Don’t Forget to Bring a Towel

Is it December 18th yet? I have never been so eager to just skip all of summer as we’re finally upon it in order to get back to the unforgiving cold and mounds of snow. Summer is my favorite season for a few predictable reasons such as the nice weather, but I also love the blockbuster movie season, and as I said before, this year has me very excited for many a summer film, especially sequels and reboots of old and new classics like Avengers 2 and Jurassic World. Go ahead and add Mad Max, Ant-Man, and Fantastic Four to that list after the latest wave of trailers. I’m very excited to go to the theaters and watch all of these and more films this summer, yet I would be willing to skip them all, even November’s continuation of the Bond franchise, Spectre, and all the summer holidays and vacations I have planned to get to frigid mid-December because the prospect of seeing a good Star Wars movie released in my lifetime has me so excited that even adhering to the reminder I’ve used as a title was insufficient as preparation for what just happened as I typed that sentence. It’s not even related to the subject of today’s post but watch this for the hundredth or so time:

Yes we are Han, yes we are.

While my world is abuzz with visions of stormtroopers vainly trying to improve their atrocious aim, for many people today, the world is abuzz in a more illicit way except in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, for today is the twentieth of April, more commonly known as 4/20, the day that caused the Colorado Department of Transportation to create a highway sign that marks the 419.99 mile on I-70 because of the constant theft of the original 420 signs.

I have never been a partaker in any drug culture, thanks very much to my upbringing at the hands of a police officer and a nurse, but as I made clear in last week’s post, and others before it, I love rock and roll, and I can appreciate the effects that drugs have had on the genre in good and bad ways. The bad very much outweighs the good, as too many musicians have lost their talents, friends, and even lives to drug abuse. I do not condone the use of any drugs beyond what is prescribed by a doctor (and some of that is more than what is necessary), however I will not deny that many great songs contain their fair share of drug discussion in one way or another. Some are very obvious; you don’t see too many Harvard professors analyzing the depth of the lyrics of Afroman’s “Because I Got High”. However, even some of the more overt introspections into drug use and abuse are highly entertaining, deeply moving, and some just fuckin’ rock. Many are autobiographical, telling tales of the troubles that plagued the band members when they got into heroin/cocaine/etc. Some are pioneers of psychedelia, the sub-genre of rock and roll that flourished in the late 1960s along with the increased use and availability of drugs from naturally growing plants like marijuana to synthetics like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). So whether the artists were blazing, snorting, inhaling, tripping, or tying off, here are my favorite songs about drugs and a little information about each of them.

“The Pusher” by Steppenwolf – Steppenwolf scored big with the 1969 classic film Easy Rider. Their biggest hit, “Born to Be Wild”, was the anthem to that film and motorcyclists riding across America since its release, but the beginning of the film, which shows Peter Fonda’s character Wyatt profiting from transporting some drugs in his chopper, plays Steppenwolf’s version of the Hoyt Axton song about the man who “don’t care if you live or if you die”.

“Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails – This is the “Quiet” version of the song which sounds a little smoother through headphones than the warping original appropriately released on the album The Downward Spiral in 1994. “Hurt” offers a somber glimpse into the decaying life of a heroin addict. Trent Reznor’s original is often overshadowed by the excellent cover version performed by Johnny Cash which he made his own by looking back at his legendary career and often troubled life in a very Last Supper kind of way. Of course, the Man in Black had his own drug-inspired contribution to make many years early.

“Cocaine Blues” by Johnny Cash – Based on the traditional song “Little Saddie” written originally by “Red” Arnall, Johnny Cash famously played the song at his concert at Folsom Prison. As with many of his songs, Cash breathed such passionate life into his performance it feels as if he’s singing about himself, adding a feeling of authenticity to the tale he tells.

“Cocaine” by Eric Clapton – Slowhand showed his stuff more impressively on the instrument he is a god with more than he did with the lyrics on this one, but the guitar work is so solid that we’re able to overlook the shortcomings and enjoy it for what it is: a simple jam with a great solo.

