Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rock Music and Drugs: Why Do They Always Seem to Go Together?

The stereotype of rock musicians (remember them? They were these mythical creatures who were the most popular type of musicians during the second half of the 20th century) is one that has at the top of the list having long hair and  being a drug taker. Now, obviously, there are exceptions to these (and other) rules all the time; for instance, Frank Zappa had long hair and was notoriously anti-drug, while Elvis had (relatively) short hair and died from his prodigious drug habit. Stereotypes exist for a reason, though, and I've always been baffled by the fact that so fact, almost all, musicians, not just in rock, but also in jazz, blues, reggae, rap, pop, all dabbling in drugs to some extent, if not becoming habitual users and/or full on addicts? Why is this?

Keep in mind as you read this that I am not an expert in any way, shape, or form when it comes to drugs, psychology, addiction, or anything of the sort. Everything you read in this article is 100% informed conjecture, speculation, and musing on the part of someone (me) who has been obsessed with music and spent a lifetime in and around music, listening to, reading, and writing about it endlessly as an art form. I'm also someone who has ZERO experience with drugs myself. I've never done anything beyond taking one drag on a cigarette when I was 17 (it was disgusting) and I've smoked maybe a dozen cigars over the last twenty years. I've never been drunk and while I do enjoy beer, wine, and liquor (G&T is my favorite if you're buying), I never have more than two or three drinks in an evening. I've never done drugs, never done marijuana, LSD, cocaine, heroin, NOTHING. I've never been high or in an altered state of consciousness that was aided by chemicals. Many a teacher and fellow student in high school used to marvel how I could listen to all that "druggy" music like mid-period Beatles, Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, etc and not be into drugs myself. I always said the same thing in response: I love the MUSIC...that's all it's about and all it's ever been about for me, period. I've certainly been around people doing's almost impossible to go to any concert, especially at a large venue, and not smell pot smoke. But that's the extent of my dealings with drugs.  Also, I'm not in any way going to pass judgment on anyone who has done or continues to do drugs, whether they're famous musicians, unknown musicians, or regular people, and that goes for any of you reading this article. While I don't agree with the choice to do drugs, I also fully accept that it's exactly that: a choice, and one that each individual has to make for themselves, including dealing with the consequences. Finally, while I never try to paint everyone with a broad brush, I *am* going to be making some generalizations because even though not all rock musicians do drugs, a whole hell of a lot do...certainly enough to warrant generalizations, at least. With all of that now out of the way, let's get into my main point...

It's completely and utterly cliche, and has been for decades, that many musicians, regardless of their level of fame, will develop some predilection, to whatever degree, for drug use.  In fact, you could replace the word "musician" with "creative type" and probably come to much the same conclusion...they don't call so many creative people "tortured artists" for nothing. But sticking solely to musicians for the purpose of this article, the general view since the 1950s (probably even earlier for jazz and blues musicians, not to mention classical composers even further back, but let's stick to rock music) is that rock music leads to drug use for both the performers and the fans. The caricature of the rock star who gets famous, starts earning big money, and becomes a drug addict, oftentimes in the process ruining their career if not their life, has been around for a long time and really flourished in the 1960s. I've always wondered, though, WHY? What makes it so that almost every rock musician, especially famous ones, ends up doing drugs to some extent once they've made it big (or, if they dabbled before fame, they ramp it up once they get famous)? There's certainly some element of "that's what you're supposed to do when you're a star" copycatting, although my guess is that that's only a small part of it. Some of it is also probably due to the huge sums of money all of a sudden being earned after (usually) many years of hard slog and living a meager existence as a working musician. I'm not sure why that first flush of real money would spur so many on to start taking drugs, but it has. I can see splurging on cars, houses, clothes, and jewelry, but I've never gotten the drug thing.

So, why do so many musicians end up taking drugs? Some of it is certainly physical...stimulant substances like amphetamines and cocaine help them stay active, awake, and alert for extended periods of times without needing to sleep, although in the case of cocaine, the accompanying high is probably also part of the appeal even if the subsequent addiction isn't. Another part of it is to enhance creativity. This was especially true in the 1960s, when marijuana and LSD seemed to expand musicians' minds and the sounds they created, as well as the consciousness and sensations of the fans listening. However, most of the acts from that era have admitted that while those substances enhanced the listening of music and the ideas they came up with, they very rarely wrote, recorded, or performed under the influence; when they did, most admit they played so poorly that the resulting recording sessions or concerts were among their worst. (Ringo Starr in the Beatles Anthology: "every time we recorded when we were under the influence, it just sounded like shit!"). The main reasons I keep coming back to when I think about it, though, is that they're probably just bored or trying to cope. Perhaps the biggest outside culprit is boredom. Whether it's waiting for weeks on end to record the next song or album, or getting through the endless grind of traveling and sitting around in hotel rooms between tour stops, it seems that so many musicians turn to drugs as a way to alleviate their boredom during the long stretches between the short-lived and less chemically enhanced highs of creating music in the studio or performing on stage. Again, I can't relate to this because never in my moments of absolute tedium have I ever thought that getting wasted would enhance the experience, but then again I've not been caught in the grind of planes, buses, hotel rooms, and dressing rooms for weeks on end without respite. I suppose for many there is also the thrill of doing something new and dangerous, something illegal and unknown, and it's usually in our younger days that we tend to be a bit more reckless with our thrill-seeking, in whatever form that may take. When you're young, famous, bored, and rich...well, that can be a dangerous combination. Many musicians may also use drugs for much the same reason that a lot of regular people do, and that is to try and cope with some past or present pain or trauma. Whether it was an already existing issue from years before or is something more recent, many creative types have issues just like the rest of us and will turn to substances (including alcohol, which I'm classing as a drug for the purposes of this article...see: Jim Morrison) in order to try and numb their pain.

