Do it Clean.
“I got a handful of this, what do I do with it?
I got a barrel of this, what do I do with it?
I do it clean, I do it clean”
Echo and the Bunnymen.
There’s a reason I’m citing this song from 1980 and it’s not because it’s writer is a poster-boy for healthy living , either now, or then. Ian McCulloch, as far as I know, is yet to embrace sobriety/recovery, not that it’s any of my business what he does or doesn’t do while he and the latest incarnation of the ‘Bunnymen continue to tour the world to decent-sized audiences.
The reason I’ve kicked off the piece with that lyric is due to a moment of melancholic -clarity I experienced at a gig in London a while back. It was Echo and The Bunnymen, but you possibly just guessed that? If not, like much of the following, it possibly doesn’t really matter, there’s no business like show-business and your business is, quite frankly, none on my business eh?
I was sitting in the ‘I’ve not paid to get in’ section alongside other musical vagabonds of a certain vintage, (we don’t get asked for ID when buying e-cigs) when, for no apparent reason, my companion for the evening turned to me and said,
“There’s fuckin’ loads of us…who aint here tonight that should be right?”
“Yes mate, maybe they’re stuck in traffic or couldn’t get a babysitter eh?”
“Nah..Simon, I mean…
And he proceeds to rattle off a list of friends of ours who will never sit in the ‘I’ve not paid to get in’ section, or indeed anywhere else, ever again.
There are four of us drinking bottled water as we watch McCulloch do his thing,
“I do it clean, I do it clean know what I mean?”
Yeah, these days ‘we’ do,
Handfuls of this, bucketful’s of that, mouthfuls of pills, syringes of heroin, pipes, powders and bottles…. ‘we’ certainly didn’t do ‘it’ or anything else ‘clean’ until we seemed to have no choice to either start doing so, or be added to the ‘guest-list’ nobody really wants to be on? The AAA pass for whatever lies on the other side of this mortal coil that requires a messy, untimely death and leaves so much sadness in its wake?
“I hope I die before I get old”
So the ongoing truth/untruth that you need ‘something’ outside of yourself working its merry way through your bloodstream in order to be creative, has an audience too, and they want to be heard! Come on, make some noise eh?
Quite possibly the main reason for a collective,
“Oh for fucks sake, we WANT you to be fucked up! It’s part of the job and clearly seems to have assisted you in the writing of so many fantastic albums/books. Whereas, being off my face on K aint gonna make this Chia-latte I’m serving you taste any better is it? So be fucked –up for me while I’m working a minimum-wage job and dreaming of getting the record deal I’ve wanted all my life or stop fucking moaning about it! Again, we know this already right?
The other common denominator as we stick our fingers in our ears and mumble ‘I’m not listening’ to you, is that it seems much easier to talk about/enjoy the brilliant creativity born of altered-states and staying up late(s) but ask most people to name ‘artists’ whose work they consider better in sobriety and you’re gonna struggle, or are you?
It’s a tough debate for the bottled water and self-help group for breakfast lunch and dinner brigade to win.
Let’s do the obvious first and when I say obvious, I mean really obvious, a list of bands that burnt the candle at both ends, (or as a certain K Richards once said, “took a blowtorch to the middle”) but made some timeless classics, influenced later generations of musicians almost beyond measure and were, well you know, the best there was and most likely will ever be.
Here’s the list then..
- Pretty much any major ‘artist’ from the 60’s onwards whose members had someone like ME on ‘speed-dial’ (see what I did there, funny huh?) during their most creative period.
Me? Oh yeah, me, here.
Yep, we know, we know we know…Beatles/Stones/Who/Zep/Lou Reed/Bowie and so on….
AD-BLOODY-NAUSEAM (dictionary definition of which is ‘something that has been done or repeated so often as to become tiresome’) a bit like drugs after a while no?
But for reasons that’ll be clear a bit later in this somewhat rambling missive, here’s my favourite slice of narco-influenced rocknroll from the good old bad old days..
“There’s an epidemic, if ya don’t believe me you should take a look at the eyes of your friends.”
- Then we have the counter-argument often from the straight-edge community that they don’t need drugs/booze to make their art.
My personal preference here, again not from a musician currently on a ‘popular’ Spotify play-list but entirely due to the fact that I don’t get asked my age when buying E-cigs either) is this from former Minor Threat /Fugazi, front-man Ian MacKaye.
Both songs as menacing, tense, poetic, explosive and downright magnificent as the other. The main difference being MacKaye can probably remember recording his track whereas Peter Perrett perhaps cannot?
Which finds me asking myself, does that even matter?
It doesn’t matter to me, nor I imagine does it really keep anyone else awake at night because it’s not really important is it? It’s none of our business right?
