11 minute read


Listening to writing and Art Pepper in Los Angeles

by Chris Molnar


Los Angeles is the beautiful dead end of America, maybe of the whole world. It’s unlike any other cultural metropolis, with no pretension to or history of dense, huddled masses, chance encounters, or random, public happenings. It’s the land of John Fante and Malcolm Lowry squirreled away in downtown hotel rooms, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann in sunny exile, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in late-life luxury, Octavia Butler taking the bus from Pasadena, or John Rechy cruising Griffith Park. Unlike New York City, you can’t walk out the door and run into someone famous, even though they all live here too. Everyone has their private worlds in private houses, private rooms, private scenes, inaccessible to the uninitiated and intimate for those in the know.

This makes it the prime literary city for the writer that values solitude. Nowhere else can you find a quorum of world-class authors and publishers, all accessible if you just show up at the right couple of places: Poetic Research Bureau in Historic Filipinotown, or the right night at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, or at a roving reading series like Casual Encountersz or Factory Made. All of them treasuring the opportunity to work quietly at home before emerging into a major metropolitan cultural milieu, with all the pent-up tension that leads the city to explode spectacularly from time to time. Stories Books and Café in Echo Park particularly has the exact dimensions of what makes Los Angeles so unique. The solitude begets a hunger for a communal space like the patio and alley behind Stories, purposeful malingering it’s hard to find anymore, the never-ending conversation and random introductions across cultures and classes, faces shifting and staying the same over years, the real-life growing-together supplanted by the air-conditioned nightmare of life facilitated by the internet. A community center, home away from home or work away from work, hub for the sober that sells beer and wine, relatively young but with a timeless feeling. Everything clearly, not in opposition, but in a continuing dynamic, events in the backyard for unknown, unpublished authors and notable ones too, Eileen Myles and Chris Kraus, Miranda July and Robert Glück. The warm chaos of the NDA reading series at Stories spilling into the alley, with latecomers standing on dumpsters to peer at Ottessa Moshfegh over the fence; the packed heat of a hundred or more writers and artists cramming a Chinatown gallery and the interior courtyard to see Hedi El Kholti of Semiotext(e) at Casual Encountersz; Factory Made gathering hundreds of Zoomers in Koreatown apartments and parking lots to see each other read there’s a kind of sudden shift from semi-urban and functional to serious art happening that can only happen here.

Ours is the most American city, with these spiraling private worlds never intersecting, and perhaps there is some lesson in the fact that a secluded home here, beautifully shaded under unexpected trees, is the ultimate local expression and also perfect for getting really high, over and over again. Like addiction and sobriety, hedonic indulgence and New Age healthfulness are both expressions of the same thing, a search for solidity in a town too sprawling and beautiful to hold onto anything for long. Oblivion as perfection as oblivion, and holding it all together the performative therapy of Alcoholics Anonymous, which fits Los Angeles so well absorbing and cliquey, a perennial reality show that just happens to save lives, with permutations both helpful and insane, like the offshoot-turned-cult Synanon with round-the-clock “games” of attack therapy. Jazz saxophonist, unrepentant heroin addict, and erstwhile Synanon inductee Art Pepper’s memoir Straight Life (1979) is one of the first and perhaps the ultimate modern memoirs of art and addiction, and the straightforward extremity he recounts Los Angeles as is canon too: an Omega Man for the Omega City.

Born in Gardena in 1925 to impoverished, alcoholic parents, Pepper a prodigy on the saxophone escaped east to Central Avenue, then in the midst of one of the greatest explosions of jazz talent in history. He is a fine player, although his straightforward and melodic style can be difficult to really hear with modern ears. Straight Life takes this quality, an ascetic devotion to pleasure (which itself is very Los Angeles), and expands it both as method of writing and subject matter, in how he describes the music and drugs he loves. In the abstract, it is like any number of biographies or autobiographies about legendary American figures exploding out of poverty, reaching the heights of fame, grappling with their demons, surviving. What sets it apart is the purity, both of Pepper’s mindset and of the devastating places it takes him. In one of the most famous passages, he has just snorted his first line of heroin in 1950 and goes into a future reverie and manifesto:

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 […]

But then, continuing specifically the end of the sentence that is excised in Lili Anolik’s 2014 Harper’s exhumation of the book (after she discovered it on the path to writing Eve Babitz’s biography): 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 feeling 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.

