Straight talk from users and abusers
NOT long after finishing Andrew McMillen’s excellent new book about musicians and drugs, I happened to watch a documentary about the making of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The film was rated M for drug references. But there was just one drug reference in the whole show and it concerned the fact Syd Barrett — who began as Pink Floyd’s songwriter and driving force — had to be thrown out of the band after dropping so much acid that he permanently destroyed his brain.
“Now there’s a look in your eyes,” wrote Roger Waters, having taken over the lyrical duties, “like black holes in the sky.” Why should the young be protected from this information? It sounds like a better argument against messing with your mental chemistry than Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no”. But we are superstitious about drugs, as if we fear that the mere mention of them will cause somebody, somewhere, to start tying off a vein.
In an effort to ease our jumpiness, McMillen, a young Brisbane journalist, has engaged 14 Australian musicians in a series of relaxed, grown-up conversations about their drug use. No matter what you believe about drugs to start with, this book will almost certainly improve your thinking. It will challenge your views here, reinforce them there; either way it will provide you with information, and only fools are afraid of that. There is enough high-grade talk here to remind you that an intelligent book is still the best stimulant of them all.
It helps that McMillen’s interview subjects are uniformly reflective and articulate. Their experiences with drugs are varied: some have hardly dabbled, some have come close to selfdestruction. There’s nobody here who selfdestructed all the way, or who never amounted to anything, and in that respect McMillen isn’t telling the full story about drugs. But he doesn’t claim to be. His approach is qualitative: he establishes an atmosphere in which his subjects can do justice to the complexity of the topic.
The book is full of digressions, clarifications, second thoughts. The soapbox and the highhorse are rarely in evidence. McMillen’s subjects remind you of the Oscar Wilde character who is asked to speak the truth, pure and sim- ple. The truth, he never simple.
Even so, a few general observations about drugs can be extracted from this book — starting with the observation that they are incredibly hard to generalise about. Some people have no need for them. Some people need them a lot. Some users develop crippling addictions and some don’t. Some people can take them habitually and still function at a high level. For others they deaden the mind and sap the potential.
This can be true even of cannabis, that allegedly benign herb. If it was ever possible to use that drug with impunity, it has become harder since the rise of the potent hydroponic stuff, which gets some bad PR in McMillen’s pages. Jake Stone, of Bluejuice, doubts the “conven-
is rarely pure and tional wisdom” that you can’t become addicted to it. “You definitely get hooked on the feeling of it”; you experience “noticeable withdrawals … If that isn’t addition, I don’t know what the f. k is.”
Then again — and this book is always prompting you to use that phrase — no drug is addictive in all cases, not even heroin. There are some harrowing stories about that drug here. “I have ruined my own career because of my weakness for it,” says guitarist Spencer P. Jones. Steve Kilbey of the Church describes his heroin phase as “11 years in f..king hell and purgatory”.
But to complicate the picture there is Paul Kelly, who used heroin on and off for 20 years without getting addicted. His goal was “to keep it as something to want, not to need”. For a long time he was able to do that, more or less. When he heard “the warning bells” he stopped. “Once I decided to quit, I just quit.” None of this means that Kelly wants other people to roll the dice. On the contrary: “I wouldn’t recommend it.” But that non-recommendation is incidental; it comes in the course of a long and nuanced conversation that goes well beyond for-or-against advocacy.
“At some point,” says Kelly, “the downer outweighs the up.” That is a recurrent theme in these pages: the hangovers and comedowns last longer as you age. There is also the question of productivity, or lack of it. Do drugs open the doors of perception? Sometimes. But on the other side of the door there is quite often a couch, and a lot of time will be spent sitting on it. “It’s just pointless,” Lindy Morrison, who played drums for the Go-Betweens, says of heroin. “You can’t do anything on it.” Tim Levinson, aka Urthboy, talks about the inadvisability of trying to rap after using ecstasy or marijuana. Shakespeare said something similar about drink: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.
There’s no important sub-theme this book doesn’t touch on. There are pointed references to Australia’s binge-drinking culture. There’s the question of whether drug use leaves you duller, even after you’ve quit — a possibility that troubles Holly Throsby, among others. (“I feel just as sharp as I did before. Who knows?”) There is a reminder, trenchantly provided by Mick Harvey of the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, that users aren’t the only ones who get “damaged or affected” by their habits — the non-users around them get scarred too. Finally, there’s the question of why people chase the chemical high in the first place. Tina Arena dares to hope that the next generation “will have enough interesting and intellectual distractions that they won’t feel the need”.
“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Mark Twain said it, and Ken Burns used it as the epigraph for his film about Prohibition. McMillen would like us to rethink our current prohibitions. While some of his interviewees had horrendous experiences with drugs, none of them believes that being thought of as a criminal helped. Clearly it didn’t stop them from indulging in the first place. Is decriminalisation the answer? The question should be discussed soberly. Interestingly, the people in this book seem much more capable of doing that than the shock jocks and sound bite artists who set the tone of our public debates.
Paul Kelly admits using heroin but says he never became addicted