Saturday, July 9, 2011
The Drugs Don't Work, Do They?
Drugs have always been an integral part of the rock lifestyle. This is more contradictory than it at first appears to be— if rock music’s cultural strength is its raw honesty, drugs not only cloud natural honesty but make it impossible. Doing drugs is (usually) spiritually dishonest. But the rock musician’s escape valve is just that— escape and escapism. The rock star, as a complex cultural sign, balances capacities for soul-crushing honesty with an “escape imperative.” The truth is perceived to be too much to bear at least part of the time. Then there’s the road, and that’s too much to bear part of the time too. The ultra-successful rock star is an odd mixture of self-awareness and self-pity. Intoxicants are part of his/her mystique. But the rock biz is changing, and “ultra-success” is becoming a past event horizon. The comfortably intoxicated (or comfortably numb) rock star was protected by material assets and (often) personal minders. Even renegades like Iggy Pop (who took a long time to achieve a “comfortable” level of material success) could be protected by social nexuses and formidable cachet. As time goes by, fewer and fewer rock artists will be protected by material circumstances, especially the majority who will have to work (at least intermittently) other jobs. The mystique has to be in the music.
The place of intoxicants needs to be discussed (cutting, in an adult way, against the grain of cultural mystiques) if musicians decide to commit a good amount of time to rock music. The state of “elegant wastedness” is a bogus ideal to begin with; it amounts to a portrait of Peter Pan with a syringe. It could be that, with the end of the possibility of ultra-success, rock will be forced to enter the real world. Although I would argue that, in opposition to the high cultural cliché, the best rock music is not particularly adolescent. Nor have all serious rock musicians been adolescent-minded. But excess that makes cognition impossible over long periods of time is adolescent, because it implies an inability to come to terms with daily human realities. The New Rock has, of necessity, to come to terms with daily human realities instantly. It’s not just that you can’t be a rock star; it would be unintelligent even to fantasize about being a rock star. In an even more profound way than was true in the early 70s, “the dream is over” in 2011. In semiotic shorthand, drugs are dreams.
To look at the situation in a more positive light, rock is being given a chance to grow up. There are nuances— debates have always been waged about whether marijuana “counts.” It’s soft, relatively easy to obtain, and (for some people) opens up musical creativity channels. Like alcohol, it can be consumed moderately without undue loss. Musicians have to decide for themselves whether pot and alcohol work for them. Harder stuff would seem more difficult to sustain if a day-job is an issue. Iconography around rock will have to grow more practical too— the artists who produce the most good material will have to be the icons, no matter what their personal habits happen to be. Archetypes might have more to do with regions than with standardized lifestyle choices. It’s also possible that new mythologies will develop around trust-funders, who can back up the old choices with protective money. Whatever happens, old myths are difficult to dislodge. The Peter Pan traps are there for whoever chooses to fall into them. Since the 60s, people have always wanted an easy, perfect, glamorous life from rock music. It’s an ideal achieved by no one. The ridiculousness of moneyed rock stars who “survive” drug and alcohol addiction is always balanced by the sad deaths of not-moneyed types who choose to imitate them. Do you, too, want to be Aerosmith? Don’t do it from Center City Philly (or Midtown Memphis).
The Amer-Indie ideal, of floating from receptive, on-the-up-and-up scene to receptive, on-the-up-and-up scene, will probably also remain inaccessible. This is more “Peter Pan in the Van.” It’s about mobility, which is also precluded by a day job. There’s no way around the fact that the New Rock life is difficult. But, for some of us, adulthood is richer and more rewarding than adolescence. Adult rock could be that much richer than the standardized kids’ stuff, especially on a cultural level. It’s a movement forwards and up.