Modern music, as we know it, Jim, was born out of the jazz and blues and the beat and poetry culture of the early decades of the 20th century. Sex, drugs and rock and roll became that unholy triumvirate that both held up the alternative culture world, and also destroyed its wretched denizens in vast numbers. What spurred the poets and musicians on to greater heights, also ended up putting them 6 feet under, but man, what a trip in between. Rock and Roll is the final goal. The sex and drugs are just stops along the way. This is part one of the sex, drugs and rock and roll playlist. Welcome to the high life. I have just eaten 30 mgs of hash infused candy, the only nod I have nowadays to the old country – the traditional ways of elevation, and am ready to rock the keyboard.
There are a million playlists out there with Heroin by The Velvet Underground, White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane and Purple Haze by Hendrix heading up the druggie top ten. Needle and the Damage Done, anyone? I am more interested about the paths less trodden, the slightly less famous and mainstream of the genre of songs devoted to all things high. This is my fuck ups playlist, real junkies and drug aficionados need only apply, these are my people, my heroes and heroines, and a lot of them paid the ultimate price for their psychonaut adventures.
Drugs are the building blocks of musical inspiration. From the old blues songs about cocaine, to folk ballads about moonshiners, the artists tendency towards finding inspiration and solace in the bottom of a bottle or a bag is well documented. Booze and drugs are as natural to the music and words industry as breathing. Of course people hit the wall, the rock bottom, or even the continuation, the next ‘plateau’ as The Meat Puppets put it. What comes up, must go down, or so they say.
Let’s kick off proceedings with one of the ultimate niche druggie bands, Royal Trux, who infamously spent their entire recording budget on drugs, having to produce their slammed, drooling freaky confections on a shoe string. Here is the glorious Junkie Nurse, off their untitled 1992 album, with its gloriously wheeling and spinning jig of a tune, and sweetly longing lyrics, sung by Neil Michael Haggerty in that suspiciously cool chewed up way that junkies have of expressing themselves: half asleep, half clenched up, and entirely desperate.
Every connoisseur of fine psychoactives know the best place to score is the doctor, and a doc who writes (scripts freely and not entirely honestly) is a rare and valuable beast. To not have to worry about whether the drugs you are about to snort, shoot or eat are accurately dosed, un-fucked with (technical term there), and better, cheap or free, whooowheee….This funnily dark tale of a nurse ‘with the keys to the safe on the 2nd floor’, and “Dr Moans or Dr Jones”, who knows if he cuts off the junkie nurse connect is going to lose his licence is a blast. Of course this whole scheme comes to the attention of the dastardly feds, and though ‘a nurse can fix a prison’s kicks’, and the nurse is able to get ‘in the hole’ and our intrepid seeker of relief ‘right off (his) head’ the ‘shit’ hits the proverbial fan. Love only lasts as long as the next bag in drugs-and-music-ville, or as Neil sings, ‘for ever more’, which is the same thing, really.
Leaving behind the ‘fabled land of nod’ of the now sadly split up Royal Trux, and heading back in time to 1968 and one of those fabulous almost famous bands that only the hip and nerdily obsessed have heard of, The Rockets. They were the precursor to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse band, headed up by one of Rock n’ Roll’s most talented fuck ups and drug casualties, Danny Whitten. We get treated to some psychedelic Pills Blues and in incredibly tight performance. The groove of this track runs so deep I can feel it in my bones and right they way into that long hidden twitch that whispers in my ear that to ‘drop a little pill and wash it down with wine’ wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, and that perhaps if I did, I might get some more pages out of it. Pages are everything. I am all about the pages, and that is it really. Fuel. Every artist has it, and coffee just don’t cut it all the time.