It very well may be that the rate of drug usage among musicians is not much higher than that for the general population, and that we just hear about it more because so many stars have their problems reported on in the press; that, and the fact that there have been many high profile cases of those who have died from drugs including, but not limited to, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, John Bonham, John Entwistle, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison as the most famous examples. The fact is that there is such a correlation when it comes to musicians (rock musicians in particular) and drugs and it has to be more than mere coincidence. In the 1960s and 1970s, taking drugs was seen as a rebellion against "straight" society and a way to celebrate the recklessness and invulnerability of youth. There was also a sincere, however naive and misguided it seems now, quest to achieve a higher spiritual state of consciousness and a misguided belief that through mind-expanding drugs and rock music, the world could be changed for the better and peace could be achieved. However, the soft drugs championed in the 1960s like pot and acid gave way in the 1970s to harder stuff like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and it became more sinister, lethal. The desire for peace and harmony gave way to substances whose entire effect was just a way to just get utterly wasted even though the underlying rationale for usage was probably for many of the same reasons. I suppose no one will ever know in any concrete sense why there is such a prevalence of drug use when it comes to rock stars; my personal opinion is that it is not for one overarching reason, but rather some combination of the reasons I mentioned above (and perhaps other reasons I didn't). In any event, while I won't deny that some of the greatest music (as well as literature, art, etc.) ever made has been conceived of by chemically enhanced imaginations, I've never felt the urge or need to do the same. Whether creating my own music or enjoying the work of others, I get a natural high simply through the pure physical, mental, and emotional joy that I derive from music. I guess in a way, music is my drug of choice, and it's 100% harmless, healthy, and has never let me down.

What do you think? Why do so many rock musicians seem to take drugs? I'd love to discuss this in the comments below, so chime in with your thoughts!


  1. Like you said, it's a combination and for different reasons as well. During the late 60s to mid-80s, but particularly earlier on when dealing with the Vietnam war up thru getting out of that conflict, drugs, marijuana was and had a social aspect to it. Much like the speakeasies of the 20s or whatever. It was a hipster thing to do, and served a certain young counterculture.

    In the early 60s, which had a different culture from now, you had an us and them culture: hip vs. straight, freak vs. redneck, or whatever. Passing a joint among friends was a friendly thing to do, social, and although weed had been around much longer than the 60s, it had a newness or acceptability within certain circles about it. The same might be said for LSD, but I don't think it ever was quite approved by the mainstream due to its unpredictability at times. Though it certainly entered a certain aspect of 60s and beyond that era/culture.

    As time went on, other drugs were used, like cocaine with the disco era etc. (If marijuana/alcohol was good, let's try that. Back in the 60s there was a phrase, "Better living thru chemistry." Sure it was a slogan, but some fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and many sunk by over use, ie. David Crosby for one, Joplin, Morrison, etc.) By the mid-80s, well if weed and booze was okay, why not this, sort of a snowball thing. I think a lot of that though was mostly done with people with money, idle rich, Wall St. types, celebrities, etc. Other people had to work for a living and yeah, you could afford a $10. bag of weed during the 60s & 70s, but the other stuff was too expensive for the most part & taboo as well to a degree. Granted I'm painting generalities. By the 90s, you had crack, etc.

    But one of the things you didn't mention is that drugs are pleasurable, people "enjoy" getting high! Look at the current success of legalizing weed in Colorado, Oregon, etc. All those people aren't running away from some dark past no more than people drink. Yes, some are, but some aren't, they just enjoy the high. It helps them to escape, maybe enhance creativity, relax, or whatever. They aren't rock stars, or whatever, just normal people that enjoy the high. Some like it others prefer alcohol. Some don't want either.

    Now there's a big opioid addiction, ie. Prince and others. Again this is a generality, but I think some of these musicians try and self medicate for any number of maladies, from insomnia, to injuries they may have gotten during a performance or elsewhere, and over indulge once they get used to using them. But like you said, for various reasons.

    1. Good point about the pleasurable aspect to some of it. As someone who's never done anything, I can't speak to it but you're right, that certainly does play a role. The other points you make are excellent ones, too.

      I do wonder, though, how much is just people playing the game, i.e. "all rock stars do drugs, ergo I need to do them, too." As if it's just expected in order to play the part properly. And how long has that attitude been around? Probably since the late 1960s/early 1970s, I reckon. I guess we'll never fully know though!

  2. Well, today, I'd guess less musicians do drugs than in the past at least I feel they are less excessive about it. That also takes into account jazz, blues, and other musicians. I think at one time it was more fashionable and considered vanguard or a type of social behavior, now it seems everyone just does their own thing. I do think there's a certain group pressure or behavior, but generally I feel if you don't like something, people tend to not do it, and vice versa.

    1. Those other genres definitely indulged, long before rock music came along, and they all still do I'm sure. I'd bet loads of rockers still indulge now, young and old alike, but probably do it more discretely (which is ironic with the loosening laws and penalties for many of those same substances) and also, I think society just expects it now so there's very little outrage or concern...more a collective shrug of the shoulder. But back in the 1960s and 70s, people were genuinely SHOCKED that so many of the famous names in pop and rock would do drugs. Not so now, really, although I suppose people would be surprised if certain big acts did these days...can you imagine if Taylor Swift was revealed to be a cocaine addict or if Adele was a closet acid-head? Haha!