Let's be honest: Drinking alcohol and taking drugs is fun. Unfortunately, in America there's a culturally ingrained fear of mentioning this obvious fact, and that obscures and garbles every attempt at rational conversation on the topic. Drug advocates are forced into the posture of arguing that marijuana is some kind of anti-anxiety and glaucoma medicine. Drinking and recreational drug use are only referred to in the national press in terms of a public-health crisis. This hysteria around the topic of getting high--the equating of all drug use with addiction and abuse--is one of the primary sources of the credibility gap that divides what we call "alternative" culture from "mainstream" culture.
John Roderick is the singer and songwriter responsible for Seattle's The Long Winters. He is a regular columnist for Reverb and currently serving a tour as the blog's guest editor.
Within the music community, getting high is a kind of shorthand for all the ways we're different from the high-collared moralizers on the other side of the cultural wall. The fact that drugs and alcohol are openly consumed and freely discussed within the music scene contributes to musicians' sense of themselves as more liberated, more honest. Still, the fact that drugs are a taboo subject in the culture at large imbues them with a false mystique even among people who should know better. Musicians, of all people, are in a position to have a clear-eyed and unromantic perception of drugs. We're surrounded by them, and by people who are strung out on them. We confront drunks and tweakers and zombies on a daily basis, both on and offstage. You would think there'd be no mystery left.But the music world is where mythologizers of drugs and alcohol find their last and safest refuge. People shake their heads ruefully at the fate of Layne Staley or Elliott Smith, but earlier this year a talented young Seattle artist, clearly struggling with alcoholism, was promoted by his own management as "elegantly wasted," as though puking up blood was one more reason to buy his album. Likewise, a few veteran musicians around town, beloved by all, routinely drink themselves into a puddle, as their friends and former bandmates edge away from them as the night wears on. Getting high is woven into the fabric of making art, of being young and chasing outsized dreams, but when it gets ugly, when it turns to darkness, musicians and band managers are no better than codependent housewives in owning up to the consequences. Everyone wants to bask in the reflected heat of a young star burning too hot, and no one wants to appear to judge when the flame-out follows. The line between "partying hard" and "falling down" is never easy to gauge, and a simple statement of fact like "Friend, you're too fucked up to drive" can be a deceptively difficult thing to say. But this is an area where musicians need to toughen up. Drunk driving, or overdosing, isn't cute, and calling bullshit on them isn't being judgmental, it's good manners.
One of the first and most common tropes about drugs is that they fuel creativity. I don't think there's any way to argue, at least initially, that they don't. A person's first experience with smoking pot or taking a psychotropic substance is, under most circumstances, accurately and best described as mind-expanding. Colors and sounds, newly fascinating, are the stuff from which art is made. I spent many hours as a stoned young man mesmerized by the simple, repetitive act of strumming my guitar, a scene easily mocked--stupid hippy, droning away on the three chords he knows, entranced by the mundane--but an overwhelmingly positive experience for me at the time. I bonded with the guitar partly by hearing it in the mildly euphoric state brought on by drugs, and that euphoria was easy to recapture after the drugs wore off. It wasn't a hallucination of something unreal, it was a perception of something that was true, something that might have escaped my attention without the aid of drugs, and something I could find again once I knew the way.
The idea that drugs fuel creativity is nothing new. The same can be said of almost any new experience or recognition of a new reality. But like anything perception-altering--love, adrenaline, or being a U.S. Senator--the effect dulls with time. The feeling you never thought you'd get tired of, eventually you get tired of. And unlike love, there are only so many ways you can reinvent the experience of taking drugs--eventually it boils down to the fact that you're just taking more drugs and stronger drugs, chasing the dragon. Drugs do fuel creativity, but being addicted to drugs, and especially dying from drugs, doesn't.
It's very hard to discuss this rationally or honestly with either drug users or drug prohibitionists. The equation of taking drugs with moral failure remains strong, yet drugs also have an unmatched countercultural cachet. In a country where political repression seldom affects the painter or guitar player, the cynical criminalization of drugs fosters a sense of exclusivity and resistance to authority among drug takers. When writers and poets in communist Czechoslovakia were being monitored by secret police, it fostered an explosive artistic movement. Writers and poets in America can only dream about being singled out for political repression (it might lead to sales, for God's sake!), but it is possible to get busted for $20 worth of pot. The sense of injustice at patently ludicrous laws, despite much lower stakes, is enough to give artists the persecuted feeling they crave. The mysterious air that results, the sense that drug-taking is anti-authoritarian, clouds the discussion of the real effects of drugs and alcohol even among those with first-hand experience.
Most people who get drunk and high do so without creating much of a problem--at least not a problem that requires military intervention and lengthy prison terms--so drug use clearly falls into the category of things that adults should be allowed to decide for themselves. Drugs, like alcohol, can be used responsibly. As an entertainer I know both those who have every privilege and those raised in abuse and poverty, and I can say with complete confidence that there is no profile for who will get addicted to drugs and who won't. Friends who have suffered through such diabolical childhoods that I choke when I think of them did nonetheless not become drug addicts or alcoholics, just as friends from loving, wealthy, supportive homes have died on the street from overdoses. There's no predicting it. Likewise, despite our almost constant access to drugs and alcohol, I don't think musicians and entertainers are any likelier to become addicts than your average citizen is. The world is full of junkie lawyers and drunk accountants, and believe me, the global drug trade is not being kept afloat by guitarists and their girlfriends. There may be more alcoholic guitarists than alcoholic ministers, but fewer guitarists are pedophiles, so it evens out.
As to whether drugs play a crucial role in creativity--well, I can think of no more destructive idea in music. For every good musical idea spawned in a drug-induced state, a dozen drunks and junkies are justifying their habits with the same lame excuse. Some of the edgiest performers I know never touch drugs, and some of the most boring performers I know swear by them. If anyone really holds to the idea that drugs play a central role in art-making, I would direct their attention to the collected work of Stone Temple Pilots. Drugs can be inspirational, yes--but after the inspiration wears off, the hard work of making art often has no worse enemy than the pipe or the bottle.
I've been straight for over 15 years. I like to joke that we all get an allotment of drugs and booze to last a lifetime, and I used all mine before I was 26. I'm not sad at the way things turned out, because being forced to choose a kind of cold-turkey existence has made my life dramatically better.
My 15 years of being clean has coincided with my 15 years playing music in Seattle, and I've seen every kind of melodramatic drug scene you can imagine, with new ones every day. The tragedies to me aren't the ones who die young. Life has a full complement of people who die young. The tragedies are the ones who slowly ebb, in thrall to the idea that drugs and alcohol are their friends and spiritual guides. Watching their art decline, replaced by bitterness or resignation, while they cling to their habits with the unyielding conviction that getting high is what sets them apart from the masses: That's a kind of dying that's hard to witness.