June 2014, Shepherds Bush Empire London.
I’m sitting up in the ‘guest’ section of this famous London venue, reasonably captivated by the performance of the band below, as the singer guides us through a back catalogue of their work, interspersed with the obligatory ‘new’ material. The audience make more noise for the older stuff; I’ll leave the critique at that.
Sitting alongside me are five other gentlemen who, over the years, demolished more booze and drugs between them than anyone is entitled to and still be alive. It’s highly likely some of them still owe me money for my minor assistance in that dubious pursuit, but I’m not bothered about that anymore, it was a long time ago, besides, we are all drinking a lot tonight, a lot of bottled water that is. Some of us have been drinking bottled water for years, others have arrived at this point fairly recently. If my ‘twenty-something’ self was in the audience below, (ok I’d be on the guest list too) observing our collective sobriety, I’m in no doubt he’d be appalled. Coked-up, Pilled-up and smacked off his tits, but outraged at the same time because we are ALL going to live forever and strong drugs are clearly what is/was required for the ride.
I can say without hesitation, that between us, we know plenty of others who, were they still alive, would be getting the next round of Evian in, but they’re not here tonight and won’t be troubling the ‘plus one’ section of any guest list ever again either, friends of ours, good people who should be here tonight.
Perhaps when Noel Gallagher asked Alan McGee shortly after Knebworth,
“Where do we go from here?”
Home, for some serious self-reflection and to perhaps try and make some healthier lifestyle choices, would have been the best course of action for many of us. (Credit where it’s due McGee had already taken this path by that point)
Personally, I went home from Knebworth before the first band had walked onto the stage that day, having smoked a lot of crack before realising I’d left my heroin back in London. The ‘great and the good’ backstage collectively sneered their disgust at me as I shuffled out of the backstage area into the oncoming sea of expectant fans toward the exits and a not so, supersonic, train back to Camden. My body needed smack more than it needed to shake along and ‘make history’ with Oasis. Ironically, many years later, one of the most vocal of my critics that day, sat in front of me sobbing and asking me to get them into rehab, because as their key-worker and prescriber of their methadone, I was able to do so. Poacher turned game-keeper indeed. For the record, they got what they asked for and as far as I know are still living a happy drug-free existence in a seaside town somewhere.
So as Britpop popped its clogs, (Adidas/Pumas/Wannabes) and the idea of living forever only seemed attractive if you could get on the property ladder and perhaps stuff money previously earmarked for pills and coke, into an ISA, there was a ‘comedown’. History has a habit of repeating itself, in the late 60’s plenty of pill popping mods grew out their hair and started smoking more dope as the country started to reek of Patchouli oil in the early 70’s. Many then embraced seriously heavy downers such as Mandrax and other barbiturates before succumbing to the first real wave of heroin addiction in the UK. Punk, literally sped things up again a few years later, before plenty of the spikeyhead brigade, as well as football ‘scallies and other assorted ‘tribes’ found that years of amphetamine-induced rage, paranoia and gnashing of teeth could be ‘relieved’ by yet another wave of heroin flooding into the country. We can’t say we hadn’t been warned can we? But of course, it wasn’t going to happen to ‘us’ as many went looking for, or simply stumbled blindly into, the ultimate ‘Cool Britannia’ after party, where, If you’re name wasn’t down, you were lucky. The much talked about “Blizzard of cocaine, suddenly turned into a shit storm of ‘brown’, ‘cos what goes up, must come down and many of ‘us’ had been up for far too long. Whether the high water mark was Oasis at Knebworth, or Pulps heroic headlining show at Glastonbury in 1995 when just before his band closed with Common People, Jarvis Cocker said,
“You can’t buy feelings; you can’t by anything worth having.”
either way, there was a nasty brown ring left in the chemical bed bath/trough in which many had been lying for years, as for ‘feelings’? What the fuck are they, can you get two for £15?
A few years later at the funeral of Zac Foley, the wonderfully charismatic and beautifully bonkers bass player with EMF, I stood at the back of the church while two of his dearest friends played an acoustic version of ‘Zeppelin’s Bron-Yr-Aur, there was not a dry eye in the house, but there were also plenty of tiny, opiate-soaked pupils on display too, mine were not the only ones. Something was going badly wrong here, but NOBODY was saying anything and those of us already neck deep in heroin/crack addiction, and were, for the most part, also even deeper in denial.
Where once ‘we’ had strolled to the front of the queue at the Met Bar, Smashing, Blow-up etc, I now found myself chatting deluded bollocks with, (insert singer/drummer/guitarist from ‘indie’ band of choice) while being kept waiting for a young kid on a mountain bike to turn up with brown/white as we ‘rattled’ outside a ‘phone box in Camden Town.
Why is it that certain people can engage in a furious, narcotic jihad for years yet somehow reign things in when the passing of time and attendant responsibilities require a more ‘responsible’ approach to life, yet others cannot? I have a strict word count to adhere to in this piece and to be honest, there’s little new material I can bring to this discussion, so let’s ignore that ongoing, hotly contested debate shall we? For me 2006 saw the end of my, by then, life threatening addiction to drugs, I’d already been to more funerals than anyone in their mid 30’s should have, eight years later, I’ve lost count of how many more I could have attended, it’s somewhere in the region of 40 though.
I’ve also lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard people in ‘recovery’ say,
“I don’t know what happened, it feels like one minute we were all off our tits having the time of our lives at, Spike Island/Glastonbury/Castlemorton/Knebworth etc, the next I remember is going into a chemist to collect my methadone prescription.”
Trust me, I know from firsthand experience, the ‘rooms’ of self-help recovery groups are full of people who nod their heads in identification when they hear statements like that. We understand fully and feel as sad as anyone with a heart/brain does, when the media froths with its polarized ‘opinions’ about the tragic deaths of Peaches Geldof, Amy Winehouse or indeed the multitude of anonymous addicts who sadly did not find a way out in time. I’d be lying if I said many of us are not already braced for the news that Pete Doherty has also checked out permanently, although people were saying that about me and plenty of others I know for years, yet somehow we are still here.
I hold people’s anonymity as sacred but I could easily form a rock’n’roll ‘super group’ of musicians in recovery that’d make most BritPop group look on with an envy, greener than the methadone many were prescribed around the time Blur’s ‘Beetlebum’ was aurally waving an accusing finger at many of the players of that era.
From what I’m told and what I’ve seen as a drug addiction worker over the years, Cocaine has got cheaper and easier to find, as are the variant strains of ‘designer drugs’ like Mkat etc. Ketamine, and other assorted ‘pills’ and powders are so abundant they make the 90’s cocaine ‘blizzard’ look like tame by by comparison? Crystal meth addiction is rife, particularly on the gay club scene and surely there must be a reason why people are still sporting ridiculous beards and dressing up like Nordic fisherman who’ve discovered the clothes rail at a church bring and buy sale?
For what it’s worth, I personally believe drugs to be neither all good, or all bad, what is clear though is that addiction to them, rarely has a happy ending and does not discriminate when choosing who it romances.
People are still getting high and thankfully, most will have a mainly positive experience with drugs, but just like many of us forgot, or chose to ignore, remember this,
“What goes up, must come down.”
Because like I wrote earlier, history has a habit of repeating itself and I don’t see the young men on mountain bikes here in Hackney complaining that they’re skint.
Take care out there.
Simon Mason is the author of
Too High, Too Far, Too Soon (Mainstream)
He has previously written for, Loaded, The Guardian, Sabotage Times and is currently working on a book about the Musician Mick Head (Pale Fountains/Shack/Strands/Red Elastic Band)