AAS 1996 by Michael Corcoran
It’s the eternal question regarding heroin addiction and the first chant from a confused society whenever the horrid thud of another fallen rock star is heard.
Why would someone who seemingly had everything, with so much yet to give the world, mainline their mortality for a cheap, selfish thrill?
In the past few months, national magazines have hoisted heroin on their covers, as if Pat Kingsley was the drug’s own publicist. A spate of movies such as “Pulp Fiction,” “Basketball Diaries,” “Basquiat” and especially “Trainspotting” have explored the pleasures and pain of this substance with all those cool-sounding nicknames like smack, skag, chiba and Mr. Brownstone.
Musicians, who’ve always been the most loyal and high-profile customers of the insidious drug, keep dying or rehabbing, so the issue remains fresh more than 40 years since the great Charlie Parker succumbed to the alluring poison. What’s more, a series of new tunes, including “Habit” by Pearl Jam, “Salvation” by the Cranberries and “Heroin Eyes” by Lush have bucked the hipster ban on anti-drug songs.
Then there was Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan on MTV two weeks ago describing the stress and tension created within the band by the heroin addiction of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. After detailing Chamberlin’s flaky behavior and vicious mood swings, Corgan said, “We were tired of covering up our dark, dirty secret.” It was all out in the open when Chamberlin was arrested for possession of heroin on the morning he found keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin dead from an overdose. On the firing of Chamberlin, Corgan said, “We faced the bogeyman and now we’re fine.”
Amid all this dialogue about “the needle and the damage done,” to quote the sad song Neil Young sang on the same MTV telecast, nobody can really answer “Why?” Instead, there are the “junkie chic” photo spreads and the flamboyant pull-quotes from “Trainspotting” to pierce the darkness, like twin penlights that illuminate only their own fine line of significance. “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” the Renton character says in the opening voice-over of “Trainspotting,” which neither glorifies nor condemns the drug. Complaining that the good side of heroin is never discussed, he says, “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.” But then, the same thing could be said for a dive off the top of the Empire State Building.
It still doesn’t add up, but at least society is finally confronting an issue that was once swiftly bypassed and flagrantly ignored like the insane jabbering of a horizontal wino. Heroin is no longer seen as the province of ghost-like guttersnipes, jaded rock stars and sax players in pork-pie hats.
It’s not just a New York City thing anymore, as attested by the number of users right here in Austin. Because we don’t know why people will destroy their lives in pursuit of a bait-and-switch euphoria, the hard, fast rules have been set aside, at least in this semester when hope and hype are only separated by the letters “o” and “y.” Oh, why do they keep doing it? We’re trying to understand. We’re trying real hard.
Coddling known addicts
The music industry, which drew charges of being an enabler in the 1994 suicide of brilliant junkie Kurt Cobain, is among those leading the way in this new awareness of heroin. After years of coddling known addicts (so long as their records were selling), and waving the “sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” banner, the industry has slowly shifted into a more responsible role.
A week ago the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade organization formed by the six major label groups (MCA, Warner Music, EMI-Capitol, BMG, Polygram and Sony), announced that it was broadening its substance abuse concerns. Among other initiatives, the RIAA voted to give the Musicians’ Assistance Program, founded by jazz musician and former heroin addict Buddy Arnold, a grant of $2 million over three years. MAP is similar to Austin’s year-old SIMS Foundation in that both provide cheap, confidential counseling for musicians, who rarely have health insurance.
What’s more, after an “industry intervention” summit about the drug problem in June, most record labels have started making their Employment Assistant Programs available to their artists, who are not technically employees.
This may all seem like grasping at straws or a case of too little, too late, but according to Austin- based artist manager Mark Proct, whose clients Jimmie Vaughan, Storyville and Doyle Bramhall II record for three different major labels, there have been wholesale changes in the music biz mindset concerning heroin.
“The industry is trying to understand the problem better,” he said. “It’s a complex issue — not just a straight up and down thing. When we went to Geffen and told them what was happening with Doyle (Bramhall checked into drug rehab for heroin addiction in late ’94), the label gave us 100 percent support. Their concern was, truly, that Doyle get the help he need. We never got a hint of pressure to get back in the studio and start recording until Doyle felt he was ready.”
Like so many musicians, Bramhall started using heroin because it was always around and it just seemed like part of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Heroin helped fill the long and often boring hours between performances. It took his cares away, but before long, heroin was Bramhall’s only care. “I hated it and was disgusted with myself for using it,” he said. “Every day I’d say, `That’s it. That’s the last time I’m doing that.’ But the next day would come and I’d be right back at it.”
