Going Clean: Drugs and Creativity in the Lives of 10 Musicians


One of the most depressing things about the whole sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll mythology is how persistent and pervasive it remains in 2011. We don’t buy into hands-over-ears “Just say no” sanctimony here, but equally, there’s something sad about the fact that musicians still buy into Baudelarian mythology about drugs driving creativity. Equally, however, there’s the uncomfortable fact that plenty of musicians have a) made great music while on drugs and b) made mediocre music after going clean. Here at Flavorpill, we have a theory about this — that musicians’ drug-taking coincides with the early stages of their career, and they often get clean at about the same stage they run out of ideas. But clearly, this isn’t always the case — so join us after the jump as we put this theory to the test by looking at ten artists who’ve been very, very bad, then eventually got clean, and evaluate their work before and after the change. The results are… interesting.

David Bowie

It’s hard to believe that the man who invented Ziggy Stardust was shy, but Bowie apparently started using cocaine for the same reason many people do — to reduce his inhibitions, and also because he had so many ideas he didn’t want sleep to get in the way of being able to continue working. It all sounds awesome in theory, but as ever, the reality is somewhat different — in Bowie’s case, it ended up in subsisting on milk, bell peppers, and half of Colombia’s GDP, giving Hitler salutes, and trying to exorcise a swimming pool because he believed Satan was hiding in it. It’s also a measure of just how strung out he was that moving to Berlin with Iggy Pop constituted a relatively healthy lifestyle decision. He finally got clean in the early ’80s, a period that coincided with a distinct drop-off in quality — although having said that, has anyone ever had a decade as fertile as David Bowie during the 1970s? Let alone be able to sustain such a run for longer? In 2004, he reflected on the question of drugs and creativity: “So many people find it fashionable to say you couldn’t write those things if you weren’t on drugs and all that. I just doubt that’s the truth at all, because some of the best things I wrote in that period I had already cleaned up.”

Insobriety: A decade of genius Sobriety: Three decades of (largely) dignified elder statesmanship

Brett Anderson

It’s perhaps no surprise that a man so in thrall to Bowie’s legacy should have followed his hero’s narcotic trajectory. As with Bowie, he claims that his drug use was artistically motivated: “I never took drugs simply for hedonistic reasons,” he told the Independent in 2003, “although, sure, it did eventually mutate into that. But at first I simply wanted to discover what I was capable of, and that could only come through the taking of a hell of a lot of drugs.” Again, it worked a treat for a while — Suede’s magnum opus Dog Man Star was conceived on a diet of plentiful stimulants and a shitload of LSD. But then relatively clean-living guitarist and musical lynchpin Bernard Butler left the band, and everything went pear-shaped. Dog Man Star‘s successor Coming Up was a decent record, but by the time of 1999’s Head Music, Anderson was a) smoking more crack than Charlie Sheen and b) so bereft of ideas that he was plagiarizing his own b-sides. He got clean before Suede’s last record, A New Morning — sadly, it sucked hugely, and his subsequent career hasn’t approached the glory of Suede in their prime. These days, he’s forthright about his vices and their consequences: “I refuse to have regrets about [smoking crack], because that’s the way I decided to live my life. It created a lot of good things in our music, and I’m convinced that without them, we would have sounded much more conservative. And who wants to sound conservative?”

Insobriety: Two of the greatest British albums of the 1990s Sobriety: None of the greatest British albums of the 2000s

Nick Cave

Cave was a heroin addict for the best part of 20 years, a period that started when he was 19 and finally ended some time in the late 1990s. Apparently, toward the end, Cave feared that getting off drugs would compromise his creativity — although having said that, junkies are generally very good indeed at finding reasons to keep being junkies. In any case, as it transpires, the 2000s have been a period of great productivity for him, encompassing film scripts (The Proposition), a new band (Grinderman), six albums, and a novel (The Death of Bunny Munro, his second — the first, And The Ass Saw The Angel, was written over a tortuous five-year period in the 1980s). There’s an argument to be made that Cave’s best albums remain those from his druggie nadir in Berlin, but there’s also no doubt that getting off drugs has done him the world of good, even if he’s not entirely buying into the whole gutter-to-stars line that the media likes to purvey: “What I’m resistant to is the Walk the Line biopic, where you have this redemptive life done in two hours,” he told the Guardian in 2005. “It just doesn’t wash with me. I’ve been there and things don’t work out that way. People think just because you stop drinking or stop taking drugs you become a good person. That’s absolute bullshit.”

