1980 New Yorker review of Straight Life by Whitney Balliett

In Henry Mayhew's great nineteenth century oral history "London Labour and the London Poor," a boy with "long and rather fair hair" speaks of the rigors of his childhood:
I'm a native of Wisbeach, in Cambridgeshire, and am sixteen. My father was a shoemaker, and my mother died when I was five years old, and my father married again. I was sent to school, and can read and write well. My father and stepmother were kind enough to me. I was apprenticed to a tailor three years ago, but I wasn't long with him; I runned away. I think it was three months I was with him when I first runned away ... I stopped in lodging houses until my money was gone, and then I slept anywhere - under the hedges, or any where .... I had to beg my way back ... but was very awkward at first. I lived on turnips mainly. My reason for running off was because my master ill-used me so; he beat me, and kept me from my meals, and made me sit up working late at nights for a punishment.

And here, a hundred and twenty years later, in the autobiography "Straight Life," is the alto saxophonist Art Pepper speaking of his childhood:
One time when my father had been at sea for quite a while he came home and found the house locked and me sitting on the front porch, freezing cold and hungry. She [Pepper's mother] was out somewhere. She didn't know he was coming. He was drunk. He broke the door down and took me inside and cooked me some food. She finally came home, drunk, and he cussed her out. We went to bed. I had a little crib in the corner, and my dad wanted to get into bed with me. He didn't want to sleep with her. She kept pulling on him, but he pushed her away and called her names. He started beating her up. He broke her nose. He broke a couple of ribs. Blood poured all over the floor. I remember the next day I was scrubbing up blood, trying to get the blood up for ages.

Most of Mayhew's four-volume work consists of interviews he conducted with London street people prostitutes, beggars, flower girls, pick pockets, sweeps, peddlers. Pepper's book is largely a self-interview. He is a drug addict, and seven years ago, after he had finished three years in Synanon, he began talking his life into a tape recorder as an act of catharsis and stabilization, and this letting loose continued for several years. There is a plethora of tape-recorded set down in a false prose, whose authors have sidestepped the hard, distillative act of writing. But "Straight Life" demonstrates again and again that Pepper has the ear and memory and interpretative lyricism of a first-rate novelist. He describes what happened to the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane:
He got on that treadmill and ran himself ragged trying to be new and to change. It destroyed him. It was too wearing, too draining. And he became frustrated and worried. Then he started hurting, getting pains, and he got scared. He got these pains in his back, and he got terrified. He was afraid of doctors, afraid of hospitals, afraid of audiences, afraid of bandstands. He lost his teeth. He was afraid that his sound wasn't strong enough, afraid that the new, young black kids wouldn't think he was the greatest thing that ever lived anymore. And the pains got worse and worse: they got so bad he couldn't stand the pain. So they carried him to a hospital but he was too far gone. He had cirrhosis, and he died that night.

Here is the sort of subterranean soul Mayhew relished:
I looked around the club and saw this guy there, BIinky, that I knew. He was a short, squat guy with a square face, blue eyes; he squinted all the time; when he walked he bounced; and he was always going "Tchk! Tchk!"-moving his head in jerky little motions like he was playing the drums. Sometimes when he walked he even looked like a drum set: you could see the sock cymbal bouncing up and down and the foot pedal going and the cymbals shaking and his eyes would be moving. But it wasn't his eyes; it was that his whole body kind of blinked.

