Wassily Kandinsky, “Impression III (Concert),” 1911, oil on canvas. Munich, Lenbachhaus. Image via WikiArt.

The tune is just three chords, the I, IV7, V7 progression common in Gospel and a lot of New Orleans music, suited to both exultation in the pews and good-natured debauchery. According to Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack, one of the many artists who covered it, the song’s shuffling rhythm was known as “the jailbird beat,” maybe because in many prisons convicts were chained together, which forced them to walk (loosely) in step as they were marched off to work in the fields. This was a common practice at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a prison so shitty that in the 1930s, one out of every ten men confined there could expect to be stabbed in any given year. And, indeed, Angola is name-checked in one of the song’s verses:

. . . six months ain’t no sentence
. . . one year ain’t no time
They got boys up in Angola
Serving nine to ninety-nine

While “Junco Partner (Worthless Man)” isn’t really a prison song, it is a song about the kind of man who often ends up in prison. Statistically, such a man is likely to be serving time for drugs (45.2 percent nationwide) — that is, a junkie. He is also disproportionately likely to be African American (66 percent of Louisiana’s inmates; 38.3 percent nationwide). The men who sent him to prison probably view him as worthless. He may view himself as worthless. And you can imagine that it would probably be unproductive for such a man to argue the contrary with, say, a prison guard. At a certain point, it may be better to embrace the label, to look up, meet the other in the eyes, and say, Okay, so I’m worthless, and maybe even to make an anthem of it, using that I, IV7, V7 progression and a stuttering jailbird beat. This move is an example of what’s known as stoicism. You know the Stoics: Marcus Aurelius was one, and also Epictetus, a former slave.

“Junco Partner (Worthless Man)” was first recorded in 1951 by James Waynes, also known as James Wayne. The song is credited to Bob Shad, though some say Shad was a sham and Waynes wrote it himself or maybe adapted it from one of the hundreds of older tunes that were laid in alluvial deposits in the bottomlands of the Mississippi. Mac Rebennack said that it was already a street anthem in New Orleans, “the anthem of the dopers, the whores, the pimps, the cons.”

Different recordings of “Junco Partner” came out in bursts. Waynes’s was followed a year later by cover versions by Richard Hayes and Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, who gave it a Latin treatment. After Dr. John covered it in 1972, Professor Longhair took a turn in 1974, and then classically-trained James Booker in 1976: the song passing like a relay’s baton between the three towering virtuosos of New Orleans piano, ending at last with the most freakishly virtuosic of them all.

James Booker was a child prodigy who recorded his first hit at twelve and by fourteen was playing gigs under a fake ID. In the course of his career, he was a sideman for Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin, Fats Domino, Ringo Starr, and Dr. John, with whom he remained friendly even after they had parted ways professionally, perhaps as a result of Booker’s notoriously erratic behavior. You can get an idea of his musical range from the list of tracks on his 1976 studio album Junco Partner. Along with the title song, it includes an adaptation of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Booker chose the last in imitation of Liberace, who always played it to close out his television show. He called himself the Black Liberace.

Booker was also the most colorful of the New Orleans triumvirate: one-eyed (he wore an eyepatch decorated with a sequined star), multiply addicted, and as resplendently queer as Liberace, though unlike Liberace, he made no pretense of being a heterosexual bachelor with a thing for candelabra. He once came onstage in a diaper, holding a gun to his head, and threatened to shoot himself on the spot if somebody didn’t give him some cocaine.

When you listen to Booker’s recording of “Junco Partner,” which is slower paced than the Doctor’s or the Professor’s, it often sounds as if two pianos were playing at once. George Winston said of him: “His little finger on his left hand is like the bass pedal on a Hammond [organ]. The top part of his hand is like a rhythm guitar or piano part. And his right hand is basically Aretha Franklin.” Booker’s music is usually described as rhythm and blues and sometimes as jazz, but it also stands adjacent to ragtime, which from the moment of its appearance in the 1890s, had a radical, transformative impact on American popular music. Ragtime was one of the first musics composed and performed by Black people to be widely adopted by white ones, even celebrated by them, as it was by Irving Berlin in his 1911 hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

The shock of ragtime was its syncopation. Before Scott Joplin, audiences in the West had rarely heard music played off the beat. Suddenly, the empty space between notes — space that no one seemed to have realized was empty — was being filled. The music that emerged was more eventful than any previous popular music. It rippled and effervesced. At the same time, it called attention to its empty intervals, places where the listener expected to hear a note and instead met silence. I think it’s Keith Richards who said that when a musician skips a note, it registers with more force than if he’d actually played it.

