Perfect Sound Forever



by Deena Dasein (December 1996)

"Before it was cool to be a junkie these guys had it down pat." That's how the Brit-accented afternoon Chicagoland rock jock recently intro'd the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden."

Junk, horse, smack- it goes by a multitude of endearing nicknames. We are now in the year of the horse, whatever the Chinese calendar says. Heroin's hip.

It's hip with rock fans, who've always had some drug of choice, along with their favorite band. And it's used by rock musicians, as evidenced by a host of revelations about best selling 90s' artists. Nirvana, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots are some of the better known. A junkie in the band hasn't kept them off the cover of Rolling Stone, hasn't kept their videos off MTV, and hasn't hurt their album sales. Perhaps the real meaning of alternative is heroin, as opposed to pot, acid, coke, or ecstasy.

Rock isn't the only industry currently addicted to the mystique of horse. Hollywood hypes heroin too. Recent movies popular with the avant-youth audience, such as "Pulp Fiction," "Killing Zoe," and "The Basketball Diaries," featured the drug. "Trainspotting," in which heroin has the starring role, is the defining movie of the year.

Urban Outfitters sells Irvine Welsh's novel, Trainspotting, on which the movie is based. A recent flap in the literary world saw another writer, and former heroin user, Will Self accuse Welsh of "never having injected heroin." Welsh has had to defend himself against this libel.

The rock book of the year, Please Kill Me, has hardly anything to say about music. It focusses on the proto-punk New York scene and its fascination with heroin- copping it, shooting it, and dying from it.

Even the current fashion pages have been criticized for using models that visually represent the gaunt addict. Oprah did two shows on herion in September and a piece in Details indicates that 8th graders can't wait to try heroin.

The junkie Beat, William Burroughs, has worked with or been sampled by a batch of rock musicians in the '90s. His visage adorns the T-shirts of the coffee shop crowd.

Heroin is hip, in part, because it is harnessed to death. Sure you can die from shooting up cocaine. Even alcohol kills- not only from cirrhosis of the liver and traffic accidents; you can also encounter the grim reaper by choking on your own vomit in a drunken stupor. But if it's death you're after, heroin has got the others beat by a mile.

Death has always been the great rock career move, but it has to be done right. Heart attacks, strokes, and even cirrhosis don't quite cut it. Diseases of old age, fading away rather than burning out, are not career enhancing departures.

Dying well in rock needs two elements to work - the body has to be relatively young, and the cause of death should be some sort of Dionysian excess. The Stones and Beatles are in their fifties. Chuck Berry is over 70. When they go (and yes, like you dear reader, they eventually will go) their deaths will not be great career moves.

The best rock death is from a drug overdose. It is the equivalent of Christians being burned at the stake or being eaten by lions for their faith - it is the martyrdom that leads to sainthood.

And heroin kills. Not always, but like Russian Roulette, play it long enough and the odds are that you'll take the bullet. Heroin has the aura, and some statistics to back it up, of a form of suicide. A soft one. It's not like blowing your brains out with a rifle. Right, Kurt?

Heroin's dirty dance with the grim reaper gives it a Romantic aura. "When I'm closing in on death," Lou Reed croons in his ode to smack. "Heroin, be the death of me," he commands. Rock, especially in the sixties, has been pervaded by an ideology of Romanticism. And, depite, or perhaps because of, the triumph of the postmodern - Romanticism's antithesis and archenemy - the Romantic ideology stubbornly persists. Attenuated and in tatters, to be sure, Romanticism still shrouds rock, particularly the musician as a creative artist.

Romanticism. Recall the 19th century poet maudit, like Rimbaud or Verlaine, the tortured soul who suffered for his art. Living a dignified bourgois life was seen to be inimical to real art. The artist used a variety of drugs to call forth the creative muse, went mad, and died young.

Under the sign of Romanticism rock has embraced mind-altering substances- from vast quantities of beer and Jack Daniels, to pot, acid, 'shrooms, heroin, speed, and cocaine. When alterntive consciousness can be reached naturally, as with schizophrenia, that's cool too. Think of the cults around such naturals as Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson, and Brian Wilson. And do you think that Wesley Willis' current following is due to the quality of his music?

Heroin is sought out by musicians partly for its mind-altering properties. It removes one from the practical world. And the Bourgois is nothing, if not practical. The high is intensely pleasurable. As Reed puts it: "When I'm rushing on my run And I feel just like Jesus' son." Good god!

