Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide?

Seattle’s heroin nightmare continues. First ANDY WOOD of the seminal MOTHER LOVE BONE overdosed and died. Then KURT COBAIN ended his desperate addiction by committing suicide. Now KRISTEN PFAFF of HOLE has been found dead with a needle in her arm. When will the misery end? And why is heroin still glamorised? A Kerrang! investigation by PAUL ELLIOTT and PETE MAKOWSKI…

“I WANTED to smoke dope, take dope, lick dope, suck dope and f**k dope.” So said hard-livin’ kozmik Blues wailer Janis Joplin shortly before her death from an accidental heroin overdose in 1971. Following the heroin-related deaths of Kurt Cobain and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, much is being made of modern Seattle’s drug hell, but it’s nothing new.

Drugs have always been and always will be an insidious part of the music industry. From the reefer-smokin’, coke-snortin’ Jazz devils of the ’30s to the crack pipe-lickin’, speedball-shootin’ young Grunge mavericks of the ’90s, it’s all the same old shit.

And it’s the same old shit that they’re sticking in their systems, for all the same old reasons. Trouble is that recently people seem to be dropping like skittles, and they’re much younger. Why?

Perhaps junkie survivor Pete Makowski’s words elsewhere in this feature go some way to explaining the deaths. Makowski became a heroin addict while working for the now-defunct music paper Sounds, which itself spawned Kerrang! in 1981. Makowski interviewed and socialised with such celebrated druggies as Aerosmith’s Toxic Twins Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (now clean) and Thin Lizzy leader Phil Lynott (now dead).

Makowski recalls: “In the ’60s, musicians were more upfront about using drugs. Hash, LSD, uppers, downers, inners ‘n’ outers — it was part ‘n’ parcel of the psychedelic culture. And it seemed like harmless fun.

“In the 70s, the excessive use of cocaine seemed to be in line with the decadence and debauchery of the Rock stars who indulged themselves. And the amphetamine-crazed punks were a backlash from the youth to these excesses.

“The drugs in vogue kind of ran parallel with the quality and style of music of the time — up until now, that is. Then again, maybe the current kamikaze abuse of Class A substances among today’s Rock elite does reflect the futile mood of the music and the people playing it…”

DRUGS AND rock ‘n’ roll have always shared a kind of sleazy glamour. So much great Rock music is rich in drug imagery: Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Mr Brownstone’, the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sister Morphine’, the New York Dolls’ ‘Pills’, Thin Lizzy’s ‘Opium Trail’, Black Sabbath’s ‘Sweet Leaf’, Hanoi Rocks’ ‘Self Destruction Blues’, Motorhead’s ‘White Line Fever’, Johnny Thunders’ ‘Chinese Rocks’…

The Black Crowes played before a cannabis leaf backdrop on their ‘High As The Moon’ tour. Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach appeared on the cover of the pot-smoker’s bible High Times, and also jammed with members of Pantera at a pro-pot benefit gig. But clearly, ‘soft’ drugs ain’t the problem. The problem is heroin.

When the Seattle scene exploded in the late ’80s, there was talk of revolution, of new values. Sure, the music was fresh, but the attitudes? Consider Pearl Jam and Nirvana, the most influential and successful of Seattle’s new Rock order. The former were born in the wake of a heroin tragedy, the latter were destroyed by the same.

Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was Seattle’s most significant drug casualty since Jimi Hendrix.

Wood’s death by a heroin overdose ended Mother Love Bone, whose core surviving members, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, went on to form Pearl Jam. The story of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain we all know.

When Hole’s Kristen Pfaff was found dead in her bath with a syringe sticking out of her arm, she became yet another drug death statistic in a city with the worst smack problem in America. Heroin-related deaths in Seattle were up by 60 per cent last year.

Pfaff also joins a list of rock ‘n’ roll drug casualties stretching back over 20 years: Hendrix, Joplin, Lynott, Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, The Ruts’ Malcolm Owen, Andrew Wood, The Doors’ Jim Morrison, Red Hot Chili Pepper Hillel Slovak…

And there have been countless lucky escapes. Luckiest of all is Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, who once lay clinically dead for two minutes after overdosing on smack. He even got a tune out of it — ‘Kickstart My Heart’!

American Punk anti-hero Jerry A is nothing like Nikki Sixx, but he’s just as lucky to be alive. 26-stone Jerry led out-of-control Punk monsters Poison Idea for over a decade, during which time he ingested so much booze and so many hard drugs that he’s lost count of the times he’s wound up on hospital critical lists. In the end, drugs didn’t kill Jerry A; they just destroyed his band.

Of all the great rock ‘n’ roll survivors, none is more celebrated than Rolling Stone Keith Richards. Keef was the ultimate wasted Rock icon. They even said he had his blood changed on a regular basis, such was the level of toxins in his body! Recently deceased comic genius Bill Hicks once joked: “Only two things will survive a nuclear war: Keith Richards and bugs!”

