The addictive history of musical substance abuse
May 13, 2009
Thank God for Amy Winehouse. The British pop chanteuse has bucked the
oppressively ubiquitous vision of the good life by declaring "rehab
is a cop-out" and having a hit song on the same theme. To her
unending personal chagrin (and the temporary benefit of her liver),
the 25-year-old performer did eventually enter treatment for a spell.
Still, in a "Just Say No" age where athletes, actors, politicians,
and other well-paid low-lifes are expected to be tee-totaling role
models, musicians may be the last holdout. As R. U. Sirius (the nom
de plume of Ken Goffman) writes in Everybody Must Get Stoned: Rock
Stars on Drugs: "Trying to show a link between rock stars and drugs
is like trying to make a link between mouths and tooth decaytoo
obvious to bother." In his new book, he documents the long-lived
collaboration between peformers and all manner of mind-altering substances.
It makes for addictive, if sometimes nauseating, reading. As a member
of the seminal proto-punk band The Stooges, Iggy Pop didn't just get
high, cut himself, and bleed on stage. In The Stooges' group home, he
shot enough blood from syringes onto the walls until he'd created "a
sort-of degraded smack addict's Jackson Pollock mural." Pop would
later check himself into a mental institution after passing out
during a Los Angeles rainstorm and waking up soaked and disoriented.
To get through Japanese customs, Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Izzy
Stradlin swallowed his entire stash in one gulp, thereby putting
himself into a 96-hour coma. Marijuana enthusiast Paul McCartney got
caught trying to sneak pot out of the Land of the Rising Sun in 1980,
serving 10 days in jail before being deported. In true stoner
fashion, the cute Beatle explained that he simply couldn't bear to
leave his doobage behind because "it was such good stuff."
Despite his professed love of drugs and rock stars, Sirius, who
collaborated with Timothy Leary, edits the fascinating transhumanist
publication h+ , and contributes to the excellent website 10 Zen
Monkeys, is not one to sugarcoat reality. "Lots of good music has
been made by people on heroin," he observes. "Conversely, lots of
good musicians have stopped making music (as well as breathing)
because they took heroin."
A combination of imaginative essays and irreverent lists, chapters
include "Rock Stars on Acid," "Rock Stars on Pot," "Rock Stars on
Cocaine," "Rock Stars on Whatever," and perhaps most tellingly, "Dead
Rock Stars on Drugs."
Drawing on themes articulated in his previous Counterculture Through
the Ages, Sirius argues that music and drugs both allow us to "get a
bit out of our rational mind[s]" and give us a temporary reprieve
from our tightly focused, workaday life. In his telling, rock stars
are the embodiment of that release and we follow their sometimes
self-destructive exploits to seek vicarious thrills.
That's an interesting thesis, and so is Sirius' insistence that all
drug use is not necessarily abuse, a sentiment wildly at odds with
today's prohibitionist mind-set regarding drinking, smoking, trans
fat and just about every vice under the sun.
"It's not my intention," he writes, "to encourage or discourage
consenting adults to use mind-altering drugs.... Have fun with this
book, but not too much fun, unless you want to end up like that doper
Paul McCartneya healthy, vital, talented billionaire who was
knighted by the Queen of England."
Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com. A
version of this review originally ran in The New York Post.