Well before the hippies hit the scene, a drug-soaked, music-mad bohemia was birthed in the 1930s, according to this intoxicated history of the first American counterculture. Journalist Torgoff (American Fool) entwines several cultural turning points and the circles that nurtured them: the shift from popular big-band jazz of the 1930s to avant-garde bebop of the 1950s, with its inward, psychological bent, featuring musicians Lester Young, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane; the crafting of the jazz-inspired Beat movement by anti-establishment writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Borroughs; and the drugs that fueled both groups: mellowing marijuana, ravaging heroin, and hallucinogens that unlocked the doors of perception. Torgoff’s account celebrates the jazz-beat confluence as a breakthrough into the beginnings of a multiracial, anti-square society. It’s also a fervent critique of the war on drugs—his villain is Harry Anslinger, chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—that shades into drug romanticism as he insists, unpersuasively, that drugs crucially enriched artistic achievements. (A stoned Ginsberg, he gushes, beheld “the infinitude of the blue sky” and “saw the river of life flowing past” on Broadway.) This exuberant appreciation, made luridly entertaining by all the intoxicants, captures the wild energy and fertility of these seminal movements. Photos. (Jan.)
This review has been corrected; an earlier version listed the author's first name incorrectly.