Singer’s death has roots in music history

The death of singer Amy Winehouse on July 23 brought an all too obvious end to the career of the latest in a long line of gifted musicians who have seen their art, and finally, their lives, extinguished by drug abuse.

It also offered an excuse for the guardians of moral rectitude to scurry from their dank hiding places to once again bemoan the degradation of modern art and its corrupt purveyors.

What is rarely discussed, either by fellow artists Tweeting their eternal love, or by conservative proponents of this nations asinine drug war, is the physical and emotional imperative some homo sapiens have toward drug use and the entire panoply of pleasures and torments that comes with it.

By and large, artists take drugs for the same reason lawyers, auto mechanics, and Baptist preachers take drugs; for the same reason humans since the dawn of self awareness have taken drugs: to get outside, into, and far away from themselves; to let all the bile and stupidity of everyday life spill off their bones; for a few, simple moments of peace.

Artists, however, add another, more amorphous, reason to the equation: Creation—the process of putting that experience to use, as inspiration, as a different way of seeing the world in order to find new creative paths.

It’s a tradition that stretches back to antiquity and forward into the modern age, from the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Arthur Rimbaud, to jazz pioneers Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Opiates in particular have held a seemingly ageless fascination to the artistically inclined. While Coleridge is said to have written one of his most well known poems, “Kubla Khan” under their influence, the drugs, most pervasively in the form of heroin, have proven all but impossible to bend to the artistic will for any length of time, first seducing, and finally annihilating its users.

A quick glance at any music history book will offer up a nearly endless list of famous and not so famous drug casualties: Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimmy Hendrix, Johnny Thunders, Shannon Hoon, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley.

While each of theses musicians certainly had their own, deeply personnel reasons for deciding to turn their bodies into walking laboratories, I would argue that the very thing that made their art so essential, that made them risk everything do devote their lives to a profession that this country has never truly valued or taken seriously, is, for some, inseparable from the impulse towards the chemically induced experience. Intertwined amongst the seemingly healthy drive towards creation, it appears, lurks the very opposite, an open-armed leap towards oblivion.

I would also argue that, however personally destructive it may be to the lives of those involved and their families, that impulse must be accepted as a professional hazard, in the same way that a police officer risks taking a bullet, or a fireman risks getting severely burnt. The fact is, most cops and firemen are able to perform their entire careers without ever being injured; but the risk is always there, thanks to the physical and psychological framework that called them to those professions.

One of the seemingly insurmountable facts for the morally astute is that much of the greatest music of the 20th century was made by artists deep in the throes of drug experimentation or outright addiction: “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones; “Lady in Satin” by Billy Holiday; “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes;” the complete discographies of Hank Williams and John Coltrane.

The last great rock music uprising in this country, the Seattle scene of the early 90’s, was awash in drugs from its earliest days, a fact that became all too clear with the deaths of the aforementioned Staley and Cobain, and the immolation of countless other careers.

Far from being a positive force, in fact, any cursory examination of the state of music during the era when drugs were virtually a required staple of every musicians diet, the 1970s, should be proof positive that whatever meager gifts the gods of Chaos can bestow, the hangover is a killer: bloated stadium rock, countrypolitan crooned by urban cowboys; and the bland thud of disco—each of these paid witness to a community rotting from the inside out and too stoned to care.

One could also point to the countless musicians who have sought to emulate their idols by cultivating their habits, only to find out too late that talent and tireless work, not chemicals, were the true secrets behind the masters work.

The darkness inherent in the creative impulse cannot be separated from the light without destroying it, leaving it enervated and without depth. To put it simply, it’s probable that creative people will always be drawn to drugs, to altering their perceptions. Some will be strong enough to come through the experience, some won’t. That’s part of the job.

Of course no amount of theorizing can be any comfort to Amy Winehouse or her loved ones. There must have been moments when she was clear-headed enough to reflect on the squalor of her existence, on the wasted opportunities and family torment she was responsible for.

It’s probable that Winehouse had already squandered a good portion of her talent over the five years since her last album, time which, judging from her brief public appearances, was apparently spent in a haze of drugs.

By the time of her death, she had become a joke, a walking punch line. Death, at least, has restored a measure of dignity and, hopefully, placed the emphasis back where it belongs: her music.


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