Straight talk from users and abusers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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