Monday 27 July 2015



 ‘Celebrity Users’ give product endorsement to junk abuse. 
 Writers, artists and musicians legitimise their narcotic dependency 
 with philosophical, spiritual and creative justification. They always have. 
 Whether it’s Coleridge writing “Kubla Khan” on opium, 
Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker creating Bebop Jazz on heroin,
 or drug role models like Jean Cocteau
 William Burroughs, Lou Reed and Timothy Leary
 they all give sleaze its invitingly seedy glamour… 

ANDREW DARLINGTON explores the culture of addiction 


‘I can feel the heat closing in…’

‘Naked Lunch’ (1991), the unfilmable novel that David Cronenberg filmed, is one long sense-scrambling howl of heroin withdrawal, obscenity and macabre madness. William Burroughs’ black ceremony of dense prose was pieced together in Tangiers, first published by the porn imprint Olympia Press in Paris in July 1959, and has inoculated junk culture ever since. Burroughs legitimises addiction. Burroughs intellectualises drug dependency. Transfigures the fix and the cold cellular craving that precedes it into the twentieth century’s last great adventure. He injects seedy splendour into a squalor that’s passed down like a ‘contact high’ to imitators.

‘I found a silver needle, I put it into my arm, it did some good, did some harm, but the night was cold, and it almost kept me warm.’ Leonard Cohen uses the tacky glamour of junk. Lou Reed closes ‘in on death’ as ‘the smack begins to flow’ in Rock’s most celebrated hymn to “Heroin”. And Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Some Candy Taking” squats in an identical subterranean milieu of fine white powder and the ache of unfulfilled need…

High profile users and substance abusers? We name the guilty men.

To Burroughs, junk dependency and its supply is metaphor for control, alienation, power, frightful poetry and visions of truth. A viral infection only partially trapped in print, and impossible to visualise on celluloid. Only Cronenberg – in the wake of his diseased mutational reinterpretation of SF shocker ‘The Fly’ (1986), could get close, and he had to fabricate a narrative from Burroughs’ life outside the monstrous surrealism of the novel to do it. The movie draws back from the typewritten sheet to see the man sitting at the typewriter. It adds emotional dimensions that do not exist in the book. It creates a ‘literary high’. 

But Burroughs is just one writer who has used narcotics as a creative trigger. He’s a thinner whiter duke from a pantheon of Heroic Dope Fiends. While Burroughs was pseudonymously publishing his first book – ‘Junkie’ (as William Lee in 1953), Aldous Huxley was experimenting with hallucinogenics in California. ‘Thus it came about that, one bright May morning, I swallowed four-tenths of a gramme of mescalin dissolved in half a glass of water and sat down to wait for the results...’ ‘Animal’ Huxley, later credited as an influence on the liner notes of the Mothers of Invention’s ‘Freak Out’ (Verve, June 1966) album, sucks various elements of Zen into the druggy melange to explain its effects. Graduating to LSD he links seamlessly with psychedelic hit-man Timothy Leary’s day-glo crusade to turn on, tune in and drop out America. Huxley’s ‘The Doors Of Perception’ (1954) both arrows forward to Jim Morrison’s deliberate appropriation of its title, and back to visionary William Blake from whom Huxley lifted the quote in the first place – ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite.’ Huxley’s name was dropped as regularly as acid. Like Burroughs, like Leary, he legitimises drug use. Gives it intellectual credibility.

Doing drugs, they say – is not just a good groove, not just a recreational high. Nothing as trivial or inconsequential. It is spiritual quest. It is cerebral odyssey out beyond the rippling rim of eternity, then back down through the grey room of the brain and into the DNA helix and the fractel hum of sub-atomic particles. It is seeing god through the ululation of energies in a sunflower or the susurration of sounds in the timeless improvisations of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star”.

But Hey Kids! Don’t try this one at home!

Heroin. Mescalin. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Cannabis. Cocaine.Marijuana. Peyote. Opium. MDMA. Ecstacy. Crack. Hashish. Speed. Kif. Pot. Grass. Ganja. Tobacco. Uppers. Downers. Purple Hearts.

Before Huxley there is ‘Bird’. Altoist Charlie Parker, like jazz musicians before and since, uses benzedrine from early – to stay awake, to concentrate for long stretches of time, for jags of artificial energy. But he also gets high on whatever is available. Nutmeg, taken with coffee or floated on top of an orange soda, produces spectacular highs but rips the stomach lining raw. From age sixteen he’s buying ‘sticks of shit’ (marijuana) for a dozen a dollar, and he’s already snorted cocaine. By twenty-one – and 1941, he’s on New York’s front line, establishing the legendary pattern of his frenetic improvisational genius. Creating Bebop in the heavy-gravity forcing house of heroin addiction. ‘Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse!’ Howls Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg, ‘Holy the jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace & junk & drums!’