SIMS Foundation executive director Peyton Wimmer thinks that one reason musicians are disproportionately drawn to heroin is because it is the most taboo of drugs, so it fits in with the “living on the edge” image many musicians thrive on. Others may see the drug as facilitating ultimate soul-searching sessions.
“Musicians can be admired for their quest for higher consciousness,” Wimmer said, “but when heroin is the vehicle to get there, the mental quest often becomes secondary to the body’s quest to keep stabilized. The once glorious path becomes little more than a shortcut that leads to nowhere.”
Local musician Brian McGee of Pretty Mouth can vouch for that. “You keep taking heroin to feel like you did the first time you took it, but it’s never quite as good,” he said. He described the early effects of heroin as similiar to “the head rush you get from a big bong hit of great pot — only the feeling goes through your whole body. And it lasts for five or six hours.”
McGee has been off heroin for 3 1/2 years and he says — knock wood — that he’ll never take it again. “The worst part was spending the whole day, all your money and all your energy, just so you don’t get sick. After a while, (heroin) doesn’t get you high anymore. It just makes you well for a while.” The disparity between the first time and the last is the difference between heaven and hell.
The last time McGee did heroin he almost died after doing five $20
balloons at one time. “I was by myself and I passed out for five or six hours,” he said. “When I woke up, I said, `OK, that was a warning,’ then I called my sister and said, `I’m ready to see that doctor.”’ With the help of various sedatives and belladonna for his stomach, McGee was able to kick his habit without suffering intolerable withdrawals.
His former Clear Creek High School (in Houston) classmate and Austin drug buddy Alin Black was not so lucky. On Sept. 3, almost four years after quitting heroin, the former guitarist for Sharon Tate’s Baby and the Droogs had a relapse and died of an overdose in his home in Oakland, Calif.
“Alin saw heroin as going hand in hand with the image of a rock musician,” friend Lee Shupp said. “You grow up seeing all those pictures of an elegantly wasted Johnny Thunders and you think that’s rock ‘n’ roll. It was all tied together and Alin bought into the romantic vision of heroin. At first he probably did it for the image, and then he got hooked and the reasons changed.”
Taking a deadly toll
Heroin is something of a temporary suicide — you check out for a while — so Shupp thinks Black might have returned to the drug because of a deep depression. “He geared his entire existence towards being a rock musician and he had trouble envisioning a life for himself away from that,” Shupp said. “He was 34 years old and would never be a rock star. It was as if he’d lost his dreams.”
“This is Keith Richard’s brain,” comedian Bill Hicks used to say, imitating the hiss of frying eggs from the anti-drug TV commercial. Then he’d say,“This is Keith Richard’s brain on drugs,” and imitate the guitar riff of “Satisfaction.”
Following the lead of the brilliant Rolling Stones guitarist (and poster junkie), some musicians have looked at drugs as merely an extention of the creative process. In the end, though, far too many beloved guitars end up hanging in pawn shops. And too many talented musicians squander their gift for the feeling of what “smack” casualty Lenny Bruce used to say was “like kissing God.”
“I hate what heroin does to a person, how it can ruin so many creative people,” Proct said. “I don’t get the glamour or the mystique. When I was 20 years old, I was more accepting of drugs as part of the life, but now I’m in my 40s and I’ve witnessed the trail of destruction and it’s sickening.”
It’s an oft-quoted line, but what Joe Perry said about Aerosmith’s
relationship with heroin and cocaine still hits true. “Originally, we were musicians who dabbled in drugs, but then we became drug addicts who dabbled in music.”
It’s still like that in far too many instances. But it remains to be seen whether the music industry’s new era of accountability will help turn the problem around or if the efforts will be as hollow and ineffective as a junkie’s midday prayer.
W. BlaineSeptember 21, 2021
Thoughtful and disturbing piece, Michael. Every time Heroin makes a popularity “comeback”, I wonder why…. with all we know about the addiction and effects on the body, not to mention the acquiring nightmare, the fentanyl and poison often cut into it, why new users are tempted to try this seductive soul sucker… but then I realize how very similar it is to alcohol addiction… just more potent. Availability is part of it, especially in music towns, but also, when you have chronic pain and can no longer afford pharmaceutical remedies… it’s tempting to fill in with cheap skag. It’s a gigantic problem that we tend to just try to throw law enforcement at to hold it back. That never works.