The Mighty Mezz

by Albert Goldman

(Albert Goldman, who died in 1994, is notorious as the controversial biographer
of Elvis, who finally discredited himself with his much ridiculed attempt
to assassinate the character of the late John Lennon. Goldman may have been mean
spirited, but he did write a dope biog. of Lenny Bruce (which is out of print)
and, in 1977, this typically opinionated article about Mezz Meldrew which was
published in High Times and is reproduced without permission.)

'Dreamt about a reefer five foot long, Might Mezz, but not too strong."

It's a wise child that knows its own father. It's a dumb generation that not only doesn't know its real fathers but acts as if it didn't have any fathers - just avatars, reincarnations, previous existences and all that mystic bullshit. Frankly, it's always pissed me off, pious soul that I am, to think that this generation, which stands so obviously on the shoulders of the past, is so stupid and arrogant as to believe that it is self-created or born out of the hollow breath of some holy man in Benares or some dreadlock in Jamaica or some bald old beat poet suffering from verbal diarrhea and delusions of saintliness.

The fact is that the whole counterculture was not so much invented as discovered by the heroes of the Sixties. The people who created most of it - and paid the price for doing so - lived long before the days of Dylan. Not only were they the Columbuses of this brave new world, they were often the ones who lived it the hardest, dug it the fullest and left the most beautiful, imperishable records of what it's all about.

No West Coast hippie high on Sunshine ever had drugs dreams that could cap the visions of Thomas de Quincy; no rock musician ever played harder - in every sense of the word - than Charlie Parker; no camp follower of Janis Joplin - or Janis herself - could match the biggest, toughest, soulfulest momma of them all, Bessie Smith. It's a wise child that knows its own father and a wise generation that knows it progenitors.

Take the whole business of dope smoking and dope dealing and the culture of marijuana. Where did it all begin? Who was the pioneer, the prophet, the Johnny Appleseed of weed? Well, he sure wasn't some unheard-of, tenth-rate nineteenth century writer like Fitz Hugh Ludlow or some obscure migrant with a can of grefa in his kecks, or even a spivvy-looking playground pusher out of the pul fiction fantasies of the late but unlamented Harry J. Anslinger.

No, my dears, your father was a wonderful man, a real American: He was born of immigrant Jewish parents in Chicago, as he always liked to say, "on a windy night in 1899, along with the twentieth century." He grew up in a tough ghetto, working around the edges of the Prohibition-era rackets, needling beer for Al Capone and playing jazz saxophone in Syndicate road houses. He fell so madly in love with black people that he became the first white Negro: he settled in Harlem in the early thirties, where he divorced his white wife to marry a black woman and beget a black baby.* He got so hooked on opium that for four years he did nothing but lie inside a tenement coal bin smoking hop and talking trash. Finally, he pulled himself together again and wrote the single most important book about the counterculture, Really The Blues. Yes, my dears, your father was a wonderful man. His name? Milton Mezzrow, better known as The Mezz?

Now, how did the Mezz come to dope and how did he bring dope to America? To answer this question you have to wind your mind back to the Roaring Twenties when plenty of Americans, from tough purple-shirted gangsters in Detroit to little old lacy ladies in Dubuque, were fucking around with all sorts of heavy drugs, ranging from opium and heroin to cocaine and choral hydrate. Abut the only drug then in existence that Americans hadn't heard about or tasted was marijuana. 'Muggles,' as it was then called, was perfectly legal, but if you didn't have a pipeline to Storyville, the old red-light district in New Orleans, you couldn't buy a stick of guage for love nor money. 'Muta,' or 'Rosa Maria' as it was called down on the Texas border, was confined to two tiny elements of the population: Mexicans and the black or creole jazz men of New Orleans. It might have taken many more years for the stuff to find its way north if the navy hadn't closed down Storyville during World War 1, driving jazz and all its joyous ways up the Mississippi to Chicago and thus planting the dope right in the heart of America.

