Sept. 15 2010 11:55 AM

How romanticizing substance abuse in rock 'n’ roll is missing the point

Nick Cave (left) and Grinderman: Arseholes?

When people use “rock ’n’ roll” as an adjective, it often seems as though they’re expressing their own desire to act like complete assholes and get away with it.

For example, if someone were to say, “Oh, man, isn’t it so rock ’n’ roll how Led Zeppelin used to throw TV sets out of hotel windows?” what they mean is, “Isn’t it awesome how Led Zeppelin were such huge assholes?”

But in a band like Grinderman, whose four members are 45 or older and have seen more than their share of drug-fueled mishaps, asshole behavior is hardly the fodder for rock ’n’ roll mythology. Instead, to a bunch of middle-aged men, it’s more likely the root of conflict.

In Jon Doran’s recent interview with Grinderman’s Nick Cave and Jim Sclavunos on, the inevitable subject of Cave’s storied drug use comes up on two occasions.

Cave, now 52, admits to being clubbed in the head by Grinderman bassist Martyn Casey during a sound check “not too long ago.”
“I was being a bit of an arsehole,” Cave says. “Drug related.”

Later, Doran addresses a rumor that, in the early ’80s, Butthole Surfers—a band notorious for rampant substance abuse—asked to be taken off a bill with Cave’s band, The Birthday Party, and New York’s Swans because the two groups were “doing too much heroin.”

Cave responds, “We were only experimenting with drugs.”

Sclavunos dryly follows, “It was a very big, far-reaching experiment that took place over a long period of time.”

As he’s proven in interviews before, Cave does a pretty good job of avoiding, or at least downplaying, the topic of drug consumption and other “arsehole” behavior. For someone whose artistic capabilities are beyond dispute—several classic albums, along with award-winning film scores, screenplays and novels are among his repertoire—drug trysts are probably the least interesting thing about him.

But while it’s expected that readers might be interested in the sordid details of what goes on behind closed doors, it’s still shocking to see how the ultimate cliché—“sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll”—is still perpetuated by so many musicians, writers and fans, even after it’s been explored and documented so thoroughly on so many different levels.

Speaking with an older acquaintance the other day, the discussion turned toward a currently popular musician, who shall remain nameless, and said musician’s latest album. We shared an admiration of the artist’s melodic gifts, but something my friend claimed left a sour taste.

“It’s the heroin,” he said. “Something about that drug just brings [the creativity] out of people.”

I don’t know if his assertion that this person uses heroin is true, but that isn’t the point. The point is, someone who’s twice my age—and whose opinion I deeply respect—was so cavalierly spouting one of the same tired drug clichés I’ve heard for years.
It’s odd how we tend to romanticize substance abuse as it applies to artists. A true artist is someone who thrives on a natural ability to create, right? That’s not to say they can’t have influences, but the notion that someone could come up with an affecting work of art simply because it was spurred by substances is pretty absurd.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with taking drugs or drinking to excess, if that’s your thing. I just think we should stop associating those activities with decades-old ideas of what is or isn’t “rock ’n’ roll.”

As most of us know, but conveniently tend to ignore, drugs and alcohol were huge factors in killing off many of rock’s most talented artists. We need only look to the substance-related deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Danny Whitten, Tim Buckley, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Bon Scott, Gram Parsons, Phil Lynott, Darby Crash, Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, John Entwistle, Robert Quine and even Zeppelin’s own John Bonham to see that drug and alcohol abuse isn’t necessarily something we should aspire to.

Because if dying due to asshole behavior is “rock ’n’ roll,” the entire concept must be pretty irrelevant. And I’m not quite willing to give into that.    

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