The above title is taken from a Johnny Thunders tune, a nice pun on a problem that has been in evidence in the rock/jazz milieu since the forties at least. Will Self doesn’t cover music much in his books, mainly using song titles to situate the action in a particular time and place- he starts his 2012 stream-of-consciousness, crypto-modernistic slog of a novel, ‘Umbrella’ (it remains one of his best, imho), with a quote from The Kinks’ 1970 mini-hit ‘Apeman’. We could be fanciful here, and suggest that this might be an allusion to monkeys (on backs), given how drug culture loves to use indirect and suggestive meta-language. He describes his own coming of substance-misuse age, during the punk and post-punk era (1977-81 approximately), an era that has its predecessors and successors, particularly in terms of heroin and other opiates (use of which Self implies to represent a kind of drug-taking masterclass).
It’s always been a seductive trope, the creative ‘smackogenic’ one. The punk/post-punk/industrial subculture of the time’s hero was always the Beat writer William Burroughs (along with non-addict J.G. Ballard), an opiate abuser of heroic stature for people like Self. Charlie Parker, one of jazz music’s unarguable ‘greats’ had a raging habit by 16 years of age. The fantastic Blue Note label has an unrivalled set of releases spanning the mid-fifties onward - a cursory study of its artists, featured on Reid Miles’s memorably hip record sleeves, reveals a group of junkie supremos. Art Blakey, Jackie McLean (an ironic name if there ever was), Hank Mobley, Sonny’s Clark and Rollins, Don Cherry, Elvin Jones, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon. One of Eric Dolphy’s distinguishing features, apart from being a genius of the horn(s), was the fact that he wasn’t an addict (and never had been). Ditto the great Herbie Nichols. Many of our men here did get clean, but many didn’t, and died as addicts still (Clark, Mobley, the mostly-forgotten Tina Brooks). Even Thelonious Monk appears to have succumbed to smack’s siren song, so it forms an impressive list indeed, and it is little wonder why the upcoming rock generation of the sixties were also seduced by the very idea of opiate use.
All three of Cream’s members had affairs with heroin (Ginger Baker being famously influenced by arch-junkie Phil Seamen). Keith Richards, perhaps rock’s most celebrated addict, seems, ironically, to have only had a serious habit for a few years. More opaquely, good old John and Yoko seem to have been at it for a couple of years in the late sixties (’Cold Turkey’ being a bit of a giveaway). There were the founder members of the ‘27 Club’ (Brian Jones, Janis, Hendrix, Morrison), all dead within one year, with heroin as one of the secondary suspects. After these ‘smackies’ (hippie heroin users?), we had the advance force of proto-punks Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls (with Keef-besotted journo Nick Kent on typewriter?) ushering in the next wave.
The influx of cheap heroin from Afghanistan and the middle east in the late seventies potentiated the availability of the drug for more ordinary people than the dilettante decadent Kings Road set that the Stones represented. Heroin hit the ‘estates’, in addition to the Second Estate. Hence the moral outrage of the time - Chelsea excesses (Burroughs lived there for a time, making use of the relatively lax contemporary British drug laws) were one thing, but the likes of Sid Vicious, Keith Levene and Malcolm Owen availing themselves of God’s own medicine? No way.
All this 1976/7 junkie business has been historically been ascribed to those Yank interlopers, Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, with Nancy Spungeon taking on the Yoko Ono role vis a vis The Sex Pistols (yes, I know it’s more complicated than that!). However, the scene that Will Self picked up at that time had already had an interesting history.
This blog will need a third, concluding part. There is more than I thought here, in terms of my responses to Will Self’s book.