“Sex and drugs and rock and roll is all my brain and body need,” sang Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1977. Something about that Dionysian triptych struck a chord with rock stars, wannabe rock stars and everybody else for that matter. “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” might be Dury’s most recognisable hit but “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” seeped into the language like Shakespeare.
Another aphorism with a similarly nihilistic vibe – “Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse” – morphed from the lyrics of a 1955 hit by Faron Young, nicknamed the Hillbilly Heartthrob. “Hope I die before I get old,” sang Roger Daltrey of The Who in the mid-60’s; “I don’t wanna live forever,” concurred Lemmy of Motörhead in the early 80’s. In the 2010’s, Zayn and Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Ke$ha have all released fatalistic songs about checking out early that make the prospect sound almost an attractive one. Leaving a pretty cadaver while still wet behind the ears has been the ultimate denouement of rock ‘n’ roll authenticity for 60 years or more.
Or at least that’s how it used to be. There was certainly no sense when Lil Peep died at the end of last year that his demise was in any way rock ‘n’ roll. A Fentanyl-Xanax overdose at the age of 21 is both a terrible waste and another frightening statistic in an opioid epidemic that also claimed the lives of Prince and Tom Petty. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse in Maryland, more than 115 people die from opioid overdoses in the United States everyday, whether that’s prescription painkillers, heroin or synthetic drugs like Fentanyl.
These recent deaths were both shocking and preventable, and one presumes that’s how people felt when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain died. Is it the passing of time that turns these musicians into immortals? And is it okay to use a flowery cliche like “sacrificed at the altar of excess” three decades down the line, but not in the news report the following day? And let’s also be clear; there are certainly still pop musicians taking drugs or attempting to kick their addictions: you only have to read a recent interview with the 1975’s Matt Healy or read about the even more recent suspected overdose of Demi Lovato to know that. But there does seems to have been a sea change in attitudes towards substance abuse and alcoholism – neither are regarded as heroic or romantic in the way they once were.
Lovato’s struggles with addiction have been well documented and after taking to Twitter in March to declare herself six years clean, many had assumed she’d overcome her demons. Her latest single “Sober” puts paid to that idea. “Momma, I'm so sorry, I'm not sober anymore,” she laments. "I'm sorry that I'm here again / I promise I'll get some help”. Promoting the single, she put out a teaser on Instagram with the words “my truth”. It’s a long way from the unapologetic “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse, which just 12 years ago was poking fun at the idea of getting institutional help for a serious drink problem.
Going to the Priory to straighten out became something of a cliche in the press, but with the proliferation of social media, we all seem to be opening up about the things that have happened in our lives (me included), and with that openness comes mainly acceptance and gratitude for the honesty it took to share it. But it must also become doubly difficult to then admit perceived failure when a relapse occurs, which is one of the reasons anonymity is traditionally one of the cornerstones of recovery from addiction. After all, you aren’t magically cured as soon as you put down the drink or stop using.
Winehouse died in 2011 from alcohol poisoning which resulted from a relapse. Like Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain and Jim Morrison, she died aged just 27, though mention of the fabled 27 Club suddenly felt crass beyond words. Some of the great geniuses of the last two and half centuries – Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Burns, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Vincent Van Gogh, Jam Master Jay – all died when they were 37, but nobody felt the need to invent a club. And more musicians apparently checkout aged 56 than 27, but that’s less poetic. Asif Kapadia’s 2015 biopic Amy didn’t play up to the singer’s roguish side either, although amid the sadness there are moments where Winehouse is genuinely fucking funny, adding to the pathos and the viewer’s sense of loss.
“I was angry, and I wanted the audience to be angry,” Kapadia told NME. “This started off as a film about Amy, but it became a film about how our generation lives. It was important to turn the mirror back on the audience – not just the people around Amy who were making decisions, but the people who wrote about it, the people who consumed it, the people who shared it on Twitter and Facebook. We all let this happen. We are all slightly complicit.”
