The link between creative thought and drug use is a long one. From the Soma-soaked Vedas, to the Romantic poets’ use of opium, artistic and philosophical creation has nestled with perception altering substances across history and culture. Culture has treated the modern musical artist in a similar mystical vein as the authors of posterity: as possessing a heightened keenness for beauty or pain, able to access the divine Muse, particularly so the more unrefined or instinctive the musical talent. They reach an aesthetic plane to provide revelations that – ultimately – are sold to us in songs.
In the second half of the 20th Century, amid the mass commercialisation of music, many eras and genres were bound to a particular drug; LSD and 60s Psychedelia, ecstasy and House, alcohol and Country, marijuana and reggae. It was a reciprocal relationship where composer, performer, and audience would engage in shared usage. Yet one, less participatory drug maintained a special reverence in particular: heroin.
Opium has a ritualistic origin preceding recorded history, and the rise of heroin chic in the 1990s highlights its cultural endurance as mystical and desirable, right up to the recent past. As an exhilarating pain relief, the heights and depths of feeling it grants the artists affords them, supposedly, greater ‘aesthetic sight’, devoid of the limiting banalities of conformity and sobriety. Frequently, there is an assumed apex – prior to the inevitable decline – where the power of inherent creativity and heroin combine manifested, perhaps, in a compositional opus, or when musical performance is at its peak.
Taylor Swift’s cold-hearted corporate domination reigns in pop
Nobody epitomises this more so than Kurt Cobain. Calcified in youth, he is the self-sacrificial Saint, exemplifying the futility and frustration of modernity. If we project our trust and belief in artists to deliver a representation of their truth, then the patently nihilistic message from Cobain was that heroin – as pain relief – is only ever palliative. As the millennium concluded, heroin lost its fashionable charm, with death and destruction ushering in more than the promise of dishevelled, catwalk androgyny, and thus we lost our taste for bleakness.
Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty are perhaps the last two figures to embody the role vacated by Cobain, where Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Charlie Parker, among others, came before him. Yet, with the mere pity bestowed upon Winehouse by her death, and the ambivalence that now greets Doherty, the romance of the self-destructive artist has waned; there is less veneration of it as an ‘artistic ideal’, and a reworking into more a symptom of mental illness.
Where is such a figure, or movement, now? Taylor Swift’s cold-hearted corporate domination reigns in pop; her image carefully crafted online, she is perennially trapped in amber without dying young, devoid of the need to aspire to any artistic endeavour. She pervades as a model to base a modern musical career on.
The appetite for another heroin-doused musician’s unravelling before our eyes has gone
Dance music – particularly house – has re-emerged as the communal activity and soundtrack of choice, the drug being MDMA. Rather than the expansion of perception offered by the mystical artist, we are instead looking to limit; to reduce experience to within a dance hall, to the primal thud of a wordless beat, exacerbated by ephemeral chemical intoxication, recoverable in time for Monday morning.
As the world becomes more confusing, the geopolitics more brutal, the internet more bewilderingly capable, we are seeking the quiet contentment of an apparently sober, All-American sorority girl, or the soporific safety of Adele, adorned with a bottle of wine on a Saturday night. Perhaps we have rejected idolatry in music, our spot lit proselytisers, aside from the most middle of the road and conformist performers. The appetite for another heroin-doused musician’s unravelling before our eyes has gone, as it only conjures the unremitting world at large.
With unique access through the internet to the plethora of fallen idols and their grandly emotive music, we can plunder the archives of pain without adding to it: the seminal genius of Miles Davies and Charlie Parker, the ethereal Billie Holiday, the melancholia of Townes van Zandt, the revival of John Frusciante, and the heartbreak of Amy Winehouse. If we never demand more of mainstream music than Justin Bieber’s carefully, commercially crafted ‘Sorry’, then the past alone is where the caustic, opiate-filled artists and their great work will reside.