There's a well-known saying, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Perhaps you know it. Its origin is variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, and Martin Mull, whoever the hell he is. I guess I could say that quote made me want to become a music journalist, but I would also be lying.
In actual fact, I fell into a career in music writing by accident. I was a living cliche: a failed musician who then spent his time criticizing other musicians; the funny thing is, I don’t know any other music writer who has followed this path. Thanks to a sequence of serendipitous events, I ended up as the newshound at a now defunct online magazine in 2001. The dotcom bubble was yet to fully deflate and there was still enough money kicking around from speculative investments to keep us all on the payroll. I realized I was never going to get rich, and at times I’d be spectacularly poor, but there were plenty of perks: free CDs (no longer a valid currency), travel, rubbing shoulders with the stars—or at least pointing at them in a muddy VIP area and hoping they don’t notice, meeting your heroes (which you should do), getting into all the gigs you want, and last but not least, lots of booze and drugs.
Working practices at my new job were spectacularly relaxed, which meant that inevitable late nights gave rise to late mornings, and sometimes early afternoons if you spent all night up on the beak with Bobby Gillespie. Drinking and substance abuse weren’t encouraged necessarily, but they were accepted as props, fuel to fire your engines and occasionally provide inspiration. Each week night I would go out and see a band or artist while their PR got me hammered on their expense account, and the weekend was for leisure, which involved drinking mostly, with enough cocaine to ensure you lasted the whole 60 hours without needing sleep. For me, it all started out as one big adventure. Then, as John Cooper Clarke put it: “First it’s fun, then it isn’t, then it’s hell." Or, to put it more bluntly, it all seemed like a laugh until my career path led me to wind up in a psychiatric hospital.
Addiction comes in many forms. It is stealthy, and it does not discriminate where age, sex, class or race are concerned; it can affect you whoever you are, and it impinges on all walks of life. The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous says that alcohol is “cunning, baffling, powerful.” and although I’d say it was an ethanol-based organic compound and personifying it with human personality traits is the kind of nonsense that makes some people distrust AA, I know what they’re getting at. I also know for certain that drugs and alcohol are occupational hazards in the music industry. Over time, I came to learn that sustained abuse over a long period can be extremely detrimental to your mental health.
I don’t know what it’s like for younger journalists now; millennials seem more level headed and inured to the cliches of rock ‘n’ roll oblivion, in the same way English football cleaned up its act after Arsene Wenger arrived. There seems to be more of a focus now on mental health and addiction in the creative industries that wasn’t there when I started, and the death of Amy Winehouse in 2011 made many executive types wake up to the consequences of a culture of excess. When I interviewed Amy in 2006, we just spent the time taking the piss out of the lead singer of Keane for going to rehab after drinking too much Pimms.
Certainly I never experienced peak Babylon, where myths circulated about Queen having parties with dwarves with cocaine trays on their heads, and Stevie Nicks employing a lackie to toot gak up her bum every fifteen minutes with a straw. But in the Noughties, things still had the propensity to get very messy indeed. The whole culture of the music industry then was ostensibly about having a good time, even if people were secretly working very hard behind the scenes. I was young enough and durable enough to still be able to fire off news stories and live reviews at a frenetic rate. Soon I was hired full-time as features editor.
At first, alcohol just made appearances at lunchtimes and in the evenings. And at festivals naturally, where getting fucked up is de rigueur and practically unavoidable. But slowly, my working routine allowed my drinking to escalate. Pints became punctuation marks in the prose of my day. If I left the office to interview someone, I’d give myself enough time for one down at the Owl and the Pussycat, one at the end of the tube ride before the prospective tete-a-tete, then I’d have one to congratulate myself once it was in the can. Finally, I’d have a cheeky one at the local on the way back to the office. I remember turning up to speak to Rufus Wainwright in Baker Street absolutely clattered and stinking of booze, without even considering the fact he’d been in rehab just the year before.
Soon I wasn’t just sneaking pints in at work, I was going to the pub to top up from the night before ahead of even arriving at the office. Some mornings I would start the day glugging at a bottle of whisky I’d found in my bed, or a can of cider on the bedside table. I was even drinking tinnies below my desk during the afternoon if I got thirsty; I don’t know if my bosses noticed, but if they did, they never said anything. It was my dream vocation, but the work itself became secondary.
I was beginning to discover that a career in music journalism is the perfect foil for anyone who doesn't want their job getting in the way of a good day’s boozing. Rock stars may have plenty of spare time to drink, but they’re also distracted by all that travelling and performing. Music writers on the other hand can spend the evening half watching from the bar, then spend the next day trying to piece together the night’s action from the drunken hieroglyphics scrawled into a notepad in the dark. But without the relative luxuries that rockstars are also afforded, the ease of the work can quickly turn to hell. After five years in the job, the pile of unplayed CDs on my desk depressed me. The post-Libertines fallout of bands in porkpie hats playing crack skiffle depressed me. Glastonbury, which had been such fun at the beginning, depressed me. Drinking was either the cause of, or a major contributing factor to, my depression, but like so many alcoholics, it was the last thing I looked to address.