Booker seems to have similarly emerged from the space between. His Blackness and queerness and drug addiction situated him in the category of the worthless, as it was defined in his time (and not just in his time). His jaw-dropping talent placed him somewhere else, possibly beyond categorization altogether. Maybe instead he passed back and forth between the opposing states of the “worthless” and the “worthy,” a particle defying every attempt to fix its position and trajectory.

If Professor Longhair and Dr. John play “Junco Partner” as a scrambling boogie-woogie, Booker makes it a street parade. In New Orleans there’s a long tradition of unlikely sources being repurposed as parade music, as happened to the funeral dirge “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A child of that city, Booker did the same with an anthem of the worthless: the dopers, the whores, the pimps, the cons, and of course the junkies, the junkies most of all. He had them all go marching in.

* * *

Most interpreters trick out the melody with walking and stride bass-lines, bouquets of grace notes, maybe some boogie triplets. John Hammond replaces the piano with a distorted guitar playing a shave-and-a-haircut Bo Diddley riff. Louis Jordan’s cover foregrounds his antic vocals, sometimes in a call-and-response with the piano, sometimes in a call-and-response with itself, as when he interrupts, “Give me water when I’m dry,” to cry out “Agua! Agua! Agua!” like a vendor at a bullfight. The common feature of most of these covers is their fun. Their virtuosity isn’t meant to strike you dumb like a miracle in church; it’s meant to make you dance, even if you just do it in your seat, to laugh out loud with incredulous pleasure.

The main shock of the song is the portrayal of the junco partner himself: the junky as stumblebum, knock-down loaded and wobbling all over the street. That is some serious fucked-up. He sniffs at prison. He pawns everything he owns; the only thing that keeps him from pawning (which I guess means pimping) his girlfriend is that — depending on whose version you’re hearing — she can’t or won’t sign her name on the note. (If you ever doubt the power of a single word — or even a single letter — compare the emotional valence of “the girl couldn’t sign her name” with that of “the girl wouldn’t sign her name.”)

The junkie, the worthless man, calls out for more, more of everything — more, or the demand for it, being a shorthand for all addiction (as it is for late-stage capitalism).

Of course, someone might raise the question, This song is fun? Or perhaps, Who is this fun for?

We’re used to tragic songs about addiction. They portray addiction as enslavement, either to the drug or the dealer or a flaw in the user’s nature. There’s a hole he keeps trying to fill, and he fails every time. I’m gonna try to nullify my life. Part of the tragedy is the divide between what the addict believes and what the observer knows: the one longed-for shot vs. the unending cycle of jonesing, copping, and getting off. I caught you knocking at my cellar door, I love you baby, can I have some more. Addiction is a state of ceaseless repetition that masquerades as a single, unduplicable instance.

The other tragic thing is that what feels so good when you take it feels so terrible when it’s gone. In this way, the addiction song is like a torch song: It is a torch song, in which a moment of love, which is to say presence, is followed by days and weeks, a lifetime really, of absence. I got me a friend at last. Even now, thirty-five years after my last shot, I sometimes think that the one thing in life I ever truly wanted — unhesitatingly, without ambivalence — was to shoot dope. I’ve just stopped missing it.

When one scrolls through internet lists of songs about addiction, what stands out is how many of those songs were written or performed by white artists. On “155 Songs About Substance Abuse,” one of the few exceptions is Lightning Hopkins’s “Gin Bottle Blues.” It dates from 1954, which also makes it one of the list’s oldest entries. I done throwed away that gin bottle, please don’t offer me your wine.

Most of the “155 Songs” date from the 1990s and 2000s. It’s during this period that drug addiction, which up until then had been treated chiefly as a vice of or crime committed by Black and brown people, was recategorized as a sickness suffered by white ones. Addicts who had once been objects of fear and contempt were now objects of pity.

Prior to those years, addiction wasn’t seen as a problem; addiction barely existed. The problem was drugs and Black and brown drug users. It was solved by more vigilant, ruthless policing and harsher prison sentences, including one that treated possession of five grams of the crack cocaine purportedly favored by African American gangbangers as equivalent to that of five hundred grams of the powdered kind purportedly favored by European American bond traders. He’s out on bail and out of jail and that’s the way it goes.