Insobriety: Songs about death and murder, lyrics written in blood Sobriety: Reflective piano balladry, Renaissance man status, silly moustaches, and Grinderman

Ozzy Osbourne

It’s easy to associate the mumbling, addled figure of The Osbournes with years of prodigious drug consumption, and even if Ozzy’s condition (Parkin Syndrome) isn’t directly attributable to his lifestyle, there’s little doubt that 40 years of drug and alcohol abuse have done him no favors. As with many of our other subjects, Osbourne used drugs as a creative tool, or at least thought he did: “I used to get so frustrated with myself… I thought that you had to get loaded to make songs… I thought it was that was making me creative.” That Ozzy was able to a) basically invent heavy metal and b) release several reasonably coherent solo albums while constantly in the sort of state in which it seemed like a good idea to steal his wife’s dress after she’d hidden his clothes and head off in search of more drugs. He’s clean now, but the fact he’s even still alive has apparently led a bunch of scientists to analyze his genome to see what’s let him survive the four decades of the sort of intake that’d probably kill an elephant.

Insobriety: Inventing heavy metal, bats, snorting ants Sobriety: Reality TV stardom

Lou Reed

A man who’s pretty much synonymous with drug use, even though he’s been clean for more of his career than he was a raging drug user. Reed’s association with narcotics clearly started early in his life — he wrote “Heroin” when he was 22, and still a staff songwriter making novelty albums for Pickwick Records. Throughout the ’70s, speed was his drug of choice — Victor Bockris’s biography has some discomfiting passages about Reed and his drug buddies’ method of boiling amphetamine out of diet pills, and all the nasty things that’d happen if you tried to do so twice with the same tablets. But he got clean in the early 1980s, and when you look back over his career, there’s a remarkable degree of consistency to be seen: while his output after the 1970s hasn’t commanded the same attention as his Velvet Underground work and albums like Transformer and Berlin, he’s pretty much maintained the same level of quality over the years, drugs or no drugs.

Insobriety: On average, for every great album, one correspondingly lackluster effort and the occasional truly mystifying detour into strangeness. Sobriety: On average, for every great album, one correspondingly lackluster effort and the occasional truly mystifying detour into strangeness. And Tai Chi.

Elton John

The music industry’s most flamboyant and famous vacuum cleaner, Elton John’s prodigious cocaine intake during the 1980s rather defies belief — according to one interview he gave Q in 1995, he got to the point in the 1980s where he was snorting a line every four minutes, which perhaps explains why every time he flies over the Alps he looks out the window and says to himself, “That’s like all the cocaine I sniffed.” Coke has never been a particularly creative drug — which is probably why the apogee of Elton’s drug intake coincided with the least interesting period of his career, the era that produced rather dull, if commercially successful, songs like “I’m Still Standing” and “Sad Songs (Say So Much).” He got off drugs in the early 1990s, at the same time as he had his greatest commercial success (particularly the reinterpretation of “Candle in the Wind” that sold bazillions of copies after Princess Diana’s funeral), although it’s hard to argue that anything he wrote after about 1980 can hold a candle (if you’ll excuse a dire pun) to his 1970s output, which largely predated the bulk of his drug use.

Insobriety: Sunglasses, costumes, an inexplicable marriage Sobriety: The Lion King, Princess Diana, Las Vegas

Trent Reznor

Never the most well-adjusted individual, Trent Reznor was in a pretty dreadful state by the mid-1990s. He was touring The Downward Spiral — an album whose title was looking awfully prophetic — he was depressed, and he was doing lots and lots of heroin. And then his grandmother died. The result was six years spent lapsing in and out of full-blown addiction, which finally came to a head with a near-fatal overdose in 2000. He went into rehab in 2001 — as with Cave, the fear was that he’d be less creative without drugs, a fear that eventually turned out to be unfounded. “I said I couldn’t be creative without [drugs],” he told Canadian website Dose in 2007. “Really, I was afraid to give up drugs. Once I did, once my brain started working again, it dawned on me that I didn’t turn to drugs for creativity. I just tried to make myself feel not so terrible about myself. That’s why I did it. In the end, the drugs were crippling. They killed any bit of art that I had in me.”

