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Why medical research didn't convince David Bowie to stop taking cocaine

There will never be anyone quite like David Bowie. A perennial shapeshifter, his dedication to art and the green orgiastic light of the future has inspired multiple generations, as the authenticity of his work cannot be denied. Bowie lived and breathed experimentation, and from music to aesthetic choices to drugs, he was not afraid of dipping his toes into unknown waters in the hope of reaching enlightenment.

Famously, aside from the myriad of music modes and changes in aesthetics that Bowie undertook, he also had a penchant for getting loose, for abandoning the sober world in favour of the high-octane thrills of narcotics. At different points in his life, he tried speed and weed and everything in between, always fuelled by the spirit of that movement they called ‘the counterculture’. 

Bowie first started using drugs as a teenager in the early part of the 1960s, and, as every young mod did, he used a range of amphetamines as well as stimulants such as cocaine, a long time before he tried what would become the drug of choice for the hippies that they called marijuana.

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During a September 1976 interview with Playboy, Bowie remembered his journey into the world of drugs: “I’d done a lot of pills ever since I was a kid,” he said. “Thirteen or fourteen. But the first time I got stoned on grass was with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin many, many years ago, when he was still a bass player on Herman’s Hermits records. We’d been talking to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot somewhere and Jonesy said to me, ‘Come over and I’ll turn you on to grass’. I thought about it and said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a whirl.’ We went over to his flat – he had a huge room, with nothing in it except this huge vast Hammond organ – right next door to the police department.”

He explained: “I had done cocaine before but never grass. I don’t know why it should have happened in that order, probably because I knew a couple of merchant seamen who used to bring it back from the docks. I had been doing it with them. And they loathed grass. So I watched in wonder while Jonesy rolled these three fat joints. And we got stoned on all of them.”

Remembering that fateful day, he concluded: “I became incredibly high and it turned into an in-fucking-credible hunger. I ate two loaves of bread. Then the telephone rang. Jonesy said, ‘Go and answer that for me, will you?’ So I went downstairs to answer the phone and kept on walking right out into the street. I never went back. I just got intensely fascinated with the cracks in the pavement”.

For a time, Bowie was totally enamoured by drugs, and it was cocaine that had the most significant impact on his life. After the groundbreaking success of 1972’s Ziggy Stardust, he became seriously addicted to the white powder. It had a defining effect on the making of his follow-up record, 1973’s Aladdin Sane, influencing the much darker tone that it struck. 

During the time of the Diamond Dogs tour in the latter half of 1974, Bowie’s use of cocaine had grown so out of control that it caused severe physical debilitation, paranoia, and emotional problems that it would take him a long time to recover from, setting off a chain of events that would seriously affect his career moving forward, something that he wouldn’t truly recover from until the ’80s.

Most notoriously, though, as The Thin White Duke in 1976, Bowie made a series of comments where he appeared to explicitly support fascism, such as “Britain could benefit from a fascist leader” as well as allegedly giving Nazi salutes, which he later blamed on his use of cocaine, and what it was doing to him personally. He caused such a furore that he was partially why Rock Against Racism was formed. 

It effects of cocaine on David Bowie remain a shocking moment in history. However, it probably won’t come as a surprise to you to find out that during the 1970s, Bowie watched a doctor appearing on a programme playing on CNN talking about the effect the drug had on the human brain, but rather than it putting him off, it made him want to do it even more. 

Whilst speaking to the legendary broadcaster Michael Parkinson, Bowie was wrongly asked why that programme made him want to stop taking cocaine and drugs, to which he responded: “Oh, that actually, yes, no, that didn’t put me off at all, actually. I saw that, it was in the ’70s, and I saw that, and I said, ‘Woah, too cool!’ It was showing a brain of cocaine users and all the holes that were in it, great, huge holes. I thought, ‘Yeah'”. 

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