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The Music Scene and Addiction

1995. It is about ten, in a small but lively pub in Stockport. We are well into the first set of classic rock numbers and I am playing well. There are moments in a band when everything comes together – everything is so tight, so fluid. You hardly know you are playing and the audience has disappeared from your consciousness. You are the guitar and you are the music. As a big chorus, or a middle eight resolves perfectly, there is a sweet spot – a dopamine driven spinal rush that can rival amphetamines in its intensity. I have not been drinking. Ill and full of cold I drank a bottle of cough mixture instead (a boy has to have something). Sober, my fingers are more assured and accurate on the heavy bass strings, and the ephedrine derivatives drive the rush higher. It is electric in every sense.

Music has always affected my mood. Even listening stone cold sober there are pieces of music that can send shivers down my spine. Many of us have this experience (though some never do!) and there is growing evidence of the role of parts of the brain in music appreciation (start by exploring the work of Daniel Levitin if you are interested). It feels to me that not only chemical release in the brain but also our natural psychological make up are important features of how, and how deeply, we appreciate music. Perhaps this is the problem.

Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) was just one in a long line of drug taking musicians. He committed suicide, like Kurt Cobain, and appears to have had a tortured emotional life, again like Cobain. Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin and (more recently) Amy Winehouse and Keith Flint were perhaps much the same, at least to some degree. Even those not killed by drugs were often troubled (Syd Barrett, Vivian Stanshall). Nor is drug and alcohol intake a rock music phenomenon. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker (aka Bird), other bepop musicians, the beat generation; Beethoven, Chopin, Leonard Bernstein, the list goes on. Check it out.

!983. A tatty tenement flat in Moss Side, in a purple room with a rainbow on the wall, we are on LSD. When it is good and up, we listen to Beethoven’s 5th and then Stratosfear by Tangerine Dream. The synaesthesia is overwhelming. The rainbow dances to the melody and we are carried along by the music as if on rolling waves with repeating rising sensations of an almost erotic character. Student life and emotional problems have disappeared and as the acid peaks we are not much more the burbling children, washed in elysium.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that different drugs can interact with music in different ways. I can remember losing it (and dancing like a bizarre thing) to Orbital at a festival on no more than a few ciders, and tottering around a dance hall (in a somewhat more relaxed state) in a dope induced trance to the sound of hard core dub. Dance and movement can be important in the drug/music confluence, from speed driven nights at the Wigan Casino to the evolving rave and ecstasy scene of maybe 30 years or so now.

The connections between drugs and creativity, and between dance and trance, are not new. They are very old. There is some evidence that stone age art of some 20,000 years ago was drug influenced. To this day some tribal communities still dance themselves into a semi-conscious frenzy. So these are not modern phenomena and cannot be lightly dismissed as the excesses of youth. But it would be a mistake also to think that the relationship between music and drugs is unchanging. Different forms of music both drive, and are influenced by, associated drug cultures: reggae, acid house, psychedelia, and heavy rock are all obvious examples.

This tells us that the relationship between music and drugs is not just about the mental state or addictive “character” of the individual. (The same logic probably applies to all art and drugs: ask Toulouse Lautrec). It also has a communal context and plays social roles. It is too easy to overlook this in a proscriptive age, just as it is too easy to overlook the fact that not everyone who has taken drugs becomes an addict or drops dead. And just like those of us lesser mortals in our problems with alcohol, some musicians survive truly cornucopian indulgence to live long lives (Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Elton John) and die of mostly natural causes (David Bowie, Lemmie).

1997. Late on in a big pub in the middle of Lancashire. I have joined the great and famous (Elton John, Kurt Cobain) by being too drunk to play. I am now deep in debilitating addiction. There are no sweet spots; my emotional state is frazzled and incoherent. The previous gig I had fallen down the stairs carrying a reflex monitor. (I held on to it – equipment is expensive). Now, in the first set I had just about held on to the groove. More drinking in the break left me incapable. I hid behind the speaker stack, holding the bass and miming badly. It was my last gig with the band – and rightly so for a variety of reasons. Piece by piece over the years, my love of music, the source of pleasure and strength it once was, the coping mechanism it could be, had been broken down and swallowed up by alcohol. Oblivion awaited unless something was done.

So what does all this add up to? Clearly, we can’t not have music in this world and I still need it in my own. Equally clearly, the hard reality is that there will always be people who can dabble in drink and drugs and not suffer too much. (You will find people trying to ignore this fact: keep your head out of the sand). But these people are not addicts, certainly not always. But if you are anything like me, an addict, and you put music and drugs together, the rules change baby. Like twin stars on a collapsing orbit they will revolve around you, pulling you in and singing sweet siren songs as the gravitational forces bend you this way and that. In the end you are obliterated.

But don’t give up on music. That way madness lies and the future is bleak and empty.

Give up on drugs (or join Jimi and Janis in the great gig in the sky}.

Above all, get help.

Speak to a friend, get to a meeting, or call Forward Together on 07506012208

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