Insobriety: Anger, depression, The Fragile Sobriety: Anger, depression, With Teeth, Year Zero

Kim (and Kelley) Deal

Anyone who’s seen the excellent loudQUIETloud documentary about the Pixies will know that Kim Deal has had her struggles with drugs and alcohol over the years, and anyone who knows the story of her sister Kelley ordering heroin through the mail will know that such things seem to run in the family. Drug and alcohol problems largely derailed The Breeders’ career in the 1990s, particularly when Kelley was arrested for the aforementioned mail-order incident in 1994, although such things didn’t seem to undermine their creativity when they were on a roll with Pod (recorded before Kelley joined the Breeders, admittedly) and Last Splash. Kelley is apparently clean these days; Kim still seems to fluctuate. But there’s no doubt that they’re both at least somewhat more clean-living than they used to be, and also a lot more productive — they recorded two whole albums in the 2000s! And they were both good!

Insobriety: “Cannonball”! Sobriety: Two excellent albums, an entertaining double act featuring jokes about their mother having Alzheimer’s

John Frusciante

Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate Anthony Kiedis’s 2004 memoir is a fascinating and often infuriating junkie cycle of clean up/relapse/repeat ad infinitum. Reading it, you can see what’s coming a mile off (Anthony! Don’t go out with the ex-junkie! Anthony! No!), but you’re powerless to change it. But even Kiedis’ drug abuse pales in comparison to that of bona fide guitar genius Frusciante, who joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988 at age 17 and left the band four years later to retreat to a house in the Hollywood Hills where he did nothing but paint, record onto a four-track and follow through on a conscious decision to become a junkie. The LA Weekly tracked him down at the house in 1996 and produced one of the most harrowing depictions of late-stage addiction ever set to paper. It looked for all the world like Frusciante would die any day, but somehow, implausibly, he turned himself around and rejoined the Peppers in 1997.

The first record he made during this period, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt, makes for strange, uncomfortable listening — at times it’s eerily beautiful, at others nigh on unlistenable. (The second, Smile from the Streets You Hold, was recorded when he was at his worst and is pretty much plain unlistenable.) Frusciante himself is open about the fact that he decided to become an addict — he said at the time, he believed heroin was a way of “making sure you stay in touch with beauty instead of letting the ugliness of the world corrupt your soul.” He’s since revised such views, and while he’s never recorded anything as flat-out bizarre as his first two solo records, he’s still clearly not inhabiting quite the same world as the rest of us — the self-penned biography for is first post-heroin solo album To Record Only Water for Ten Days claimed he spent the mid-’90s communicating “with spirits manifested as voices, thought waves, astral bodies and decay of physical matter. The things they taught him (often in non-Earth language, but often in English) are contained in this record’s words.” Crikey.

Insobriety: Strange, experimental incoherence Sobriety: Strange, experimental coherence (relatively speaking)

Iggy Pop

Some people are just made of different material to the rest of us, and Iggy is clearly one of them. Wondering quite how he’s still alive is one of those long discussions that everyone has had with music-loving friends over the years — perhaps the best story about Iggy’s “dark” period comes from Danny Fields, who related this gem to Rolling Stone in 2003: “The best of all of them is what happened when he played the Whisky in Los Angeles… He was waiting for his dealer, to cop, intent on getting his shot of heroin before he went on. But he had no money. So he went to the VIP booths one at a time and explained the situation… He got more than enough money. He stood off to the side and shot up. The lights went down, the music went up, he stood onstage and collapsed. Without a note being sung. He’d OD’d in front of everyone. And had to be carried off.” Clearly, the Stooges wouldn’t have been the Stooges without all the drugs — the chaos of their lifestyles manifested in the music they made — but if Iggy hadn’t have cleaned up, he really would be dead.

Insobriety: The Stooges, inventing punk, an onstage brawl with a motorcycle gang Sobriety: His biggest commercial hit (“Candy”), his best couplet (from “Wild America”), an album with, um, Sum 41