Pepper was born in 1925, in Gardena, California. His father was a tall, tough, handsome merchant seaman and labor organizer, and his mother, raised by an aunt and uncle, never knew her parents. Pepper's parents were twenty-nine and fifteen when they were married, and he was born with rickets and jaundice. There was little to the marriage. Pepper's father was at sea, and his mother was irresponsible and dissolute, and the relationship soon broke up. Pepper was sent to his paternal grandmother in the California countryside when he was five. He was a lorn, fearful child. "I'd wander around alone, and it seemed that the wind was always blowing and I was always cold," he recalls. "I was afraid of everything. Clouds scared me: it was as if they were living things that were going to harm me. Lightning and thunder frightened me beyond words. But when it was beautiful and sunny out my feelings were even more horrible because there was nothing in it for me." His grandmother was a cold German woman, who had her own sorrows, and when his father, who paid her to raise the child, visited between sea trips, Pepper was caught in a cross fire:
My grandmother cooked a lot of vegetables, things I couldn't stand-spinach, cauliflower,beets, parsnips. And [my father would] come and sit across from me in this little wooden breakfast nook, and my grandmother would tell me to eat this stuff, and I wouldn't eat it, couldn't eat it. He'd say, "Eat it!" My grandmother would say, "Don't be a baby!" He'd say, "Eat it ! You gotta eat it to grow up and be strong!" That made me feel like a real weakling, so I'd put it in my mouth and then gag at the table and vomit into my plate. And my dad was able, in one motion, to unbuckle his belt and pull it out of the rungs, and he'd hit me across the table with the belt. It got to the point where I couldn't eat anything at all like that without gagging, and he'd just keep hitting at me and hitting the wooden wall behind me.

Pepper took up the clarinet at nine, and his father would sit him in hars in San Pedro and make him play "Nola" and "The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round" while his friends nodded approvingly and said, "That's Art's boy. He plays nice music." Pepper switched to the alto saxophone when he was twelve, and by the time he was seventeen he was married and working for Stan Kenton. He was in the Army from 1944 to 1946, and then spent five more years with Kenton and made his name as an original and graceful alto saxophonist. But his true career, the weight and heat of this book, began in 1950, when he became addicted to heroin. He was already an alcohol- ic, and he had long popped pills and smoked pot. None of these gave him surcease from the demons of loneliness and self-hatred. The heroin did- particularly the first time he tried it: "I could feel it start in my stomach. From the whole inside of my body I felt the tranquility ... Sheila [a singer] said, 'Look at yourself in the mirror! Look in the mirror" And that's what I'd always done: I'd stood and looked at myself in the mirror and I'd talk to myself and say how rotten I was ... I thought, 'Oh, no! I don't want to do that! I don't want to spoil this feeling that's coming up in me.' ... But she kept saying, 'Look at yourself! Look how beautiful you are!' ... I looked in the mirror and I looked like an angel."

In 1953, Pepper was arrested and sent to jail for possession of narcotics. During the next thirteen years, he spent more time in jail than out of it. He did five years in San Quentin, and his descriptions of life there are relentless and brilliant.

Pepper hit bottom just before he put himself in Synanon. He was an alcoholic and a junkie, and his career as a musician was in abeyance. His girlfriend had thrown him out, and he found himself, aged forty-four, sitting on his mother's porch, surrounded by his few belongings, and drinking brandy in the midday sun:
My mother had changed a lot over the years. She had found God. She had accepted Christ as her personal savior, and she'd stopped drinking and smoking ... She said, "What happened? Where's Christine?" I said, "Christine's gone. She's gone. She's finished. She's gone. She left me here." My mother said, "Oh, Junior, you can't stay here! You know that. We've tried that before. It won't work." I said, "Don't get upset. Don't start flipping out, rna! I know it isn't going to work. I'm not asking to stay with you. I'm not going to stay with you. I know you don't want me to stay with you. You'd rather have me lay in the gutter and die than have me stay with you!" She said, "You don't have to talk like that." I said, "Well, it's true, isn't it?" She said, "Oh, Junior, please!"

Pepper has married again, and he is playing and recording. He is in a methadone program. He has no illusions. ("And that's what I will die as- a junkie." ) Nor does he have any remorse or self-pity. He has lived the inverse of the straight life, and he has lived it as well as he knows how. He does not rail against the laws that treat addicted human beings as criminals: the straight world has its hangups. He is an eloquent and gifted man.