Tag Archive: heroin


Love Kills

Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious

The entire pathos of punk in the 1970s – the clothes, the music, the attitude, the excess, the animalistic urge, everything – can be summed up in two words: Sid Vicious.

Sid Vicious started life as John Simon Ritchie in Lewisham, a district of southern London. Rumor has it that when Vivian Westwood suggested to Malcolm McLaren that he get a guy who hung around the Sex boutique named John to be the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, she was not talking about John Lydon, but Sid Vicious. When McLaren booted out Glen Matlock from the bass position, he recruited Vicious despite the fact that he had never played bass.

In fact, Sid’s bass skills were so lacking that he only actually plays on one track of Never Mind the Bollocks, that being “Bodies,” and on the rest Steve Jones plays both bass and guitar. But according to Keith Levene, he picked it up with alarming speed because of his incredible focus. One night he sat down with the first Ramones record, playing to it over and over again through the night. In the morning, he was a bass player.

The movie Sid & Nancy, directed by Alex Cox, is one of the only silver screen depictions of Sid. The titular roles are played by Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen, Sid’s girlfriend. After an initial meeting where Nancy (already a junky) is supposed to score some drugs for Sid, Nancy then introduces Sid to heroin before they have sex – all with a very bored Johhny Rotten in the room. From then on, they’re a pair. The only thing that separates them is the Sex Pistols going on a tour of the United States. And all along, they’re going in a wide and uncontrollable downward spiral; things get bad, then real bad, then real bad, and then the absolute worst.

The film has been the subject of a lot of controversy; Johnny Rotten in particular says it romanticizes heroin addiction, playing as merely the catalyst for the love that existed between Sid and Nancy. The famous scene at the end where Sid gets in a cab and finds Nancy (no longer gross and desiccated but in a white dress) and they go riding off in the distance is said by many to be the epitome of irresponsible filmmaking.

I respectfully disagree. The centerpiece of the entirety of Sid & Nancy is the love between the two central characters. Yes, they were heroin addicts, but I think the film is suggesting their love couldn’t really be complete and functional until they were off of heroin. Now, that point came after they were both dead, but in that, the film might also be suggesting that love is bigger than our temporal world. And as for romanticizing heroin use, you only have to look at any moment from the entire rest of the movie to see that heroin use is bad news. According to Sid & Nancy, there is absolutely nothing glamorous, fun or minutely redeemable about heroin.

I want to make something very clear, though. Sid and Nancy loved each other, but everything about that was horrible. There is much to be said about the positive and transcendent nature of love, but we almost always forget that love, like anything else in the hands of humans, can be an extremely negative force as well. The love between Sid and Nancy didn’t get them anywhere they wanted to go, but instead took them to increasingly worse and worse places. The same energy that fueled their love for each other also fueled their addictions. What’s worse, their individual addictions became more than the sum of their parts when added together, much like a marriage. It even fueled an apparent suicide pact they had forged. What Sid & Nancy brings out for me is that love is incredibly powerful, and just as it has the power to heal, build and create, so does it have the power to completely destroy.

Nancy Spungen

Nancy Spungen died in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan from bleeding to death from a stab wound to the stomach. It’s not certain, but Sid probably murdered her. He woke up from a drug stupor to discover her body on the bathroom floor, blood all over the hotel room. Of all the ways of murdering somebody, Sid’s murder of Nancy is the least malicious and most tragic. In the police interviews, Sid himself said, “I never stabbed her. I loved her, but she treated me like shit.” He later said he didn’t remember what happened, but she may have fell on the knife while he was holding it. What it really comes down to is that I don’t believe for a second that Sid had murder in his heart, at least not the cold-blooded, purposeful taking of a life which we stereotypically think of as murder; he just wasn’t capable of it.

Ten days after Nancy’s death, Sid tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists. He was taken to Bellvue Hospital to recover, and made bail from his murder arrest in February of 1979. The day after he got out of jail, Sid and his mother Anne were at a party to celebrate his bail. Anne gave him a fatal dose of heroin at that party, as she admitted to journalist Alan Parker near the end of her life. According to a suicide note left by Sid, he was fulfilling a suicide pact with Nancy. The whole story is just very, very sad, in every sense of the word.