If you google ‘Famous sober musicians’ you’ll get a non-surprising who’s-who of musical ‘legends’ most of whom I should imagine are as relevant to Vice readers as ‘er, I am actually. Yep, they are all without doubt hugely successful, or certainly have been, but much of that success, was garnered a very long time ago. We know Eric Clapton, Elton John and Eminem are sober, we know they sell-out whatever ‘enormo-dome’ they chose to perform in, but it’s probably true to say their respective sobriety was due to the choice becoming,
‘Get clean or die’, as is sadly often the case and even more wretchedly, a signpost that is often missed entirely as careers and drug habits barrel out of control in tandem.
This whole question of creativity in ‘recovery’ is at first glance somewhat lopsided, the argument is elastic and seems to be incapable of not somehow measuring creative successes against human cost. For every ‘elegantly wasted’ rock-star/rapper/writer burning £50 notes to cook up their gear on a spoon, there’s countless dead junkies who thought their own consumption of substances would buy them a guitar-shaped swimming pool too.
How many livers/brain-cells were harmed in the writing of this piece? None, I’ve been clean/sober for over 11 years, I did enough damage already and before any of you lot say it, Hunter-S Thompson I aint either, but I think my 9-year old daughter prefers a very much alive daddy, (albeit not so much literary genius), than a dead one.
I spoke to a few creative friends of mine, who are of the ‘recovering’ variety recently, Amy Dresner, columnist The Fix and author of My Fair Junkie had this to say.
“The success of addicted writers like Hemingway, Bukowski, Burroughs et al give us creative types the false belief that their addiction is a method, not a problem.
When I was using, I thought everything I wrote was genius and it was far from it. What was great about being creative while loaded was being uninhibited and shutting up that inner critic. But you can do that in sobriety as well. It’s just a choice of self-acceptance and allowing your first draft to be, well, shitty. Dropping the ego and perfectionism and polishing the piece later. If sobriety has given me anything it’s patience, persistence and a work ethic.
I think that in my addiction I was looking for a high, for transcendence, to connect to something bigger, and I can still do that in sobriety by being creative. There is no drug that beats the high of being in that “flow” state where you feel like you’re channelling something greater, creating something you yourself could never come up with. Despite being sober for 4 and half years, I still have the addict’s brain which demands stimulation, instant gratification, risk-taking and highs. Now I just channel all that demonic tyrannical energy into my writing. And I’m a helluva lot more productive and prolific than I was when I was using because half my time isn’t looking for coke or trying to find a vein or recovering from a bender. But you absolutely do have to be more creative in finding material. There isn’t that constant barrage of drama and metaphorical car wrecks to mine that comes with active addiction.”
You can read all about her ‘research’ here.
Another interesting conversation was with Rusty Egan, a man possibly not afforded the recognition he surely deserves for almost single-handedly bringing electronic music to British clubs when he set-up the Blitz club with Steve Strange in 1979. If you’ve ever enjoyed getting spangled to electro, synth-pop, house, trance or whatever, you kinda owe him a nod of your head, but don’t offer him any booze or drugs he’s been sober for over 21 years now. When interviewing him for this piece, it became apparent that, as if often the case, the story I’d gone looking for, was not as relevant as the story I got. Rusty explained to me as we sheltered from a typical English summers day cloudburst under a tree in Brompton cemetery, that, everything he helped create back in ‘the day’, whether it be drumming with the Rich Kids, (with ex- Sex-Pistol Glenn Matlock,) opening the Legendary Camden Palace nightclub or providing the soundtrack to the New Romantic ‘movement’ by spinning previously almost unknown tunes by The Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk etc. he did completely sober. He was also, one audition, away from actually being the drummer in The Clash, which is most certainly a ‘sliding-door’ moment few could compete with.
I have tried to stay away from the ‘old rocker done too many drugs but clean now’ theme while writing this but over the past few days, my ears have been treated to perhaps one of the greatest comeback stories you might care to hear and it perhaps shapes the final furlongs of this piece in a way, my prose could never compete with.
Let’s be clear and lets again be obvious, the “My band’s better than your band” and the “That band are shite” arguments will roll for eternity. Yes there are a few bands we can say without question that are ridiculously wonderful, at least to the ears of many people and conversely plenty who only a hearing-impaired mother could love. As I mentioned previously, much of the ammunition lobbed in the direction of the
“But I’m clean now and I’m working on new material” brigade, is that, well you know, when you tour can you not do much of the ‘new stuff please” right?
The reason I put the YouTube link to The Only Ones track, The Beast is twofold, actually maybe threefold, maybe more let’s see.
- It’s a fucking brilliant song…about drugs, written while on lots of them.
- It’s a brilliant song regardless of anything.