Whitten’s manifesto of the stoned, drunk and drugged, ‘drop a little pill baby, make it all outta sight…cause if the first one don’t get you, the cup of coffee will’, details how much of America works. Do a little speed, crush a few beers and get out there and work. “I talk about my pills like I talk about my women. One little phone call and you know I’ll come and get ’em….talking about my pills that is…” Whitten is the epitome of sardonic, steamed cool. Between that heavy blues groove, the squealing euphoric guitar and the hipper-than-thou lyrics, Whitten brings the heat. Sadly the pills caught up with him, or at least the lifestyle did, and Whitten died of an overdose of Diazepam and alcohol, a lovely but lethal combination. Neil Young should have given him more than the alleged $50 when he fired him from Crazy Horse, perhaps then he could have afforded some smack which might not have killed him. Danny died trying to mitigate the heroin kick with what he had available. Junk drugs killed Whitten like they killed my hero, Lester Bangs. Danny knew it, when he sang, ‘if the first one doesn’t get ya, the cup of coffee will!’ That chaser either leads to a better high or else the other less liveable option. I wish Danny had made it, he was immensely talented and put far more into Everyone Knows This is Nowhere than is commonly acknowledged, bringing his unique sound and even sharing the vocals.
Elliott Smith. In a lot of ways I feel a lot more affinity towards Smith than a lot of artists. I get his struggle to create whilst living in the outskirts, trying to stay high and fed. His pacific west coast world of ‘idiot kids’, ‘strung out and thin’ friends, trying to cash cheques and being turned away from the Walmart counter by some gum chewing bitch who gets great delight in not giving you your money even though it is legit and yours. Nobody has a clue. Everyone around you ‘caught in the eye’ of a needle lifestyle. Back when this was released everyone was doing heavy noise and grunge. Elliot kicked against the convention and did this folkier sounding lo fi depression fodder. Elliott knew where it was at, he lived this life and died it too, though coming to an end through an alleged violent suicide, not the overdose or liver damage that his fans has conditioned themselves to expect. This song is pure pacific rain and desperate dull addiction. He sings about ‘taking the cure’ and then mocks this most sensible choice by his joking about people being proud he is ‘getting good marks’, when the only marks he is getting is track marks. My heart half breaks, and half lifts with joy at Elliott’s stunning ability to throw the listener into that paradigm, vernacular and life. A Portland Jim Carroll. He deserves far more attention than he gets.
This is the Dark Star (Part 2) that all other Dark Star’s are held up to. This is it. This is the Filmore 1969 uber jam, a jazz infused, acid soaked ride that drags the listener on for the trip. This is Dean Moriarty, and Further on the road, this is the Summer of Love and Kesey’s acid tests. This is the high life. You don’t need to be tripping to appreciate the organic natural beauty of this fractal sound, but if you are it is a sure route to all things beautiful. About acid, on acid, for acid, this is LSD made aural. Perhaps the ultimate drug tune. The Grateful Dead were so central to the San Franciscan scene and the LSD great social experiment that it is impossible to talk of one without the other. Everyone should listen to this just once in their lives. Improvised, psychedelic infused genius. Jazz with guitars. If only there was a time machine.
The Grateful Dead seem almost wholesome in comparison to Gun Club’s narcotic bluesy rock ramblings. Jeffrey Lee Pierce yelps, “She’s like heroin to me. She cannot miss a vein’ and every junkie in a ten mile radius gets twitchy. Add to that Rowland S. Howard’s (I Know) A Girl Called Johnny), who is his ‘narcotic lollipop’, and sex and drugs start to merge in a very slow moving menage. All druggies need a buddy, and the best drug couples are both partners in narcotic crime (usually committed in the bathrooms of the western world), and strange co dependent bedfellows. Sex and drugs make perfect partners. Rowland S Howard has this ability to merge his wall of sound melodic pop with dark subjects and David Lynchian cinematic picture painting. “Pashing with the devil at the bus stop” is a occupational hazard for artists. Rowland died of liver cancer and cirrhosis aged 50. I wonder if he thought the fuel was worth it? Selfishly a world without Rowland’s music would be far blander and duller. I just wish more of my heros and heroines survived the chase.
Narcotic Prayers might be needed after all that sex and drugs. Chris Whitley, despite his intensely smacked out appearance and drugged out, drunk-ass appearance, stayed very private about his own addictions and habits. I can’t listen to Chris without being transported back to a particular time and place, and the depths of my own addictions. He asks “If I seen her breathing/How could I adjust?/Should I see her bleeding/Calling me in trust.” Breathing and bleeding are living and dying in the trailer parks and back room bars of America. Chris has the zeitgeist in the palm of his hand. As he sings “I copped and caught a movie/ But you know it can’t last” Chris speaks to the universal truth of getting high. You can cop, you can score, you can get those drugs in your sweaty paw, but it can never go on for ever. Sobriety or death stop even the most ardent follower of the rock and roll lifestyle and edicts.
