Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Damage Done...

Drugs have always been involved in the world of music, through generations and across genres there have always been various substances taken to keep awake the guys and girls who work the clubs and after hours circuit, a little something to help calm the nerves of stage fright or keep them from passing out due to the workload heaped on top of them by uncaring record companies.

In the 30’s and 40’s heroin was the drug of choice and a lot of the many great artists of that time, including Billie Holiday, couldn’t escape from the grip of the poppy throughout their whole lives. Before Pete Doherty was picking out his first trilby, the likes of Charlie Parker were living hand to mouth to feed their monumental habits while also finding time to influence generations of jazz musicians. He died early and from the doctors report they were amazed that he lasted as long as he did due to the overall amount of neglect and self abuse he’d gone through in such a short period of time.

The posters and photographs will be there forever so all the great iconic rock and roll stars that went the way of the dodo due to rock excess and blindly believing that it actually lead to the valley of wisdom tend to be the ones that crash the hardest when the party is finally over.

It seems that with drugs of any kind in music it’s really a case of ‘different strokes for different folks’, while a drug like heroin destroyed many a great man and woman in music and cut their careers drastically short either by death or killing the talent and inspiration stone cold, for others it is a way of forming a womb like barrier between reality so that the essence of creativity and the muse can be channelled more directly. Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones spoke about this when discussing the making of ‘Exile on Main Street’, it seems that while everyone else was flagging, looking to call it a night and head home, Richards would be retuning and playing variations of the same riff and musical passage for the 1000th time to make sure it was exactly what he was hearing in his head. Listening to the outcome it’s hard to argue with his game plan.

Another example of using drugs to help push the creative aspects of an artist to almost breaking point that I can think of would be Bob Dylan during his meteoric run of 5 star work in 1965-66 where he managed to write and record ‘Bringing it all Back Home’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and the groundbreaking ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (a double album no less). During this period Dylan survived on a diet of speed and marijuana to take the spiky edge off and eventually keep his sanity on an even keel.

‘Speed’ itself or amphetamine sulphate has been one of the cornerstones of the rock and roll underbelly even since the conception in the early 50’s. Artists from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash would regularly purchase over the counter ‘diet pills’ from their local friendly chemist and gulp down handfuls at a time to keep the party going and reality at bay. During their teenage initiation into the world of showbiz the young Beatles were given the same pills by the waiters and barmen in the clubs of Hamburg to keep the flagging and tired group stomping and singing through their mammoth 4 hour sets completely wired and frothing at the mouth. George Harrison later recalled these times “ah those were the days” he joked.

Please don’t misunderstand me I’m definitely not in favour of artists abusing their minds or bodies and do not for one single minute believe that hallucinogenic substances some how open some hidden well of creativity within. Although there seems to be the opinion that drugs are medication that help the artist widen their viewpoint and perception to a greater spectrum of that of the mere mortal, I see this as a complete fallacy created by drug dealers and drug addicts in denial.

John Lennon wrote ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in spite of influence of LSD rather than because of it. This seems to be the thing that most second rate druggie rocker stars miss. You have to be talented in the first place before you can use any outside influences for your artistic expression. This is the reason that a bona fide drug casualty like Syd Barrett would dose himself with LSD and Mandrex and wander off to Cambridge to live in his mother’s basement and likewise Jimi Hendrix would do the same thing and blow Cream off the stage with his abilities and natural talents.

For some artists it only takes one moment of indulgence to throw the ship so far off course that there can be no turning back. Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys founder, songwriter and producer) used marijuana as a way to channel his song writing inspiration, as well as using it to help calm his nervous disposition and listen more intently to the ideas inside his mind. He created the album ‘Pet Sounds’ while in this frame of mind. He later joined the generation freak out and heavily medicated himself with LSD before attempting his biggest concept, a musical “teenage symphony to God” and begun working on the (until recently) ‘unfinished’ album ‘SMiLE’. While a small fraction of music and song ideas were wonderful he couldn’t concentrate his thoughts enough to actually fit them all together in a rational arrangement. In his own words, the influence of acid ‘shattered his mind’ and he lost some of his peak years living as a virtual recluse, eating and abusing himself out of commission. Wilson, like contemporaries such as Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, the intake of LSD awoke previously dormant aspects of schizophrenia which would trouble each of them for the rest of their lives.

There have been many artists that took one trip too many and never made it back around the sun again. The rock and roll history book is littered with the names of dead young people that slipped from the road of their chosen career only to overdose in a dingy hotel room or the back seat of a car. Names such as Gram Parsons, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bon Scott, Phil Lynott, Keith Moon, John Bonham and more recently Amy Winehouse, proving that generation after generation the world of drugs will always be attracted by a certain type of person. Unfortunately for us although these are the people that have so much to offer artistically they are also the ones that walk a daily tightrope between greatness and oblivion.

*originally on CALMZINE magazine

*photo of Syd Barrett

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