RESEARCH: Does the Australian Music Industry Have a Drug Problem? We Asked Musicians to Share Their Drug Stories Anonymously

Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll. It’s no secret drugs have a significant presence in the music industry. Joseph Earp investigates just how widespread they are in Australian music, and how music has historically dealt with the question of drug use. This article was produced in partnership with Dopamine.

“Music is fulfilling. The next day you feel better. Drugs, the next day you feel terrible – unless you have more drugs.” – Neil Young

There are certain images that have become seared onto the pop culture consciousness. Images of tortured musicians slumped over their guitars, needles sticking out from their track-mark-studded arms. Images of great rock’n’roll doyens hoovering up blow in a jacuzzi. Images of performers searching for a quick pick-me-up before they head out under the bright lights of the stage. These are images that we now know intimately, that belong almost entirely to the realm of cliché.

After all, drugs and rock’n’roll are so deeply intertwined with one another that we often talk about both when only specifically mentioning one. They mean the same things to us. They mean excess, privilege, self-destruction and wealth. They mean all the things that maybe we don’t often admit to ourselves that we want, and all the things that we know might ultimately kill us.

Many of rock’n’roll’s most mythic, legendary tales concern the imbibing of titanic amounts of illicit substances. We are obsessed with these stories; we tell them to ourselves over and over across different mediums. They’re stories about musicians succumbing to the allure of drugs and then slowly, defiantly rising back up to the top.

Indeed, we like our heroes to come pretty fucked up. That’s why we are obsessed with the chemical fortitude of Motörhead’s Lemmy, a man who once claimed years of abuse had turned his blood into a treacly, narcotic-laced sludge. That’s why we love The Beatles’ experimental years, that short period where the once fresh-faced Fab Four transformed into a semi-mystic troupe of Jodorowsky-esque astral pioneers. And that’s why we love the punky detachment of Lou Reed, that arch junkie whose work was so often composed to be enjoyed with the help of hallucinogens.

This isn’t a contemporary endemic either, or one that began with the boomers. Lemmy, Reed and The Beatles might be the first people we think of when we think of coked-up creatives, and yet they are but children compared to the performers of the ’30s and ’40s, the whacked-out weirdos who regularly pumped themselves full of a range of illicit substances.

“Drugs have long provided popular music with one of its more ambivalent subjects,” noted the writer Andy Gill in an article for The Independent. “The image of the jolly ‘reeferman’ is a recurring figure in jazz lore, and Ella Fitzgerald’s jocular ‘Wacky Dust’ [testifies] to the properties of cocaine.”

Indeed, as far back as 1938, hysterical muckrackers like Radio Stars journalist Jack Hanley were writing articles topped with fearmongering headlines such as ‘Exposing The Marijuana Drug Evil In Swing Bands’.

“One leader told me of a young man in his band who was a crackerjack musician, but who used the weed so consistently that he was quite undependable,” wrote Hanley, the moral outrage shimmering just beneath the surface of his words. “The fits of deep depression reefers so often produce would seize him until he had to be restrained from suicide.”

That’s not even to mention the fact a host of songs now considered rock’n’roll standards were initially written as paeans dedicated to the losing of one’s mind. Songs about pot defined the ’30s, a decade in which immensely popular performer Stuff Smith released the weed smoke-smothered ‘If You’re A Viper’, and the ’40s weren’t much cleaner – think boppy, seemingly bright and family-friendly tunes bursting with references to getting high and getting down.

Even ‘La Cucaracha’, that most seemingly innocent of songs (you know the one: that gleeful, leery tune we associate equally with sports chants and with Mexico) is actually about pot-smoking. “‘La Cucaracha’ crackled with life, a swaying Spanish-tune-turned-Mexican corrido quickly picked up by jazz bands and danced into popular music,” writes Margaret Moser in ‘If You’re A Viper’, her brilliant article penned for The Austin Chronicle about the history of drugs in music.

“No song better evoked the languorous image of life south of the border in vintage films, newsreels, and radio programs of the day. Yet few people realized the lyrics bespoke a cockroach’s yearning to stay high: ‘La cucaracha ya no puede caminar … por que no tiene marihuana por fumar,’ basically translates as, ‘The cockroach can no longer walk because he doesn’t have any marijuana to smoke.’”

Read the whole article at the URL below. Lengthy but VERY interesting and very relevant in the light of Chris Cornell’s death.

Written by Joseph Earp | This article was produced in collaboration with Dopamine.

Article Contains the Video: The Band and Neil Young – “Helpless”

[Thank you to Alex Teitz,, for contributing this article.]

Categories: Research

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