Satchmo: My Life As A Viper(In the year before his death in 1971, Louis Armstrong collaborated with
his biographers, Max Jones and John Chilton, by sending them tape recorded
interviews and letters written in his own inimitable style. Here, Louis
talks about his life as a marijuana smoker; telling about the 1931 incident
in which he was busted in LA; explaining his idiosyncratic approach to
gastrointestinal hygiene; and making a disingenuous claim to have quit smoking.)
"Speaking of 1931 - we did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days. Much different from the pressure and charges the law lays on a guy who smokes pot - a later name for the same thing which is cute to hear nowadays. We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that's full of liquor. But with the penalties that came, I for one had to put it down though the respect for it (gage) will stay with me forever. I have every reason to say these words and am proud to say them. From experience.
Now I'll relate a few incidents from the West Coast in California when Vic Berton (the top drummer then in all Hollywood) and I got busted together. It was during our intermission at this big night club which were packed and jammed every night with all sorts of my fans, including movie stars. Anyway, while Vic and I were blasting this joint - having lots of laughs and feeling good enjoying each other's company. We were standing in his great big lot in front of some cars. Just then two big healthy Dicks (detectives) came from behind a car nonchalantly - and said to us, we'll take the roach boys. (Hmm).
Vic and I said nothing. So one Dick stayed with me until I went into the Club and did my last show, he enjoyed it too. Because when he and I were on our way down to the police station we had a heart to heart talk. First words that he said to me were, Armstrong I am a big fan of yours and so is my family. We catch your program every night over the radio. In fact, nobody goes to bed in our family until your program's over. And they're all great - which I was glad to hear, especially coming from him. Ho Ho. Then I confidentially told him since you and your family are my fans they'd be awfully sad if anything drastic would happen to me, the same as the other thousands of my fans. So please don't hit me in my `chops', when he said to me, why, I wouldn't think of anything like that. That's all I wanted to hear. Immediately I said, OK let's ride. I also told him - after all I'm no criminal. I respect everybody and they respect me. And I never let 'em down musically. Hell, he said, you ain't doing any more 'n' anybody's doing. It's when they get caught is when they're found out.
Then this Dick confidentially told me, he said, Armstrong, this wouldn't have happened if that band leader - he probably smoked marijuana himself - who's playing just up the road from you, and the big name that he's supposed to have, didn't get jealous because you are doing bigger business than him. So he dropped a nickel on you (meaning) he dropped a nickel into the telephone and called us and stoolpigeon on you. They sent me and my partner to come up for the assignment, and when we found out that you was the one we must nab (arrest) it broke our hearts. They told me, you must understand we can get you six months for a roach (meaning) the stub of a joint of gage. That's when they laughed when I pulled my whiskers and said to them, `Ooh no, don't do me no favor such as that.' I was so relaxed on the way down to the station until I forgot I was being busted.
When we reached the police headquarters there were several officers, including the man at the desk, sitting around. And the minute we came through the door they all recognized me right away. They too had been diggin' my music nightly over the radio. Oh boy, were those guys glad to see me. They gave me one look (with glee) and said, what' ta' hell are you doing here this time of night away from the club? So we yakity yakity while I was being booked. That's one reason why we appreciated pot, as y'all calls it now. The warmth it always brought forth from the other person - especially the ones that lit up a good stick of that `shuzzit' or gage, nice names. Now, when it came to summing it up, the difference between the vipers and those using dope and all other kinds of drastic stuff, one could easily see who were actually dope addicts. First place they were never clean, and they stays dirty-grimey all the time. Show most addicts a bucket of water and they'll run like hell to keep it from touching them. But a viper would gladly welcome a good bath, clean underwear and top clothes - stay fresh and on the ball.
We didn't do much drinking lush. When we did we always figured that pot would cut liquor any time. And being c like we were we would take, a good laxative (of some kind) and keep our stomachs cleaned out, because that good stuff we were smoking gave you an appetite. And drinking makes you eat like a dog. A good cleaned out stomach makes one feel like any human deserves to feel, and I've always been physic minded. Mayann (Mother) used to tell me and Mama Lucy (my sister) always stay physic minded. You may not get rich but you won't ever have those terrible ailments such as cancer etc. And she would go out by the railroad tracks and pick a lot of peppers, grasses, dandelions, etc. and she'd bring it home and boil that stuff and give us kids a big dose of it. And my gawd - we'd make sprints to the toilet and afterwards feel `oh so good', all cleaned out 'n' stuff.
