Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Drug Addiction in Four Rock Band Biographies

As you may have read in a previous post I recently finished four biographies/histories of major rock bands.  I noted that all four bands were tireless in pursuing their professional and artistic goals.  I mentioned drugs little more than in passing.  The books I read are as follows.

Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd by Mark Blake
Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead by Phil Lesh [1]
Do It Again: The Steely Dan Years by Dave DiMartino
Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock by Andrew Earles


What is is with musicians and heroin?  If I started listing the famous musicians who were either killed by heroin or only narrowly escaped I wouldn't have time to write anything else.  And that's just heroin.  Add the lives savaged by alcohol and cocaine and you have to wonder how any musicians stay productive past thirty.

The popular myth about Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd is that he was driven mad by excessive LSD (or other psychedelic drugs) use.  After reading Mark Blake's book about the band I'm not convinced.  I think there is every chance that Syd would have succumbed to mental illness with or without his admittedly heavy drug use.  Of course, there is no way to know.

Pink Floyd kept going without Syd Barrett, but they could have easily been taken down by David Gilmour's cocaine use in the 1980's.  All four bands I read about had members drinking too much at one time or another.  I don't want to play down the dangers of alcohol or psychedelics.  The bands survived those problems but if just a few things had happened differently they wouldn't have. 

Returning from near misses to actual, historical disasters, half of the bands I read about in these books closed their doors and took down their shingles because of a key member's drug abuse.  In neither case was it drugs alone.  In both cases drugs, especially heroin, were a critical contributor.

Jerry Garcia, founding member and hub of the musical wheel of the Grateful Dead, probably started taking heroin around 1975, a couple of years after he first took cocaine. Twenty years later he died in a drug treatment facility of a heart attack.  As I said, it wasn't just the heroin.  He was also overweight, diabetic, used cocaine and smoked heavily.  But when his band mates staged interventions it was because they saw the heroin debilitating him and threatening his life.  In some cases he performed without being alert enough to know what song the band was playing.  Obviously, this is not acceptable if you are fellow member of the Dead who has invested much of your life into making the Dead what they are.  It is also very different from performing under the influence of psychedelics, something members of the Grateful Dead did frequently in their early years.  Psychedelics modify and add to your perceptions, and, yes, things most certainly can go wrong.  But here Garcia's perceptions were being dulled and even cut off by heroin and illness aggravated by heroin.

Garcia wasn't the first Grateful Dead member to die, or the band's first drug related death.  Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Pigpen McKernan died of non-drug related health problems in 1973.[1]  Keyboardist Brent Mydland overdosed on speedball in 1990.[2]  In both cases the band was able to continue.  There was no continuing without Jerry Garcia.  If you apply my Non-Fan Test,[3] I think you will find that he is the one member of the Grateful Dead that non-fans can name.  The other founding members wrote less, sang less, soloed less and simply didn't have his forceful personality.  He was a leader who couldn't be replaced nor his loss compensated for.

What happened to Husker Du (officially, Hüsker Dü) was different, but heroin still played a vital role in the band's demise.  As Husker Du's short career (just shorter than The Beatles) progressed tensions between main songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart grew.  Both felt the other's songs crowding their own off of the band's albums.  The competition might have been healthy, up to a point, driving both to write better and better songs, but that only works so long as your band is still all on the same team.  Add drugs to the mix and "ugly" doesn't quite describe it anymore.

Sometime in 1986 or '87 Mould quit drinking, no small thing considering how long he had been doing it.  The bad news is that it was just in time for Hart's heroin problem to blow up.  Going into what would be their final tour Hart was using methadone in a valiant attempt to clean up while on the road.  Hart says the band would have split shortly anyway, but Mould shut down the tour when he found out Hart would soon run out of methadone because of a leaky medicine bottle.  There didn't seem to be any recovering from this.  With the tour cancelled, band relations generally bad, Hart's recovery uncertain, the recent suicide of their manager[4] and loved ones genuinely worried about them[5] you can't blame any of the band for questioning Husker Du's future.  The three band members' accounts vary somewhat, but what is certain is that the band was over within days of the remaining 1987 tour dates being canceled.

I don't have any answers here, just observations.  Clearly, cocaine, heroin and alcohol addiction are bad...but we already knew that.  Just within rock and roll, just within bands I have recently read about, we have two examples of bands that, in theory, could still be doing brilliant things together if it weren't for heroin.  I have no idea what it is about heroin that so appeals to professional musicians.  Maybe there is a demon in the woodwork somewhere who does.



[1] He had biliary cirrhosis and he did drink, but it isn't clear from what I have read that alcohol is what took him down at such a young age, 27.
[2] After John Belushi died this way it's hard for me to understand why speedball still has new users.  If you are already addicted, I get it.  It's really hard to stop.  But with all the other, safer (relatively) ways of getting high, why choose this one that is so obviously so dangerous? 
[3] Merzbow is the noise musician non-fans of noise music can name.  Metallica is the speed metal band people who don't like speed metal can name.  Kurt Cobain is the member of Nirvana non-fans can name, etc.
[4] David Savoy took his own life right before the tour started.
[5] One version of the break-up story includes Grant Hart's mother suggesting the band only play weekends.  Depending on what sort of treatment Hart was getting (beyond methadone) she may have been right concerning Hart's health.  On the other hand, frequent live shows were always a vital part of the Husker Du Way.  I wonder if the band was even able to even conceive of doing things that way after nine years of playing at every opportunity.

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