The equation is beguiling. Heroin destroys Bird, but in the process it ignites supernatural levels of creativity. Detonates complex harmonic changes, an oblique and elastic relationship with the beat, chromatic excursions, a hard-edged passion run ragged through megatechnical levels of dexterity. But Parker’s habit is merely writing huge what’s been there from Storyville’s first honk. Dope was always part of Jazz culture, floating up the Mississippi on the same riverboats that take Dixieland north.

Every immaculately stoned muso plays with Bird’s ghost in his head. Hunting the same San Andreas Fault-line he straddles.

Like Lenny Bruce – ‘I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing god.’

Before Bird there’s Cocteau, Rimbaud, Coleridge, Shelley, Baudelaire. And there’s Thomas De Quincy’s ‘Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater’ (1821), a cult book up and down drug subcultures since the nineteenth century. An apology and a celebration of the indulgence that births the poetry of dreams. Procol Harum and Frankie Goes to Hollywood later theft his imagery, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge took laudanum – which is liquid opium, and out of its delirium he ‘read’ a wild and exotic poem flying a magic carpet ride of exquisite beauty. On coming down he begins speedwriting as much of it as he can remember – ‘in Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree,’ before his manic scribbling gets distracted by ‘a person from Porlock’... the rest is subsequently lost.

A systematic derangement of the senses produces great art. Produces Coleridge and Byron. Bird and Coltrane. Huxley and Burroughs.


I first get high in Barnsley, Yorkshire, edging sideways into underground journalism as the sixties decays into the seventies. The ritual is mesmerising. Fashioning a pipe from crinkly tinfoil. A camelshit pearl of cannabis resin. The first faint wisp of its breath. There can never be any question of questions. I’ve been too well primed by gurus of the cellular frontier. I was embarrassingly eager to imitate Bill (Burroughs) and Tim (Leary)’s Excellent Adventures. I’d been well-suckered by the product endorsement of other celebrity users too – the wacky exploits of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ (1968), Ed Sander’s hymn to “Marijuana” on the Fugs LP ‘It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest’ (1968), Allen Ginsberg, Captain Beefheart’s “Ah Feel Like Ahcid”, ‘Dharma Bums’ novelist Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, and the rest. I’d read Jean Cocteau’s claim that an opium addict ‘who inhales twelve pipes a day all his life will not only be fortified against influenza, colds and sore throats, but will also be far less in danger than a man who drinks a glass of brandy or who smokes four cigars. I know people who have smoked one, three, seven, up to twelve pipes a day for forty years’. In ‘Junkie’ Burroughs makes even more fantastic recommendations for heroin, ‘junk is a cellular equation that teaches the user facts of general validity. I have learned a great deal from using junk.’ It can even – bizarrely, lead to longevity, ‘when you stop growing you start dying. An addict never stops growing!’

Inevitably I drop acid a little later. Although perhaps I had too many psychic ghosts to benefit from its full cosmic beneficence, too much of a tendency to fight its effect and retain control rather than going with the flow. In flashback I’m on my way to the ramshackle ‘Styng’ office, the sun up and the black blossom of tarmac melting beneath my Beat sandals. Beyond the staircase the door is locked fast – indicating that some kind of illicit indulgence is in progress. So in high humour I start pummelling the poster-splashed door yelling ‘OPEN UP, IT’S A BUST! IT’S THE PIGS!!!’ The door sheepishly imploding to show two constables already within, smoking joints rather self-consciously, squatting like Cheech & Chong guesting in a frame from a ‘Furry Freak Brothers’ strip.

I’ve never particularly sought it out since, but it’s always been there. Touring and performing, writing and interacting, it’s seldom been difficult to find. Opening the morning mail, there are even friends who tape small sachets of intriguing white powder to their letterheads. But despite it all there are certain skills I’ve never managed to acquire, like rolling an acceptable joint. After I’d read at a Festival, back home with the stylishly deranged organiser in his bohemian squat, a gilded dung-heap crawling with naked kids and feral cats, he leaves me with the ‘stuff’ to roll up while he gets the wine. I’m watched critically by a sneering ten-year old brat as I fumble. At the inept completion of my efforts the absolute derision of her ‘you call THAT a joint!’ still chills me. She then takes over to demonstrate the correct technique.