Every time I'd `light up' with a cat (viper) I'd mention laxatives and was happy to know that everybody got the message. Because for a while we were drinking Abalena Water. It came from a well in Abilene, Texas. We drank that well dry, so had to get another kind of physic. So we started taking Pluto Water, which was great. Then here come this book - a health book written by Gaylord Hauser. When I read down to the part where he recommended some `herbs' - herbal laxatives - I said to myself, `erbs, - Hmmm, these herbs reminds me of the same as what my mother picked down by the tracks in New Orleans.' Right away I went to the Health Store and bought myself a box of Swiss Kriss and took a big tablespoonful - make sure and see if it worked me the same as the other laxatives. Yes it did. Wow! I said to myself, yes indeed, this is what I need from now on - and forsake all others.
But back to the time I was busted on the coast. I spent nine days in the Downtown Los Angeles City Jail, in a cell with two guys who were already sentenced to 40 or 45 years for something else. Robbery, pickpocket, or whatever they were in for, didn't make any difference to me, and they cared less as to what I was in for. The most important thing was we were so very glad to see each other. Because it was a week ago I was blowing some good shuzzit with both of those characters. We reminisced about the good ol' beautiful moments we used to have during those miniature golf days. We'd go walking around, hit the ball, take a drag, have lots of laughs, and cut out.
Anyway, one night real late - those two cats started fighting amongst themselves over something, and the first words they said to me was, move out of the way `Pops', we don't' want to hurt them chops. And they fought their asses off until the jail keeper came and stopped them. One of them bit the other's finger off. They were intelligent, highly educated guys too. And they loved Pops' horn. It was actually a drag to me when I had to leave them in their cell and go to trial. They also expressed sadness. So we finally said goodbye.
As we walked through the cellblocks, where prisoners of many many nationalities were locked up, they looked up and saw me walking with this great big deputy sheriff and (en mass) they hollered Louie Armstrong over 'n' over. They also hollered sing Old Rockin' Chair, etc. etc., and I smiled and said, "Fellers, I don't have time right now, nothing but to concentrate on what I am gonna tell this judge." They all laughed and cheered, saying Good luck Louie. On the way to court we stopped at the clothes room to pick up the suit I went in there with. The man handed me my suit, which was torned all through the lining, looking for some stuff I guess, stronger than pot. Referring to me, he said, Why this man is no `Heeb' (their word when talking about dope fiends).
So I got to trial. Everybody were there - which takes in my boss, manager and a whole gang of lawyers - and I said to myself that I was straight. Meantime the Chicago papers were all on the stands, with big headlines saying Louis Armstrong will have to serve six months for marijuana, and things like that. The judge gave me a suspended sentence and I went to work that night - wailed just like nothing happened. What strucked me funny though - I laughed real loud when several movie stars came up to the bandstand while we played a dance set. and told me, when they heard about me getting caught with marijuana they thought marijuana was a chick. Woo boy - that really fractured me! Every night I would run across those same detectives who arrested me, glad as ever to see me, and me back on the mound blowing again.
Now I'm back in the club, and everything's running along very smoothly when one night the washroom boy comes up to the bandstand and says there is a white boy in the washroom who wants to see me in there. I asked who it was, and he said, I don't know but he just came up from the south and he has a large croaker sack (meaning Burlap bag) full of something that he said is especially for you. (Hmm). I went into the men's room and there was this fine ofay musician (a good one) who's father was big judge down south, so you can easily see he was well off. He led me to the corner and showed me this sack. It was full of gage in the rough-dirty looking and had to be cleaned.
He said "Louis this muta (one of the names lots of the Ears used) came from out of the back yard where the chickens trampled all over it, so it should be well seasoned." He and I went to the hotel over on Central Avenue, rolled up our sleeves, cleaned it real beautifully and rolled up one a piece. We dragged on down halfway to a "roach" and he was right. When we got on down there we could taste the cackling, the crowing and the other things those chickens did. Beautiful.