It was only when white people in the hollowed-out small towns and countryside of the post-industrial Midwest began nodding out on the main street and ODing in cars, supporting their habits with B&Es and penny-ante scams that rarely brought in enough for more than the next day’s high, that addiction was abstracted out of the bodies of individual Black and brown drug users to become a miasma hanging over a white population, shadowing and afflicting it. Only then did it become a tragedy. Oh mama, oh mama, I tell ya, I shot myself down.

For a listener steeped in those tragic songs about drug addiction, “Junco Partner” is a jolt; depending on how wedded you are to the idea of the sad junkie, its jolt is either blasphemous or bracing. Some of it is due to the jauntiness of the melody and the spring-loaded funk of the beat, which gives almost every version of the song an absurd, optimistic swagger. A popular misconception is that junkies are pessimists, but you have to be an optimist to keep on chasing something that has always eluded you, and always, always stripped you of your money and your pride, and somehow believe this time will be any different. Compared to your average junkie, Wile E. Coyote is an unflinching realist.

Give me whiskey when I’m frisky
Give me water when I’m dry
Give me a tincture when I’m sickly
And give me heroin before I die

The above is just one version of the song’s final and most frequently changed verse. Dr. John wants tobacco when he’s sickly, and Booker doesn’t get sickly, he gets lonely and wants his lover, and when his time comes, he’ll take some cocaine along with his dope, thank you. James Waynes, singing in a more innocent era, or perhaps being a more innocent person, just asks for heaven.

Give me heaven when I die.

* * *

As a child I once saw a very bent old man shuffling rapidly down the street, as fast as someone could go without lifting his feet. When he had traveled a little way in this manner, maybe the length of five or six brownstones, he froze in place for several seconds, glaring about him as if to challenge anyone who might remark on his behavior, then spat with force into the gutter. This seemed to free him from his paralysis, and he resumed his frantic shuffle for a little while until he froze once more. The spectacle was so grotesque that I started imitating it for my friends.

When my mother caught me doing it, she angrily told me that I was mocking somebody with Parkinson’s disease. Oh, I can’t crawl across the floor. But my purpose hadn’t been mockery. It had been apotropaic, to ward off what even then I recognized as an affliction. A cross brandished at a vampire. Probably a lot of mockery has the same origin. Think of how many of the mean jokes of childhood — the ones you hear from the bad kids before you start telling them yourself — are about other children: Q. What do you call a boy with no arms and no legs? A. Matt. Q. What do you call a boy with no arms and no legs when you throw him into the swimming pool? A. Bob.

The impulse continues into adulthood. Maybe this isn’t fear; maybe it’s just meanness. You can’t underestimate people’s capacity for meanness, meanness toward the ones who are weaker and more hurt than they are, meanness toward the great who are brought low. After Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, a popular joke was to light a match and wave it from side to side. Q. What’s this? A. Richard Pryor running down the street. He had third-degree burns over fifty percent of his body.

But what if Richard Pryor tells the joke on himself? He does this at the close of his 1982 concert film, Live on the Sunset Strip. The powerful punch down, their jokes always at the expense of others, and their characteristic punchline is some variation on Oooh, that’s gotta hurt! If you’re one of the powerless, the passed- and fucked-over, the worthless, you have to make jokes at your own expense: Oooh, that really hurts. You do it for all kinds of reasons, but the landing of those jokes — the way their laughter rings or dies in the air — depends in part on whom you tell.

Maybe you’re up before an audience of your betters, and you try to ingratiate yourself by confirming their wonderfulness, which means enacting their most degrading notions about you. With these you are familiar. Maybe instead you challenge those people. Maybe you ask them, Are you my better? Just how wonderful are you, motherfucker? Maybe, without altering a word, with nothing more than a pause, you turn the joke against them.

At the end of the Sunset Strip gig, after telling the bloodcurdling and hilarious story of his near immolation on the altar of his habit — the days and weeks lost in the sticky bonhomie of the pipe, the failed interventions, the horror of being bathed after having half his skin burned off — Pryor briefly flatters the customers, most of whom are white: “I want to say y’all gave me a lot of love when I was…not feeling well,” he begins.

After the clapping has died down, he adds, “Yeah, applaud yourself. Also, y’all did some nasty-ass jokes on my ass, too.” He takes a drag of his cigarette. “Oh yeah, you didn’t think I saw some of these motherfuckers. Since you loooove me so much.” The word is squeezed out between the equal and opposite pressures of delectation and disgust.

