Art Pepper: Laurie's Perspective


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It's impossible to explain neatly why so many brilliant musicians (and actors and artists) use drugs. In some cases, they are self-medicating, hoping to overcome depression and other mental health issues without having to take debilitating prescription drugs. In other cases, they take drugs with hopes of getting into a zone where they can suspend their mind and create freely. And then there are those who aren't confident enough on stage or need drugs to pump up their energy level or want to ease anxiety or have to fall asleep immediately or wake up early. In all cases, what begins as a thing or two develops into a habit.

Just as enigmatic are the spouses of hooked artists. The cliche answer to why they stay with addicted husbands or wives is that they want to save them or need to hang in there for financial reasons or for their kids. The truth is much deeper and much more complex, but it's hard to say definitively, since too few spouses have written books about their relationships or reasoning.

Now we have Laurie Pepper's Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman, on her years with saxophonist Art Pepper, who died in 1982. Unlike most films on addicts—where the wife begs her husband to kick booze, pills or worse and winds up destitute because she can't stop him from using the rent money for fixes—Laurie's book provides an in-depth, personal look at the delicate balance between spouse and artist and the love and respect that develops. In the book, she freely discusses what she found appealing about Pepper in the first place, why she stayed with him until his death, how she managed him and the joys she experienced as well as the pain and sorrow. In many ways, this is an honest and revealing companion to her 1979 book co-authored with Pepper—Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, which is now a classic.

In her new book, Laurie is quick to point out that she was no angel and had gone through her share of depression and drugs by the time she met Pepper at the Synanon recovery program in Los Angeles in 1968, where she was recovering from addiction. She also had endured a broken marriage and there was a daughter (Maggie) whom she was prevented from seeing. Drawn to Pepper for his rugged Italian-cinema looks, Laurie writes that Pepper's confession of loneliness and his openness was the initial draw, while Pepper's obsessiveness with her didn't hurt either. In fact, Laurie notes, Pepper was rarely without female company in Synanon's lobby lounge, since women seemed to take to him instinctively and liked being around him.

But the book's story really begins in 1972, when Laurie and Art leave Synanon and the safety of its rules, regulations and quirky jobs. Out in the real world, they have their ups and downs, but fortunately Laurie spent several years interviewing Pepper on tape for their first book, and she kept him in relatively good spirits for 10 additional years that resulted in landmark albums. In some ways, the first book became therapy for both of them. As Laurie writes, “Art loved honesty—he called it 'Truth'—and he respected me: he trusted me and knew I valued him despite what damning stuff we might uncover. I was single-mindedly oblivious of how cruelly deep I made him dig. I persevered and so did he."

Throughout the next 10 years together, Laurie faced many difficult episodes. After they left Synanon, Laurie and Pepper found earning a living to pay the bills difficult at first. And Laurie had a nervous breakdown in 1976. She had stopped taking a medication, failed to get their book published initially and was in over her head as Pepper's manager and keeper. “At that pretty place among tall, tender eucalyptus trees, three times a week, I talked to a compassionate therapist named Shirley," she writes. “A little sign in her office explained what a panic attack basically was (hyperventilation) and how it could be stopped (slow breathing into a paper bag). I began to carry a paper bag everywhere with me and remembered the one Charlie Haden had brought to Art's session and the the fancy words his doctor had given him for its need and use. The panics eased a bit, finally, leaving only scattered sharp episodes, the most intense being every morning, at first light, the heart bang and desolate terror (which I experienced for many years after). If this book is about anything, it's about how stupid and/or crazy you can be and still survive. Even prevail. It's also about luck."

Laurie and Art Pepper married in 1974, but they didn't settle into a magazine-ad life in suburban Los Angeles. Anything but. While Synanon had provided them with rails and writing the first book offered a different set of routines and a goal, adult life was harder on the outside for both of them. By the late 1970s, Pepper was coming undone. “After we returned to L.A. [in late 1977], Art grew increasingly weird. Every day, every night, he raced out of the house to—he told me, when pressed hard—jam with a group of young musicians out in Venice. He was drinking and getting high on coke with them. When I questioned this, when he was willing or able to speak coherently, which he usually wasn't, he told me, whining, with the air of someone deeply misunderstood, that he was a musician and had to play music."

Pepper toured in the '70s but life grew tougher. “Despite Art's drinking on the road, my control over our situation was nearly as complete as Keiko Jones [Elvin Jones's wife] had told me it ought to be. This had finally been achieved sometime in 1979 by my taking on the role of Art's cocaine supplier." In short order, Laurie became addicted.

When Straight Life was published, life changed. Pepper was rediscovered by the media, and non-stop touring began as the demand for him grew worldwide. The drugs didn't stop but neither did the work. Then in May 1982, Pepper played When You're Smiling at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Nine days later he was in a coma, and six days after that he died. “I was inconsolable. I was sober, and I was broke," Laurie writes. “I'd cashed in the airplane tickets for our upcoming tour to pay for the funeral. Because they knew Art was dead (they found out from the newspaper), the administrators at our bank woudn't let me take money out of our corporate account or even deposit checks made out to Art for the Corporation. So royalty checks arrived but were useless at the bank I'd been doing business for for ten years."

As Laurie notes, “At his best, Art found beauty in every thing, even in harshness, pain and violence. And in his music, if you pay attention, you can hear the promise. The promise is the moment of a held breath, when you know, you know it is all beauty and you are reconciled with your existence in this world."

In Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman, the fan and civilian learns what it's like to cope with depression, live for music and try to make sense of a life that can only be described as clinging to clouds.

JazzWax pages: You'll find Laurie Pepper's Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman here and Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Art Pepper at the Village Vanguard in July 1977 playing But Beautiful...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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