A Final More Serious Thought about Rock Stars and Drugs


I still think that the recent study finding that Rock Stars tend to die earlier than the general population due to drug abuse was a silly waste of time, but let’s for a moment assume that it’s right on and 100% accurate. It leaves us with a serious causation issue.


Is there something about becoming a Rock Star that makes people more susceptible to substance abuse, are people who are open to drug use more likely want to be Rock stars, have potential Rock stars been sold a bill of goods about the glamour of drugs, or even does perhaps substance abuse help you become a Rock Star?


Certainly bands like Guns and Roses did a mountain of drugs even before they became stars, but perhaps they just bought into a lifestyle that had perhaps been made too romantic by our culture’s romantic notions of the people that preceded them.

I think that there are a number of historical things that we can learn from the last 50 years of Rock history.


  1. Being a Rock star is at least initially hard work.

If anything has been a gateway drug historically perhaps it has been speed. The Beatles initiation to drugs came in Hamburg in response to their absurd no sleep schedule, and I think that Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were similarly initiated. Traveling from city to city is a grind and it was only more so thirty or forty years ago. People who want to see a live performance have little pity for how tired you are from your three state journey to entertain them. The grind of the road is probably why had it been studied, it would have been seen that Rock stars die a lot more from travel than the general population.       2. There is plenty of time to do drugsIt’s harder to have a 9-5 job and be a drug addict than it is to be a Rock star. Most people with jobs either have to choose to be an unemployed drug addict or have some restraint, but what’s Dee Dee Ramone supposed to do with his time, while Phil Spector is making Johnny play the first chord of Rock and Roll High School 18 million times? What else is there to do on a cross country tour in a bus with your time, but drink and do drugs?

There are plenty of days where we feel like death warmed over, and we go to work and deal with it. Unfortunately, if you don’t have any need to go to work, its human nature to try to make yourself feel better.

The truth of Doug Stanhope’s joke that “boredom is a disease and drugs cure it” has to be recognized along with the big thing that nobody seems to want to acknowledge. As Bill Hicks said “Drugs are fun.” They might not be a good long term choice. They may lead to life threatening addiction, but people aren’t doing them because they suck.

Even the most reflective person has to admit that fun in some increments is a big part of life. It’s no surprise that people with time, fame, and money turn to drugs. Especially someone like Elvis Presley, who has time, money, and is cocooned by his overwhelming fame.                 

Similarly, it’s harder to quit when you are a Rock star. Unlike the normal person, who loses a job, a spouse, or both, the downside of drug use for a celebrity is pretty much nil until things are completely out of control.

  1. Artists are more likely to have psychological issues

My psychiatrist, and I have one, has a ton of Van Gogh books in his office, and I asked him whether this was due to Van Gogh’s psychological problems. He denied this and just said that he liked the way Van Gogh saw the world. I posited that it was exactly Van Gogh’s psychological issues that made him view the world in which he did, and wondered whether my psychologist could turn Van Gogh into a boring happy being who saw the world just like everyone else. My psychologist felt that the proper drugs could cure Van Gogh and leave him a healthier, happier artistic giant, but I have my doubts.

Perhaps we also have to figure out what it is about the reflection of pain and suffering that audiences find so compelling. Are we messed up as a society because we consider Kurt Cobain and Hank Williams to be geniuses and Barry Manilow to be a hack? Would a society full of happier people listen to a bunch of crappy banal music and be better off for it? Aldous Huxley’s savage in Brave New World, preferred pain and agony to mindless happiness, and there is something romantic about that.

People either identify with the depression of their artists, because they are similarly depressed, or because it gives them insight into what it would be like to live the journey of the savage who faces the darker side of life that they don’t possess the inclination or the courage to do similarly. 

It’s clearly impossible to cure Kurt Cobain’s pain and have Nevermind too. The big question of psychiatry is whether it’s possible to cure his pain and get something else from him that would be just as good.

Paul McCartney seems to be history’s most well adjusted productive Rock star, but then again everyone prefers his work when he had John Lennon to write the depressing bridge to We Can Work It Out.

  1. Artistically, at least for a while, drugs work

I don’t think that this can even be denied. In the movie Bird, Forrest Whitaker bemoans the fact that everyone thinks they need to shoot like Bird to play like Bird.

Whereas long term drug use probably isn’t a good idea, without any you just don’t wind up with Pet Sounds, Revolver, or Blonde on Blonde. Could we have instead had something different, but just as worthy? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Look at the movie Ray. On its face it shows Ray Charles’ triumph over heroin addiction, but the movie then fast forwards 25 years as if he had never produced any good work ever again. Whether Charles did or not, the implied message of the movie is no drugs, no masterworks.

How exactly does one maximize the effectiveness of drug use? I have no idea. Bob Dylan seems to have walked right up to the line and retreated, while others like Hendrix and Brian Wilson tripped over the line and either died or took years to recover.

Would Brian Wilson trade Pet Sounds for sobriety? I have no idea and I’m guessing he doesn’t either.

It’s just not as simple as “Just say no.”

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