Photos: Working on Straight Life 40 years ago
Forty years ago today, Art and I began our work on Straight Life. This is an excerpt––from a memoir I’ve been working on––which describes the beginning of that process. We’d met in 1969 in Synanon, a residential drug treatment program. Elaborate encounter sessions there were called “The Game.” We fell in love. After 3 years, Art left and went to live and work at a friend’s bakery. Soon, he wrote and asked me to join him. I knew he wasn’t “cured” of his addictions, and I was afraid to leave the safety of the institution, but I justified my actions, thinking I would write a book about Art’s life.]
On April 11, 1972, I finally made Art commit to an hour with me. That afternoon, I went to his office/bedroom at the bakery with a notebook and one of those, small, inexpensive tape recorders with a built-in mike. Art sat behind his immaculate old desk with its too neat arrangement of pens and pencils, an adding machine, his cigarettes, lighter, and ashtray, placed just so and constantly nudged into ever more perfect alignment. And a bottle of malt liquor. "Mickey" was the brand he liked. A name to conjure with. I had no idea how much of this stuff he was drinking until we began to record regularly.
I said, "Tell me why you want to do this book." Actually, up to that point, it was all me, my desire to begin and his resistance. But he obediently took my cue. What follows, edited a little, is what he said:
"Well, the reason I want to get the book started… The book was going to be written… When I was in San Quentin someone came in to visit me. He wanted to write a book on my life. He got permission to see me. He came in two or three times. Then, when I got out, and I saw him in Hollywood, I decided I didn't want the book written, because I didn't feel that that was the time to do it. That was in '66. Now I want to have it done. Now I feel a real sense of urgency, because I feel something pulling at me. I have a strong feeling I'm not going to live too much longer, and although I have lots of reasons to feel that way physically, this is more than a physical thing. I can sense it. It's becoming like another person. I can almost touch it. It's becoming real.
"I can only liken it to one period when I was using heroin cut with procaine. I was shooting about a half an ounce of this stuff a day, and I would hear voices, somebody calling my name, outside the bathroom door, and little things would flash, I would see a flash to my right or to my left, and I'd turn my head, and there was nothing there. It was an audible thing, a visual thing; it wasn't an imagined thing. It actually happened, and it was induced by the procaine the heroin was cut with. And now I feel a presence. Just in the last couple of weeks I've really been feeling it. I can feel this presence and the presence is death."
I gasped. I checked the tape. It was rolling. He continued, going far afield, into a wild improvisation on aging, death, superstition, suicide in comic book imagery, Edgar Cayce, and immortality.
That was it. He was done. He was very low, but I was on fire. I couldn't let him stop talking. I asked him, there, surrounded by awards he'd been given and his album covers, all of which he'd mounted on his walls, if he believed he was a genius. I'd heard him on this theme before.
What he said, then, about his bandstand battle with Sonny Stitt, appears in Straight Life. I edited it and made it the Conclusion, his summing up, and it's been excerpted and praised in almost every review. For me it was Art's opening salvo, brilliant, touching, rhythmic, evocative, suspenseful, triumphant. When he finished with that, we both gasped. I hear us on the tape. Then we laughed. I was sitting on his little bed and hollered, "Wow!" rocking back and hitting my head on the wall. Thunk! "Holy shit!"
"Turn it off, turn it off!" Art told me. I turned the tape recorder off. Then, surreptitiously, I turned it on again.
We were both talking at once: His narrative had been like a jazz solo, its repeating theme, its mounting vehemence, its forward movement. And yet it had been history. A document. This may have been the first time Art was made aware of just how great his storytelling gifts were. As for me, I was confirmed in my belief that there could be a book and knew that there must be.
And Art, well, he went on delightedly, saying that he was going to fall in love with the tape recorder, that he was going to start dreaming about it. He said he saw, now, that his life was beautiful because it made sense, now, as "a recollection." And that his fate had prepared him for this, his final work, by throwing him into Synanon where playing the Game enhanced his verbal skills and where he met me, who was making all this possible.
Though Art was to lose this early enthusiasm, making it harder and harder for me to sit him down and get and keep him talking, I had finally found my calling. I’d been prepared by my intense childhood exposure to music, my helter-skelter Berkeley education in anthropology, folklore/oral history, and literature, and by the sly tales of his youthful hobo adventures told me by my drunkard stepfather (a great raconteur in his cups). I'd absorbed no literary or academic rules I'd have to exert myself to follow or break. I had no political axes to grind, no philosophical points to make. I confess a lack of interest in the great world, its battles and governments. I can't comprehend it. I have enough trouble understanding my own immediate world, glimpsed in its chores and quarrels, love, money, work, responsibilities, beauties, delusions, passions and obsessions, illness and death. And the world was teaching me that generalizing, judging, and prescribing in terms of class or race or sex is pointless (and presumptious) in terms of human beings, mysteries, all.
I’d written all my life: Stories, poetry, lyrical, pretty stuff. Lazy stuff, in that I was easily satisfied with tricky images and deft sentence endings. Art’s language, his directness, shocked and stirred me, steered me toward true seriousness, for the first time in my life, toward true ambition. I once heard a musician Art jammed with say “He made me play way over my head.” Art’s intensity inspired and dared everyone he worked with to get serious.
As I worked with him, I learned to describe things over and over to myself on paper trying to dig out of the descriptions a kind of witness's statement. Memory is subjective, selective, but, as archeologists work daintily, unflaggingly, with brushes on some tiny patch of interest, in my relentless scratchings, I'd find stuff that surprised me, that might not exactly jibe, that gave a new perspective. And so, in turn, I goaded Art.
In the years to come, I made him repeat some of his problematic anecdotes again and again. I wanted to know everything. When I demanded elaborate descriptions of people and places, he came up with often stunning, masterful vignettes. As for his criminal or suicidal mad behavior: What came before? What was the provocation? How did he feel about it at the time? How did he feel now, looking back? I wasn't looking for justifications for his actions, but I wanted the descriptions to be as full as he could make them. I'd edit all the many versions, coming up with what we both thought gave the most complete account. I was single-mindedly oblivious of how cruelly deep I made him dig and of the pressure he put on himself to tell the story well. My cross-examinations and contradictions could make him angry and defensive. But 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 dig up.