Sid’s life and death represented the life and death of punk music, or rather punk in its Platonic, virginal form. Sid was more than just the bass player for the biggest punk band that ever existed – Sid WAS punk. After Sid, there was no more punk. I think something was lost that the music world can never get back. Blink-182 and NOFX and Rancid and Less Than Jake can put on a good show and rock as hard as the day is long, but they’re not punk. Nor should they be. Sid is dead, punk is dead, and it’s time to move on.

Next: bound for hell, and loving every second of the trip.

The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main St. – 5/12/1972

A breaking point came for the Rolling Stones in 1970, when they finally broke free from Decca Records and label bigwig Allen Klein. The severing of that business relationship was messy, both parties fighting tooth and nail for what they considered “mine.” It was like a divorce and the push-and-pull over custody rights for the kids.

They followed in the footsteps of the Beatles, forming their own record label, conveniently called Rolling Stones Records. Sticky Fingers was released under their new label, but the freedom that brought would soon turn to license as they fled England under the threat of the British government turning their liberty into prison time. The British police didn’t try to bust them on drugs, their tactic in the 60s, but unpaid taxes. It licked Al Capone, but not the Rolling Stones.

They relocated to Paris, and Keith rented a villa near Nice called Nellcôte. There they sank into drugs, chaos, and all sorts of debauchery. Bassist Bill Wyman recalls this as the most frustrating period of his entire time with the Stones. They couldn’t find the right studio space, so they recorded in Nellcôte’s basement, as well as the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio parked outside. Not everyone would show up most days, no one listened to long-time producer Jimmy Miller who had earned his stripes, and there was an attitude of frenetic lack of direction. Their productivity, however, was top-notch. Somebody was working on something every day from 8 in the morning ‘til 3 the next morning.

The capstone, however, was the drugs. Millions of dollars worth of drugs flowed through Nellcôte on a weekly basis like a diamond-studded sewer. Heroin, cocaine, pot, hashish, angel dust, LSD, you name it. There were no limits to the Stones’ excess or lack of control. Keith Richards in particular was using heroin on a daily basis; his system didn’t know how to function without drugs anymore, so he kept it stocked. I really don’t know how in the world he’s still alive.

While the Stones were breaking down, though, their music was reaching a fever pitch of quality, depth, soulfulness and greatness. It seemed as though their heights of glory and musical triumph were matched by the descent of their personal lives, and as one got higher, the other got lower at an equal speed. They eventually reached rock bottom/heavens high, and that moment is captured on the entirety of Exile On Main St.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

The song “Stop Breaking Down” is the entire thing in miniature, I think. Yet another Robert Johnson cover, this song explains in simple and exquisite terms the basic problem with drugs. The Stones’ cover of it is simply dripping with irony. “Stop Breaking Down” is like the pebble at the center of Jupiter, with the cloud surrounding it being the irony (the red spot is Mick’s voice).

The Robert Johnson original is about a drug dealer who deals to “Saturday night women,” or prostitutes, and how they’re completely enslaved to the drugs he sells them. His main tactic is hyperbole, something used by not just dealers but salesmen in general. The refrain goes like this:

The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby / It’ll make you lose your mind

This song has been covered many times, most notably by Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, Lucinda Williams and the White Stripes, but the Rolling Stones’ version changes the lyrics just a tiny bit. Some people won’t even notice. The effect, however, is extremely significant as it turns the hyperbole into a cautionary statement, and turns the meaning of the whole song.

The stuff is gonna bust your brains out, baby / It’s gonna make you lose your mind

…shudder…

Take it from your Uncle Mick, kids: don’t do drugs. They’ll tear your soul out and make you a slave. And you don’t wanna look like your Uncle Keith, do you? No one wants that…

Next: Balls-to-the-wall Stones like never before (and never again).

Love Story

From the first time a caveman scratched a burnt stick on a wall, art has been made about a few basic subjects. The struggle for survival (man vs. nature) is a popular theme, as is the creation of the universe. It may have taken a little time to develop, but a motif that’s even stronger and more prevalent, I think, is the classic quest of a lover to win their love. That’s a story that’s been told literally millions of times, and that’s for two reasons. The first is that it’s applicable to nearly everyone. No one doesn’t know the pain, yearning and joy of striving for something of highest value. The second is that it can be told an infinite number of ways. The star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet), the love triangle (Nikolai, Sonya and Marya in War and Peace), the unrequited obsession (Eponine in Les Miserables), the rescue (Superman), the stalker (Erik in Phantom of the Opera), or the woman worth going to war over (The Iliad).

