“I realized from that moment on, I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie,” wrote legendary jazz saxophonist Art Pepper of his first time using heroin in 1950. “That’s what I practiced; and that’s what I still am. And that’s what I will die as—a junkie.”
These words appear about a quarter of the way into Pepper’s explosive memoir, Straight Life, a 500-page tome that defies conventional narratives about addiction. Unlike so many tales of this genre—and I’ve read many—Straight Life offers no redemption. There is no grand epiphany. There is only the unsettling truth: Pepper’s awareness that he would be a dope fiend for the rest of his days.
My interest in Pepper’s story comes from two corners of my life. I’m married to an alto player who counts Pepper as an inspiration. My husband was a teenager in Israel when he first heard one of Pepper’s recordings. “He played like Charlie Parker, but less frantic,” Uri told me. “He was part of the West Coast jazz scene, which was mellower and less fiery than bebop.” Like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Pepper had a distinctive sound and style. Uri also observed that all three men were heroin addicts: “Drugs created extremes in their emotions and that came out in the music. It made them feel more confident. It was almost like they said, ‘I’m going to sacrifice my body so I can play a great gig.’”
The willingness to sacrifice one’s body in order to mask insecurities or numb painful feelings isn’t unique to these jazz greats. I’ve heard similar stories before. For five and a half years, I worked in the communications department of a drug treatment organization. One of my responsibilities was to interview former “clients” who had come through the program and to shape their memories into first-person testimonials. Each story was different, but I began to notice a common arc: troubled childhood, introduction to drugs, substance abuse, rock bottom, treatment, and eventual sobriety. Their paths were anything but easy—some fell off the wagon several times before treatment finally “took”—but the main message was one of hope: Recovery was tough, but possible.
This sense of hopefulness is noticeably absent from Pepper’s memoir, which he co-wrote with his wife, Laurie. Like me, Laurie acted as the interviewer. She met Pepper in the late ’60s at Synanon, the infamous California rehab known for its questionable treatment methods and cultish environment: Residents were divided into “tribes” of about sixty people, including “elders” who had been at the facility for years; anyone who broke the strict, ever-changing rules of the place risked a head shaving, a nighttime dorm raid, and other forms of public humiliation and collective punishment. Laurie was a fellow addict. The two quickly became lovers. She discovered Pepper was a natural storyteller, and it was her idea to collaborate on a book. “I knew I couldn’t write this story,” she recalled. “And I knew it would lose too much, it would lose Art, if it were written at all.” Instead, she felt the best format would be a kind of “oral history.”
Over a period of two years, she tape-recorded Pepper as he recounted his unhappy youth; his entry into the jazz scene as a teenage virtuoso; his failed marriage to his first love, Patti; his drug abuse; and his time in prison. It took her another four or five years to edit the material and piece together the anecdotes into cohesive chapters. Interspersed with Pepper’s words are magazine profiles, album reviews, photos, and interviews with family, friends, and fellow musicians. These accounts sometimes match—and other times contradict—Pepper’s take on events.
The result is a kaleidoscopic, engrossing autobiography that presents Pepper as the “junkie,” and the genius, he truly was. At times while reading, I loathed him. His sexual obsessions and predatory behavior are revealed in graphic, and often pornographic, detail. Equally disturbing are the chapters about his second wife, Diane, who decides the only way she can stay with him is to take up heroin herself. Pepper narrates a scene in which they were strung out for days: “On about the fifth day, I came to… I looked down at my clothes and they were covered with blood. I wondered if I had killed her, Diane, in my delirium, to be rid of her. I panicked and ran into the other room, but there she was, alive, lying on the floor amidst the broken bottles.” He shows no remorse for leading Diane down this destructive path, insisting, as if it were an excuse, that he never really cared for her.
While Pepper’s arrogance and anger leap off the page, I didn’t hate him by the end. To the book’s great credit, Pepper comes through as fully human. We see moments of vulnerability when he discusses his youth with a mother who didn’t want him and a tough-minded father who was incapable of showing affection. We observe his lifelong passion and innate musical talent (he never practiced), even during some of the lowest moments of his addiction. And we see his tender side when he describes the early, blissful days with Patti, and years later, with Laurie. His capacity to love and to be loved offers him—and the reader—a glimmer of light in the darkness, even if it is fleeting.
Rehab didn’t come close to saving Art Pepper, but love did. “Laurie pushed me, in music, and she took care of a lot of things I couldn’t deal with,” he writes of his return to the jazz scene after years of jail and treatment. Between the book’s publication in 1979 and his death in 1982, he experienced a surge of productivity and recorded more albums than he had during his entire career. Pepper’s success in his final years is as much Laurie’s triumph as it is his. In addition to co-authoring the book, she arranged his shows, took his calls, and accompanied him on tours. She knew he was still using, yet she empowered him to be the best version of himself. Perhaps that’s why Straight Life resonates more than any addiction story I’ve ever read or written: It’s not about getting clean, but becoming who we are meant to be.
Kate Schmier holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She was the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers. Her writing has appeared previously on “The Open Bar” and is forthcoming in Apogee Journal. She lives in New York City with her husband, a jazz saxophonist.