It is not all sadness and slow poisonings. There is also Canned Heat and Amphetamine Annie. “I don’t mind you getting high” our lothario tells Annie, as she falls deeper and deeper into the amphetamine psychosis and, he is forced to remind her that ‘speed kills’. An upbeat song, for an upbeat kinda girl. Annie’s descent into physical and psychological wreck territory is picked out in killer guitars and a driving beat. Annie didn’t listen to his good advice, she just wanted to ‘get it on’. A death party for Annie. Perhaps it was not as much fun as I remembered this song being. Canned Heat were bad boys, they played for the Hells Angels, and had their own fair share of drug charges and problems. Perhaps they should have taken their own good advice! The boys always do like to lecture the girls on a part of rock and roll they see as being their domain.
Ella Fitzgerald knew how to party. Wacky Dust, a jazzy paen to cocaine is a stylish and delightful big band break from the whole death and dreariness of the matter. Let’s face it, if drugs were not sometimes fun and potentially inspirational, opening those doors of perception and helping the writer churn out the pages, and the writer keep the music coming, no one would bother risking life and limb. It is euphoria we are after and Ella elegantly delivers. Ella didn’t drink, like cigarettes and did not do drugs. She was no tragic waif-like figure, like the beautiful and doomed Billie Holliday. Perhaps that is why she sounds so gathered, happy and composed. Ella was rooted in jazz culture, and it made sense for her to do this song. She moved away from anything that even hinted at drug use after she recorded this song, but it remains a gorgeous side note, and a worthy addition to the ‘reefer song’ genre, otherwise dominated by the jazz greats, like Cab Calloway and his 1933 song Reefer Man, and Benny Goodman’s Texas Tea Party. Marijuana is a given not a danger, and the sting in cocaine’s tail is tied up in a neat bow in Ella’s warning finish.
Talking about marijuana, this list would not be complete without Snoop Dogg and his famously prodigious weed habit. Snoop is a folk hero. No ‘medicine’ track has sounded so good since Dylan was mixing his up in the basement of Desolation Row. “And I am high all day every day” sings Snoop, and it is impossible not to nod along. This is pure rolled OG cool. A strange chimera of country, Americana and hip hop. Snoop raps that “you can’t buy love, but you can buy bud” and that makes me want to declare my allegiance to the green, the red, the white and the blue..and Snoop. This is some straight fire.
R.L Burnside was one cool man. Beloved of the punk and grunge scenes, despite being far older than those generation x wasters. He was born in 1926 in Mississippi, convicted of murder in the ’40s in some murky circumstances that I can’t really find much about, and released 6 months later. He worked hard as a sharecropper growing cotton and soy, a fisherman and a truck driver, but what Burnside really did well was playing the blues. He opened for the Beastie Boys, Iggy Pop adored him and his 1996 album, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. If I was going to pick one guy to sing the empty bottle blues, it would be Mr. Burnside. This song, with it’s Lightning Hopkins-esque riffs, and easy southern liquor soaked blues is a reminder that booze kills too, and is the fuel for many an artist. This driving chugga chugga scratchy beat, mirroring the daily grind for that ‘ass pocket of whiskey’ is a thing of great beauty. “Guess White Lightning done gone to my head” sings R.L, as he requests that his ‘baby’ let’s him take to his bed…and the sound of regret and desperation drips from his 6 steel strings and perfectly aged voice.
Arthur Lee and Love. Los Angeles psychedelia. There cannot be a drug list without dear Arthur and his band of merry men. Truly a one off kinda guy. Red Telephone’s ending chant of “they are locking them up today, they are throwing away the key, I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me” sums up that 1960s moral panic over weed and acid. “We are all normal and we want our freedom” intones Arthur. The war on drugs could never be won. We all want our freedom. The world should have listened to more Love and less War.
