If Marijuana means you’re mellow and chilled, and Cocaine means you’re jumpy and corporate, then heroin means you’re in for the long haul. Drugs have been a big part of the music scene right from the beginning, and no other drug represents “Suffering for the arts” more than Heroin. Heroin has been both demonized and glorified in the music media and it’s easy to see why. With artists like Iggy Pop, Martin Gore and Lou Reed walking around somehow being able to travel through the abyss and come out the other end. It’s not hard to see why someone might attribute the drugs that their favourite artist takes being at least a factor in what made them stronger, more creative or having lived a more interesting life than the rest of us. The draw for drugs like heroin seems to be a romantic one; one that has the unwritten promise of becoming a ‘troubled artistic genius’ if you just do it the right way. An idea that a zillion of the greatest artists in rock ’n’ roll have signed up for, just to be paid
with their tragic short life. People like Darby Crash (the Germs age 22), Janis Joplin (age 27), Frankie Lymon (doo wop legend, age 25), John Simon Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols age 21), Gram Parsons (rock-country legend, age 27), Philip Lynott (Thin Lizzy age 36) Tim Buckley (folk legend age 28). It’s ironic thateven the wording that we use to describe these sad and heartbreaking figures is often “they paid the price”; as if it was the heroin and not the hours of practicing that somehow gave them their musical powers.
We as music fans enjoy movies like “Born To Lose”2 where Dee Dee Ramone reflects on humorous but awful and demoralizing adventures with him and Johnny Thunders. As we all know there is some sick dark side of human nature that most share were we get pleasure in watching a more talented artist then we could ever hope to be screw up worse than we could ever hope to screw up.
It does add a different dimension knowing that while recording “Loverman” Charlie Parker was playing the song all the while struggling to stay alive. Knowing that Ross Russell (owner of Dial Records) refused to take Charlie Parker (who was going through heroin withdrawal) to the hospital does give the song a different framework and makes you hear the song differently. The song became a hit for Parker but he was understandably furious that Russell’s released it.
The fact of the matter is I would be lying if I said that I didn’t get a “kick” out of reading these little side stories. Do I think these stories add a different dimension to the music? Yes, I kind of do. Do I think drugs like heroin make better musicians? For me, the answer would be “it’s complicated.” If you asked me if I thought these musicians need it to make great music? My answer would be a resounding “No.” But I can’t deny that some (if not most) of my favourite musicians from Miles Davis to Jerry Garcia have been hooked on the stuff. Why and what does it do to them I will never know.
I like many have been captivated by the sad news of Amy Winehouse’s death. Even though I didn’t listen to her music, the news of her death hit me surprisingly hard. I guess I vaguely remember seeing pictures of Winehouse at the beginning of her career as a cute and even a little plump “Pop Star.” Mostly though, I remember seeing tabloid style pictures of her as a shattered skeleton looking like a homeless junkie staring at me in the magazines.3 Her unkempt 50’s beehive hairdo was always bent out of shape and her tattoos harping back to mysteriously happier days.
I guess my sadness comes from whatever it is that makes you cheer for the underdog or that makes you think people are somehow going to miraculously change their lives. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to see what it really is, a disease like mental illness or any other disease.
It may have been taken by some of the coolest cats in music but at the end of the day it’s a debilitating disease that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.