My brother-in-law, a musician who especially enjoys jazz, once told me that since the great jazz musician Charlie Parker used heroin, the musicians who aspired to be as accomplished as he was used heroin too, believing that the heroin
was key, or at least a significant contributor, to Charlie Parker’s greatness. This ended up ruining the lives of a generation of jazz musicians.
And it created no new Charlie Parkers.
I think about this issue, maybe more than is good for me. It’d be fun to be great, rather than just good. But how exactly do you get there?
I know about hard work. I know about studying your craft. I know about practice, practice, practice. And I agree that these are indispensible elements in the process.
But – objectively and without judgment –
What about drugs?
Those aspiring jazz musicians didn’t take drugs because Charlie Parker took drugs as a matter of hero worship – Charlie Parker wore plaid pants, so all his wannabes wore plaid pants. (I don’t think Charlie Parker ever wore plaid pants. I don’t believe he was much of a golfer.)
The wannabes believed there was something freeing in the drug-taking experience that allowed Charlie Parker to soar to creative heights that he would have otherwise not have been able to reach. It was the drug taking that released him from the conventional approach, and provided him access into uncharted creative terrain.
I know this idea. Not from music. And not from a personal experience with heroin. It almost saddens me to say that. Such a revelation could have energized my mystique.
I know about this idea from comedy. Decades ago, some well-known comedy personages invited me to go into the desert with them and “do mushrooms”, and I turned them down. I never regretted that decision, especially after one the seekers of that mind-expanding experience returned and glassy-eyed and nuts, beseeching me to sit in his room with him for two hours, while he “came down.”
That didn’t look like any fun at all.
(The man kept insisting that his best friend was dead. And I believe, at that time, his best friend was me.)
I never “did mushrooms”, missing out on its liberating possibilities. But, taking it down a few notches, once, I was working as a “stand-in” for a well-known comedian, preparing guests for a game show pilot in which the comedian would ultimately appear.
During the first hour, I was uptight and unfunny. Then we broke for lunch. During which I consumed one beer. When we returned to work, I was suddenly spontaneous, loose and hilarious. The producers confided that, after what they’d witnessed, if it were contractually possible, they’d have dumped the well-known comedian and hired me. And they weren’t yanking my chain. I was sensational.
One beer. And suddenly, I’m spontaneous, loose and hilarious.
And “hm” again.
It was my brother-in-law’s clear implication that Charlie Parker was so great, not because he used heroin, but because he was Charlie Parker. Another close member of my family, who’s a therapist, denies any positive correlation, believing that drug usage makes things not better but immeasurably worse. Fine. But, y’know, don’t therapists have to believe that?
As the saying goes – though after the Michael Vick incident it is somewhat problematic – I hae dog in this fight. For me, overall, drugs – or alcohol – were never a consideration. I’d be thrilled if it could be proven that clean and sober people can be as creatively inspired as those relying on “supplementary enhancement.” The problem is, there are so many contradictory examples.
Sticking exclusively to comedy:
Lenny Bruce, the godfather of truth-telling, laying-it-bare comedy –“Acute morphine poisoning caused by accidental overdose.” Richard Pryor, Bruce’s direct comedic descendant – blew his face off with crack. John Belushi – “Accidental ‘speedball’ fatality.” (I have no idea was what a “speedball” is.)
Sam Kinison, until he cleaned up – a mess. And to a lesser degree though still worth including, Chris Farley – “Cocaine and morphine overdose. Accidental.”
These aren’t just some cherry-picked selection of drugged-out comedians. These are all comedians who went deep, offering insights and existential truths that made you laugh with your soul. They were “all out” comedians. They held nothing back.
Compare this panoply of visceral groundbreakers with another, admittedly, fine comedian, but of an entirely different species –
Funny. Super observant. Remarkably consistent. But reserved. And unthreatening. Nothing disturbing. No personal revelations. No mind-blowing exposures of our hidden feelings and beliefs. Nothing dirty about the Pope.
I realize this was Jerry’s deliberate self-parody of his act, but it’s not that far from the mark:
“Why do they call it ‘Ovaltine’?”
Good. Very good, even. But never dangerous. Never hitting a nerve.
That’s Jerry Seinfeld. No uncomfortable probing. No mind-blowing illuminations. And, as far as I know, and I’d be surprised to discover otherwise,
Jerry Seinfeld is a supremely competent comedian. Is he great?
I don’t think so.
“Greatness.” It’s a good thing. But do you have to do that to get there?
The evidence suggests…perhaps.
My mind is entirely open on the matter.
Got any ideas?