Sitting in with Mingus
I don’t remember the date in 1963 when I met Charles Mingus, but historians will have no difficulty locating the exact spot: I was coming out of Tim Leary’s crapper, he was coming in.
Although everyone refers to him as Charlie, I don’t. He hated the diminutive. At any rate, we met again around Tim’s kitchen table. Tim served coffee, and I filled my corncob with Mafia-preferred weed. We and a couple of Tim’s young hanger-on’s made small talk until the pipe came round to Mingus. He puffed on it, passed it on, and calmly looked at his host:
"Tim, you’re a very nice person, because the people who got us together only know very nice people. But understand that me, Monk and Miles buy our acid by the jar," the fingers of his left hand making a pint jar.
Point elegantly made, he continued: "When we started out we used to do heroin on the lower east side, and we used to say ‘Oh man, how hip we are.’ But the roaches were climbing up the walls." His right arm pointing to those long dead native Manhattanites as they strolled up their ancestral walls. "Now we’re making over a $100,000 a year, each. Miles lives in a renovated Russian Orthodox Church." (I doubt the Bostonians caught his meaning, but that’s the ne plus ultra of architectural sophistication.) "You think you’ve found the philosopher’s stone in LSD. But, for all the acid we’ve done, I had to come to Boston to do a civil rights concert because down South I’m still a nigger."
Silence. Ever see a for-real honest-to-God shit-eatin’ grin? Tim had sat down at his own table, a very nice guy, with one of the world’s great musicians as his very nice guest. Wouldn’t you smile? But that silence got to stretching, and that natural little smile froze on his face until someone got up in pity and said something to end that singular scene. Heraclitus said "expect the unexpected" and, by chance, there I was, sitting across from one of the worldliest people on the planet, and one of the stupidest.
Why was I there for that extraordinary coven? On October 30, 1962, Stanley Mosk, the Attorney-General of California, spoke on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. I took him on in the question period, and shredded the state’s drug laws. That created a sensation on a campus already boiling with civil rights agitation. I announced that I would have more to say the next day at the traditional soapbox spot at Bancroft and Telegraph. When I got there, comrades in the Young Socialist Alliance ordered me to call off the speech. They had no position on drugs. As I was their local oratorical star, anything I said would be taken as their views.
I made the speech, and got charged with violating discipline. The executive committee couldn’t get the 2/3rds vote needed to expel me, but they got 60% to suspend my voting rights. I had to carry out YSA decisions without objection until they lifted the suspension. Whereupon I resigned in protest.
That and subsequent speeches defending the right to use marihuana, peyote and other non-addicting drugs, while calling for medical clinics for heroin-users, attracted substantial student support. We set up a Committee for Narcotic Reform but it ultimately faded out.
In spite of our success in organizing good new people, none of the then socialist and communist groupings saw the importance of what all political persuasions now say is one of the major questions of our age. Not one gave us any assistance. Given unreasoning sectarianism on their part, the inexperience of most CNR members, and my failings, that pioneer effort was foredoomed. But I then went east to try to build a national movement. In 1963 Harvard bounced Leary from its faculty over his work on LSD, and that brought me to his table. Mingus had spent the night at Tim’s.
From everything I’d read about Tim, I felt like Mingus. But that didn’t prevent me from wanting to work with him. Building coalitions in defense of people’s rights means trying to work with folks holding very different, sometimes very wrong ideas. But his lack of any comeback to Mingus’s superb commentary and its implied questions – not a wrong answer, no answer – convinced me, yea unto a certainty, that nothing good could come of any dealings with this ultimate drug-mystic space captain.
There was really nothing new about Tim. The starting point of his thinking about drugs, if you can call it that, was Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, then the Bible of the drug wackos. But if drugs open any door, it is not to any true reality behind what is external to ourselves. They bring to the fore unconscious instincts inside our psyche, normally held down by the junk-yard dog of repression. That allows us to think in new ways and about forbidden things. But it doesn’t follow that the new thoughts are necessarily correct. That depends on who you are, and what you are thinking about.
As Mingus said, Leary thought he had the philosopher’s stone in LSD. Mingus, like most people, understood that if you have real enemies you must beat them, or they beat you. "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" was a hit song during <W.W.II>, and we all knew it. In that spirit, Mingus liked LSD, but for him it was recreational. He knew that all the LSD in the world couldn’t end racism. However Leary wasn’t Black. He didn’t have to end anything. All he had to do was get some LSD, "turn on, tune in, and drop out," and he left the world’s woes behind while he contemplated the cosmos.
While Sandor Rado’s classic Freudian work on intoxicants, The Psychoanalysis of Pharmacothymia, was correct in focusing on the narcissistic component of drug use and abuse, it is important to remember that intoxicants are 1st off a form of oral gratification. Oral fixation underlies a vast spectrum of human expressions, including religion, especially in its fanatic forms. Indeed Leary had been reading oriental religions. In 1965 he went to India and became a Hindu. His LSD-induced narcissism ‘confirmed’ the oriental notion of spiritual oneness of the universe behind the material world and its conflicting appearances. To update Marx, if religion is the LSD of the people, LSD became Leary’s religion.
When our table-talk broke up, Mingus went into the front room. I came in a minute later. I had caught Thelonius Monk, Max Roach and other jazz greats, but at that time I was more interested in folk music than jazz. Though I knew of Mingus’s reputation as a great bassist, I had never heard him, even on records. Now he played beautifully at an upright piano. I listened for about 45 wonderful minutes.
He took a break and we got to talking about racism, Black nationalism and Malcolm X, and civil rights. He had no time for nationalism. "People think the white race and the black race are their teams. Those are the colors of their jerseys." In context, he meant that, whatever the masses thought, everybody did their individual thing.
Subsequent readings about him explained why that was so important to him. He studied for five years with Herman Rheinschagen, formerly principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic. And he had whites in his bands, among others, Don Butterfield, a tuba player, and so what?: "He’s colorless, like all the good ones."
He went back to the piano. I listened for a bit, said goodbye to him and Tim, and never saw him again. Preparatory to writing this, I’ve listened closely to some of his records. He accurately evaluated his music. "Tijuana Moods" is his best work. He was a good, not great, composer in the European sense. However he most assuredly was the ultimate bassist and, as his intimates knew then, and as I assure you now, a masterful pianist.
Mingus started his 1971 autobiography, Beneath The Underdog, with a discussion between him and his shrink. He explained that he was three people. Two of them were idiots but "one man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two." By chance, I had the unbelievably good fortune to catch the guy in the middle, a great and modest person, as realistic about life as he was serious about music.
Did I learn from him? Yes. But not enough.
LENNI BRENNER is editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis and a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). He can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com