I grew up in a house full of music — specifically 1960s to 1980s rock. My family did chores with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” playing in the background. We listened to the entire discography of The Doors on road trips. And on Fridays we could be found watching music videos for hours on end, the nights often capped with yet another viewing of Queen’s Live Aid concert. I like to think that people walking by our house were amused by the never-ending argument between my mom and my dad about the merit of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild.”
I talk about this period of music a lot because it was when the idea of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” really came to the forefront of American culture. I feel nostalgic when I think of the art that came out of that time, art that more often than not centered around topics like frequent sexual experiences and drinking all night. The rock stars coming out of this time created art that was performative, sometimes vulgar, but always captivating. And they created passionate music that stoked an incredible fire within listeners, and making art like that needs an exhilarating inspiration.
In order to challenge the boundaries of what was being created, they needed to draw on experiences that were far more surreal than the average human experience. As a result, many artists in this time experimented with drugs and alcohol as a form of inspiration. After all, there is a reason that the psychedelic rock genre was born during this era. These artists were taking drugs to open their minds to new content, and the music that resulted was incredible to audiences. But it came at a cost to them.
My dad’s favorite song is “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors. I have countless memories from my childhood of him belting, “Well I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer /The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” This track came out in 1970 and was a critical success. It was an example of the exact genius that got lead singer Jim Morrison inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, only a year after the song’s release, Morrison died from congestive heart failure, brought on by drugs. A rebel against society, Morrison was loved for his combative actions and refusal to be forced into a box. And we as an audience, cheered him on. People came out to see this dramatic antihero swagger around the stage completely wasted, yelling at cops and starting fights. But did anyone never spare a thought as to what that performance might be reflecting about the man underneath?
Our history is littered with stories of artists like Morrison. An example often brought up is Amy Winehouse whose legacy after her death has revolved around her excessive substance use that came to the forefront in her final years. In hindsight, the lyrics to many of her songs, specifically “Rehab” are troubling, alluding to Amy’s problems with addiction four years before she died. Packaged in a catchy beat with some killer vocals, “Rehab” was a commercial success and won Amy her first Grammy.
As an audience, we often think of music as a fantasy. We listen to songs and watch musicians as if their lives are works of art, designed for us to admire and criticize — without taking note of the troubling messages hidden within catchy lyrics and exciting performances. We talk about singers’ tragic downfalls without acknowledging that, at every step, we benefited from their misery. In a way, we demanded it. And this lack of understanding allows the cycle of destruction to repeat itself.
Society has yet to successfully capture all of the complexities of addiction whilst portraying it. Too often Hollywood attempts to oversimplify the situation, to find patterns where there aren’t any. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a perfect example of this. Freddie Mercury’s relationship with drugs is portrayed as a toxic addiction which, combined with some bad relationships, results in a downward spiral, breaking up Queen and Freddie appearing to lose all of his friends. This depiction seems obnoxiously simple, and almost ludicrous at times. It ignores the years and years of success Freddie had while using drugs and attempts to convince us of an almost causal relationship between drugs and failure.
Looking back at the history of addiction and art, it’s clear there is still so much left to understand. As a culture we point at certain works of art in hindsight and say, “See, it’s clear that this artist was very troubled and struggled with excessive substance use.” Other songs about drugs, however, (think “Got To Get You Into My Life” by The Beatles) will completely escape such commentary, simply because the outcome wasn’t as tragic. Where is the line between a catchy hit celebrating the high life and the beginnings of a deep and troubling disorder? Is there even a line in the first place?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I do think I’ve started to understand my part in this. Maybe the next time we as a society receive a raunchy psychedelic hit, or a harrowingly deep ballad, we’ll stop and think about the person behind it all, the human who might be struggling with something really serious. Maybe we’ll refuse to let our role as the audience cause us to turn a blind eye in favor of receiving more art.