The death of Charlie Parker, from “Bop Apocalypse.”
The body arrived at Bellevue more than five hours after his death, identified as "John Parker, age fifty-three." Bird, only thirty-four years old, was so physically ruined that he looked twenty years older. Death was attributed to lumbar pneumonia, but everybody knew that the real cause was a profound exhaustion that had consumed him, body and soul. The two women in this life, Doris and Chan, began fitting bitterly over his body. Charlie Parker was buried in Kansas City despite stating that he never wanted to return there, his tombstone displaying the wrong date of his death. There are those who say that they observed a golden nimbus around his death as he lay in his coffin before burial.
Almost immediately, the legend began appearing on the walls of buildings and subways: BIRD LIVES. Jackie McLean could never figure out who was doing it; in fact, the poet Ted Joans was responsible. Joans lived above the San Remo bar in the Village and had set out with three of his friends in four different directions after Parker’s death, like disciples spreading the gospel after the crucifixion. That first weekend of his death, others seized on the slogan and began writing it all over the city—BIRD LIVES—the graffiti of a growing alternative cultural identity. Suddenly it seemed to be everywhere, on subways and buses, in the johns of subterranean bars from the Village to Harlem, spreading quickly out to all of the boroughs, and thence across the country like some proclamation from the underground heralding the coming of a new age—BIRD LIVES!
However one chose to regard the demise of Charlie Parker, whether he’d destroyed himself or was victimized by the society he lived in, it hardly mattered in the end. Parker had become an epochal symbol of enduring truth, love, freedom, and the incandescent life of pure genius. The facts of his life may have involved drugs, but all of it would now be woven together into a myth of terrible beauty and incorporated into the tapestry of his music, which would live forever.
The myth of Bird had always been complex, but at the center of it was Icarus, who had insisted of flying too high, too close to the burning radiance of the sun, and had plummeted to his death, the wax on his wings melted by the heat. But the myth went much deeper, for underneath everything else was the sense of a shaman’s journey--the notion that Bird’s flight through the night skies of America had been undertaken as a form of ritual self-sacrifice on behalf of many others, who would now be healed and lifted by it. The voyage of his life was over, but his journey into the American imagination was just beginning.
In the wake of Bird’s death, the journey of musicians into and out of heroin would continue to shape jazz, and people would be drawn to the music like moths seeing the brilliance of a lone bulb burning in a darkened room. All through the 1950s, bebop became the touchstone of those who walked the jagged improvisational edge through a shadowy human geography of the night.
Robert Stone takes peyote, from “Psychedelic Spring.”
When Bob Stone saw the jagged waves of frost issuing forth from John Coltrane’s horn, he suspected that he had taken too much peyote.
That afternoon, back at Perry Lane, Stone had taken twelve pharmaceutical gel capsules with dried cactus before driving into the city to see Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery in North Beach. It didn’t matter that Stone was an experienced peyote user from his days in New York when his wife, Janice, was a waitress at the Seven Arts. At the time, there was an espresso house on East Sixth Street with a dollar sign hanging out in front, run by an Ayn Rand follower named Barron who sold peyote from Smith’s Cactus Ranch in East Texas. They would put the stuff in the blender and mix it with tomato juice and get these strange charges from it. Stone had once gone so far as to cover a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden for the Daily News after taking it, but as surreal and transporting as that experience may have been, it was mild compared to this.
Stone had known some strange and disorienting experiences in his life to be sure, like being on the road with his schizophrenic mother during his youth and ending up in Salvation Army shelters in Chicago and homeless on rooftops in New York. When he was in the navy in 1956, he witnessed the French attack on Part Said, Egypt. Peering though binoculars, he watched the donkeys and people flying though the air all chewed up by the 7.62s and rockets. All of that might have somehow conditioned him to accept different states of consciousness, but what he was seeing now seemed no less phenomenal.
Stone didn’t know the word for what he was experiencing as he sat in the crowded club anymore than did his friend Ken Kesey: synesthesia. It meant being able to actually see the sounds and hear the colors and feel them all in the mind and body in a completely new way. All he knew was that the frost kept coming out of Coltrane’s soprano saxophones in these big jagged waves and that he was actually seeing Jimmy Garrison’s bass lines and the percussion of Elvis Jones forming and gathering in the air above the stage and coming at him at the instant the music was being played, as if the notes themselves had danced up off the pages of some invisible musical score and were coming to life in front of his eyes. He and his friends were supposed to go on to another club and see Lenny Bruce perform, but it was all too much. As much as Bob Stone loved Coltrane, as much as he wanted to see Lenny Bruce, he had to get out. He and Janice got up from the table and walked outside, and then it him even harder—
Chinatown!—electromagnetic wavelengths and glowing concentric halos of whirling lights and buildings shimmying and the people looking like strange little mythological beings in some numinous Oriental dream as they flew past, their voices pounding in his ears. They started walking toward Confucius Square, all of it getting even more overwhelming and bewildering at the same time that it was utterly fantastic. Stone knew that he probably should have been taking more advantage of his Stegner Fellowship, writing at home instead of wandering around San Fransisco out of his mind like this, but the feeling kept growing in him that the Fifties were finally ending, and that something very different was about to happen.
