Drug use may impair one’s ability to play music, but as Loyola University professor Lewis Erenberg points out, “Very few people argue that dope hinders the hearing of it.” Though he’s preparing to take part in this weekend’s symposium on drugs in American culture at the Chicago Historical Society, Erenberg still lowers his voice as a neighbor passes by: “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll goes back to the beginning of popular entertainment.”

Erenberg cites the cocaine use that characterized New York’s infamous afternoon “tango teas” in the 1910s. “The couple dances are close,” he says, “so there’s concern about the tango. And rubbing.” The cabarets, he explains, hired gigolos to dance with unescorted women; silent-film star Rudolph Valentino supposedly began his career as one. “But there’s concern that these ‘tango pirates’ are seducing women through the dance and through cocaine. And this was a period when cocaine was in use, especially among the upper class.”

By World War II Americans began to experience music less as dancers than as listeners, a development that aligned them more closely with musicians. The social dislocation of the war, Erenberg argues, contributed to the beginnings of a rebellious youth culture, and drug use–especially heroin use–among musicians began to spread. Postwar musicians “were trying to create a music that they liked, which became much more for listening and hearing. Bebop is nondanceable, for the most part. It’s dissonant, very complex. You get the sense of a fractured world. But this is the fountainhead of modern music, and Charlie Parker became a symbol of heroin.” When audiences began to catch up, they wanted to listen to the music as intensely as the players did. In a sense, “the public discovered what the musicians had known.”

From that point, popular music began to be equated with “antisocial” behavior. “We start slowly in the 40s to get the beginnings of a drug scare,” says Erenberg, who penned the upcoming book, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. Drug arrests of musicians increased steadily throughout the decade after the 1943 marijuana bust of drummer Gene Krupa. “And by about 1950 the shit hits the fan. It’s all over the press.” The music’s enduring association with drugs hurt our culture, according to Erenberg. “The all-American nature of popular music was undercut.”

The symposium, “Culture Shock,” will mark the closing of the exhibit “Altered States: Alcohol and Other Drugs in America.” It takes place at 2 this Saturday at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark and North; it’s free with museum admission ($5 suggested donation). Call 312-642-4600, ext 383.

–Mark Rosenthal

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lewis Erenberg photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.