Then he strikes a match.

* * *

In 1951, a junkie who viewed his addiction as a tragedy wasn’t going to get much sympathy, even from other junkies: Fuck you, man, man the fuck up and hand me a piece of that cotton. Certainly not from the law. Remember, addiction wasn’t a disease yet. Disease hadn’t yet acquired the ubiquitous and definitional glamor it has in America today. Even ten years later, the only charities I can remember advertised in newspapers, or at bus and subway hoardings, were ones like the March of Dimes, Easterseals, the American Cancer Society. Not a junkie in the bunch. Who was going to donate to something whose poster child was a grown man with his eyes at half-mast and an itch?

And so, the junkie was forced to adopt a certain stoicism, and that stoicism formed the basis of what came to be called cool. One of the chief markers of cool is an aptitude for leaning against things: walls, doors, parked cars. A junkie does a lot of leaning.

But a stoic can also be a clown, a weaving nuisance on the public thoroughfare, a runner of petty grifts, a frequenter of the pawn shop and the jail cell, a betrayer of anyone foolish enough to love him — love, on the quantum level of addiction, being a particle that bursts briefly into existence and then is gone. Only its afterimage lingers. It’s the afterimage that deceives. A good clown shouldn’t laugh at his own jokes or his own pratfalls. While he may make a show of dejection or lugubriousness, he shouldn’t be seen to cry. Save that shit for Pagliacci.

Of course, what I call stoicism may just be the performance of it. Most addicts I’ve known were intensely sorry for themselves, as I was for myself, brooding over the many insults whose sole consolation was this thing I did, the consolation for which was only ever more of it.

Once during those years, a friend named Morris — he wasn’t a user — was renovating a tenement between two of the letter avenues in New York City, when someone broke into the building while he was out and stole all his tools, thousands of dollars’ worth. No one knew who had done it. A few nights later, he was awakened by the sound of weeping in the courtyard below. When he went to the window, meaning to tell the crybaby to go cry somewhere else, he realized that the man below was a friend, who also happened to be a junkie. “Ohhhh, I’m a bad friend,” the junkie cried into the night. Listening to him, Morris realized that he had to be the person who had robbed him.

It seems unlikely that this guy wandered into this particular courtyard and sat down exactly beneath Morris’s window only to be spontaneously overwhelmed with guilt. More likely, he wanted to confess but also to ensure his confession was relatively low-risk, since Morris would’ve needed to throw on some clothes and scramble down several flights of stairs in order to punch him. The sum of it is, Morris got to find out what had become of his tools and the worthless friend got to feel a little better with this secret off his chest. He died a few years after that, of AIDS.

James Booker died in a wheelchair in 1983, while waiting to be seen at New Orleans’s Charity Hospital, the cause of death being variously listed as cocaine overdose, alcohol poisoning, or a heart attack brought on by too many years of abuse. He was forty-three. His drug trouble may have started as early as the age of nine, when he was struck by a speeding ambulance and, with his leg broken in several places, was given morphine for pain. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp. Rickie Lee Jones, who met him during his last years, described him as “just a man who had dug a place inside himself too deep to stay in and now it was too far to come up to bother visiting with people.” He once wrote, “Rejoicing in sorrow is nothing strange to me.”

After years of heroin addiction, Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, got clean in 1989 and remained drug-free until his death in 2019.

James Waynes (or Wayne) was arrested in 1967 for burning down a motel in South Central Los Angeles. He was diagnosed with alcoholism and paranoid schizophrenia, and remanded to the Atascadero State Mental Hospital, where he remained for some years before emerging once more onto the streets of L.A. He is thought to have died in that city in 1978.

It took me several playings of Waynes’s recording of “Junco Partner” to be sure he sings “give me heaven when I die.” For the longest time, I thought it was “give me heaven before I die.” That seems as good a statement as any of what an addict is seeking. When always comes too late.

Peter Trachtenberg

Peter Trachtenberg is the author of Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons; 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh; and The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning, which won the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2009 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. He’s currently at work on The Last Artists in New York, a group biography of New York’s Westbeth arts community that’s also a meditation on the predicament of the arts in the late capitalist metropolis. It will be published by Black Sparrow in 2023. His honors include the Whiting Award, the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, a Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and residencies at Yaddo and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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