Music and drugs – It’s a hard habit to break

We all have our addictions. Who can get through the day without the crafty fag, the four o’clock chocolate, or the wee dram after dinner? But not all of us have to wear our addictions publicly, the way that Amy Winehouse and other performers have to. The tragic lass was, however, braver than most in confronting her weaknesses head-on in her art, most notably in her signature song “Rehab”, the anthem which went on to win the Grammy for Song of the Year.

Winehouse was clearly no stranger to the tendrils of addiction, using the term as a romantic metaphor for obsession in “Addiction” itself, while some of the most striking songs on her Back to Black album, such as the title track and “You Know I’m No Good”, are infused with the underlying sense of wretchedness and self-loathing which often accompanies the condition. Indeed, it could be said that it was in part this desperate self-knowledge that gave her performances such emotional authenticity. But it’s for the directness and assertiveness of “Rehab” that Winehouse is liable to be most remembered: just as “Imagine” shot to No 1 the week following John Lennon’s murder, so “Rehab” has topped the chart again.

“Rehab” was not the first song to confront addiction, but it was certainly unusual in refusing to regard addiction in a completely negative light. Drugs have long provided popular music with one of its more ambivalent subjects, with the image of the jolly “reeferman” a recurring figure in jazz lore, and Ella Fitzgerald’s jocular “Wacky Dust” testifying to the properties of cocaine. But alongside this amused indulgence has always lurked an acknowledgement of the darker, less glamorous side of drug abuse, often dangerously intertwined with half-baked notions of creation. Even as Charlie Parker sank deeper and deeper into heroin addiction, countless lesser talents eagerly started on their own drug habits, deluded into believing that opiates might be the key to the seemingly superhuman realms of aesthetic wizardry inhabited by Parker.

By the 1960s, drugs were a fixture of bohemian culture on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, it was largely limited to marijuana, but by the middle of the decade heroin had become familiar enough for Bert Jansch to include on his debut album the sad lament “Needle of Death”, about an overdosed youngster whose “troubled young life had made [him] turn to the needle of death”. It remains one of the most moving songs ever written about drug abuse, sketching in a few brief lines the dark hinterland of depression which lies behind so many addicted lives, and the lure of narcotic oblivion: “Through ages man’s desires/ To free his mind, to release his very soul/ Has proved to all who live/ That death itself is freedom for evermore”.

It was the mid-Sixties’ rise in tranquilliser use amongst housewives, however, that concerned Mick Jagger and Keith Richards when they wrote the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper”. This was a barbed riposte to the contemporary condemnation of youth culture, implying that, compared to the thousands of housewives firmly addicted to state-subsidised prescription tranquillisers in order to get them “through their busy day”, a few pilled-up mods were no problem at all. This time, the tone was not sympathetic, but mocking: “Doctor please, some more of these/ Outside the door, she took four more”.

During the hippie boom of the late 1960s, there were few overt expressions concerning addiction. The general feeling was that most drugs were benign mood-elevators or creative spurs. Only a few dared confront the reality of addiction: one thinks of Love’s Arthur Lee lamenting his friend Don Conka’s situation in “Signed DC”, and Steppenwolf’s covers of Hoyt Axton’s condemnation of “The Pusher” and depiction of his victim “Snowblind Friend”.

None, however, transgressed as brazenly as Lou Reed on The Velvet Underground’s debut album, where “Heroin” evoked the soothing rush of opiate in a matter-of-fact manner, and “I’m Waiting For the Man” celebrated junkie anticipation with an edgy, chugging eagerness and an eye for the telling detail – “he’s never early, he’s always late” – that spoke more of journalistic honesty than fantasy. Now regarded as classic rock, Reed’s brutal realism at the time found scant acceptance.