In his ‘Opium’, written in 1929, poet movie-maker and artist Jean Cocteau observes that ‘everything one does in life, even love, occurs in the express train racing towards death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.’ Escape is a powerful motivation. Escape from the mundane. From boredom. From meaninglessness. Drugs are an adventure when no other adventures remain possible. Previous generations had Passchendale, the Blitz. We have acid, heroin, solvent inhalation. Every reformed user selling their confessions to the tabloids – ‘MY DESCENT INTO A DRUGS HELL’, have a story to tell, a heroic struggle with demons of the soul. A flirtation with danger. Closing in on death. Narcotics form an exotic fantasy world, an alternative reality parallel with, but separate from, normality. A secret society with its own rules and behaviour patterns.

The dope subculture is a continuity. To Allen Ginsberg it walks ‘with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares.’

Liverpool Horror Writer Ramsey Campbell catches the drugs demi-monde with an experienced eye, from the doper no-hoper conversations to the compulsive cross-city quests for fresh blow, the lethargy, and that stage where your whole life revolves around the point of scoring. ‘I had a whirl there’ he tells me. His story “Missing” (in ‘The Height Of The Scream’, 1976) opens with graphically depicted dope-smoking. ‘I was watching the skin of the joint roll back from the glowing glans as I inhaled, my head sailed back, I heard the glittering flutter of a bird outside the window.’ Now he tells me about the deliberate ceremonies of scoring – ‘they sit down and say just four lines, and roll a joint, and it all takes ten minutes. I remember that well. There was this terrible ritual about having to go in there and sit for a couple of hours while people brought out vegetarian cookies, and you couldn’t actually SAY ‘well, have you got any?’, because there had to be the ritual of everybody rolling up first, until somebody would get up very s-l-o-w-l-y and say ‘OK man, c’mon we’ll weight it out on the scales’.’

The gutter romance of scoring is well documented in Rock. From the Small Faces’ “Here Comes The Nice” (‘he knows what I want, he’s got what I need, he’s always there, when I need some speed’), through Lou Reed (‘$26 in my hand, up to Lexington 125, I feel sick and dirty more dead than alive’) and into Jesus and Mary Chain (‘I’m going down to the place tonight, to see if I can get a taste tonight, a taste of something warm and sweet, that shivers your bones and rises to your heat’). In on the scam, artist-poet Jeff Nuttall explains that ‘it takes a quick and sophisticated eye to detect the over-confident speech and movement of heroin and methedrine users. It takes an experienced eye to identify the benign dreaminess of pot-smokers or the blinks and grinding teeth of amphetamine and cocaine users. But LSD is the drug of visual dreams and visual experiences and advertises itself immediately’ (in ‘Bomb Culture’, 1968).

LSD is the Holy Grail of drugs, the Philosopher’s Stone that turns base metal lives into gold. A form of chemically synthesised mescaline, it is anabolic steroids for the brain cells.

As Leary points out, life is a process of cycling various substances through your body which alter or affect behaviour, mood or metabolism. Food is ingested and excreted, air inhaled and exhaled. Exact separation of the inner from the outer world does not exist. The body is a processing unit acting and reacting on what it extracts from its environment. You are what you eat – right? (Tony Blair hasn’t yet been SEEN eating slimy toads, but surely it’s only a matter of time.) And further – the body and brain are already controlled by an internal biochemical balance of adrenalin, endocrine, hormonal and other glandular secretions. That equilibrium is constantly nudged in random and unconscious ways. Drugs are merely a more precise and more potent tool for effecting and fine-tuning change. Aldous Huxley calls the brain ‘a reducing valve’ designed to filter out the overwhelming torrent of inputted information received by the senses. It reduces the flow down to the trickle of data necessary for day-to-day survival. Mind-altering substances provide a way for spiritual sleuths to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’. A way to break on through to the other side and touch a more real reality... according to Leary. Hallucinogenic experience often carries with it tantalising whispers of great perceived truths that evaporate with a return to normal awareness. Oceanic feelings of oneness with the multiverse.

Enjoy this trip, and it is a trip, and it is a trip…

All societies that have ever existed in the world have sanctioned some form of consciousness-altering devices – from alcohol to peyote, from hashish to aeroplane glue, from caffeine to opium. Just because the drugs that killed Elvis Presley were legally (if over-) prescribed doesn’t mean that they killed him any less dead. The first colonists on Mars will begin fermenting locally grown lichen and separating it out into various grades like connoisseurs. And hey! Take a hit offa this Venusian grokk-weed. Man, is THAT heavy shit!