Poppa Mezz first got tuned on to weed in the men's room of a jazz joint outside Chicago. A dude handed him a wheatstraw paper and told him: "You got to hold that muggle so it barely touches your lips, see, then draw in air around it. Say tfft, tfft, only breathe in when you say it. Then don't blow it out right away, you got to give that stuff a chance." The Mezz gave it a chance: he smoked that fat joint right down to the butt. Then he went back on the bandstand. What happened next is not only interesting but important, for it explains why marijuana was eventually adopted by the great majority of jazz musicians.

"The first thing I noticed," recalled Mezz, "was that I began to hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head, but I couldn't hear much of the band in back of me, although I knew they were there. All the other instruments sounded like they were way off in the distance; I got the same sensation you'd get if you stuffed your ears with cotton and talked out loud. Then I began to feel the vibrations of the reed much more pronounced against my lip and my head buzzed like a loudspeaker. I found I was slurring much better and putting just the right feeling into my phrases - I was really coming on.

"All the notes came easing out of my horn like they'd already been made up, greased and stuffed into the bell, so all I had to do was blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other, never missing, never behind time, all without an ounce of effort. With my loaded horn I could take on all the fist-swinging, evil things in the world and bring them together in perfect harmony, spreading peace and joy and relaxation to keyed-up, punchy people everywhere."

Being an enthusiastic, ebullient, upbeat personality, the Mezz loved dope for the way it enhanced his senses, mellowed his mood and tickled his well-developed sense of humour. His description of the basic effects of dope is still as fresh today as when it was dictated 30 years ago:

"It's a funny thing about marijuana, when you first begin smoking it you see things in a wonderful, soothing, easygoing new light. All of a sudden the world is stripped of its dirty gray shrouds and becomes one big bellyful of giggles, a special laugh, bathed in brilliant, sparkling colours that hit you like a heat wave. All your pores are open like funnels, your nerve ends stretch their mouths wide, hungry and thirsty for new sights and sounds and sensations; and every sensation, when it comes, is the most exciting one you've ever had."

Mezz split from Chicago when the local jazz scene began to fade as a result of the migration of musicians to New York, which was destined to become the jazz capital of the world. Finding himself in Harlem in the year 1930 with nothing in his pockets but some Prince Albert cans or Diamond match boxes filled with grefa from his Mexican connection in Chicago ("Little Pasquale used to sell his muggles six for a dollar but he gave us a cut-rate price, a tobacco tin full-up with muta for two dollars, or a Diamond matchbox full for four or five"), the Mezz fell into the habit of mixing business with pleasure by pushing a little guage. To appreciate the importance of this act, you have to understand what a creative hotbed and social trend-setter Harlem was in the Thirties. Harlem then was not the heavy ghetto of today, far from it! Harlem was wide open, full to the brim with the joyous new life of the first American blacks ever to feel the sense of complete cultural liberation. The young eager blacks of that era were keen to dig this brave new world up north and make it ring with black dance, song, black laughter and, above all, black jazz, the master art of that era, the big beat of that day, the music that did for the Thirties what rock did for the Sixties. It was a rich and yeasty cultural brew that as bubbling off the pavements of Harlem when the Mezz blew in from Chi with his pocket full of high; it was a round-the-clock block party that had its center on a classic bit of turf called the Stroll, or Seventh Avenue, between 131st and 132nd Streets. Al the big names played up there: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie.

Mezz and his vipers (weed heads) were the tiny seed from which the whole modern dope culture sprang. Mezz was the messiah of marijuana. Characteristically, for this generous and warm-hearted enthusiast, he became a dope dealer less out of a desire to make a few bucks than to turn on all his new friends. His account of ow he drifted into dealing shows not only his own good nature, but the child-like naivete of the first dopers.

"Most of us were getting our tea from some Spanish boys and one day they turned up with a guy who pushed the stuff in Detroit when I was there. He wasn't selling it any more, but he put us in touch with another cat who kept coming up from Mexico with real golden leaf, the best that could be had. As soon as we got some of that Mexican bush we almost blew our tops. Poppa, you never smacked your chops on anything sweeter in all your days of viping. It had such a wonderful smell and the kick you got was really out of this world. Guys used to say it tasted like chocolate candy, a brand of Hershey never even though of.

