Pubdate: Fri, 06 Jul 2001
Source: LA Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2001, Los Angeles Weekly, Inc.
Author: Greg Burk
Note: Part of a multi-part series

Independence Day Special: This Is Your Country on Drugs


Drugs And Musicians, Together Forever

Did you know that musicians often take drugs and drink?

Yes, you did. Think about it, though.

How many famous "popular" musicians never had a problem with substance abuse?

Well . . .

Ornette Coleman is supposed to have tried heroin only once, to see what 
attraction could make the other three members of his border-breaking 
early-'60s quartet hock their instruments. His experience didn't change his 
conviction that heroin just made people lazy. Another edge-walker of jazz, 
Sun Ra, always told his musicians that drugs were a distraction. He also 
told them that women were a distraction. But then, Ra had a congenital 
testicular abnormality, and he regularly informed people he was from outer 

Coleman? He made up his own theory of music, and once asked a doctor to 
castrate him. One can only conclude from these two examples that a normal, 
levelheaded jazz musician should be shooting up.

Late last year in a tabloid, Aretha Franklin was accused of being a drunk. 
She got offended and threatened to sue. Obviously she's sensitive on the 
subject: She reports in her autobiography that a relationship with a lover 
early in her life was destroyed by drinking. (Whose drinking she doesn't 
say.) Still, times being what they are, her indignation makes her seem a 
little eccentric.

Even if, as she claims, she's a longtime teetotaler, the smart response 
would have been to let it slip that booze simply bores her since she 
discovered the joy of sharing dirty needles with male prostitutes. More 
than one career has received a golden goose from this kind of "revelation."

The point: It's news if a musician abstains, not if he indulges. Everywhere 
you look in the history of modern music, from the pot-and-purgatives 
testimonials of Louis Armstrong to Kurt Cobain's shots in the arm and the 
head, musicians and drugs have been as close as skin and scabs.

Why should this be? Here are a few possibilities - some obvious, some not 
so obvious.

Musicians work in bars. Mom was right: Cheers to the contrary, most people 
who hang out in bars all the time are there not to be funny or sociable, 
but to escape their wretched lives.

Present to accommodate the needs of the desperate are bartenders. Also, not 
nominally on the staff but present nonetheless, there are drug dealers, 
hookers, loan sharks, money launderers, club owners, record-label reps and 
other criminals. If you're working in them every night, far away from 
family and Father Reilly, bars quickly begin to seem like your world.

Drugs help musicians work. Aside from the time you spend performing, music 
is a sucky, sucky job. You travel constantly. You don't eat well. You're 
often sick. You don't get enough sleep.

After playing your last set, you may have to drive to your next gig 
hundreds of miles in the pitch dark on bad roads without rest. This is how 
musicians such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams got hooked on those little 
white pills.

And a shortage of such pills is how jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, 
Metallica's Cliff Burton and the Minutemen's D. Boon, among many others, 
got killed: Somebody's road eyes weren't artificially propped wide, wide 
open. A body also needs its relaxers and painkillers: Alcohol and heroin 
can help you perform when you feel like shit.

Drugs may help musicians create.

In a video about the making of Aerosmith's big-selling 1989 CD Pump, 
notable former drug addict Steven Tyler acknowledged what few admit: that 
in the past, drugs sometimes had helped him write songs, and he kind of 
missed that. Music is an abstract, fluid world, and to reach it, sometimes 
you need to get out of your everyday environs, which can seem like an 
endless series of small, rigid boxes.

Imagine the Grateful Dead without LSD, Howlin' Wolf without booze or 
Charlie Parker without heroin. Rastafarian musicians like Bob Marley and 
Burning Spear have held ganja to be a sacrament, a natural shortcut to the 
nutriments of the earth from which it grows.

The same could be said of coca leaves or mushrooms. Unfortunately, the 
drive for stardom rarely coincides with a sense of moderation.

Musicians are sensitive.

A musical brain is a delicate receptor.

It needs to be, in order to turn thoughts, emotions and experiences into 
music. Consequently, a musician is like a tuning fork, always vibrating 
from both external impulses (which include non-inspirational concerns such 
as lack of money) and internal processes, often at high frequencies. The 
vibrations can reach extremely uncomfortable levels, so uncomfortable as to 
produce overload and mental looping, rendering the musician miserable and 
incapable of action.

He must, you might say, get out of his mind, or he will go out of his mind. 
Heroin and alcohol may be a less healthful prescription for this condition 
than yoga, but they work. Temporarily. As Alice in Chains' Layne Staley put 
it, "Hate To Feel."

Drugs are a community.

Musicians don't give a damn what you think about them. In fact, they often 
use drugs to separate themselves from you. Most jazz and rock musicians 
don't choose their profession with country-club membership in mind (though 
some may eventually enroll). They despise the square world, and they want 
to dress differently, talk differently, live differently and die 
differently. Roots rocker Mike Ness spent years as a heroin addict; he also 
spent years working on another distancer: tattoos.

He had to kick drugs to stay alive, but you can't kick tattoos, and nothing 
made him sicker than their transformation from stigmatic to trendy.

He says he'd find himself in supermarkets, where nice housewives would come 
up to him and say, "Oh, what beautiful tattoos.

Can I touch them?" All he could say was, "Noooo!"

Musicians can be self-destructive. Parents and society have made them feel 
worthless, so throwing themselves away doesn't seem like a bad option. 
Musicians' desire to be out of your face/in your face often comes from 
being ostracized: You can't reject me; I reject you. So drugs become a 
club, from which potential friends and allies as well as enemies may end up 
being excluded.

The late pianist Horace Tapscott, who did so much to bring music and 
knowledge to his South L.A. community, used to say that, back in the '50s, 
many musicians wouldn't play with him or hang with him, for one reason: He 
wasn't shooting up with them.

I, the guy writing this, noticed this kind of situation myself back when I 
was in a nightclub band in the years before and after 1980. I would observe 
that This Group and That Group were playing on the same bills all the time, 
and at first I wondered why. It made sense when I learned that the groups' 
members had more than musical tastes in common. Sometimes I even felt left 
out. Here I was, just as alienated as anybody - hell, more alienated - and 
my band wasn't connected enough to be, uh, popular.

Make sense?

I thought being a drunk was enough, and I filled my dump with empties to 
prove my resolve, but matriculation required a higher course of study, and 
I didn't have the guts to be a heroin addict.

The fact was, I didn't want to hang out with anybody - to do drugs or to do 
anything else. This was a problem.

Life demands compromises. As Lou Reed so eloquently sang: "I have made the 
big decision/I'm gonna try to nullify my life." The musician who sets 
himself all the way apart from what he hates by becoming an addict takes a 

I have known many people in and around music in this town who have taken 
that chance.

Some have quit the drugs - usually, more or less, quitting the music too - 
and are doing fine. Some are living hard lives.

And some are not living.

It's a choice you make when you're young.

Young, hurting, and not too smart. Maybe you get lucky.
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