Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Straight Life

The title of Art Pepper’s biography is loaded and layered with meaning. ‘Straight Life’ is the name of his best known composition: a virtuoso piece from one of the greats of twentieth century jazz. But the tune was always a contradiction; for Pepper’s body was wracked with addiction; his reasoning twisted by alcohol and heroin, and his life-path as crooked and fucked-up as they come.

Art Pepper was arguably the greatest alto saxophonist of the post-war era. Born unwanted, brought-up unloved, the descriptions of his childhood are as grim as they are shocking. There can be little doubt that his later problems stemmed from a deeply rooted sense of isolation – a craving to be loved and accepted, by himself as much as anyone else.

What follows is a life story that is staggeringly sad. In an echo of his music, it’s as if Pepper is improvising on his own desperate existence: playing ever faster, increasingly off-key, out of sync with himself and the world. Ostensibly he’s seeking redemption – but always, and inevitably, his actions resolve into a deeper and more pitiful hell.

At one level Straight Life is a chronicle of self-destruction, of time spent in and out of prison, of failed relationships, petty and serious crime; it’s the story of years wasted, in more ways than one – the consequence of a wilful surrender to substance abuse.

At another, it’s a troubling reminder of the fine line between brilliance and the void. Pepper’s life is a tale of obsession, of an uncompromising (if seriously warped) view of the world and what constitutes right and wrong. By any normal standards Art Pepper is an odious individual; the nagging question is whether normal standards should apply.

The book’s format is a transcription of recorded interviews which he gave towards the end of his life. In Pepper’s voice, there’s a disarming honesty and a declared self-criticism, but there’s also a less than subtle suggestion that his actions were a necessary consequence of his talent.

My suspicion is that fans of Pepper will sympathise. We often lionise our heroes, tempering our judgements and blind-eying actions that would be unacceptable in others. Art Pepper was as near to genius on the saxophone as they come. Whether that excuses behaviour we wouldn’t wish on ourselves, or for that matter, our worst enemies is a different matter.

Pepper, like his music, is difficult and mercurial – it takes time to figure him out. The book is much the same, and there’s a quality to Straight Life that took me a while to grasp.

Throughout the narrative, Pepper talks entirely ‘in the moment’ of his recollections. When he describes entering San Quentin prison, it’s as if he’s back there and his attitudes and opinions of the time are expressed as if he still held them now – by the end of the chapter they’ve evolved and moderated, but only as the tale unfolds. It’s as if each moment has to be fully relived – a sort of method acting as a means to honesty.

And just maybe that’s what’s required of great jazz musicians – the ability to live in the moment; achieving a creative dissonance that suspends reality; a sort of nirvana if you like. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems plausible and might explain the link between his destructive qualities and musical talent – the flowering of good and evil, both from the same root.

Straight Life is not an easy read. It’s complex, self-indulgent and frankly, depressing. But there are moments of lucidity that make it worthwhile. The passage describing his first hit of heroin is a piece of brilliance – it’s too long to quote in full, but here’s an extract to finish on.

I looked at myself in the mirror and looked at Sheila and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and I 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…”

Art Pepper died in 1982; his music lives on.

Straight Life
The story of Art Pepper
Mojo books: ISBN 9781841950648

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On seals and boxing and deeply felt aesthetics

'Make the boy interested in natural history if you can - it's better than games'
Robert Falcon Scott in his last letter to his wife 
(quoted in today's Times Universal Register)

Last Friday I walked with my eldest son from Abereiddy near my home to St David’s Head – nine miles of rugged splendour: five seals in a bay, a kestrel at Carn Llidi; my first butterflies of the year.  The next day I drove to London with my middle son and cheered as Carl Froch bludgeoned George Groves with a right hand we could feel from the second tier of Wembley Stadium.

Those who know my writing won’t be surprised by Friday’s walk, but I suspect they might be perplexed by the boxing. ‘How can you like such a violent sport?’ my mother in law often asks. ‘With what you’ve written about your father, I can’t understand it.’ Like many people, my mother law in law regards boxing as horrid; a form of institutionalised violence, which has no place in the athletic world – I’m paraphrasing here, but the sentiment will be familiar.

And I understand it too. Boxing is violent in the sense that the pugilists are – to put it plainly – trying to hit each other as hard and as accurately as they can. What’s more the obligatory trash talk before the fight creates an atmosphere of aggression that can be unsavoury to say the least. The crowd on Saturday was a disconcerting cocktail of gangster suits and fake tanned peacocks.

But then other sports are aggressive in different ways. My mother in law loves rugby – and I know of no one who is more vicarious and visceral in her support of the national team.  ‘Get him; punch him; get in there…grrr…’ Most rugby matches I see involve regular punch ups, often gruesome injuries – and here’s a point to ponder – behaviour that outside of a rugby pitch would invite criminal prosecution. Football is less violent on the pitch, but I’d not take my young son to a match because of the tribal intimidation of the crowds.

It’s interesting to me that almost anyone I’ve spoken to about boxing – who has also been on the end of domestic violence – can see the distinction immediately. Violence is the unlawful use of physical aggression; it involves one party assaulting another; a resort to force to impose their will, whether that be on a playing field, a backstreet or a bedroom.

And that’s an entirely different thing to two adults entering a boxing ring, each voluntarily present, knowing what’s involved and happy to accept the outcome. I could go on about the adherence to rules, safety concerns and more, but it’s all a bit peripheral.  Better simply to declare that there is aggression in boxing, and lots of it - but it not uninvited, and that’s the key point.

For all this defence of Saturday night, I should point out that I don’t think my mother in law is entirely wrong. It seems to me that it’s possible to hold an ironclad objection to boxing on aesthetic grounds – it just feels wrong, and for all the talk of rules and safety and voluntary participation, the fact that grown men are punching each other is at odds with what we ought to consider as sport.

I don’t share that view, but I can understand it.  My dislike of fox-hunting is something similar – there are flaws and inconsistencies all over the place if I try and articulate it.  But deep down, I can’t reconcile myself to people taking pleasure from hunting a beautiful wild animal – uninvited violence of a different sort, perhaps?

Returning to Saturday. It seems to me there is something deeply pure about boxing, which, more than any sport I know, connects us to our most primitive emotions. As we watched from high in the new Wembley gantries, the crowd turned to cheer at Daniel Craig (who waved from the VIP box behind us). I said to my son – it’s not very different to the coliseum is it?

Then the fight began and we were lost in the noise.