- Its writer, now 8 years clean and sober has just released his first new material in a VERY long time and guess what?
- It’s also brilliant
If there’s a ‘better’ more menacing, claustrophobic, dirty rocknroll song released this year, I’d like to hear it. Ok there is one but I’ll come to that in a bit.
Whatever my own thoughts are on this topic, I defy anyone who digs guitars and lyrics gleamed from hard-won ‘street-wisdom’, (Probably not the kind of street you’d wanna live on) to not at the very least, appreciate this tune and indeed the poetic beauty of the entire album.
When as a teenager I first heard ‘Another Girl, another Planet, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t increase my already reckless enthusiasm for getting off my tits. No, of course The Only Ones were not responsible for my slide in heroin addiction any more then were The Velvet Underground or Keith Richards. I cannot pretend though, that as I type, while listening to How The West Was Won by Peter Perrett, I don’t have a wry smile on my face, ‘cos he knows and so do I, that if and often it’s a big if, we survive the entrenched, blackened debris of the battlefield of drug addiction, it’s possible to come out the other side without becoming a creatively impotent (ex) druggie-bore.
Another recent recruit to sobriety and creativity is the man, once lauded by the NME (when it actually meant something) as “Our greatest songwriter”
Former Pale Fountains/Shack frontman Mick Head, now of The Red Elastic Band.
Heads own ‘relationship’ with alcohol and drugs is no secret, it’s obvious that anyone who “Can’t remember it mate” when asked about supporting The Who on a tour, was obviously needing more than the formal backstage rider had on offer to get through the day. Long standing fans are now reporting that the former enfant terrible of Merseyside is currently “Off the ale and off the scale” and he is about to release his first album of new material in over 11 years.
Pete Townshend Loves him, Noel and Liam Gallagher adore him and Vice are also about to release an interview with him as part of Noiseys ‘British Masters’ series so don’t just take their word for it!
Being in an altered state, may well be a constituent part of rocknroll drug/alcohol mythology, but let’s not forget that musicians in the upper echelon of that world, often have various ‘people’ on hand to clear up their mess, pay their bills, book their hotels/studios/rehabs for them. The rest of us mere mortals as the coalface of addiction are left without any such luxury!
Oh, by the way, did I mention that at 11 years clean I’ve also managed to fulfil a dream my younger self, robbed himself of in the pursuit of the sex, drugs and rocknroll (un)holy-trinity?
I finally got to do the rocknroll bit!
I’, just about to release an album, my (our) debut album, something I am ridiculously proud of to the extent it’s entered my personal chart of achievement at number 3 with a bullet, ok maybe not a bullet, perhaps a chai-latte. Top of my pops is obviously my beautiful 9yr old daughter Tabitha.
Nestled at number 2, 11 years of unbroken recovery, so number 3 it is for my band, Hightown Pirates.
Here’s the thing though. The album is a mixture of songs I wrote while absolutely ripped to the gills of all sorts of drugs back in the day/night, plus newer material written in long-term recovery. There was no way I would have been able to get the band together and write/rehearse/record the album if I was using drugs, for me, if I’m using drugs, that’s all I’m doing, simple as that.
So while much of the raw material, lyrically and musically stems from dark and dirty periods of my life, there is an equal amount on this album that comes directly from the life I have now, I wonder if when you listen to it, you’ll be able to figure out which is which? I somehow doubt it and therefore think this is as good a way to sign off as any.
Adios Senor Pussycat By Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band is released by Violette Records on 20th October 2017
Dry and High by Hightown Pirates is out now.
Q Magazine says about the album:
“Dry & High is a joyous, anthem-laden affair that evokes Arcade Fire ‘s sweep; Blood, Sweat & Tears‘ horns and the finer moments of Primal Scream‘s Screamadelica. These giant, uproarious songs are propelled by huge guitar riffs, Lilly Vasil‘s exhilarating flute and on standout Just For Today, Mason’s shock and awe at still being alive.” **** four stars
In September Hightown Pirates supported The Libertines on their Tiddly Om Pom Pom tour of the UK:
“Meet Hightown Pirates, your new favourite band” announced Simon Mason, lead singer of the Hackney based multi genre ensemble who effortlessly fuse rock guitar with the delightful tones of a flute, backed by a heady brass section to bring you a melee of music which astounds and entices in equal measure.
They sounded like the result of an orgy in the 70’s at New York’s Plato’s Retreat with the members of The Style Council and Jethro Tull it was hard to spot influences amongst the varied musical offerings but that’s never a bad thing.
By the sounds of things tonight… their debut album Dry And High will definitely be worthy of your investment ( MusicMuso )
Take care of yourselves out there boys and girls.
Simon Mason, London October 2017.