The question, ‘Is it possible to make great music without drugs?’ is not an easy one to answer definitively. In reality, there isn’t one real answer. Instead, there are multiple explanations that vary from person to person and are dependent on an individual’s sense of experiential value. To break it down, there are countless subsectors of the conversation; what exactly is great music? What is great to one person, could be less than great to another. Is there a specific metric system we can use to measure the degree of greatness? Could it be an element of timelessness? On that basis alone, the longevity of a song’s life could have a direct correlation to how great a song is. If that is the case, then perhaps the next question we have to ask is, does drug use have any correlation to the longevity of a song? Regardless, there’s a long debate that remains surrounding the relationship of music’s greatest songwriters and the penchant to overindulge in the world of mind-bending narcotic exploration.
Narrowing it down though, I believe the question that could lead us somewhere real, is: ‘Is it possible for a specific person to make great music without drugs?’ We all have different experiences, different minds, different hearts, and different spirits. One person may need a drug experience to push themselves to the next level, while another may have already achieved precisely what it is they were doing in the first place, without any need to take a creative enhancement. It is in the premise we reflect on the different approaches to some of the popular culture’s most pioneering figures.
There are countless examples of classic songwriters who all started their careers sober, written great songs and made great music, and then, for whatever reason, fell into a nasty drug habit. Another different situation would be The Beatles, whose career you could trace by whichever drug they were taking at that time. For example, in their early days in Hamburg, they took uppers, so they could stay up all night and play their six to eight-hour gigs. This would qualify as a very utilitarian use of drugs and not so creative. Eventually, they would meet Bob Dylan, who introduced them to marijuana, which became a regular drug of choice for the Fab Four throughout parts of their careers. Their experiences with marijuana would influence the making of Rubber Soul — Lennon famously called it the “the pot album”.
The same year, George Harrison and John Lennon and their respective romantic partners would end up at the ‘demon dentist’, John Riley’s house who would dose the two couples with LSD. This particular drug-fueled experience would lead to the creation of the song, ‘Doctor Robert’, found on their ‘LSD album’ Revolver. One could make the argument that without these two explorations into, first, marijuana, and then LSD, neither albums would have been made.
Another interesting example can be seen in the works of David Bowie. The Starman was not necessarily known as a massive drug taker until his Station to Station album in 1976 when he developed a bad cocaine habit. Prior to this album, he had made some phenomenal albums, especially during his Ziggy Stardust years and even before then with The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory. With these albums, Bowie instead took inspiration from works of art and literature. He channelled the amalgamations of different ideas from art and books in which he synthesised into a wholly unique and new perspective. Station to Station and the Thin White Duke character that this album produced was just another exploration of Bowie – in this instance, The Starman sought chemical influence. Bowie had demonstrated that he really didn’t need drugs to create brilliant works of music; his Berlin trilogy that directly succeeded Station to Station is the most alluring example. He made Low, Heroes, and Lodger while in recovery from his drug use.
Absolutist ideas are dangerous in many ways. In this particular case, it may not be harmful, but it would be doing the process of songwriting a great injustice to assume that any great piece of music ever written was done so under the influence of drugs. Each and every musician is unique and has different relationships with the substances. Take, for example, Patti Smith, the great original punk poet. Her opinion on this lies in stark contrast against a large majority of other musicians. “You can have a special experience on drugs, but any artist, any person, needs clarity and health. The continuing use of substances will never enhance your work.” Patti Smith is a responsible kind of artist. She believes that with greater popularity and attention that is afforded to artists, that, in turn, their responsibility to their fans to set a good example increases. By no means does she believe she is a ‘role-model’. As she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, “I never name myself anything.” Patti Smith, as an artist, is clear-headed and intentional, which might presuppose her philosophical approach to sobriety, as opposed to vice versa. It is because of her clarity of vision that she’s required to stay sober.
The Smashing Pumpkins are an interesting case. Billy Corgan, the band’s heart and mind and the chief songwriter, would remain one of, if not the only member of the band to not descend into drug use. Billy Corgan’s father, who was in the music industry, battled with heroin addiction for part of Billy’s life. His mother left his father when she couldn’t deal with the chaos of drug addiction anymore; his father would eventually leave him too. This early conditioning to the very real horrors of addiction put Corgan in staunch opposition to any drug use within the band. When their seminal album, Siamese Dream, came out, their original drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, fell into heroin use. Later on, more members of the band would deal with similar struggles. Billy Corgan tried very hard to keep the group together and remain as the original unit – not very easy when the green dragon presents its alluring temptation. Considering that Billy Corgan was mostly sober when writing the songs that would carry Smashing Pumpkins’ career, it does lead one to truly question whether drugs really are an essential part of a musician’s formula.
In truth, it is very challenging to prescribe one answer to this question. My short response would have to be that psychedelic drugs, as proven in the case of The Beatles, can lead to an eye-opening dream-like experience which could unlock further potentials of subconsciousness. While other harder drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, could provide some reprieve and fuel an all-night rager of maddened bursts of inspiration; going down the road of drugs of the harder variety is an extremely precarious and slippery one that leads to an abyss of darkness.
Below, watch live footage of Neil Young performing his song about heroin, ‘Needle and the Damage Done’.