Heroin Heroism: On the Rock ’n’ Roll Survivor Narrative

August 13, 2020   •   By John Tottenham

IT IS NEVER a good idea to open The Guardian first thing in the morning, when one’s defenses are down. But such a dependable source of irritation can be hard to resist. On one recent morning, in the merry month of May, while scrolling through the endless reports of pestilence and homicidal policing, my attention was arrested by the headline: “‘Heroin stopped me dying of alcoholism’: Mark Lanegan, rock’s great survivor.”

Here we go again, I groaned, and eagerly plunged in. Another ex-junkie was stumbling down memory lane, peddling his glorified lamentations of bygone excess, demanding attention for the heroic feat of having survived drug addiction — a modern narrative that has become as played out and predictable as a Marvel franchise movie.

It usually goes something like this: a dysfunctional childhood; the discovery of rock ’n’ roll as a creative outlet; the discovery of drugs as a compulsory complement to the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle; the discovery that drug-taking is not an uninterrupted joyride; followed by an interminable empurpled trawl through the artist’s most scandalous behavior during the honeymoon phase of addiction; and eventually getting “strung out,” with all its accompanying torments. Then: Nothing, a blank, complete silence. The last 20 to 30 years are not accounted for. Sobriety, monogamy, and physical fitness don’t make for stimulating reading, and your best work is now behind you.

The article I now found myself so annoyingly engrossed in was an interview with Lanegan in connection with his newly published memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, and the interviewer was clearly in awe of his subject (“His speaking voice, like his singing voice, is magnificent, heavy and gnarly”). “Would [you] write about the subsequent years?” asks the interviewer. “No way,” replies Lanegan: “I wouldn’t put myself through that again.” But the drug years, apparently, are not too painful to chronicle.

The interviewer even goes to the trouble of counting how often Lanegan refers to heroin in the book: 102 times. “Why write about those years at all?” he asks Lanegan. It’s a good question. “Because it means I won’t have to answer any questions any more,” is the reply. Presumably this edict doesn’t apply to interviews.

The fawning journo can take just as much credit for glamorizing decadence as the musician-author. These wide-eyed chroniclers, accustomed to treading tentatively on the wild sidelines, gape in awe at the fearless chemical exploits of their musical idols and eagerly promote their tales of degradation. (As the bard said, “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you.”)

“[H]e was living in Seattle, chain-smoking in dirty boxers and a stained bathrobe, and watching soap operas when one of his best friends kept phoning,” the Guardian scribe informs us (paraphrasing the book, presumably), referring to how Lanegan didn’t pick up the phone on the day that his friend Kurt Cobain killed himself. The man is not merely smoking, mind you, which in itself is very heavy, but he is “chain-smoking,” and to intensify this scene of abject squalor, not only is the poor guy in a state of dishabille when relaxing at home in the afternoon, but his underwear is “dirty,” as is his robe. Are we expected to be dazzled by the authenticity of the man’s underwear?

And what of that subhead: “rock’s great survivor”? Not only does it ignore the fact that Jerry Lee Lewis is still kicking, but it raises the question: What did he survive?

The answer is usually pleasure. But it isn’t enough to have spent one’s younger days living out the dreams of lesser mortals; a lifestyle that was once embraced with as much conviction as all one’s misguided youthful energy could muster has to be retrospectively parlayed into a survivor’s narrative. The recovering musician expects to be respected for his inability to handle drugs and canonized as a survivor of massive self-indulgence.

One might suppose that these self-inflicted hard luck stories would read as cautionary tales, but it isn’t easy to write about substance abuse from the rarefied altitude of rock ’n’ roll notoriety without romanticizing it. Rather than discouraging the reader from following in the path of the author, these martyrologies of willful self-destruction have precisely the opposite effect. Regardless of how harrowing the anecdotage, when put in print the struggle becomes seductive, and the impressionable young reader is carelessly encouraged to follow in the self-consciously staggering footsteps of the heroic survivor.