Heroin, Bloods, and Vietnam, from “Next Stop Is Vietnam”
Willie Jones decided to become Kimani Jones, Black Panther, on the day his best friends, Otis Nicholson, stepped on a mine while walking point during a sweep in the central highlands. Otis was a basketball player from Cincinnati. He could dribble rings around everyone, and there he was flopping on the ground, screaming, one of his legs blown clear off to the thigh and the other mangled into a bloody mass of shredded meat and bone. The medic did what he could.
As they waited for the dust-off, Jones could feel the fury rising up inside him in a poisonous cloud of red-hot steam. The rage he felt was directed at the enemy, but in this case the enemy wasn’t Victor Charlie—it was Mr. Charlie, “the stupid motherfucking peckerwood officers and sergeants who kept putting the brothers out there on point,” as Jones described them, “where they would be the first to get shot at or step on bobby traps and mines.”
All the bloods knew the score. Back in the world, only about one in ten was black. In Vietnam, all you had to do was look around you, and you could see that more than one in five were combat troops. “And the casualty rate for us was even higher than that! The army always claimed it was because we were poorly educated, didn’t do as well on the tests they gave for specialized training. Well, okay, if that was the truth and the army wasn’t racist, then how come we were always passed over for promotions? And how come we were always singled out for the shit jobs?”
Willie Jones personified the increasingly militant attitudes of black draftees after 1968. The war had turned very bitter, and the days of young blacks, or cuffees as they were known, joining up just to escape the ghetto were over. Once in Vietnam, the first thing Jones learned was that whatever racial harmony there was in his unit when they were under fire or in foxholes seemed to vanish as soon as the firing stopped. “Some brothers mixed freely with whites but most tended to hang with their own.”
Nineteen sixty-nine was the year of My Lai, the time of Willful Refusal—“say no-no to go-go”—when there was more racist graffiti on the walls of latrines than ever and every incoming bird brought more black troops who had been exposed to the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, political figures who saw the white man’s war as a form of genocide—a way for the Man to conveniently clear a generation of young black radicals away from the restive ghettos. Second-class jobs and second-class treatment but first-class death, that’s what they got.
“Black Americans are considered to be the world’s biggest fools to go to another country to fight for something they don’t have for themselves,” Cleaver declared in Soul on Ice. Jones ‘s unit was almost 60 percent black. You saw more and more Afros and black power salutes, and it seemed that the bloods out in the swamps and paddies and jungles were angrier, more on edge every day, and the tension only got worse with every black casualty. The more Jones saw of the war, the more he tended to accept Cleaver’s analysis. One day, they swept through an area that had been napalmed and came across the charred remains of peasants, among them a little girl, and from that day on he couldn’t seem to get the stanch of burning flesh out of his nostrils. As bad as that had been, it was nothing like the day Otis Nicholson stepped on that land mine. When the patrol came in, Jones saw the Confederate flag on one of the vehicles. Otis had just lost his legs fighting for a country where there were guys proudly flying the Confederate flag, and when the soldier next to the vehicle noticed Jones glowering at the flag and said, “What’re you lookin’ at, nigger,” that was when he snapped.
“It took four or five guys to hold me down. I was going to kill the motherfucker! That night I got down with heroin. I mean, got down, man. Right there behind the barracks. Before that it was marijuana all the time and then smoking opium. Reefer and opium were easy to get, but it wasn’t so easy getting heroin, but then all of a sudden there was more of it around it seemed. Oh, man, once I snorted dope, that was it. It was like I found what I was lookin’ for. When bad shit would happen out in the bush, we’d say this thing all the time—‘Don’t mean nothin’.’ It meant, like, whatever happened couldn’t touch you because it didn’t mean shit. No matter how bad it was. Well, heroin was, like, the exact feeling of what that saying was all about. Didn’t mean nothin’.”
O’Donoghue and Belushi cut loose, from “The Last Dance”
When John Belushi would show up in the middle of the night, all Michael O’Donoghue could do was surrender to the cyclone. There was no use even trying to refuse him. Belushi would torture you until he got what he wanted, and before O’Donoghue was even fully awake, Belushi had put cocaine up his nose. O’Donoghue knew that there would be no going back to sleep now, and off they went in the limousine, tearing around town to the parties.
O’Donoghue, a cadaverously thin writer for Saturday Night Live, looked like a slightly depraved film noir character, in his white suit and dark glasses and rakish Borsalino hat—“Fred MacMurray on drugs,” was how he once described himself—and Belushi, well, no matter what he was wearing, he always managed to look like Bluto in Animal House, which is what people called him when he showed up at the Greatful Dead concert that night—“Hey, it’s Bluto!”—where he and O’Donoghue were Jerry Garcia’s guests backstage.