"I laid it on the cats in the Barbeque and pretty soon all Harlem was after me to light them up. I wasn't working then and didn't have much money left to gay cat with, but I couldn't refuse to light my friends up. Before I knew it I had to write to our connection for a large supply because everyone I knew wanted some.

"Overnight I was the most popular man in Harlem. On the Corner I was to become known as the Reefer King, the Link between the Races, the Philosopher, the Mezz, Poppa Mezz, Mother Mezz, Pop's Boy, the White Mayor of Harlem, the Man about Town, the Man that Hipped the World, the made who Made History, the Man with the Righteous Bush. He who Diggeth the Digger, Father Neptune."

The respect Mezz garnered on the street was not only due to the quality of his dope; he resisted efforts by big-time gangsters to take over the dealing business in Harlem, as he resisted the efforts of legitimate business persons to package the stuff and sell it nationally. He didn't want dope dealing to become a racket or a high-powered commercial enterprise.

Glossary of Mezz-speak

Aunt Hagar: an old black mammy
bust your vest: be big about it
chinaberry tree: elderberry tree
deuce of blips: pair of nickels; a dime
dinner: pun of chicken-chick (girlfriend)
dommy: domicile, home
don't come up crummy: don't bullshit if you owe me the money
drape: suit of clothes
Father grab him: God kill him
freakish: gay
full orchestration: winter overcoat
gun the snatcher: dig the plain clothes police man
hawk: winter
hawk's axe: icy wind
J.B.: jet black
ketch-up: even the score
lay some iron: tap dance
lead sheet: skinny topcoat
line two: $2 (code for a $1 price)**
lozies: code for mezzroll (also lozeerose)
main stash: home base
mezzroll: a fat, well-packed joint (also meserole)
mixer: bar tender
offtime vine: old-fashioned suit
pay no rabbit: pay no attention
Pops: Louis Armstrong
put me on: turn me on
slotmouth: a black person, i.e.: hungry for money
spaginzy: a black person
stickin': holding some sticks of reefer
stickin' like a honky: come payday, someone with money
strollers: baggy trousers
take a chorus with me: I'll treat
Tenth Street: $10
the Track: the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem
to divide who's who: to figure out who plays which note (i.e.: which role in a homosexual relationship)
to make out of sportin' life: to spoil someone's fun
trey of knockers: the three pawnshop balls
two's and fews: $2-a-shot-and-less hookers
uncle: pawnbroker
when the kitchen mechanics romp: Thursdays, the maids' night off
Zackly: A hit of the day, Exactly Like You, by Pops.

** Prices, times and other figures were often doubled to deceive outsiders.

The Mezz's dealings were pure jazz in action. He dealt right off the top to the hippest cats on the continent. Their slanguage was a s slick as the music they loved. When they rapped, they got off just like a jazz man blowing his horn. A typical day in the life of the Mezz saw many cleverly phrased transactions and newly coined words echo among the streets and hangouts of Harlem, a colourful code know only to those colourful enough to use it:

