Do drugs make musicians more creative?
Do drugs fuel creativity? Is an addled mind essential to making great music? Does sobriety cause creative impotence? What if Jimi Hendrix had suddenly decided to enter a twelve-step program? Would Are You Experienced? have sucked? To answer these nagging questions, you have to take a look at rock's red-eyed history and examine both the music made under the dizzy spell of artificial chemistry and the sober work that followed.
"It's absurd to think that because some famous rock stars were drug addicts that doing drugs has anything to do with being a musician," counters Chris Adolf, frontman of Denver's Bad Weather California, who believes one thing has nothing to do with the other. "But you do run into that kind of attitude sometimes where people think that being 'really fucked up' is being 'rock and roll.' To me that seems -- for lack of a better word -- kind of poseur-ish. I feel like it's a bit of a fantasy that musicians need drugs to be creative. There are plenty of musicians that I know personally that have been a driving force in music who are basically straight. You gotta be able to leave your head without drugs."
Judging from the eye-rolling and mild disgust that greeted the tragic images of the late Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty (both of whom were far more famous for taking drugs than for making music under their spell), Adolf isn't alone in balking at rock's reputation for intoxication. Just the same, that doesn't change the fact that, more often than not, when musicians become teetotalers, the resulting music is usually a pile of donkey dung.
Take Bob Dylan, for instance. While he certainly delivered a handful of decent records after ending his (practically) sleepless eighteen months on Dexedrine and cannabis in the mid-'60s, those were rare gems in an ocean of useless tunes. Frankly, he never really duplicated the frenetic magic of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
"I used to stay up for days doing loads of coke, drinking anything," said Noel Gallagher of Oasis in 2000 during his band's Behind The Music episode. "Because that's what you do, innit? I have divine right as a rock star to be like that. You don't want kids coming backstage and you're sitting there drinking mineral water. What would they think? You gotta be lying in the corner, halfway into a coma with a bottle of Jack Daniel's."
While the producers of Behind The Music would have you believe that Oasis improved once sober with Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (since the talent/fame/addiction/sobriety arc seems to be the only narrative they know), I think we can all agree that that album is a total piece of crap -- as are all the others that weren't made during their three-year-orgy of booze and blow. Donovan, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, Ween, Aerosmith -- there's no shortage of former addicts who lost their muse when they got clean.
"Sure, but that just comes with being an addict in general," Adolf allows, but then adds, "Once you've formed a dependency on something, it's hard to adjust to life without it. That isn't specific to musicians."
Fair enough. But you can also argue that an addled mind seems much more instrumental to making music, an often emotionally driven medium, than it is to, say, standup comedy, which can be a more cerebral medium. This would certainly explain why there are so many comics like Russell Brand, Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick, who really only became creative powerhouses after deciding to get straight.
Look, no musician needs to get fucked up in order to write a decent song (despite a generation of jazz musicians who got into heroin expecting to find the secret to Charlie Parker's wild sound). To argue otherwise would be like saying a musician can't write a good song without the most expensive, top-of-the-line guitar. Fact is, there are countless musicians who have had no need for drugs. Frank Zappa was famously sober. Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch doesn't imbibe. Neither do Morrissey, Gene Simmons, Jonathan Richman or Ian Mackaye. What's more, staying routinely blitzed certainly didn't help once-great icons like Elvis, the Who, John Lennon or Metallica retain their creative cool.
So perhaps a more central question to the issue of whether sobriety zaps creativity or not: How do drugs influence music? If heroin reduces the excitability of your brain's neurons and marijuana causes them to dance the jitterbug, can a similar contrast be found in the different music made under different drugs?
"Every drug has a nature," Joe Strummer said, commenting on Clash drummer Topper Headon's smack habit in the documentary Westway to the World. "In the jazz days, the saxophone players would be addicted to heroin. And that suited horn playing, because you can float over the music. But it doesn't suit drumming, which is like hammering a nail into the floor. The beat's gotta be there."
With John Lennon, if you notice, there is a substantial correlation between the drugs he was on and the sounds he subsequently produced. From his Teddy Boy phase through "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," speed was often on the menu, which can be heard in the tempo and volume of "Twist and Shout" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." Once Dylan introduced him to grass, the romantic tranquility of "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," "Norwegian Wood" and "I'm Only Sleeping" followed.
With acid, an introspective existentialism entered the picture, which can be heard in the tone of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life." With heroin in 1968, he gave us more cooled-out, mid-tempo songs with a slight undercurrent of anxiety: "Yer Blues," "I'm So Tired" and "Across the Universe." (And then he got sober and happy and wrote "Beautiful Boy," etc.)
Forget Lennon for a moment, though. Can you think of a truly depressing album made on cocaine (and don't say Rumours; I'm not talking about that type of depressing). Or how about most sad songs -- those were written by people on booze (Bright Eyes' "Hit the Switch," Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," Harry Nilsson's "Without Her"). There are certainly sad people on coke, but there's definitely something about the two drugs that leads to different types of music.