We finished at the club with a big closing night, and a big farewell celebration from everybody. With a promise to return, which I did a year later, I left the coast - arriving home in Chicago on a Sunday morning. Had a sleep up into the afternoon, then had my supper while listening to some of my records. Lil was out visiting some place. The door bell rang. I went to the door and found one guy standing there, pointing towards four other youngsters getting out of the car. I said Boys, I'm very glad to see you. It's been a long long time. The minute they came in they told me, "Pops, we came to serenade you." Those boys pulled out their guitars, ukes etc. and wailed awhile with a perfect beat which lifted me up just beautifully. Then they put up their instruments, one cat pulled out a big `bomber' - lit it - took two drags and looked straight into my eyes as he passed it to me, saying, "Pops, we all feel you could use this stick after all you've been through." I said, "Aw boys, Y'all didn't have to do this, reaching for that joint at the same time." Each of them pulled out a stick a piece and started blowing and talking about a lot of interesting things.
That moment helped me to forget a heap of ungodly things. Made me have the right frame of mind for my opening day at the theatre on the South Side, which was really something else. After all, the vipers and fans in Chicago thought I was actually serving time from the incident on the coast with my boy, Vic Berton, whom I still think is the greatest drummer of all times. So the theatre was packed to the rafters. They came to hear what their boy Louis had to say, and when I was introduced you can imagine the house coming down with thunderous applause which lasted for a whole gang of minutes. Made my heart flutter with happiness.
Soooo, when they quieted down I said Yea, you thought I was. But I wasn't. And that did it. Such yells . . . Dipper, Satchelmouth, etc, we're glad to see you back. We went into our show and every tune was a gasser. We did three shows a day, each one packed 'n' jammed. After two weeks in Chicago I formed a band and went on the road, playing theatres in different cities and towns.
One stop was the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, located in a poor negro neighborhood. The people were so poor until they couldn't afford to buy hard coal. When we arrived in the town it was as cold as a well-digger's you-know-what. Freezing. Well, I heard about these people who were too poor to get coal to keep themselves and their kids warm, so I bought some for them. Yass I did. Went to the coal yard, ordered a ton of coal and had the company to deliver it to the Lobby of the Royal Theatre. Then I had all of the folks who needed coal, to help themselves, it made them very happy. And they made it their business to come backstage and thank me personally - of course it all caused me to stick out my chest with pride. I came up through life the hard way just like those folks.
As we always used to say, gage is more of a medicine than a dope. But with all the riggermaroo going on, no one can do anything about it. After all, the vipers during my haydays are way up there in age - too old to suffer those drastic penalties. So we had to put it down. But if we all get as old as Methuselah our memories will always be of lots of beauty and warmth from gage. Well, that was my life and I don't feel ashamed at all. Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you 'heep much'. But the price got a little too high to pay (law wise). At first you was a 'misdemeanor'. But as the years rolled on you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor. (Jailhousely speaking). Sooo "Bye Bye, I'll have to put you down, Dearest."
[signed] `Soul Foodly, Satchmo'.
Gage, tea, muggles, reefers, and a dozen more names for marijuana, were common parlance among jazz musicians and friends who were 'Vipers.' This word has a period ring today, but was much used (as was tea) in some jazz circles during the `30s. It found its way into quite a few tune titles, among them Mezzrow's "Sendin' The Vipers," Snuff Smith's "If You're a Viper" and Fats Waller's "Viper's Drag." The rest of the marijuana-smokers' jargon infiltrated respectable society by way of record labels and catalogues and music publishers' lists. "Golden Leaf Strut," "Muggles," "Texas Tea Party," "Chant of the Weed," "Song of the Vipers" and "Smokin' Reefers" are random examples of `celebratory' recordings made in the `20s and `30s.
Louis was caught with some stuff and sentenced in March 1931. He never recounted the story of this affair until shortly before his death in 1971, when he agreed to 'tell it like it wuz'. This was that story.
[From "Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971" by Max Jones and John Chilton. Little, Brown and Company, Boston/Toronto 1971. - L.O.C. Catalog No: 76-175031]