First Cat: Hey there, Poppa Mezz, is you anywhere?
Mezz: Man I'm down with it, stickin' like a honky.
First Cat: Lay a trey on me, ole man.
Mezz: Got to do it, slot mouth. (Pointing to a man standing in front of Big John's gin mill.) Gun the snatcher on your left raise - the head mixer laid on a bundle his ways, he's posin' back like crime sure pays.
First Cat: Father grab him! I ain't payin' him no rabbit. Jim, this jive you've got is a gasser, I'm going up to my dommy and dig that new mess Pops laid down. I hear he riffed back on 'Zackly. Pick you up at the Track when the kitchen mechanics romp.
Second Cat: Hey Mezzie lay some of that hard-cuttin' mess on me. I'm short a deuce of blips, but I'll straighten you later.
Mezz: Righteous, gizz, you're a poor boy but a good boy. Now don't come up crummy.
Second Cat: Never crummy, chummy. I'm gonna lay a drape under the trey of knockers for Tenth Street and I'll be on the scene wearing the green.
Third Cat: (Coming up with his chick.) Baby this is that powerful man with that good grass that'll make you trip through the highways and byways like a Maltese kitten. Mezz, this is my new dinner and she's a solid viper.
Girl: All the chicks is always talking 'bout you and Pops. Sure it ain't somethin' freakish goin' down 'tween you two? You sure got the ups on us pigeons, we been on a frantic kick tryin' to divide who's who. But everybody loves Pops and we know how your bloodstream's runnin'.
Fourth Cat: (Coming up with a stranger.) Mezz, this here is Sonny Thompson, he's one of the regular guys on the Avenue and can lay some iron too. Sonny's hip from way back and solid can blow some guage, so lay an ace on us and let us get gay. He been knowin' Pops for years.
Mezz: Solid man, any stud that's all right with Pops must really be in there. Here, pick up Sonny, the climb's on me.
Sonny: (To his friend.) Man, you know one thing? This cat should have been born J.B., he collars all jive and comes on like a spaginzy. (Turning to Mezz.) Boy, is you sure it ain't some of us in your family way down the line? Boy, you're too much, stay with it, you got to git it.
Fifth Cat: Hey Poppa Mezz! Stickin?
Mezz: Like the chinaberry trees in Aunt Hagar's back yard.
Fifth Cat: Lay an ace on me so's I can elevate myself and I'll pick you up on the late watch.
Sixth Cat: (Seeing Mezz hand over the reefers to Cat No. 5.) Ow, I know I'm gonna get straight now, I know you gonna put me on.
Fifth Cat: Back up boy, forty-five feet. Always lookin; for a freebie, Jim, why don't you let up sometime? Hawk's out here with his axe, and me with this lead sheet on, trying' to scuffle up those two's and fews for uncle so's I can bail out my full orchestration.
Sixth Cat: Aw, come and bust your vest, what you goin' to make out of sportin' life? You know you took the last chorus with me.
Fifth Cat: Looks like he got me, Mezz, but this cat wouldn't feed grass to a horse in a concrete pasture. He's so tight he wouldn't buy a pair of shorts for a flea. Man, just look at him, dig that vine all offtime, and his strollers look like he's ready to jump. This cat's playin ketch-up and I got to tighten his wig. Hold it down, Jim (speaking now to Mezz) and I'll come up with a line or two like I said. Come on Jack, let's final to my main stash.

These cats had the fastest metaphors in town. To find anything like this lingo, you'd have to page back to the time of Shakespeare, when another illiterate population, the 'groundlings', exhibited a similar relish for words. Indeed, nothing could be more preposterous than treating people with such a witty command of language as 'culturally deprived'. The fact of that matter is those Harlem vipers had a culture that was so potent, so pure, so original and yet so perfectly in tune with the times that it eventually called the tune for all of American society, white and black, down to the conclusion of World War 2 and the dying of the real Jazz Age.

The mighty Mezz was at once the greatest digger, the greatest chronicler, the greatest celebrator of this culture, as well as being a principal actor on its main stage and contributor of its most characteristic fragrance - the pungent aroma of burning bush. Eventually, however, his dedication to the weed made him the first martyr to the laws that were passed, state by state, in the Thirties, leading up to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which so stamped out the flame that the Mezz had started and put the man himself behind bars.

Characteristically, the Mezz was not busted for selling dope but for trying to give it away. In 1940, while entering the back door of a jazz club at the World's Fair (ironically, the cub was called 'The Gay New Orleans'), Mezz was collared by a plain clothes detective who had been looking for a hard-drug dealer working that particular club. He was frisked and found to be carrying a pocketful of joints, which he planned to lay on the band. He was indicted under the new federal laws, convicted, and sent to Riker's Island. It wasn't the first bum rap he had taken and he served his stretch in fairly congenial surroundings, in a coloured cell block and playing in the prison band. But his days of dealing were over.

When he got out of the can, Mezz worked for a while as a record producer (who put together some now legendary dates with the surviving members of the original New Orleans school) and as a jazz musician. Eventually, he ran into a New York writer and intellectual named Bernard Wolfe who delivered the Mezz of his real baby, his classic American autobiography, Really The Blues.

The year that Really The Blues was published, 1946, saw the beginning of the Beat movement, which did as much to put dope into the hands of white America as did the Mezz to put it into the grasp of Black America. Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac - they were all the spiritual sons of the Mezz. Rhapsodes, all of them, chanting it up for a new, ecstatic and totally liberated view of American life, like you get while high on tea.