But beyond the feel-good factor, all religions are based in, or utilise narcotic-like perceptions. Fasting and flagellation are merely ways of inducing organic highs. Central American religions were grounded around mescaline visions. It has been suggested (in ‘The Sacred Mushroom And The Cross’ by John Marco Allegro, 1970), that the Judeo-Christian myths are the result of an over-indulgence in psychedelic fungii native to the Levant. Timothy Leary – a former Director of Psychological Research in Oakland University, got tripped out by the spiritual potential of early lysergic acid. Like Huxley before him he saw the chemical apocalypse in his head as a philosophical tool, a way of inducing instant trance states of meditation, an evolutionary route to new modes of perception and wisdoms. His ‘The Politics Of Ecstacy’ (1968) became a crash-pad handbook for mind voyagers. Busted and jailed, escaping into exile, he became High Priest of the hyped high. The Moodyblues wrote a song for him. The Who roared ‘I asked Bobby Dylan, I asked the Beatles, I asked Timothy Leary...’, a paean to the poet of the interior odyssey, the most visible missionary for New Age acid. To Leary, LSD is a ‘sacramental ritual’ which not only reveals the face of god, but takes you beyond that to the shamanistic mystic impulse that lies behind the fabrication of all gods. It not only reveals the solar systems in the dirt beneath your fingernails and the universes in a grain of sand, but confirms that latest advances in particle physics too, the dance of quantum cats in the most infinitesimal loops of the quark.

All matter is ultimately energy, and cosmic energy is the intercourse of gods. Says Leary. The drug is Love – and Love is the drug. ‘Alcohol turns off the brightness, methedrine jiggles and speeds up the image’ he writes, ‘LSD flips on eighty-seven channels at once, pot adds colour, meditations, mantras, prayer, mudras sharpen the focus. It’s your head, baby, and it’s two-billion years old.’

But is drugged perception real or more profound than straight vision? Or just the confused interplay of sensations inside the skull? The mind-boggling revelations written while tripping read ‘ELECTRICITY COMES FROM OTHER PLANETS’ or ‘FORTY-TWO’. Cryptic clues to imaginary crossword puzzles. The incandescent solos played with endless sheet lightning by the stoned musician replays on the tape deck boring and repetitive. Decipherable only to another Day Tripper. Objectivity gets lost in a maze of distorting mirrors. After such excesses the come-down had to be hard. No gain without pain. Hear John Lennon’s tortured withdrawal from heroin addiction on the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey”. Check out the functioning brain-cells of acid casualties. Where are Syd Barrett and Peter Green now? Check out the other side of acid with Charles Manson’s dune-buggy death squadron. 

Jack Kerouac once wrote about smoking the ‘most perfect of all blackhaired seeded packed tight superbomber joints in the world.’ Poet Philip Lamantia gives him peyote promising ‘technicolour visions’, instead he has a powerful revelation of how it feels to die. In January 1961 Leary persuades Kerouac to try LSD, but he has a bad trip, fighting paranoid attacks. He emerges from the experience convinced LSD is a Soviet subversion plot to infiltrate and destroy the moral fibre of America. Huxley, who dies in 1963 – the same day as Kennedy’s assassination and a month after Cocteau’s death, had invented the fictional benign drug ‘moksha’ (in his novel ‘Island’, 1962). But he also predicted ‘soma’, a narcotic instrument of dystopic State Control (in ‘Brave New World’, 1932).

From ecstasy bridge with the rainbow apocalypse rising, Timothy Leary’s ticket exploded.

Ramsey Campbell tells me ‘I certainly got into psychedelics in a relatively small way, then I precipitated myself a flashback in the late-seventies (‘...I spent a night trying not to see things such as my face becoming mouthless in the bathroom mirror...’) and that was me done with it, as far as LSD was concerned. It was fun, but it was a phase one went through. But then the culture turned to harder and to my mind, considerably nastier drugs. We’re going into heavier drugs now. I’m not personally – god forbid, part of it.’

With eloquent regret poet Dave Cunliffe tells me ‘it’s been impossible to get good acid since Operation Julie,’ referring to the massive police action that smashed co-ordinated LSD production in the north of England. Even Leary, re-emerging from jail, redirects his megabyte proselytising to the safer arena of the electronics revolution. Punk arrived to smash the last vestiges of the hippie dream. Its preference is for harder more violent drugs, amphetamine, speed, sulphates. ‘Sid And Nancy’ (in the 1986 Alex Cox movie) take it into the terminal zone. All their love in vein.

