The Mighty Mezz, Marijuana, and the Beat Generation
By Loren GlassMay 7, 2015
On October 6, 1950, Jack Kerouac wrote a long letter to Neal Cassady that has since become canonical for historians of the Beat Generation. This is the letter in which Kerouac has his famous revelation about Cassady’s epistolary talents, a revelation that would shape the form and style not only of On the Road but also, arguably, of the entire Beat aesthetic. Referring to the long-thought lost and now recently rediscovered letter that inspired his “spontaneous prose,” Kerouac exults:
Now, I almost had the urge to TYPE OUT your last letter, the best part, or all of it, for it was the best letter I ever received and the best letter you ever wrote in your life, to show you YOURSELF how you should write, i.e., the way YOU write when you’re not hung up on making a LITERARY voice and working two days on one crazy sentence.
Then, in a sentence that Joyce Johnson has borrowed for the title of her recent book, Kerouac concludes, “My important recent discovery and revelation is that the voice is all.” Important as this letter is, Ann Charters chose not to include all of it in her two-volume edition of the Selected Letters of Jack Kerouac, breaking it off in the middle for reasons that remain unstated. The rest of the letter can be found in the Kerouac Archives in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. It includes reminiscences about Kerouac and Cassady’s trip to Mexico that are equally important for the form and style, and legacy, of On the Road:
But let me tell you: did you ever see such a bomber as our boy Gregor rolled? And his mother’s backyard T garden way out in the desert; and those Indians digging us from the porch, from the road, and the particular one who dug us from leaning-on-a-pole in back, looking in through the back window. Here we were, Neal, according to your prediction […] smackdab at once in the middle of another culture […] not only that, but REALLY in another culture … Mexico is INDIAN. We never dreamed, did we? And there we were, talking in separate languages and how those guys dug you, too. HI? I was so HI I never been so HI […] WHOO! Finally there came absolutely, utterly the HIGHEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE […] From that moment on I believed in you for finally […] Now I'm myself, not anybody else since then.
Readers of Kerouac will of course recognize a first draft of the late, and arguably climactic, scene from Book V of On the Road. Scholars of Kerouac will recognize that this passage is also the basis of the “first great vision of Cody” that appears toward the end of the posthumously published Visions of Cody.
The Beats were the first generation of writers for whom cannabis was central, both to the experiences they recounted and to the prose style in which those experiences were rendered (and, insofar as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs frequently wrote while stoned, to their compositional methods as well). Furthermore, cannabis was central to the cross-cultural contacts, not only in Mexico but in the African-American community as well, that informed their countercultural sensibilities. “T” — as a typographical cypher, as a source of an entire insider vocabulary, as a site-specific marker of cross-cultural contact, and as a way of life — crucially informed the sympathies and sensibilities of the Beat Generation. Their cultural assimilation of cannabis is a crucial chapter in its passage to mainstream acceptance, and a study of that chapter can help us understand some of the consequences of that acceptance.
The central figure for both the culture and the circulation of cannabis in the United States prior to its countercultural apotheosis is the jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, born Milton Mesirow in Chicago in 1899, who became the principal supplier of Mexican marijuana to Harlem in the 1930s. His autobiography, Really the Blues, written collaboratively with Bernard Wolfe and published by Random House in 1946, chronicles his life as a musician, marijuana smoker, and dealer. Written in African-American dialect, Really the Blues features a long glossary of “jive,” including most of the slang terms for marijuana — such as “gauge,” “grass,” “grefa,” “gunga,” “hay,” “hemp,” “muggles,” “muta,” “reefer,” “tea,” and “weed” — that would later become part and parcel of the Beat vocabulary. Indeed, Mezzrow’s own name entered the local vernacular; a “mezzrole” was the type of joint he rolled, and “mezz” became a general term for anything of high quality.
Mezzrow, according to Wolfe, “came to believe he had actually, physically, turned black,” and is both an underappreciated inaugural example of Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” and a crucial antecedent to the Beat fascination with jazz and African-American culture more generally. Really the Blues, which went through numerous printings and was read by all the Beats, reveals how crucial marijuana use was to this well-known cross-cultural and, for the most part, homo-social complex. But critics have not been kind to the Mighty Mezz. For Gayle Wald, Really the Blues is an exercise in failure, striving for an impossible authenticity. Mezzrow became “enslaved, and even defeated, by his own authenticist ideals,” she writes, and she is particularly disdainful of Mezzrow’s attempts at “jive,” proclaiming that his “excruciatingly affected performance of black talk reveals precisely the disparities or discrepancies it wants to repress or forget.” And, insofar as Mezzrow championed swing during the rise of be-bop, he has not fared well with music historians either. Thus jazz critic André Hodeir, in his foundational study Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, uses him as an example of “a musician with only a mediocre gift of melodic invention.”
While Really the Blues traffics in familiar fetishes, it nonetheless provides a wealth of both historical information and sociological insight. If his account can be trusted, Mezzrow was present at a number of inaugural moments in the history of jazz, including what is often considered the first jam session (with Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby in the basement of the Three Deuces club in Chicago in late 1927), the introduction of the music to the Parisian intellectuals who would consecrate it as high art (during a visit to Paris he gives a bunch of “race records” to Hugues Panassié, whom he refers to as “the first real scholar and critic of jazz”), and the first interracial swing band (the Disciples of Swing, featuring Eugene Cedric, Frankie Newton, George Lugg, Vernon Brown, Elmer James, and others). And despite its use of various stereotypes, it includes some penetrating analysis of the racial and cultural dynamics of the jazz subculture during this formative period.