The Beats passed the joint to the West Coast rockers and they finally delivered it to the world. Now , finally, in 1977, an American president proposes to decriminalise marijuana, precisely 40 years after the passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act. The wheel has come full circle. The mission of the Mezz will soon be accomplished. From the cat house to the White House, America will be capped with a cloud of glory. Now wouldn't that gas ole Mezz right down to his alligator skin shoes? it's a wise father that knows what's good for his children.

And what of Poppa Mezz? After so many dope-related offenses, he was finally drummed out of the United States. His last years were spent in Paris - a Mecca for black musicians, even today, and not a bad place to blow your last days - where he died in 1972 at the age of 73.

* Milton Howard Mezzrow, born in 1936, the year before the imposition of marijuana prohibition across America, appeared at the 11th High Times Cannabis Cup in 1998, where his father was inducted into the Cannabis Hall of Fame and was interviewed by Steve Hagar for High Times, no 279 (November, 1998):

Where did you grow up?
Harlem, Booklyn, Long Island and Paris.

What were your father and mother like?
Argumentative. Mother was sweet, caring. Father was a little self-centered. There was a big age difference. She was 17 when he mat her, he was already 35, 36. Plus, there was the race thing at that time (she was black). So, I guess they had their troubles.

Do you remember the first time you met Louis Armstrong?
He was my godfather. I remember seeing him at some club, but I don't remember which club it was. In later years, I met him in England, where he lived. Somebody threw a surprise birthday party for me and we invited Louis' band over. It was the first time the band was in England since the '30s, because they had a ban on American musicians coming to England. The party lasted three days.

As a teenager, growing up, did you know your father was the most notorious pot dealer in Harlem?
I didn't know. I mean, I read the book, but it didn't mean much to me. It wasn't something I could relate to. People would shake my hand and say, 'Oh, you Mezz's son,' and there's be a joint or a cube of hash in it. I'd give it to somebody. Then one day, for some reason, I finally turned on.

When was that?
In 1957. We were listening to Miles Davis' Walkin'. I'll never forget it. The whole world of music opened up.

When did your father die?
In 1972. He was bothered by a double stomach and was taking some sort of narcotic medication. He was getting into oblivion. And his friends were telling him, "Hey, get off the drugs." I think he decided to go off everything cold turkey and then one day he slipped and fell and hurt his hip or his leg. He went to the hospital and that's where he stayed.

What was your father's state of mind like as he grew older?
He was the same always. He ate, he slept, he got around. he didn't do too much in his later years. He went to the horse track and lost a lot of money.

If a movie ever came out, who would you want to play your dad?
I one though about Woody Allen because he plays the clarinet and looks something like him. I sent him a little note at the club one night, but he said to talk to his agent.***

It almost seems as if there was a movement to bury your father's book.
Oh, I'm sure of it. Not just because of the cannabis issue, but because of the black-and-white issue. That was the main theme.

Have you though much about the legalisation of cannabis?
I'm all for it. Hemp is a great product - for oil, paper, linen. There are so many things it can be useful for other than smoking.

Do you think jazz would have happened without cannabis?
Oh, yeah. It wasn't only cannabis. Liquor had a big influence. The music came out of drinking and smoking.

How did your father's family react to his death?
My father stole his sister's coat in 1938 to buy a horn and his whole family never got over it. His brother is still holding a grudge from 1938. In fact, just before my father died, when he as in the hospital, I called my uncle, because my father had just gone back to visit them after maybe forty years of not having seen them. When he got ill, I was without funds. I called his brother and asked, "Can you help him?" He said, "Well, sir..." I said, "What do you mean, 'sir'? Aren't you my uncle?" "Well, sir, if Mezz needs any help, just tell him to write to us." So, needless to say, we never heard from them.

***NOTE: Woody Allen did pay homage to New York's jazz era in his serious/funny 1999 film, Sweet and Lowdown, starring Sean Penn as a guitarist whose relationship with a mute girl becomes the touchstone to his own development as an artist: 'Sweet and Lowdown is a full on love letter to a time and place that really only exists in Woody's idealistic imagination.'