The old cliché of “sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll” is dead. Ok, if not completely dead, it’s in the process of taking its last, sad breath. The mysticism that once surrounded the “rock star” has evaporated into pictures of them in their sweatpants at Starbucks and unwarranted crotch shots as they exit their limousine. Bottom line, it’s not cute. Despite the mainstream artists’ need to put their bling, bitches and Bentleys on blast in music videos, that’s not what’s really going on beneath the surface in the real world. It’s a lot darker and colder out there.
Addiction is running rampant among all types of people; young or old, married or single, famous or one of the Joneses, it’s affecting people in similar ways. So I wondered, do artists these days feel any sort of social responsibility when it comes to painting a picture that’s full of syringes, rolled up dollar bills, Lean and video hos? Surprisingly, what I found in the majority of my interviews is that most artists are sober, in the process of getting sober, straight edge or barely indulge. Why? Because being a musician is actually a job. It’s not just drinking and drugging all night as you move from prospect to prospect hoping to get laid.
In a 2010 interview with Bad Religion front man, Greg Graffin, he reveals something that is almost shocking, especially because his world is surround by punk rock debauchery and disastrous stories of drug overdoses (as in the cases of Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols and Billy Mercia of New York Dolls).
“I'm straight edge so I’ve never understood how people can function with drugs and alcohol,” Graffin admits. “But I also know that the drugs today are so potent that they are infinitely more dangerous.”
And he’s right. According to CNN.com, 40,000 kids died of drug overdoses in 2010. Ben Haggerty, more widely known as Macklemore these days, could have been one of them. The Seattle-based emcee’s struggle with substance abuse nearly ended him, but he made the brave decision to go to treatment before he was just another statistic.
“I had always wanted to get clean and sober, but didn’t really have the tools to do it. I had the desire to quit using drugs and alcohol, but I didn’t know how to get out of my environment, I didn’t know how to get out of my head and really focus on who I wanted to be. I didn’t have that resource,” Haggerty says. “I used drugs and alcohol as a numbing device. The minute that I lost the desire to numb myself was the most essential tool of the tool belt. I made the conscious choice to talk about it on record because it’s real to my life. It’s what I went to. I’m not going to hold that back.”
An unprecedented amount of artists are sharing the Mack’s philosophy about using their “celebrity” as a platform these days. The Bay Area hip-hop collective, The Living Legends, knows a thing or two about getting rowdy. After personally witnessing the consumption of seemingly endless shots of Jameson and more blunts than Wiz Khalifa could handle, a few of the eight members weren’t shy when it came to partying. But for Eligh, things were getting out of hand early in his career. Since emerging in 1996, Eligh has proven himself to be a talented emcee capable of spitting out syllables faster than an AK, but after the lights went down, the audience dissipated and he was left to his own devices, he found himself battling a menacing addiction to opiates. He, too, chose to write about it. His 2010 solo album Grey Crow documents his struggles. Now clean for seven years, recovery is still a huge part of his life.
“I am proud of that shit. I will profess it to everybody. I like to lead by example. People are inspired by it,” he says. “I just tell my experience and live it in front of people. Hopefully it influences people in a positive way.”
Victoria LeGrand of Beach House is another artist trying that approach. While she consents to having the occasional drink or two, the dream-pop singer/keyboardist has a solid grasp on what it means to be a “rock star” today. She’s not out all night like Ke$ha partying with drag queens and throwing back shots of tequila until she can’t see straight. LeGrand likes to call it a night at 11 PM (unless she’s on tour, of course).
“We never preach, but we can say certain things so that if a young person reads it, they would maybe think twice about something. You don’t have to be miserable to make art or music. You’re going to get depressed, have no energy if you’re on heroin and won’t do anything with your life. You should probably not do that because it’s a waste of time and you will end up dying. Not a good choice,” LeGrand says with a hint of sarcasm. “I don’t think there are many rock stars left and I think it’s something that’s slowly dying. Maybe it’s not relevant anymore or can’t happen because there used to be a time when there was mystique around people and now it’s incredibly hard to have that because people are always trying to find out about your life and take pictures of you.
You can’t really have legends like you used to because there’s going to be some images of you sans makeup drinking a Corona,” she continues. “I really don’t think partying and doing drugs makes you a rock star. You actually have to be amazing. There’s a lot more to it than ‘sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.’ It was not what is has become so be smart. Don’t do heroin [laughs].”
While LeGrand may have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about it, there is a particular artist that takes quite a serious approach to the topic and the name may surprise you. Lorin Ashton, better known as Bassnectar, issober. The electronic musician responsible for unintentionally providing ideal venues for blatant drug use at his shows hasn’t touched a drug since the 80’s, which seems rather odd considering his fan base is often found rubbing Vick’s Vapo-Rub on each other while sucking on their candy necklaces as Ecstasy courses through their veins.
