It is true to say that people who work in the music business are more likely to use drugs than, say, bricklayers or accountants. Anyone can get hold of something if they really want to, but if you’re a professional musician, you won’t have to try too hard. It sounds like fun to many people, and most will try something and either continue with it occasionally or just decide they don’t want to do that.
Smoking cannabis is like a rite of passage in such circles, but what worries non-users who care about someone who is exposed to that world is that the same people who sell a bit of grass are quite likely to have access to other things.
The 1960s saw an explosion in freedom of choice, and for a while everyone was happy. But trouble was lurking, as Steppenwolf pointed out in The Pusher.
The dealer is a man with a lump of grass in his hand
But the pusher is a monster and God he’s not a natural man
Goddam, goddam the pusher
Then the drug-related deaths started to happen.
Whatever you believe about the 1970 demise of Jimi Hendrix – and ‘choked on his own vomit’ tells only part of the story among the conspiracy theories – he was no choirboy. A gentle, peaceful character by all accounts, despite the media’s portrayal of him as the ‘wild man of pop’, he was living the rock’n’roll lifestyle all right, and that didn’t mean mineral water and early nights.
Janis Joplin’s number was up around that time, too, with heroin and alcohol mentioned on the death certificate.
Jim Morrison checked out of the hotel of life soon afterwards, with heart failure blamed for his departure and no autopsy performed. A heroin overdose is widely believed to be the real cause.
And so to the death of Gram Parsons, who succumbed to a mixture of morphine and alcohol.
With ‘drugs’ now considered all one thing by many people, in the US and elsewhere the ‘Just say no’ campaign sent a clear message to the youngsters who are presented, as on a conveyor belt, as potential customers for the purveyors of drugs, prescription and illegal alike. But even though the next generations couldn’t claim they weren’t aware of the dangers, and their spokespeople may have said the right things, humans are fallible.
The bravado continued.
While the highly intelligent, studious Walter Becker of Steely Dan gained worldwide respect for his contribution to their music, he and Donald Fagen (but I suspect Walter either wrote or strongly influenced the lyrics) gave us Time Out of Mind and the blasé lines
Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water may change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold
Becker is still alive, but in 1978, before the song was released on 1980’s Gaucho album, he was sued over his girlfriend’s overdose death in his apartment. Shortly after Gaucho, Steely Dan split up and he moved to Hawaii, where apparently he managed to quit drugs altogether.
Johnny Thunders, one-time guitarist with the New York Dolls and then his own band the Heartbreakers, bragged about his drug use on Chinese Rocks and duly died a drug-related death years later.
Whitney Houston came through a stormy, cocaine-fuelled marriage to Bobby Brown, only to fall victim to her weakness in 2012.
Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album Back to Black is like a diary of her substance-abusing life. On Rehab she proudly declares that they’re trying to get her to enter a rehabilitation program but “I won’t go, go, go”.
It was tragically predictable that, with that wonderful album under her belt and a bountiful future ahead of her, she wouldn’t be able to get it together and live a careful life, although the terrible irony is that when alcohol finally nailed her it was because she had been dry for a while and had lost her tolerance to it, so when she hit the bottle like old times, her body couldn’t handle it.
And so it goes on. Defiant and foolhardy, the rebels carry on while knowing it can only lead to trouble.
The warning songs continue too, such as Ed Sheeran’s song The A Team, about a crack-addicted prostitute, which was covered by teen sensations One Direction.
But it won’t stop the tide. Rock’n’roll is rebellious, and if you tell it not to do something… it’s not going to listen.