Phil Lynott was another rock ‘n’ roller who thought nothing could kill him.

Pete Makowski reflects: “I remember being backstage with Phil Lynott during Thin Lizzy’s ‘Thunder And Lightning’ tour. He proudly displayed his arms, revealing the heavy bruising of the track marks where he had been injecting speed.

“There seemed to be a grin spread across his bloodshot, bloated and sweating visage, like a kid showing off his new tattoo. And yup, I regret admitting it today, but I was impressed.”

Lynott died a broken man in 1986.

Makowski concludes: “The old school of musicians were genuine buccaneers on a voyage of discovery. Being young, rich, talented and totally hedonistic was a real act of two fingers up in the face of an uptight establishment.

“But today, the music business is the establishment, and no matter how much you pout and stamp your feet, fighting for your artistic rights, once you sign that dotted line you’re a part of the business machinery, with deadlines to meet and planes to catch. You get swallowed up whole. It’s hard being a rebel without a cause in corporate Rockdom.” 

THE NEEDLE LIES

Heroin? For writer PETE MAKOWSKI, it spelt desperation, squalor, oblivion. “It’s a place I never want to go again,” he confesses.

KEITH RICHARDS once said that in the drugs world, the height of bad etiquette was to turn blue in someone else’s bathroom. Obviously, some recent casualties didn’t go to the same school of hard knocks. And y’know, it shows.

You can call me old fashioned, but in my days we emulated our heroes by trying to play like them rather than die like them. It was my ambition to learn the chords to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’, not choke on my own vomit; or anyone else’s, come to think of it.

There’s nothing glamorous about an overdose — or Acute Toxic Reaction, as the surgeon general calls it as they cart you away in an ambulance! You turn blue, rigor mortis sets in; basically, it’s totally gross.

A good pal of mine went over a few years back. I found him sat upright in the kitchen. One of his arms had gone purple at the elbow where the blood had coagulated. His eyes had that vacant 1,000 yard stare. His batteries had finally run out.

The sad thing is, it didn’t stop me taking heroin. Those were desolate, desperate days when all I craved for was total oblivion from the pain and confusion inside me. And I feel I can relate to the current spate of self-destructive behaviour that is reaping so many Rock victims. It doesn’t look like much fun, does it?

A lot of junkies feel their using takes them away from the norm of society’s boundaries. It makes them feel special and different. They display their using as a sign of strength. When you’re fixing, you’re part of the clique.

From the ‘safety’ of drugs, one can create an illusion of independence and control, even though what seems like an act of rebellion is in fact very conservative and ritualistic. It doesn’t take any courage, talent or integrity to become a heroin addict. In fact, an abundance of ignorance, arrogance and pigheadedness is all that’s required.

From drinking cider, smoking spliffs and dropping acid to spending a large part of my life in sleazy West End toilets, jabbing myself with a blunt syringe in search of the ever-elusive vein, he journey into chronic addiction was quite a simple one. I got hooked on that crazy train and couldn’t get off. It’s a place I never want to go back to again.

So why are this new generation of dopeheads going down so fast? F**k knows. Maybe the old firm were better at it. Maybe the drugs were better quality. I just wish it would stop happening, but I know it won’t.

To make some sense of this insanity, I spoke to Needle Exchange worker Pat Gormley, who works on the frontline of drug addiction.

“The young people don’t seem aware of the dangers of using heroin, they just go for it. Kids today are more reckless.

“Years ago, smack (heroin) was considered to be an elite drug. You didn’t go straight into it; you experimented, there was a progression. It’s not treated with the respect it deserves. There’s also heavy peer pressure and kids feel they have to do it to be part of a scene.

“Another factor is that there’s a lot of money involved in dealing drugs. There are large profits to be made. And there’s a lot of mercenary people about, willing to go to any lengths to earn a living, regardless of the consequences.”

They say that chronic addiction will eventually take you to one of three places: jails, psychiatric institutions or death. Kurt Cobain went for the big one.

Let us remember that Kurt Cobain was not an omnipotent Godlike creature. He was just another impressionable music fan from a typically dysfunctional American family background, who looked to music for solace from the rage and confusion which filled his head and pained his stomach.

Kurt didn’t find it in rock ‘n’ roll, and slowly, when all his other bubbles were burst (fame + wealth + love + marriage + children = happiness?), he was left with a vacuum that for a while was filled by the calming effect of heroin. But this rapidly stopped working and the turmoil returned with a vengeance.

So Kurt resorted to the final solution — or cop out, depending which side of the gun you were on. You don’t have to join the Stupid Club. The choice is exclusively yours.

If you feel that you have a problem with drugs and need help, here’s a couple of places you can contact: Narcotics Anonymous 071-272 9040 Release 071-729 9904 during office hours, otherwise 071-603 8654.

© Paul Elliott, Pete MakowskiKerrang!, 9 July 1994

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