Then sometime around 2009 I quit drinking (well, at least for a while anyway). I’d become tired of being mugged at cashpoints and waking up on night buses lightly soiled without a wallet or watch. Life improved for a short while, but going cold turkey alone with no salutary guidance was a lonely road full of obstacles. 12-step fellowships didn’t appeal to me at the time, and there was certainly no manual regarding how to navigate your way through addiction when you work in the music industry. I knew of a few older music writers like Steven Wells and John Robb who’d stopped drinking long ago, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t feel drawn to confide in them or ask their advice. There was really nowhere to turn and I felt like I was out on a limb.
Worst of all I was bored. I decided the best way to cope with the awkward feelings sobriety engendered was to take loads of drugs instead. Cocaine without booze just gave me the fear. I didn’t care though, because it at least made me feel differently. Then at All Tomorrow’s Parties that December, what I thought was the answer to my prayers arrived in packet form.
“Have a go on this,” said one of my music journalist chums.
“What is it?” I asked, as I whacked it up my hooter.
“Plant food,” came the response.
And so I first came into contact with mephedrone.
The hit at first seemed to sit somewhere between cocaine and ecstasy. The initial high wore off quickly, meaning that every 15 minutes or so you’d want to take some more. But no matter, because you could buy it over the internet, and the postman would deliver 5g at a very reasonable £50 once you’d handed over your credit card details. The moreishness became problematic though. I could only stop once the bag was completely emptied of powder, which could take up to four days, and then finally I’d lay in bed hallucinating flying pencils. You’d have thought this experience would have been enough to stop me from doing it again, and yet I was ordering bags with ever more regularity. My weight plummeted and suddenly I looked like Lux Interior from the Cramps, which was actually kinda cool, although nobody around me seemed to think so. What’s more, I couldn’t cope with the downtime when I didn’t have any drugs, and so inevitably I started drinking again. My friends became worried—and more than that—exasperated with me. I had no money. Then my cute new girlfriend who met me when I was clean dumped me, telling me I was a mess. There was no pretense anymore. I was on a mission to self-destruct.
When meph got banned by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, I decided to order a “party pack” of new synthetic drugs online to road test a possible replacement. Benzo Fury would be my undoing, and in many ways my salvation. Three days of my life have been wiped from my memory as a result, but I’m reliably informed an ambulance in east London picked me up in the street as I tried to cut myself with a razor during this blur. I’d lost control. I came around in a hospital cell the next morning and remember thinking to myself, “this hasn’t gone well.”
I’d apparently come in on a voluntary basis, and as the hospital seemed to be full of crazy people, I thought I’d make my excuses and leave. But after an assessment by the shrink, I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The goalposts had clearly been moved now, and I suddenly envisaged myself being trapped there indefinitely with a lustrous white beard, a tragic tale of a troubled soul who’d slipped through the net spending the rest of his days institutionalised. I returned to the communal area and watched group stage games of the World Cup taking place in South Africa. The flat screen television was covered by reinforced glass, as the previous telly had been smashed up with a chair by one of the patients. I wondered if the braying vuvuzelas in the crowd might trigger one of them to attempt to demolish the new one.
The nurse called me into her office and read off a shopping list of drugs found in my bloodstream. It was like a Generation Game conveyor belt of narcotics. “Is there anyone you’d rather we didn’t share this information with?” she asked. “Um, the police?” I replied, somewhat confused by the question. At first I told my friends I was going to drink a “pint of freedom” on my immediate release. They all thought that was an exceptionally bad idea. Having not eaten properly for many months, proper nourishment was the succor my addled brain had been crying out for, and finally I started to think rationally. Four days into my stay I was told I could leave. As it was Sunday and the psychiatrists were all off enjoying their weekends, they told me they had no powers to hold me any longer, though they requested that I stick around until the next day for an assessment.
“So you’re telling me I can leave now, no questions asked, or I can wait until tomorrow when you might decide I’m mentally ill again and keep me locked up for longer?”
I decided to stay for one more night. I didn’t want there to be any doubts in my own mind about my own sanity (and besides, the food was delicious), and the next day I was relieved to be summarily discharged.
Being sectioned and held against my will for four to five days in Homerton Hospital, crazed, withdrawing, suicidal and scared, was just the “rock bottom” I needed. There are others who persist even when alarm bells are resounding at a thousand decibels. Some never get it, and the consequences are invariably tragic. I sought help afterwards in a number of different places, including recovery programs in Hackney that are no longer available because of government cuts. I saw a brilliant therapist, did the 12 steps, learned to meditate, and addressed some problems that I’d ignored my whole adult life. The next year would be tough having to relearn how to do the simplest things and interact with others without the aid of booze or substances, but I got there in the end, even if I’m less sociable these days.
“It doesn’t get much worse than being locked up in a psychiatric ward,” I remember telling my sponsor ruefully, shaking like a tambourine not long after embarking on recovery.
“Oh believe me,” he said, “it can get a lot worse.”
I’ve been clean and sober now for six years. I’m still a music journalist, and I’d like to think a better one given that I have all my faculties together now. If I go to a show or festival then I can actually remember what happened. I have a support network of other music writers who no longer drink or take drugs either, and have had similar experiences to me. The whole culture around the music industry appears to be more sensible now, with younger artists more judicious, and while my instinct is to feel it’s all very unrock ‘n’ roll, the fact that the myth of r’n’r itself is being demystified and hung out to dry is no bad thing. It’s okay to suffer for your art, but is it worth dying for?
Sometimes I think about doing something else, but then I remember I don’t know how to do anything else. If a vacancy comes up where I can dance about architecture then be sure to let me know.
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