Do the teenagers you know talk excitedly about inequality, racial discrimination or pollution? If so, they may be exhibiting the first signs of drug addiction.”
Thus runs the opening paragraph from a pamphlet issued by a concerned religious group from Ohio.
Perhaps though we can carry a greater understanding of this concern when we consider the other end of the rainbow, where we find the ‘Eight Circuit Model of Consciousness’ where it is posited that, through the use of hallucinogenics, “differing levels of being can be achieved with a human’s nervous system”, according to an over-excited follower, Timothy Leary. To which many rather more enlightened individuals might respond, “You carry on mate, but leave my nervous system to me…”
Links between drugs, music and ‘young people’ have troubled society’s guardians for many a generation, and despite changes in attitudes, more liberal times, and wider understanding of the effects of drugs, the use, and ‘glamour’ of the (particularly illegal) potions continues.
Yet for those intoxicated or influenced by latter day drug buffoons like Pete Doherty, it may come as a surprise that they are inventing nothing that is new. It isn’t big and it isn’t clever, as any ancient Egyptian, his head filled with mandrake, opium or blue lotus, would confirm.
In researching this piece, and coming across a large volume of drug related songs from the jazzy world of the 1920s and 1930s, it seems odd that many biographers state with certainty that Ella Fitzgerald was vehemently against the use of drugs when one listens to her jaunty performance of ‘Wacky Dust’ in 1938:
“Oh I don’t know just why; It gets you so high; Putting a buzz in your heart; You’ll do a marathon; You’ll wanna go on; Kickin’ the ceilin’ apart.”
Ella’s first husband (it appears she married him on a whim) was a convicted drug dealer, and she soon had the marriage annulled. Her reputation has survived such quirks, but for Harry Gibson, recording a dope related song in 1947 proved to be a career buster. “Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine?” might seem rather innocuous, even tame, in today’s world, and I have a passing suspicion that it was the rhyme that seduced Gibson, rather than the subject.
However, his young career was over, ostensibly, and as his own use of drugs extended rather farther than the relatively mild Benzedrine, it took a remarkable turn of events in the 1960s and 70s before he perceived a more laissez-faire approach to his views on the recreational use of drugs, and found himself playing in blues and rock bands in his fifties and sixties.
Back though, to Dr. Timothy Leary, for whom, of course, John Lennon wrote ‘Come Together’ as a campaign song when Leary stood for the Governorship of California.
Leary was also present when John and Yoko recorded ‘Give Peace A Chance’ in a Montreal hotel room. From these and other examples of Leary’s influence, it would be a simple step to assume that the taking of mind altering drugs inevitably leads to coolness and the capacity to write great, enduring songs of spiritual clarity and depth.
However, for every ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ there is also the hairdresser/psych/rock of the Moody Blues; and every ‘Itchycoo Park’ and ‘Astronomy Domine’ is balanced by the dull noodlings of the Grateful Dead or the pub-rock-psychedelia of Procol Harum.
The ‘Summer Of Love’, 1967, in Haight Ashbury, ended in the cool of the December of that year with many of the influx of young hopefuls, seeking help for addiction, suffering from malnutrition and attending clinics for a variety of unfashionable diseases.
If the link between brain changing narcotics and ground-breaking music wasn’t already dead by the end of 1969, then Charles Manson and Altamont were responsible for burying it alive.
By 1970, Syd Barrett, Peter Green, Brian Wilson; their artistry and in the latter’s case, their genius, stolen by paranoia, confusion, panic attacks and anxiety.
The legacy of the use of LSD by musicians was felt by those left standing in fields in Windsor and Aldermaston, watching Hawkwind perform from the back of a truck, the sound swirling away on the wind, with the hopes of the love generation, who by then, were either working for the council, in prison, or living in their mum’s attic.
There are arguments for the use of relaxing drugs; there are arguments for the use of prescribed drugs to help with specific conditions. In such cases, it is to be hoped that the user, or patient, retains control; but the damning indictment against Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” is that it is the dropping out aspect that becomes the driver. Control is taken by the drug and not by the user.
And as soon as we lose control of our own minds, then we have no control over our artistry, our performance, our creativity, and most important of all, of ourselves.
Terence Dackombe – March 2015