In its wake, the biomorphic horror, cold eyes and thin lips of William Burroughs re-emerge as newer cyphers for drabber more cynical days. His sado-erotic collages, cut-ups and metaphors are exactly attuned to the Electro-Industrial underground of the early eighties. Cabaret Voltaire. Throbbing Gristle. Clock DVA. The new downers of infected needles and virulent viral plague. ‘I need all that stuff, give me some of that stuff, I want some candy, I want your candy, I want stuff...’ Jesus and Mary Chain against discordant drones of whining feedback.

Each milieu, each demi-monde, each subculture has its drug that both creates and matches its own essential vibe. From cocaine all the way down to solvent abuse. From Sniffin’ Glue to Totally Wired. From Coleridge to tales of contemporary madness. Bret Easton Ellis’s Blank Generation novel ‘Lower Than Zero’ (1985). Julia Phillips’ ‘You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again’ (1991), a real life horror trip by the co-producer of movies like ‘The Sting’ (1973) and ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ (1977), her talent destroyed by her habit. Then Irvine Welsh graduates from the ‘Rebel Inc’ magazine into ‘Trainspotting’ in 1993 with his anti-heroes Sick Boy, Renton, Spud and Begbie soon transferring to film on the back of the emerging Dance culture, ‘Acid House’ (1994) taking him further into the low-life world of druggies and tripsters. For this is around the time the Madchester ‘Rave’ scene coincides with newly formulated strains of acid so prevalent they say the pass-grades for Manchester University become just two straight E’s.

Smak are a cult Yorkshire band. Their much in-demand adrenalin Funk white-label 12” “Feel the Heat” lifts its title from the opening line of ‘Naked Lunch’. Yet despite massive potential, major labels fight shy of signing a band with such confrontation reference points. ‘Perhaps we should choose a different group name’ suggests saxist Kevin Roberts wryly. ‘Perhaps we should become The E’s?’

When the smack begins to flow…


‘I can feel the heat closing in…’

‘Naked Lunch’, the unfilmable novel that David Cronenberg filmed, has Burroughs’ alter ego William Lee played by Peter Weller. Encased in steel and cybernetics Weller’s previous role was as the original ‘Robocop’ (1987). It’s not an inappropriate progression. The text is a wasteland of alienation seen in snatched glimpses of the Beat Generation’s sophisticated louts eaten up by their addictions, genetic, homo-erotic, and narcotic. It’s a trawl through Interzone with giant cockroaches, unhuman sex, melting typewriters metamorphosing into monstrously bizarre mutations, talking assholes, copulating centipedes, and imaginary drugs made of Black Meat or Bug Powder. It’s a mesmeric movie, an exorcism drawing in elements from Burroughs’ own life and his other books ‘Exterminator’ (1973), ‘Queer’ (1985), and beyond.

Burroughs wrote ‘Naked Lunch’ while living in one room in the Native Quarter of Tangiers during withdrawal from fifteen years of addiction, ‘at the end of the junk line.’ ‘The needle is not important’ he writes, ‘whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same – addiction’. He admits to ‘no precise memory’ of writing the endless fragmentary notes that become the novel. ‘I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room Empty ampoule boxes and garbage piled up to the ceiling.’ Allen Ginsberg collects and edits the manuscript. Jack Kerouac types up vast tracts of its delirium – a fast typer, 120-words a minute. He also names the novel that results, misreading the scrawled ‘NAKED LUST’ into the title of the key work of twentieth century drugs literature. Its fractured disgust and weird terrors form a stomach-spasming descent into a junk-sick hell. But Burroughs is, above all, an unrepentant celebrity user. ‘I was on the junk in New York. I know ten different ways of getting a pill into my mouth under closed-circuit TV’ (in “Ali’s Smile” from ‘Exterminator’).

High profile users and substance abusers? We’ve named the guilty men.

‘Is it true that the great majority of heroin addicts start with marijuana?’ asks Richard Neville in ‘Playpower’ (1970). ‘Yes’ he answers. ‘Even more of them begin with milk.’

Rock has taken drugs product endorsement into the AM / FM medium of three-minute public relations commercials for tripping. Up from every Acid House Smiley that ever grinned from every T-Shirt saying ‘I WANNA TAKE YOU HIGHER, HIGHER, UP AND AWAY-AY’. While a pantheon of Heroic Literary Dope Fiends legitimise and intellectualise it all. Against such a cultural continuity of hype, what price a Government ad that goes ‘HEROIN SCREW YOU UP’ or ‘JUST SAY NO’?

Enjoy this trip, and it is a trip, and it is a trip… 

Published in:
(Australia - December 2001)

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