Ok, so Patti is a big old phoney, or else a naughty obfuscator: she declared the only drug she ever did was marijuana. I don’t believe her, but that is neither here nor there. Poppies is a Jim Carroll infused exploration of the poppy high. I adore Patti. “Baby got something she not used to” sings Patti, and the song continues in it’s slow jive, as Patti sings about scoring on the corner, and ‘wanting something’ and ‘wanting more’. Whatever the real story is about Patti’s life and experiences this remains a drug song of the highest echelon.
Eminem, a relapse, some serious self exploration and brutal honesty, deja vu is quite the track. What else can I say? There are not many artists willing to own their shit and let the world into their private fuck ups and habits. What comes up must go down. The fame game grind gets to Eminem. His self awareness probably saved him. Either that or his well deserved millions. Whichever it is, I am glad he made it through.
Unfortunately Kurt didn’t. His definitive Unplugged 1993 performance, that I remember watching on MTV at the time and sitting there hoping Kurt was not as deep in as he looked, King of the Slacker junkies, and Crown Prince of motheaten sweaters. Plateau is a Meat Puppets song, but is now forever tied to Cobain and this late performance from a band that didn’t know at the time that the ride was almost ending.
There are some universal truths to be had in rock, and the fact that a junkie won’t help another junkie ‘find the next plateau’ or high, if they could’ is one of them. This song is a neat exploration of drug culture, human nature and the reality of life on the mountain face of a serious drug habit. “Nothing on top but a bucket and a mop” sings Kurt, and the truth of it is that no one (except perhaps Keith Richards) can live at such a high altitude forever. Their breakthrough album Nevermind was an expression of youth culture at the time, and when Kurt sings about ‘living off of grass and the drippings from my ceiling’, my young heart knew where he was coming from. It is entirely possible. Kurt was a shining example of one of us making it, becoming a hero and then that fame taking it all away. No slacker can cope with that amount of pressure.
Cobain quoted Neil Young in his suicide note, writing that is was Better to burn out than to fade away. I still don’t think it is true, and I wish Kurt had stuck around to prove it. Damn 27 Club.
I have a bit of a tear in my eye after watching Kurt and thinking how young I was back then and how devastated I was when he died. I need a bit of stoner druggie comedy, and who better than Skip Spence to drag me out of my funk. Oar is a masterpiece, but that aside Lawrence of Euphoria and his fucked up friends make for a big ole ‘illegal smile’ to use John Prine’s perfect little phrase from his perfect little happy marijuana song.
Warren Zevon, who I think of as the Hunter S Thompson of the music world, with his gonzo style music, and highs and lows in his private life, which according to his autobiography were fuelled mostly by booze and drugs, writes the sweetest songs. The best high is the natural one. We can all only hope that one day we will be ‘back in the high life again’.
I will stand on anyone’s coffee table and declare Kendrick Lamar to be one of the best lyricists of all time. His track Night of the Living Junkies is a faustian vignette of low life struggles and cocaine hustles, and a poetic damnation of a society that drags people down so under that they cannot get out from under the weight of addiction. Social commentary with a beat so sweet and a vibe that could keep anyone high and happy for the 3.32 seconds of the song.
I wondered how to end this list, and to be frank, the only postscript that makes sense of Gram Parsons’ most perfect song, Grievous Angel. Parsons died of a heroin overdose, sadly surrounded by people who had no idea how to even attempt to save him, or understand how serious a state he was in while they still had time to save him. Keith Richards’ partner in crime and drug buddy had a huge smack habit and apparently had tried to clean up, thus lowering his tolerance, and went under in a Joshua Tree hotel room in 1963. His friends stole his body and tried to cremate him in the national park using gasoline, allegedly traumatising a passers by according to some accounts. His friends trying to fulfill his final wishes was a simultaneously horrific and beautiful thing. Gram singing about the King with his ‘amphetamine crown’ is a change from his usual rather clean and pretty country fare. Still Parsons’ place in rock and roll drug history is assured.
Rock and Roll would be nothing without the fuel on the creative fire and the artists willing to be rock and roll soldiers, fighting the good fight. I will give Dr. Hunter S Thompson the last word….