It’s the surety of it, frustrated honor brimming into hatefulness, clearheaded in retrospect but convincingly in the moment as well. You can see both his blindness to cause and openness to effect, and by the end of the next paragraph he has “realized from that moment on I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie. […] That is what I became at that moment. That’s what I practiced; and that’s what I still am. And that’s what I will die as a junkie.” He has peaked in fame, second saxophonist only to Charlie Parker in the DownBeat reader’s poll, touring with big-band legend Stan Kenton, and without any excuse has decided that the only next step is true oblivion, as lucid as the perfect horn charts he pulls out of thin air, that his wife Laurie Pepper recalls him writing on command in her own memoir, Art: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman (2014), during his late1970s comeback. Art Pepper wrote Straight Life with Laurie, recording his responses to her prompts for years between relapses and lapses in interest, and the 500-plus pages are stuffed with a chorus of fellow jazz musicians, drug buddies, relatives, friends, all corroborating or dismissing his memories. But what makes it powerful is the sense that, even when objectively incorrect, he has a code. It’s the code of the artist, of the junkie, of the criminal.

Strict yet with total abandon: what made Los Angeles the only place that could produce Pepper, and what makes it unique as a literary city. Clarity, things are as they are, tantalizingly accessible, dangerously accessible. Beautifully right there. In the short 1982 documentary Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor, Pepper, fiftysomething but with the ancient damage of junk visible on his body and in his movements, walks through Echo Park in the early 1980s, pointing out different alleys and storefronts where he used to cop heroin during his long stay in the neighborhood, which was cheap and close enough to both drugs and gigs downtown. As he walks, reminiscing about the 1950s and ’60s, everything is colorful and anarchic with the fresh decay of the ’80s, ungentrified, all Latino but still recognizably related to the Echo Park of today. He probably walked right by the future Stories Books. You can see why the neighborhood, and its alleyways, could hold appeal across the decades, just enough inner-city convenience to allow an indigent artist or drug addict (or both) into Los Angeles’s promised seclusion.

Jazz Survivor was filmed in the wake of the publication of Straight Life, and as co-author, Laurie is just as much of a focal point. She is an animated, restless presence in the documentary, around 40 but looking much younger, a bit like her cousin Eve Babitz, with close-cropped hair and a powerful exuberant energy. As surely as music and heroin are the guiding lights for Art, Art is the guiding light for Laurie, unapologetically and intensely, a handsome, dying, beyond flawed artist she can use her own unique talents to corral and encourage. Part of the relentless thrust of Straight Life is watching Pepper, like Puyi in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor (1987), intensely aware yet powerless by chance and by choice, with the unique privilege not of being the last emperor of China but a gifted saxophone player in mid-century Los Angeles who has not just an addiction but an addiction so clearly seen that anyone can perceive their own failures as a microcosm of his conscious tragic fall, observing with pride and regret his rare achievements and unspeakable lows. As he guessed he would, Pepper goes to jail for heroin possession. His first wife leaves him for Remo Belli of Remo Drumhead fame, a rising star not for his talent as a drummer but for acumen in selling drums.

Like Puyi in the film, who learns to tie his shoes and brush his teeth in jail, Pepper’s prison experiences are portrayed in a bracingly calm manner, as is his bottomless addiction to heroin, his time in Synanon, and his impossible climb to recovery. What sets Straight Life apart from other artist /drug memoirs is how the clichés of the genre do not exist yet, and to the extent they do, Pepper pays them no mind. He and Laurie develop a proto-Knausgårdian eye for his minor exploits and fuckups, stripping away conceit and repetition until you just have a person describing how it is to be themselves the exact joys and limitations of a life lived for music and drugs and, in that way, shining a bright light on what it means to be human. What makes this one of the greatest memoirs is the Angeleno way he avoids making a moral out of anything. He draws no conclusions from external forces or internal weaknesses. The drugs are good, Synanon (where they met) is good, music is good, snitches are bad, cops are bad, fake people are bad (other than of course his inability to deal with any of them and how they constantly interfere with each other). Beyond that lies the mystery of existence, where he has to feel and describe his way using only his gut and memory. And that’s where you get value and things of interest, and where very few works of art are willing to linger.