“I think it’s really important that people have freedom to explore, express and be who they want to be. On the other hand, I think it’s really important that people value their health and nervous systems and the magic and mystery of our bodies, which we can never comprehend because it’s so far beyond our grasp,” Ashton says. “So experimenting with drugs, whether it’s pharmaceuticals, whether it’s something legal like alcohol or whether it’s an illegal recreational drug, can be really dangerous. I’ve seen a lot of personal friends lives be damaged, destroyed or ended through making the wrong decisions with drug use.
I’ve also seen some amazing transformations happen from very limited and responsible experimentation. I want to be ultra careful about not condoning anything without expressing how important it is to be safe and aware. That same safety and awareness should be practiced when taking antibiotics, Ambien or Adderall. Any parent that is worried their kids are taking drugs and are letting their kids take Adderall is completely missing the point,” he adds. “It’s important to treat your nervous systems as absolute treasures. That goes for recreational drugs, coffee and diets, so of course, I’m horrified by how much drugs use goes on, not even a dub step shows, but at concerts in general.”
Ashton has plenty of reasons to feel that way. In 2010, a 15-year old overdosed and died at L.A.’s now infamous Electric Daisy Festival, forcing electronic music festivals into the media’s cross hairs. CNN reported another death in June 2011 when a 19-year old overdosed at a Dallas rave. So when Rihanna released the single “Numb” a few weeks ago citing lyrics like “Ecstasy in the air/I don’t care/You can’t tell me nothing/I’m impaired,” what kind of message is she putting out there for her fan base comprised of mostly impressionable teenagers? More importantly, when kids are dying, why doesn’t she care?
It’s a tragedy in itself that more artists don’t feel the need, or maybe even the obligation, to be decent role models. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has had his own struggles with alcoholism and they have been well documented over the years. It affected every aspect of his life, but he lived to tell about it. However, like LeGrand, he’s not trying to force his choice to get sober down anyone’s throat.
“There is some creativity to being an addict. It’s a hard job. It’s a lot of work for every aspect of my life. There’s still a part of me that will always be an addict and that’s part of how I am defined. As long as I’m making the right decisions that don’t overwhelm the other things that define me that are much more, I don’t know, keeping with who I want to be, I’m ok,” Tweedy says. “I think a lot of addicts almost feel sorry for people who aren’t addicts because there’s a sensation that you’re gaining some hard won wisdom by facing yourself honestly. I’m kind of convinced that everybody has their own cross to bear obviously, and how you react to those challenges in your life gives each person their character.
I don’t think there’s much that I can say if someone’s already under the sway of that romanticism and fantasy,” he adds. “I think life will come crashing down on them soon enough. If someone is paying attention, you know, I went through it, I changed, but I didn’t really change. Parts of me that I feel like were there to make music were still there when I got healthy and I think they were there long before I got sick in my addiction, to be honest. I’m more interested in living my life as an example of survival. That feels silly to say. I don’t talk about it much. I don’t really advertise it. I’m not really into that.”
Of course, drugs and alcohol will always be a part of our culture. Some people can actually handle it and don’t get to the point where they want to gauge their eyes out because they can’t get their next fix. If you’re one of those people, good for you. Keith Morris of the legendary punk bands Black Flag and Circle Jerks (and now OFF!) wasn’t.
“I hit a wall or fell to the bottom and realized I was finished with all those party favors. I got in a fight with a girlfriend at a fiesta in Beverly Hills and got physical with her in front of all of our friends,” Morris says. “I'm not that violent person and had my epiphany, how drunk or high can you get? Plus, being in a rock group you’re always surrounded by the stuff so I'll let someone else do this and use them as a reflection of myself. I don't want to be like that! Sobriety has not changed my outlook or approach to music or my life. I just don't use!”
Todd Fink of The Faint is one of the luckier ones. He’s never had what he would describe as an “addictive personality” so his involvement in the music industry has left him rather unscathed, however, he did offer some poignant thoughts that resonated loudly through the phone and bled onto to this page.
“You would hope that people are thinking for themselves and are only as influenced by people as they let themselves be. I think there is a social responsibility as any kind of public figure, but it’s a grey area because I think the actual substance, whatever it is, drugs or alcohol, I think those call out to the people that would like them anyway,” Fink says. “It may look like a band causes it or someone ‘cool’ made it happen, but it’s not quite as much like that as it seems. With that said, there are tons of artists that are irresponsible, self-absorbed and advertising it like some kind of leader would. But unfortunately, those things are out there and people are naturally drawn to the things they are. Pop artists are usually the ones projecting this image. Pop music is not usually at the forefront of artistic achievement.”
Sadly, as we’re all aware, many artists do not escape the confinement of addiction. Many have lost theirs lives or, maybe even worse, lost touch with reality. In my interviews with H.R. of Bad Brains and Keith Morris, their battle scars are obvious. It’s depressing and at the same time, a harsh reminder just how sensitive we all are as human beings. Perhaps if more artists were vocal about the truth, the suffering addiction causes and the damage it does to anyone involved, slowly, but surely, the “sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll” lifestyle that presumably surrounds the “rock star” would truly be a thing of the past.