Music writer Torgoff informally collects scenes from the illicit drug culture during the second half of the 20th century.
As all the singular and emblematic figures in the dope world over the last 50 years come walking through the author’s door, he passes on their words—good, bad, indifferent, paranoid—or tenders a bit of their drug history if they’re dead. Torgoff is not here to pass judgment, but rather to chronicle the rise of illicit drug use. He takes the middle road. Demonizing dope is absurd and pointless, he argues, and it’s equally nutty to claim that drugs are harmless, as a percentage of users will always experience abuse problems. He simply wants to know what Timothy Leary and William Burroughs were after. (The former said he learned “that consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded”; the latter noted after his first injection, “Well, now, that’s very interesting”). Allen Ginsberg’s “optical consciousness” interests him too. Torgoff paints a sad picture of Charlie Parker, who emerges as something of an idiot savant with one overwhelming fixation enwrapping one prodigious talent, and an equally sad picture of the Summer of Love: as novelist Tom Robbins said, “All utopias attract thugs, like iron filings to a magnet.” The hope for utopia, Torgoff notes, forms a major part of dope’s attraction, as do the brilliance of drug-fueled synesthesia and the wildness of literary forms created by users. In the 1960s, he recalls, smoking dope led to other kinds of rebellion: “All you had to do was get high to understand in the most visceral sense that the government was lying about pot; once you saw through that hoax, you started questioning what the authorities were saying about everything else.” Or maybe you got lost to bad acid or crack. Anything was possible.
Maybe it was all just (mostly) fun, but Torgoff's father’s question remains unanswered: “What did any of it really mean?”