Most significantly, though, Really the Blues illustrates a somewhat underappreciated claim in “The White Negro”: there Mailer calls marijuana the “wedding ring” in the interracial marriage whose “child was the language of Hip.” Indeed, the “jive” section about which Wald is so dismissive is staged in terms of the one identity she neglects to discuss: dope dealer. Having discovered a Mexican source of “real golden-leaf,” Mezzrow begins selling it on the corner of 131st Street and Seventh Avenue, and, he claims, “overnight I was the most popular guy in Harlem.” As he notes, “that mellow Mexican leaf really started something in Harlem — a whole new language, almost a whole new culture.” After this bold claim, Mezzrow inserts a passage structured as a dramatic dialogue depicting him “standing under the Tree of Hope, pushing my gauge.” After the brief dialogue, Mezzrow comments on the significance of the language he has just represented, emphasizing, first of all, that its authenticity cannot be judged on the page since “this lingo has to be heard, not seen.” He then further affirms: “This Jive is a private affair, a secret inner-circle code cooked up partly to mystify the outsiders, while it brings those in the know closer together because they alone have the key to the puzzle.” Mezzrow represents jive as emerging due to cannabis, which is why much of its vocabulary refers to the substance that at least partially enabled it.
Marijuana was also crucial to the music. As Mezzrow attests, “Tea puts a musician in a real masterly sphere, and that’s why so many jazzmen have used it […] you hear everything at once and you hear it right.” The scene in which he first plays while high is something of a tour-de-force, its rhythm and pace anticipating Kerouac’s famous jazz club scenes in On the Road. Illustrating Mailer’s claim that “jazz is orgasm,” Mezzrow describes a woman who, responding to his solo, “cut loose from her partner and was throwing herself around like a snake with the hives. The rhythm really had this queen; her eyes almost jumped out of their sockets and the cords in her neck stood out stiff and hard like ropes.” After a full page of mounting frenzy, she collapses “as though somebody had yanked the backbone right out of her body. She fell to the floor like a hunk of putty and lay in a heap, quivering and making those funny noises way down in her throat.” The prose is as orgasmic as the scene it describes, linking the musical idioms to the vernacular of the text in ways that anticipate Kerouac’s bop prosody and Ginsberg’s breath-defying strophes.
Mezzrow explicitly aligns his musical style with contemporaneous literary developments, claiming that the Chicago Sound that he helped innovate “was only a musical version of the hard-cutting broadsides that two foxy studs named Mencken and Nathan were beginning to shoot at Joe Public in the pages of The American Mercury.” “The Mercury,” he continues, “gave you the same straight-seeing perspective that muta does — to me that hard-cutting magazine was a load of literary muggles.” Here, he uses the slang terms for marijuana as metaphors for the modes of perception and experience it induces. Similar to “mezz,” the idea of “literary muggles” illustrates how marijuana slang could become, in and of itself, an indicator of a general aesthetic style across different media and modes of expression.
Marijuana also facilitated cultural exchange. Mezzrow includes a symptomatic scene early in his narrative, when his fellow musicians have all left for New York, turning Chicago “from a frolic-pad to a mortician’s icebox.” He and a buddy decide to “go over to Pasquale’s and light up for a while.” For Mezzrow, the scene represents an uncanny injection of Mexican rural life into the urban United States:
around the only real hunk of furniture in the room, a big hollowed-out tree stump that squatted in the middle of the slanting floor, sat Pasquale and his friends, rocking on their heels, so high they were about to fly, with wide brimmed hats big as beach umbrellas stuck way back on their heads. It was a weird picture, lifted straight out of some jungle in the Sierra Madres.
The Mexicans roll joints “on a twenty-four hour shift” while some of them “strum their guitars and wail songs like La Cucaracha,” a corrido that became popular during the Mexican Revolution and which, famously, makes explicit reference to marijuana. Much as Mezzrow weaves his jive into the section recounting his introduction of golden-leaf into Harlem, here he makes a similar attempt to capture the patois of his Mexican source. The scene forecasts Kerouac and Cassady, who invariably indulged in stoned encounters with local sources of marijuana when they traveled to Mexico, episodes that in turn would be rendered as epiphanic in Kerouac’s fiction.
Mezzrow’s marijuana network was legal until 1937 when, after aggressive lobbying on the part of Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, making cannabis illegal across the United States. Soon after, in 1940, Mezzrow was arrested. In jail, he insisted on being housed with the African-American inmates, with whom he promptly formed an interracial band. Their jamming was enhanced by marijuana smuggled into the jail by Mexican-American WPA workers running a sewer pipe under the building. His narrative concludes a few years later when he runs into Bernard Wolfe in a Greenwich Village jazz club, who tells him that his life “needs a book, a hell of a long book.” Mezzrow is dubious, not only about whether his life merits such a book but also about whether he is capable of writing it. But Wolfe persists, claiming that Mezzrow’s life is “a real American success story, upside down: Horatio Alger standing on his head.”
Many of the Beats read this inverted success story, and it deeply influenced their cultural and aesthetic program. Ginsberg, for instance, discovered it at the Columbia University bookstore in the ’40s, and later claimed it was “the first signal into white culture of the underground black, hip culture that preexisted before my own generation.” His generation would, in turn, pass it down to the counterculture that would, in its own turn, render it mainstream. The racial mimicry and appropriation involved in this process has been widely acknowledged and critiqued; the role of cannabis, while well known, has been critically marginalized. But, as Really the Blues amply documents, cannabis was crucial in establishing the social networks, cultural contacts, insider vocabularies, aesthetic styles, and compositional techniques that the Beats would introduce by way of the counterculture into the American mainstream. Cannabis was central to, as Mezzrow put it, “a whole new language.”
Loren Glass is professor of English and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. His books include Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880-1980 and Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde. He is directing a Digital Humanities initiative called “The Program Era Project.”
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