Creation Myth

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 space. 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 chance. 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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