Many great music artists have used drugs, but do drugs help you write music? In this week’s MondoBlog, we look at some facts and decide for ourselves.
Do drugs help you write music? In the US and Europe, the debate goes back to the early 20th century.
In 1933, Cab Calloway sang “Reefer Man.” Swing and jazz artists often had references to pot smoking in their songs. But the Great Depression and WWII shifted the focus of the world’s lyrics, and drugs didn’t openly come back into music for about 30 years.
The sixties and seventies turned drug use into a fertile field of music from artists like Janis Joplin, the Doors, and the Beatles. John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1972 that, “‘Rubber Soul’ was the pot album and ‘Revolver’ was the acid.”
More recently, Miley Cyrus admitted she supports “happy drugs” like pot and MDMA. “They make you want to be with friends,” she said. Madonna said on the Tonight Show that MDMA causes “euphoric feelings of love” and defended her lyrics about it.
And of course, artists often use more than just heavy-hitting drugs like hallucinogens. Coffee and cigarettes may seem mild as creativity enhancers, but millions of artists use them.
Stephen King, one of the world’s most prolific writers (and frontman of the Rock Bottom Remainders) says in On Writing, “I think it was quitting smoking that slowed me down; nicotine is a great synapse enhancer. The problem, of course, is that it’s killing you at the same time it’s helping you compose.”
Which brings us to the obvious counterargument: even if drugs help you write music, should artists use them?
Chris Cornell’s wife probably doesn’t think so.
The Soundgarden singer, who committed suicide in 2017, may have died of depression, not drugs. His wife said at the time, though, “I noticed he was slurring his words; he was different. When he told me he may have taken an extra Ativan or two, I contacted security and asked that they check on him.”
When Cornell died, all the songs he could have written died with him. Other artists whose drug use may have contributed to their deaths include Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland, and scores more. That’s a ton of unwritten music.
Artists whose tobacco use contributed to their deaths include Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Lou Rawls, Serge Gainsbourg, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, and even the great Russian composer Shostakovich.
Let’s not even get into alcohol.
But when we ask, do drugs help you write music? we do need to consider that many of the very best musicians have been stone-cold sober.
The Melvins make an interesting argument for sober music because totally sober singer/songwriter “King Buzzo” Osborne grew up as close friends with Kurt Cobain. They have shared band members including bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dale Crover.
Kurt Cobain even produced many sessions of one Melvins album, “Houdini,” until the band fired Cobain for being “out of control” on drugs.
In the end, the Melvins have recorded nearly 10 times as much music as Nirvana.
Is Nirvana 10 times better than the Melvins? That’s a hard sell.
Other sober music artists include Calvin Harris, Anthony Kiedis, Ozzy Osborne, Trent Reznor, Tom Waits, James Hetfield, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and the legendary David Bowie.
So do drugs help you write music? Artists need to answer that for themselves. Finding reasons to use them might prove difficult with titanic minds proving it can be done sober, though.
After all, everyone in the above list of sober musicians is still making music except Bowie. And our beloved Bowie died of liver cancer, decades after he beat alcoholism.
Hear him talk about the importance sobriety plays in his music here.
That’s enough about drugs in music for now. Don’t miss last week’s bit on putting live instruments in EDM, and stay tuned next week for another MondoBlog you beautiful, brilliant people, you.