There's a distinct chemical reaction that happens in the brain that explains this difference: Whereas alcohol affects the GABA inhibitory neurotransmitter (causing the kind of downer Paul Westerberg sang about in "Here Comes a Regular"), cocaine forces the serotonin neurotransmitters to bounce between the synapses like a game of bumper bowling (resulting in a smooth-upper not unlike the sound of Goldfrapp's "Ride a White Horse").
Yet it's difficult to pin down exactly what kind of sound comes from what kind of drug, since both Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice" and James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" were presumably written on heroin. And marijuana seemed to inspire much more jittery, paranoid sounds in Bob Dylan than it did in the more amorous Beatles. Perhaps these were just the songs they wanted to write, in which case the drugs were an afterthought.
In Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, romance addict Rob Fleming wonders "whether I like pop music because I am unhappy, or whether I am unhappy because I like pop music." This kind of chicken-or-the-egg questioning also applies to rock stars' intimate relationship with getting fucked up: Does taking certain drugs tend to inspire a certain kind of music? Or does playing certain kinds of music inspire you to take certain kinds of drugs?
The Rolling Stones certainly fall in line with the sobriety-causes-creative-impotency theory. Depending on your taste, the last great Stones album came in 1978 with Some Girls; Keith Richards quit taking heroin shortly afterward, which was possibly the culprit behind the three decades of forgettable albums that followed. Though a more interesting look at the role of needles, pills and powder impacting his guitar playing comes in his autobiography, Life, where the googly-eyed troll writes about his late-'60s routine with drugs, describing them as utilitarian gears of productivity that he rarely used for pleasure.
"The key to my survival was that I paced myself," Richards writes. "It became like a tool for me. I realized that I'm running on fuel and everybody else isn't. They're trying to keep up with me, and I'm just burning. I can keep on going because I'm on pure cocaine, none of that shit crap; I'm running on high octane, and if I feel I'm pushing it a little bit, need to relax it, have a little bump of smack. It sounds ridiculous now in a way, but the truth is that was my fuel, that speedball.
"I would take a barbiturate to wake up," he continues, "a recreational high compared to heroin, though just as dangerous in its own way. That was breakfast. A Tuinal, pin it, put a needle in it so it would come on quicker. And then take a hot cup of tea, and then consider getting up or not. And later maybe a Mandrax or quaalude. Otherwise I just had too much energy to burn. So you wake up slow, since you have the time. And sometimes I used to take downers to keep going... This is going to smooth my path into the next three or four days... I know there's enough energy in me that if I don't slow it down, I'm going to burn it up before I finish what I think I'm going to finish."
This method of calculated, consistent substance use is reflected in the Stones' sound, which is less about flashy instrumentation and more about the collective efforts of each member doing their part simply and congruously. Throughout the '70s and '80s, many druggy musicians were ingesting coke and booze in thoughtless, explosive quantities, and that behavior is mirrored in a sound that features bombastic guitar and drum solos, featuring a single musician attempting to blow your mind with his complexity. The Rolling Stones, though, were all about a collection of little pieces that came together in a big way -- just like Keith Richards with his speedballs.
At the same time that Richards settled into his daily recipe of neurological warfare, of course, he also began employing his beloved open five-string guitar tuning, an experience that he says "transformed my life." This lead to what is now known as the characteristic "Rolling Stones sound," heard on tunes like "Honky Tonk Women," "Jumping Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar" and "Tumbling Dice."
"I wanted to try to go back and use what a lot of old blues guitarists were playing," Richards explains in Life, "and transpose it to electric but keep the same basic simplicity and straightforwardness. That pumping drive that you hear with the acoustic blues players. Simple, haunting, powerful chords."
Predictably, Richards goes on to insist that the drugs he took did not cause these amazing songs to materialize. Maybe he's right. Still, the fact that his drug routine and the sound he would embrace for decades to come both cemented themselves at the same time says something about Keith Richards's perspective on life and art. It was the time he developed a certain creative ethos, wanting to be productive, yet slow, proficient, informal, beautiful but sleazy. All of this came together in the way he looked, the music he made, and the types of drugs he took (or, more important, the way he took them).
Drugs may or may not be essential to a musician's creativity. Whatever the case, they tell you something about the person, and therefore, the music. To wit: Coke people are salesmen, and that leads to confident, bombastic music; heroin enthusiasts are the loners, and that leads to despondently beautiful songs; ecstasy users are social progenitors, and that leads to universal party music; while stoners are the romantic dreamers who make music for other romantic dreamers.
So when the drugs stop flowing (or stop working), it seems that the artist has no choice but to reinvent his sound and his personality -- because trying to hump-start the same aesthetic you had while stoned often leads to a pathetic body of work. All the same, there are massive problems that come with being constantly fucked up -- many of which keep you from being a decent human being, let a lone a good musician.
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