It’s a relentless sun-bleached clarity. Art Pepper reflects and is more than anything a child of the city, with his extreme and uncompromising life, his bracing, warm awareness and honesty, chasing a sordid utopia of half-true beliefs and impossible highs, yet somehow creating a true art life along the way. The conservative, all-toocertain way he regards women; how it expresses itself both in an actual recalled assault and an unusual deference to Laurie as the prime mover behind the book and his comeback. How he exists as a white man in a Black genre, close to and playing with Black musicians but with an outright racist defensiveness when confronted with hostility birthed from systemic oppression. And of course, the way heroin leads him to jail again and again, because he will not rat anyone out, or do anything to avoid the almost comically stringent drug laws of the 1950s and ’60s (while they all need to be struck down in favor of harm reduction, we have come a long way). In each case, he explains in an unnervingly clearheaded fashion why he did what he did, or thought what he thought, and as the totality emerges, it’s difficult to come away without some respect for how willing he is for karma to destroy him. It’s the portrait of some kind of ultimate countercultural living in a mid-century America with little public counterculture, deeply troubled but with an utter dedication to his craft and the childlike helplessness of the true addict, and ready to accept any consequence in pursuit of beauty and dreams. •

I believe that is something anyone in Los Angeles has acquired, the letting go of any concern other than beauty and dreams, Jonathan Gold’s “fugue state, like the Aboriginal dreamtime, when you go on long, aimless walks in the outback. That’s how I feel driving on the endless streets of Los Angeles County.” Everything feels like an expedition to a half-remembered land. But Los Angeles is unlike any other city, without a real core, a wild infinitude of writers and other artists all hidden under trees and string-lights in the dusk, trading the visceral reality of an inner city for the heavy bliss of perfect weather, unexpectedly scenic vistas and groves. There is a plain insanity to the way you have to drive to go anywhere, if you don’t happen to live near a strip like East Sunset in Echo Park. An intimate epic, a suburban lawn always within sight, strip malls next to cultural iconography. Unlike New York City’s functioning alcoholism, in Los Angeles there is a hard cleanness to the sky, a different romance of clarity, knowing what’s a bender or what’s straight and narrow, cypress-shrouded apartments and succulent bungalows as true hideaways to indulge or abstain in.

When I moved from New York to an apartment on Los Feliz Boulevard, a residential road with six lanes of traffic almost every hour of the day, it felt like more of a desert than Las Vegas, where I had lived for a few years in my twenties. The raw desolation of the Mojave trains your eyes to see the life. In Southern California, the lushness can make the relentless sun and quiet intensely ominous; you need an introduction. It was only when Alex Maslansky from Stories Books convinced me to start a literary events program there, after I applied to be a bookseller, that I could give a space to Caitlin Forst for the NDA reading series, who then introduced me to Sammy Loren of Casual Encountersz or Jasmine Johnson of Factory Made. That random chance beginning with one pillar of Angeleno society, Alex, leading to an interlinked universe of public readings, oriented towards the past and future of writing, that could only happen here. Alex’s tragic death this past January left an unfillable void in the city of calm, laconic industry, one that we can only meekly cover over with the next iteration of chaos and silence the city brings.

For the writer or reader with an affinity for Los Angeles’s geography, there’s a happy alignment with the essential building blocks of the literary life; hiding away to consume or create, emerging into one of the world’s great cities, and the only one that will let you dream so completely. The dead end is a series of trapdoors into other worlds. It’s the honesty, an almost psychedelic acceptance of the fate we tempt by pursuing our twisted, childlike dreams¾I believe this is a truth, a clarity best found and facilitated in Los Angeles. If you can see your fate here, you can see it anywhere.

Nobuo Sekine

Phase of Nothingness Water, 1969 steel, lacquer, water; 30 x 220 x 160 cm; 120 x 120 x 120 cm installation view, 9th Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, May 10 – 30, 1969 photographer unknown, courtesy Toshiaki Minemura Archive © Nobuo Sekine Estate, courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles / New York / Tokyo