For most continual users, heroin's major function is not to provide pleasure, but to remove pain. All types of pain- psychological, physical and the practical work-a-day variety. (Craving smack after one has developed a relationship with the stuff gets to be the major pain that another dose removes.)

Steven Tyler, the more vocal half of Aerosmith's drug-addled Toxic Twins, has not been reticent about his longtime affection for horse. "You're gonna always dream about it," he says longingly. Part of its attraction, he explains, is that "it slows life down and turns off the overintellectualizing part of your brain."

The Romantic belief is that creativity requires the absence of the rational, that "overintellectualizing" kills the artistic spirit. If one believes this to be true, using heroin may, at least for a time, actually aid the creative process.

The Romantic ideology preaches rebellion against the straight society. Youth culture in last half of the 20th century is a mass- mediated succession of promotions of transgressions. Thumbing one's nose, so to speak, at middle class propriety; EpatÈ le bourgeois. Rock did this from the beginning. In the fifties, bump'n'grind dancing to doo-wop and the acceptance of "race music" [R&B] by white audiences outraged the "good folks". The democratization of transgression picked up speed as the number of "youth" in the population, and their affluence, increased. During the late sixties the Woodstock generation's use of marijuana and LSD, and its long- haired males, gave the bird to the keepers of society's standards.

Skipping past the trespasses of the past quarter of a century, we now have the youthful cool of tattoos, thrift-shop fashion, and body-piercing. And heroin. The bourgeoisie is not amused. Their party, the Republicans, have fought back, with Nixon's attack dog, the late Spiro Agnew's denounciations of pot, Reagan's "Just Say No" guard-dog Nancy, and Bob Dole's "Just Don't Do It" campaign sound-bite.

The Rebel-as-Romantic-Hero, Romanticism once removed, also feeds heroin's hipness. Rockers in the '60s admired old blues and jazz musicians- many who'd used horse. Later rockers admired not only those same people, but the sixties rockers who also used the drugs. How many latter day rockers took Keith Richards or Jimi Hendrix as their role models? "Mr.Brownstone's" creator, Guns N'Roses' Axl Rose, declares: "We're competing with rock legends, and we're trying to do the best we can to possibly be honored with a position like that." And now the new guys on the block, presently unknown, are into heroin because, as one band member explained "They think it's gonna make them like Guns N'Roses, man."

The current heroin fad among rock musicians should come as no surprise. They have the same demographics as junkies: males, between the ages of 18-34, without college degrees and the professional jobs advanced degrees permit. How many accountants do you know of who have O.D.'d on heroin?

Heroin use in the U.S. has generally increased in the '90s, although reliable statistics are hard to come by. One good estimate comes from hospital emergency rooms, which report an uptick in people being brought in who've overdosed on heroin.

Smack is not (yet) sold in glassine packets via vending machines. But for those working in the demi-monde of rock, connections are not hard to find. Groupies, fans, and industry personnel will help cop stuff. Once you get above the five-guys-in- a-van touring level, the ubiquitous flunkies will fetch anything. M&Ms with the red ones eliminated? Sure. Women? Easy. Horse? Of course.

And with a hit record or two, price is no object. Surrounded by a managment team that takes care of all the practical things that the rest of us need to do for ourselves, like get food, wash clothes, and arrange travel, rock musicians, like street bums, are separated from the discipline of reality.

As Courtney Love puts it, heroin is "the drug you do if you're in a fuckin' four-star hotel and you can order all the goddamn room service that you want and you can just lay in bed and drool all over yourself because you've got a million bucks in the bank. That's the drug you want to do if you want to be a kid forever."

Let's not tell Bob "Just Don't Do It" Dole, but, ideology and image aside, alcohol and a variety of illegal substances have some practical value. All work involves tension, frustration, and aggravation. How we deal with them is only explained in part by our unique personality. Cultures of coping develop - martinis for execs, coke for commodity traders, and, judging by their girth, highly caloric food for grade school teachers.

The dirty secret is that heroin is useful for rock musicians. On tour, it evens out the excitement of playing to exuberent, enthusiastic crowds for an hour or two a day, and the boredom of the "hurry up and wait" that takes up most of the time on the road. Also, because the drug is not a social enhancer. it is a way of getting privacy, and on tour privacy is at a premium. Heroin draws you into yourself, pulls a curtain around you, creates a private jet.

Appearances aside, performance anxiety is hardly rare. An unnamed musician, interviewed in Spin, admits that "heroin is the perfect drug for live performing... With the right amount, it just relaxes you, but it doesn't take your muscle coordination away."