Most open-minded young people pass through a self-testing period of excessive drinking and/or drugging. It’s what one does when one’s young — and in doing so, one is often inspired by the misadventures of one’s musical heroes, whose example, in an exhilaratingly amplified atmosphere, adds the component of glamour to pursuits that can be anything but glamorous in a more commonplace setting. It isn’t easy to convincingly convey an elegantly wasted persona when one is working a day job, or living on the street, although many have tried.

Moreover, to add insult to injury, the recovering musician usually assumes a position of moral authority: having exorcised their “personal demons,” these self-hagiographers get to preach to their disciples about the dangers of having as much fun as they did.

What’s with this new breed of whingers? Lemmy, Mark E. Smith, Serge Gainsbourg, Keith Richards: these men embraced the life unrepentantly, and lived it to the full. Keith (it sounds weird to refer to him by his last name) wrote his own book by blathering into a tape recorder, cataloging his drug use at stupefying and demystifying length. But he never complained about it. And, let’s face it, a life of wealth, fame, travel, the best drugs, and the most beautiful women, doesn’t leave one with much to complain about. Yet some do complain.

Over the last few years, we have been graced with autobiographies by Wayne Kramer, Walter Lure, Richard Lloyd, Nikki Sixx, Steve Jones, Flea, Elton John, and the drummer from Hole, among many others. The substance abuse memoir has now become such a thriving niche industry that it could easily occupy its own section in a bookstore. Whether these works are drug memoirs written by musicians or musical memoirs written by recovered drug addicts is hard to say. Occasionally, the authors will touch upon the subject of their craft, but mostly these books consist of a retrospectively celebratory bewailing of a few pleasurably misspent years of drug addiction and other forms of debauchery: the literary equivalent of one of those AA meetings where each successive speaker attempts to outdo the previous one with more vaingloriously lurid confessions of self-abasement. By the time pen gets put to paper (usually with the help of a ghostwriter), the heady years of struggle are usually a long-ago memory — although it’s impressive to note how distant, disorderly, and blurry events can be recaptured with seemingly pinpoint precision.

Extremity of transgression, in these cases, may actually be interpreted as a sign of total conformity. With calculated abandon, aspiring junkies embark upon a time-honored rite of passage — self-immolation for the sake of self-preservation — throwing themselves a lifeline of excess that can be traded on for the rest of their careers. For a rock musician, leading a messy existence of flagrant insecurity for a few years when one is young and feeling invincible can be a secure investment in one’s future. It provides one with permanent “cred” and can be helpful when the time comes around to ink a book deal.

It’s virtually guaranteed that successful musicians who are out of control in their 20s will, if they’re still with us 10 years later, be bouncing babies on their knees, rhapsodizing about the quiet joys of family life and sobriety. They’ve earned it, of course: dragging oneself through the gutter makes domestic bliss all the more satisfying once one reaches that precious harbor — although the quality of the music one has produced since getting “clean” is usually inferior to that which made one’s name when one was at one’s wasted peak (and let’s face it, how many great records have been made without the influence of drugs?). Never mind: Maybe it’s time to write a “brutally honest” memoir.

This ever-expanding genre has its classics: John Phillips’s Papa John (1986) and Ian McLagan’s All the Rage (1998) come to mind. Perhaps Mark Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep will join those garlanded names. From what I’ve heard — from more reliable sources than The Guardian — it’s a richly rewarding read: evocative, thoughtful, and funny. However, in the interest of maintaining the integrity of the fourth estate, I didn’t read it.

Such was the struggle when it came to writing this essay that it was necessary to resort to a mild calmative that enabled me to sit in one place without entirely succumbing to restlessness, and relaxed the critical faculties so that I wasn’t continually censoring myself. It made the process of writing more pleasant. Inconveniently, I could handle it, so there’s no autobiography in the works.


John Tottenham is a poet and painter based in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Inertia Variations (2005), Antiepithalamia & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment (2012), and The Hate Poems (2018). His paintings and drawings have been exhibited at galleries in Los Angeles and New York.


Banner image: "punk" by DirkForster is licensed under CC BY 2.0.