Since Winehouse’s death, music industry charities like Help Musicians and Music Support have redoubled their efforts to provide mental health support within the industry, including the setting up of a helpline, but with less money around, perhaps the only thing that has really changed is that there are fewer free bars. High profile singers and rappers seem to be helping themselves though, becoming more demonstrably involved in the wellness movement. Musicians no longer appear to be ashamed of appearing to take care of their own health – and that's a good thing.
“I have to have at least 30 minutes to myself”, Kendrick Lamar told GQ recently in reference to his meditation practice. “I have to find a way to understand the space that I’m in and how I’m feeling at the moment. ’Cause if I don’t, it’s gonna zoom.” Rick Rubin has been a lifelong practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, which he passed onto Mac Miller when he helped the rapper get sober in 2015 (although Miller has since been arrested for a DUI, earlier this year). Drake and Diplo both recently bought into a green tea venture which Rolling Stone says is luring musicians to the wellness trend; the investment from both superstars in MatchaBar, a Brooklyn-based green tea startup, is seen as “the latest example of music and wellness culture intersecting”. And as for food, RZA and GZA from the Wu Tang Clan have long been patron saints for veganism and vegetarianism respectively; YG and Waka Flocka Flame are also vegan; Rick Ross has eaten himself fit; Gucci Mane has embraced sobriety and Common eats the kind of nutritional food that would give Jamie Oliver a stiffy.
But if rap is embracing wellness and sobriety then what about rock music, where old habits die hard? Rock ‘n’ roll has always been about maintaining the impression that you’re perpetually off your face, which is perhaps why many people believe Keith Richards and Tom Waits are still at it, even if they’ve both been sober for a long time (although neither seems too eager to correct any misapprehensions). So is living fast still an aspirational pursuit or did anyone truly believe in it in the first place? Writer Jasper Fulcher, formerly guitarist Jasper Future with indie rockers Art Brut, says he did.
“Absolutely. I was brought up on it and enthusiastically embraced it from an early age, though I always wanted to give less of fuck than I actually did,” he says. “But I feel those who find themselves in serious trouble with addiction are the ones who never really believed in the myth. Their demons were there anyway. It’s people who describe themselves as ‘rock’n’roll’ with a straight face that are, ironically, the least likely to die for anything.” Jasper, who recently wrote a piece for The Telegraph about how the industry isn’t dealing well with its alcohol problem following the death of Avicii, says the types of people he’s talking about “enjoy graffitied pictures of Amy Winehouse, listen to Absolute Radio and look forward to Glastonbury”.
So if attitudes have changed in hip hop and dance music, then how about rock now? “Attitudes have changed everywhere,” says Jasper. “Drinking and drugs will always exist in rock – they’re a part of each other – but there doesn’t seem to be the same party atmosphere there used to be. Rock has always been good at reflecting the climate.” Instead of singing about sex and drugs and rock and roll like Ian Dury, can we now expect songs about mindfulness, cardiovascular exercise and pomegranate juice? “I don't think so,” says Sym Gharial, ex of 80’s Matchbox B-line Disaster. “Negative experience always seems to create art that people can relate to and ultimately find refuge in. The music will save your life but there needs to be a life to save.”
So clean living is in, self-immolation is out. Somewhere, some misguided soul probably assumes this will render art less louche and dangerous. But it doesn't have to be that way. A belief in rock 'n' roll, like all religions, is straightening, and obsession with its three central tenets, as evinced by Dury, is limiting. Songs can inspire positive action – whether we’re talking “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, or “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor – and that positivity doesn’t make them any less artistically valid or any less great to sing along to. And who said art had to be dangerous? Surely it should be about pushing culture forward? With imagination, anything can be turned into a great song, and the whole of human experience is up for grabs. An appetite for self destruction is just one topic.
You can find Jeremy on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.