Mushrooms were duly ingested and chased by weed, weed by blow, blow by booze, booze by a blast of nitrous . . . and on it went, like ingredients being dumped into a caldron, stirred and tasted until it was perfect, and then it would all start to bubble over the edges so they’d have to add still more items.
Belushi was like a saucier, O’Donoghue thought, as they passed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the back of the limousine, a crazy glorious unrestrained slobbering saucier of drug-demented elation. Suddenly, Belushi pushed the button that opened the roof.
“You know what my favorite thing in the whole world is?” he asked, standing up in the driving rain and cackling like an impish child. “Getting fucked up!” he screamed into the rainy night. “That’s what!”
Then Came the Bugs, from “Spiritus Contra Spiritum”
Crack was the drug of the underclass. It produced headaches and body aches. The hangovers were terrible, and you could never be sure what it was. The freebase that Suzie Ryan and Richard Stoltz smoked was refined and smelled sweetly medicinal. Richard hired a Colombian chef who cooked their cocaine as well as their food. After the long days of smoking, she would make them a special stew called Back to Life—and that’s what it was, nourishment that would bring you back from the dead.
Because Richard always paid, he went first all the time, smoking huge rocks out of a bent diet coke can with holes on the side. People’s eyes would go wide at his gargantuan thee-gram hits. Sometimes he and Suzie would smoke for four days in a row. Once when they ran out and he had to go to a meeting, they hired a limo and copped down on the Lower East Side, and Richard cooked it up in back. They must have gone around the park forty times smoking before the driver started getting up-tight. Jut keep driving no matter what, Richard told him. I’ll buy you a car.
Maybe it was the time that Richard stepped on a glass and cut his foot badly and couldn’t get to the hospital for days because he couldn’t stop smoking for fifteen minutes that should have alerted Suzie to how bad things were getting. There were many such episodes during that nightmarish eighteen-month jag; the vignettes and images that later resonated as the most obvious warning signs of their descent failed to sound alarm bells as they occurred. Like the time they had sex on the living room floor for one of Richard’s potential investors just so that he and his guests could watch. It was a line Suzie had told herself she would never cross—and yet she did it without so much as a thought. Maybe it was the time they were flying to Florida and Richard cooked up half an ounce and insisted that that he store it in her vagina during the trip so they wouldn’t get busted.
Hallucinations became common—“the bust people,” as David Crosby would call them—but the worst was the police paranoia. Richard became certain that they were under constant surveillance and hired a security guard and stationed him in the stairwell because he was certain that a SWAT team was lurking there, ready to bust down the door. When they checked into a hotel, he would pile all the furniture in front of the door, leaving one piece in the middle of the room that he intended to use to break the windows so that he could throw the drugs out should the police succeed in smashing their way in with a battering ram.
I can’t stop this so I must be a drug addict, Suzie would tell herself sometimes as she looked in the mirror—never a good idea during a freebase jag. No, she would then think, I can’t be a drug addict, I was a Homecoming Queen!—and she would try to conjure up that beautiful autumn day, but it always seemed as if it had happened to another person in another lifetime. Other times she knew exactly what was happening. Good, she would think. It’s working; I’m going to die.
Then came the bugs. She might have kept going had it not been for the bugs crawling under her scalp. There was actually a medical word for it: formication, the hallucination of bugs crawling around, over, or under the skin. It was one of the symptoms of cocaine psychosis, but she was never more certain of anything in her life than the fact that they were absolutely real, nesting, multiplying, swarming. John Philips experienced them as maggots when he was shooting cocaine. He was so determined to prove to other people that they were real that he would wrap his whole body in cellophane so that he would be able to trap them when they came crawling out of his skin. But Suzie’s would never crawl out, so she had to dig them out with sharp objects: paper clips, metal nail files, letter openers, the smallest blade of a Swiss Army knife.
There were deep, open festering sores on her head, and her skin was putrescent from vodka and cranberry. It was as if every toxin, every chemical, was coming out of her pores at once, but the smell wouldn’t go away, no matter that she stood in the shower and scrubbed her skin until it was raw. Later, when she smoked, she was hearing voices and had no feeling in her hands. Her arms felt like they weighed hundreds of pounds as she crawled around on the rug to pick up some rocks, and when she righted herself in front of the mirror and looked, that’s when it happened.
She had the yes of a rabid animal. She looked into those eyes and she knew that she was stark raving mad. There was death in them; she could touch it, feel it enveloping her like a shroud. When she saw Richard in the mirror lighting the pipe and realized that in spite of all of that she was seeing and knowing she still wanted it more than anything else in the world, something broke loose inside of her. It was like a veil suddenly being pulled back to reveal that most basic human desire to survive, but combined with the acknowledgment of how much help she would need. The words she cried out to the image being reflected at her were simple but came from the depths of her soul.
“Please, God help me!”
It was the prayer of a frightened child calling out into the dark--the prayer of a scared soldier in an isolated foxhole. She would always liken it to the prayer of George Bailey, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, when he stands on the bridge on that snowy Christmas Eve and begs God to give him back his life, to put things the way they were.