmless man. He would consort with various criminals at times, but they were mostly thieves and pickpockets and people of that nature — certainly nobody heavy.

When he arrived in New York around 1940, he hit the streets of Times Square and became part of a small drug scene. When Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs met Huncke, he was like a door into this strange and intriguing subterranean world of drug users. He had a powerful influence on them, not only because he got drugs for them, but also because he shared great stories about drugs with them. They soon started using these substances in their earliest writings, and Huncke became characters in their writings. Burroughs wrote about him in Junky, his first book — the scene where he gives Burroughs his first shot of narcotics is rendered exactly the way it happened. Ginsberg wrote about him in his famous poem Howl. Huncke was the original angel headed hipster. Kerouac wrote about him in On The Road, so, he became a really significant character in that regard. Also, Huncke was the man who coined the term “Beat” that ultimately identified that group known as the “Beat generation.” He would use the word as a way to describe the conditions of his life and as a hustler, a drug addict, a user who was in and out of jails and always dealing with being on the road. He called the lifestyle “Beat,” and that is where Kerouac got the word.

JJM What were the images of the marijuana user prior to the likes of Kerouac and Charlie Parker using it?

MT  It is pretty interesting, because a reefer culture formed in the Harlem of the thirties that had its roots in New Orleans. Marijuana — cannabis — has been known since antiquity, of course. Some people knew about hashish and were like wealthy libertines, but in terms of popular usage of the substance, some of the Mexican laborers who worked in the beet sugar fields began bringing it over the border during the twenties. The writer Terry Southern, for instance, encountered it as a twelve-year-old boy from a field hand in Texas, and he wrote a very famous story about it called “Red Dirt Marijuana.” Many substances came through New Orleans because so many people went there from Europe, the West Indies, South America and Mexico. Marijuana was first noticed by police in around 1910, and it was immediately associated with crime and degeneracy. It was very available in the cradle that formed jazz music – the Storyville district – so many of the key musicians of the era knew about it and had experiences with it. People like Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton…

JJM  Louis Armstrong had a love affair with reefer.

MT  True, but not until he went to Chicago in 1921. He wrote about it very openly in his memoir. Marijuana made its way up the river, right along with those guys who played on the boats, tying up from New Orleans, Memphis, Natchez, and all the way up to Chicago. Amid the jazz culture of the twenties, not only was Louis Armstrong the most important first soloist in the history of the music, but he was an every day pot head who firmly believed that the substance was beneficial. It was always associated with the part of him that was genial, easy going, friendly and warm, and it was always associated with the part of him that was a brilliant musician.

JJM  He had such an influence on the culture, and many admired and emulated him…

MT  One of those individuals was a man named Milton Mezzrow, known as “Mezz.” He was one of the first white jazz musicians in Chicago, and he ran around with people like Bud Freeman and Dave Tough. They, of course, were completely bowled over by Armstrong. Mezz moved to Harlem in the early thirties and he became one of the first pot dealers in Harlem. He hung out on the corner of 137th Street, where he dealt really good Mexican pot that became known as the “Mighty Mezz.” A lot of the musicians in the era of swing — guys like Lester Young — were avid marijuana users. Mezz was completely intrigued by the scene of poor black kids who danced the lindy hop at the Savoy Ballroom, and who could be called the first hipsters. They were kids who never would have seen the inside of a place like the Cotton Club. Their scene was the beginning of what became known as a “teapad” culture.

Mezz’s 1946 autobiography, Really the Blues, was the only book that really told the story of what that scene was like, and for the most part it was completely benign. These people’s interests were in jazz and dancing and having a good time. During this time, the Savoy became the most profound interracial melting pot in New York City — it was a place where white kids from all the boroughs would go during the Depression to enjoy jazz and dance. Many of them encountered reefer there and had very positive experiences with it, but it was because this scene was happening in a place where whites mixed with blacks that it was so threatening to society, and it became the target of the first anti-marijuana campaign. Harry Anslinger, who as the founder of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the first drug czar in America, was obsessed with stopping this kind of thing.

JJM  You wrote, “As surely as reefer had come to be associated with swing, heroin would mark the transition from swing to bop.” As we know, heroin is clearly a much different drug than marijuana…

MT  It’s a classic example of the lack of drug education. No one knew how destructive heroin was. Take Charlie Parker, for example. He encountered the drug as a teenager in Kansas City, when it just started trickling out from cities on the East Coast. There was not much of it around. Narcotics were declared a controlled substance in 1914. At that time, the basic drug addict in this country was a very conventional, middle class woman who had become addicted to some sort of opiated medication that a doctor had prescribed for her, like Laudanum or something like that. So, when the law went into effect, there was an instantaneous black market for drugs. People still wanted it and could no longer get it. Some of the doctors continued to prescribe it and were arrested. They had clinics for a while where these people could go, but they were shut down eventually, and the only place to get it was in the underground.

The first drug dealers were ethnic immigrants in the neighborhoods of New York — Jews, Italians, and Irish, primarily — who began procuring this stuff, but until the Mafia started organizing a global trade, there was just piddling amounts of it. But it found its way into the life of Parker, a teenage alto player in Kansas City, and, “Bird” being “Bird,” with his voracious appetite for all kinds of experiences, became addicted to it by the time he left Kansas City to go first to Chicago, and then to New York. So, Parker’s addiction to heroin coincided with the emergence of his genius, which coincided with heroin’s wider distribution in Harlem. It was a simultaneous happening. As he became a hero, he was influencing the lives of his fellow musicians who were also getting into the drug. By 1948, after he had his breakdown and was enjoying his comeback in New York, heroin was beginning to flood the neighborhoods of Harlem as a result of gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, as well as corrupt New York City narcotics police and intelligence agencies — some of whom allied themselves with the gangsters as a way to counter the influence of the communists in places like the port of Marseille in France.

So, while these drugs were coming into Harlem in 1948, by1950, you had the brightest young jazz musicians in America already addicted to heroin — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon — I could go on and on. No one really knew how bad the drug was, but they certainly found out quickly enough once they became addicted to it.

JJM  Parker’s use of the drug certainly influenced the image of “hip” also, and that must have had an enormous affect on people like the pianist Hampton Hawes, who said, “Those of us who were affected the strongest felt we’d be willing to do anything to warm ourselves by that fire, get some of that grease pumping through our veins. He fucked up all our minds. It was where the ultimate truth was.”

MT  I don’t think anyone has articulated it quite as good as he did right there.

JJM  So, what affect did Parker have on the Beat writers’ use of drugs?

MT  Well, they idolized him. Parker’s most famous statement about art was, ” They teach you that there is a boundary line to music, but man, there is no boundary line to art.” That is exactly what the writers of the Beat generation were after; they were trying to blow out the boundaries of writing. So, Parker was a god to them, really. Jack Kerouac likened him to the Buddha in Mexico City Blues. Not only that, but conceptually, when Kerouac wrote On the Road, his famous taping together of Japanese rolling paper was done so he could type words on his typewriter in a continuous flow of consciousness exactly the way Bird was blowing jazz with his saxophone. Ginsberg adopted what Kerouac called a long saxophone line, used in his poem Howl. Parker’s influence on them was not only around his drug use and creative innovation, but also the conceptual thinking identified with the jazz of the time. They brought it into their writing.