“Journey to the Center of the Mind” by the Amboy Dukes – You’ll recall this song’s inclusion in last week’s post when I, among other things, argued for guitarist Ted Nugent’s inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Detroit band scored their biggest hit with this hard rocking song that is so obviously about drugs to everyone except Ted Nugent. Whatever Ted, this song wouldn’t be the same without you so you can live in your own little world as long as you come up for a string shredding breath in ours every once in a while.

“Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers – This song has picked me up many a time I’ve felt down, but lead singer Anthony Kiedis went through much worse with his addiction to and withdrawal from heroin. He also felt separation from his bandmates and longing for his ex-girlfriend Ione Skye (I wonder if he tried winning her back by holding a boombox over his head outside her window). Kiedis drew upon all of these troubles of his past and the pain of his present to craft what might be the Chili Peppers’ finest song. It is certainly one of their most played; it’s second only to the wildly sexual “Give It Away”, the coda of which contains the riff from our next song.

“Sweet Leaf” and “Snowblind” by Black Sabbath – Ozzy Osbourne has tried just about every drug that has ever been invented, so you can trust him as an authority on the subject of marijuana and cocaine. “Sweet Leaf” is a love letter to pot and has one of the best riffs. The coughing at the beginning of the track is apparently Tommy Iommi coughing after a drag on a joint.

“Snowblind” is a love letter to cocaine and that’s just about it. Awesome song.

“Got to Get You into My Life” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles (this is the live version Lennon performed with Elton John at Elton’s Madison Square Garden Concert in 1974) – The former sounds innocent enough but according to Paul McCartney it is an “ode to pot”.

The latter sounds much more drug-based and is a psychedelia classic that’ll leave you wondering if Lennon and McCartney took one lump or two with their tea. The Beatles fan in me loves this song for being another incredible compilation of musical styles and beautifully poetic lyrics that don’t have to mean anything, and the biologist in me reveres it for being the origin of the namesake of the most complete skeleton of early hominid Australopithecus afarensis that was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia (anthropologist Donald Johanson and his team frequently listened to a tape of the song in camp near the excavation site).

It is widely believed that the song describes a vivid acid trip as the nouns in the title begin with the letters “LSD” and its narrative is filled with the fantastic. Despite all the psychedelic speculation, John Lennon always maintained that the song had nothing to do with drugs and was derived solely from a drawing made by his son, Julian, that he made of a girl in his class named Lucy – sidenote: the real Lucy died in 2009 at the age of 46 from lupus. For real, fucking lupus! Somebody call George Costanza and Dr. House! –  and inspiration from the Wool and Water chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the book which continues the tale of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland that would also serve as the basis of another 1967 psychedelic classic that was much more upfront about the influence drugs had on it.

“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane – My dad and his Marine buddies referred to the quartermaster at their base in Vietnam as “White Rabbit” because he took all the pills he could get his paws on. Of course the original White Rabbit is from the aforementioned Carroll stories of Wonderland, and Jefferson Airplane used the already trippy tales to parallel the active drug culture of the flower power era. This brilliant song is a hallmark of psychedelia and acid rock thanks to lead singer Grace Slick’s clever lyrics and haunting and ringing vocals.

“Mother’s Little Helper” by The Rolling Stones – This one is a bit different in that it addresses the real-life increase of prescription drug abuse by housewives that occurred in the Sixties. Keith Richards may be the only man on Earth to have used more drugs than Ozzy Osbourne, but the standout guitar work on this song is done on a 12-string by Brian Jones.

“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition – As you can see from that clip, this was the song The Dude danced to in his erotic bowling dream in 1998’s comedy noir The Big Lebowski. Dude culture is especially prevalent today (and I mean specifically on this day), and this song is another great addition to the list, albeit a different one. Instead of singing praises for a drug or recounting the pain it’s caused, “Just Dropped In…” was actually written as an anti-drug song to advise against “dropping out” via LSD. The Dude’s dream sure looks… interesting, but we’re not really sure what drug was in his system to trigger the hallucination as he didn’t take it knowingly. Listen for symbolic lyrics like “eight miles high”, which is a reference to The Byrds’ influential song of the same name.