It was almost as if addiction needed to be discovered by the West Coast hippie elite before it was acknowledged as either a problem or a topic for polite songwriterly investigation. For some time, the West Coast elite could barely see the forest for the trees, unwilling to accept that the blizzard of cocaine in which it operated constituted an addiction comparable to the sad junkie stereotype of heroin.

But this was, in actuality, addiction on a colossal scale: David Crosby’s autobiography Long Time Gone recounts possibly the largest consumption of recreational drugs by a single individual in the entire history of the world, fuelling an addictive personality so intense it was able to steamroller through whatever “interventions” his friends attempted.

It was Crosby’s friend Neil Young who proved the most astute observer of the drug culture raging around him. His hugely popular Harvest album contained the song “The Needle and the Damage Done”, which offered the most sympathetic, non-judgmental view of the problem since Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death”, particularly its concluding lines, “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done/ A little part of it in everyone/ But every junkie’s like a setting sun”. So shocked was Young by the demise of the song’s subject, guitarist Danny Whitten, followed by the drug-fuelled death of his friend Bruce Berry, that his intended follow-up to Harvest would take the form of a cathartic rumination on drugs and death so relentlessly, brutally depressing that it was not released for several years.

For all their supposedly “confessional” approach, few of Young’s peers amongst the West Coast singer-songwriter scene dared confront the harsh reality of addiction as he had. But while the hip-capitalist hippies lived it large in Laurel Canyon, partaking in only the finest cocaine and heroin, a tidal wave of cheap smack flooded the black ghettoes across America, bringing drastic social changes that simply could not be ignored. Pre-eminent among the black songwriters confronting this situation was Curtis Mayfield, who, with albums like Back to the World and Super Fly, depicted an existence in which returning Vietnam veterans struggled to reconnect with their social groups, and hard drugs offered a superficially attractive and readily-available escape from the realities of poverty, violence and despair.

Super Fly was just one of several “blaxploitation” soundtracks to appear in the wake of Shaft, but Mayfield managed to take the genre’s basic tropes – the choppy wah-wah guitars, the gangsta-lean funk grooves, and so on – and make of them something much more significant. The album eventually out-grossed the film it accompanied. Which in a way was entirely appropriate, since the film’s laissez-faire attitude towards drugs found little sympathy in Mayfield songs such as the jive-talking “Pusherman” and the stark, tragic “Freddie’s Dead”. “Why can’t we brothers protect one another?/ Nobody’s serious, and it makes me furious”, sang Mayfield in the latter, a sentiment which sought to shift the blame for the situation onto a more overt political level.

Since the 1970s, addiction has become something which the music industry has, in the main, been happy to see swept under the carpet. Perhaps partly because the drug of choice during the “great rave explosion” of the late 1980s and 1990s was ecstasy, which is not considered physically addictive, the last few decades have been short on songs about addiction. There is a sizeable tranche celebrating drug indulgence, from bands like Happy Mondays, Black Grape and Primal Scream, but the only one I can recall confronting the possibility of addiction is Oasis’s “Morning Glory”, which deals with the need for artificial energy in ambivalent fashion, suggesting that “All your dreams are made/ When you’re chained to the mirror and the razor-blade”. The use of “chained” casts a shadow of dependency over what had, by the mid-Nineties, become the widespread recreational use of cocaine. The rest of the song, and the band’s attitude at the time, suggest that this shadow is perceived with some reluctance – displaying an honesty that is one of the song’s more attractive characteristics.

But when it comes to honesty, few can match Amy Winehouse’s blunt disavowal of a problem which became all too obvious as time passed.

Andy Gill, The Independent–its-a-hard-habit-to-break-2327654.html


About Marc Leprêtre

Marc Leprêtre is researcher in sociolinguistics, history and political science. Born in Etterbeek (Belgium), he lives in Barcelona (Spain) since 1982. He holds a PhD in History and a BA in Sociolinguistics. He is currently head of studies and prospective at the Centre for Contemporary Affairs (Government of Catalonia). Devoted Springsteen and Barça fan…
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