And if touring is stressful, how do you handle life off the road after constantly touring for many months or years? With a little help from your friends, is the answer given by many band members.

"Heroin was life without the anxiety," Aerosmith's Steven Tyler recalled fondly, after he was supposedly clean.

Heroin is also of great practical use for rock careers, because it gets publicity, rock music's life-blood. "Today's heroin vogue is such that artists seem to seek credibility by confiding to journalists about their use of smack." writes a straightfaced scribe in Rolling Stone. How convenient.

Discussing how the rock media sensationalizes heroin and capitalizes on the public's fascination with it to sell magazines makes this article not just a little suspect. It's not unlike the local newscasts during TV sweeps month, with their stories tsk- tsking the strip clubs- film footage at 10. So for those of you who've wanted the sensationalism, the side-bars [ALL THE PEOPLE WHO OD'd/ AND THOSE WHO HAVEN'T (YET)] are for you.

Drug use, once it becomes public knowledge, is one of the most crucial parts of the celebrity text of an artist or band, a factoid that has to be mentioned in any artist's profile. The rock media is at its best when an artist dies of a drug overdose- obits are their pride and joy.

In July, Philip Anselmo, the lead singer of Pantera, collapsed after a concert in Dallas. His record company dutifully (it was publicity after all) sent a statement thither and yon, indicating that Anselmo said he had injected a lethal dose of heroin and died for 4 to 5 minutes. "There was no lights, no beautiful music, just nothing," he said. Will every interview with Anselmo until the end of time refer to this? Wanna bet?

But the question remains- why is heroin hip NOW?

Is it merely something different, a new fashion that replaces the old one? Each generation wants its own stuff, needs to distinguish itslef in some unique mode, from earlier ones. In the age of retrorock, body piercing and heroin are the fashion accessories for the '90s. They've replaced the coke spoons of the Reagan youth.

Or is it the next step (up or down?) in youth transgressions something that trumps the previous generation's rebellious moves? After all, the parents of 1990s youth were the pot smoking, acid- tripping members of the Woodstock generation. If youthful rebellion requires behavior that "whitens mother's hair," heroin does up the ante.

Then, too, junk resembles the current stampede to personal computers. Both have become quasi-commodities that are relatively inexpensive, more powerful, and easier to start-up and use than they were in the past. Users of both need to keep giving their dealers more money to satisfy their joneses. The computer industry has to actually invest in upgrades and advertising to keep customers coming back for more. The heroin industry, a capitalist's wet dream, has no such overhead. The increased purity of heroin has allowed users to avoid a big turnoff to first-time users - the needle. The ever-helpful smack seller now offers two brands, cut with different chemicals- one for shooting up and one for snorting. So it is now possible to start a habit more easily. It's also possible to remain a "chipper"- a weekend snorter who doesn't graduate to the syringe.

Ease of use, a new fashion of a new generaion, and ratcheting up the transgression ante- are these sufficient explanations for heroin's current hip status? I think not.

Look at the subculture that has most strongly embraced heorin- the Seattle-based grunge community. While the good-folk of the Northwest coast sipped their drug of choice at Starbucks, the music scenester was, as Alice-in-Chains put it, a "Junkhead."

"What in G-d's name have you done?" Alice's junkhead singer Layne Staley asks in "G-d Smack." His response to his rhetorical query is "stick your arm for some real fun."

"When the grunge thing first started happening," an insider recently quoted in Rolling Stone relates, "I never met a band out of Seattle that wasn't either dabbling or full-on heroin addicts."

Grunge features singers whose voices are as expressive of pain as their lyrics. Listen to Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley, Billy Corgan, or dozens of other grunge frontmen. This is not a joyful noise. They bellow their pain and whisper it. They exude a defeated rage - "I'm still a rat in the cage." Nevermind. Whether or not these singers, and the fans who dig by their music, actually use heroin is not the point.

Smack's main claim to fame is as a pain reducer. Hell, Bayer, those purveyors of aspirin, sold heroin a hundred years ago as the ultimate snake-oil painkiller. Heroin's ultimate is its deep resonance with a generation that feels itself in great pain.

There is still another point that adds to the drug's hipness today. Users are termed addicts and they are seen to need professional medical help. In the '90s heroin has changed its meaning; it's been resignified. Getting a habit no longer gives you a Keith Richards outlaw-chic aura. No, today you are an addict - someone who has no control over their lives. You need help. Profound help. You are a victim of the drug.

And victimhood is the ultimate mark of hipness today.