“Little Green Bag” by George Baker Selection – What d’ya mean you don’t tip? This catchy little ditty was the introductory song for Quentin Tarantino’s wide release directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, but it’s not actually meant to be about drugs. The lyrics are actually “little greenback” meaning dollars, not marijuana, but a mistake led to the song being mislabeled and misconstrued. Either way, it’s a pretty awesome tune and further proof that while Tarantino may be weird as fuck, he’s got a great taste in music.

“Low” by Cracker – This was the closing song I heard at a Counting Crows concert in Richmond, Virginia and I remember thinking, “Why the hell did they end with a song they didn’t write?” and then “Wait, is that song about heroin?” The meaning of the line “a million poppies gonna make me sleep” had never registered in my mind before then. At least I picked up on the “junkie cosmonaut” and “like bein’ stoned” parts previously.

“The Needle and the Spoon” by Lynyrd Skynyrd – The boys from Alabama (actually they’re from Jacksonville, Florida) had a few songs that placed drugs like heroin in the crosshairs, but this one is the best and has more finesse than “That Smell”. Still, the man who infuriated them so much they wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in retaliation managed to top them with a warning against picking up the needle.

“The Needle and the Damage Done” by Neil Young – Young actually wrote and performed this song three years earlier than Skynyrd put out the previous listing. He had already been part of a number of bands by 1971, and he had seen many of his fellows wage a losing war against heroin, specifically his friend Danny Whitten, who served as his guitarist for the band Crazy Horse. The night Young kicked Whitten out of his band in 1972, Whitten died from an overdose of Valium, which probably wasn’t helped by his years of using the potent opiate.

“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd – Pink Floyd are the epitome of progressive rock, as well as the kings of music that makes you ask, “Should I be high right now? Is listening to this making me high?” Many of their songs delve into the inner workings of the human mind under the influence of psychotropics or psychosis, and this is the most forthright of the former. David Gilmour’s guitar solos (is it still a solo if there are two of them in the same song?) are incredible and considered some of the best in any rock song.

“Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience – My favorite song on this list is also one that supposedly has no basis in drugs. Jimi Hendrix claimed to have written this song based on his dreams, like one he had of walking under the ocean, but when a man soaks his headbands with LSD so that it drips into his eyes as he sweats onstage, you can bet his song lyrics are probably at least partially influenced by his drug habits. The final cut of the song, which is one of the greatest songs ever produced in any genre, has a narrative about a man so caught up with his affections for a woman it makes him dizzy. Just how he came to be so compelled by her and the nature of his tumbling mind is left up to the listener, and ultimately, as is often the case with Hendrix, who the fuck really knows or cares; this song is extraordinary.

“Cold Turkey” by Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono briefly dabbled in heroin and didn’t enjoy the comedown and withdrawal, so he wrote this song about that experience and how hellishly racking it was. Like “Purple Haze” it’s coda features the protagonist of the song expressing his pain and confusion in a less melodious way than the words he just sang. Gotta love that riff.

“Heroin” by The Velvet Underground – Lou Reed’s magnificent musing on heroin addiction is the best song definitively about drug use I’ve ever heard. Simple, even crude, yet artistically incredible, it neither condemns or condones heroin use, but rather gives what I imagine to be an accurate representation of the rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, terrifically represented here by changes in tempo. The simple chords, the bongo backbeat, the growing hum, the scratching guitar, and the rambling trail of thought that comprises the lyrics, these all meld together perfectly to create a visceral song that is horrifying and beautiful all at once.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed the last two rockin’ and rollin’ weeks and that you stay safe with whatever you do today, especially if you’re rockin’ or rollin’. My sympathies for those working the window at Taco Bell today. If you have anything to say about anything, say it to me here or at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Make it back here in less than 12 parsecs if you can by next week for more fun.

Only 242 days to go,

Alex

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