Stories are always more compelling if they really happened. Movies bandy about the term “based on true events” even if the movie shares only the most extremely tangential relation to the facts. It’s because there’s something that automatically ups the drama if there’s a hint of it being reality.

George Harrison & Pattie Boyd, 1969

Cut to 1970 Britain. George Harrison is in wedded bliss with his beautiful bride of 3 years, Pattie Boyd. The “bliss,” however, is a fiction; as George’s interest in Eastern religion is growing, so is the rift between him and his wife. George is quickly becoming distant and strange, morphing into someone Pattie never would have married. But she remains committed to him, and despite the rift, there is still much love between the two. There some rather beautiful moments, not the least of which is the recording of “For You Blue,” a no-brainer blues number that George wrote quickly that illustrates nothing more complicated or less marvelous than a man’s adoring love for his wife.

Parallel to that is the story of Eric Clapton. During the mid to late 60s, he had scaled the heights of stardom almost as high as George and the other Beatles, first gaining notoriety with the Yardbirds, and really showing the world what he could do as one third of Cream. Being already on the mountaintop, George naturally befriended Eric when he reached that high. Eric played lead guitar on the Beatles track “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 1968, they worked together to pen the Cream track “Badge” in 1969, and Eric and George became the best of friends.

Eric Clapton, 1970

What makes this story 50x more compelling than that is Pattie. To use a somewhat antiquated phrase, Pattie was a knockout. Her profession, other than Beatlewife, was as a model. Eric met George and became attached to him, but not nearly as much as to Pattie. For certain people, forbidden fruit is much more appetizing, increased by the severity of the forbidding. Call it cliché, but there’s little more forbidden than another man’s wife. The cliché holds true for Eric and Pattie. He was crazy about her.

Eric was feeling the tension between desire that drives you bonkers and loyalty that doesn’t budge. His reaction to the war inside his head and heart was one of the worst things you can do in this situation, or any. Heroin fixes things temporarily, but only makes them worse when the high wears off. Eric tried to distract himself from one woman who had control of his life by giving control to another. Which is worse? The pain of addiction, or the ache of a heart that breaks every day? Drugs or unrequited love?

It all sounds like something out of a drug store romance paperback, doesn’t it?

Eric was serving third mistress, as well; music. Unlike the other two, this one cradles you when you hurt, whispers in your ear when you’re trapped in silence, and always stands beside you when all your other mistresses are gone. Just as Eric used heroin to dull his pain, he channeled it into music. And the blues is a singularly awesome thing to channel that particular type of pain in to. Thus, in 1970, he delivered to the world Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs.

Duane Allman

After the bitter disintegration of Cream, Eric tried to capture lightning in a bottle with the supergroup Blind Faith. That band toppled over with the weight of its own stardom after one album, but Eric wasn’t ready to give up. He tried again by recruiting two old buddies who played for Delany & Bonnie and taking advantage of a chance crossing with Duane Allman, a rising star who played American yin to Clapton’s British yang. Duane had equal chops to Eric, and their different approaches to the six-string combined in a cosmic brilliance to create something that was so much more than the sum of its parts.

The final piece of the puzzle was the name of the group. They were originally called Eric and the Dynamos, but the announcer at their first public gig screwed it up by saying “Derek and the Dominos.” It turned out to be a happy accident, since Clapton had some misgivings about pasting his famous name to his new band. People might think it was another supergroup, and the problem with Blind Faith was that it withered under the hot sun of media focus. What better solution that the red herring of Derek? Done.

Their one contribution was Layla, and Clapton poured every ounce of pain, yearning, and hopeless angst into that one album. And let me tell you… it’s really something to behold.

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico – 3/12/1967

The Velvet Underground’s first album is kind of like a dream, shifting and undulating as a mirage would. Poppy and bright one minute, dark and sardonic the next, The Velvet Underground & Nico presents the New York experience with a smirking laziness and cynical amusement about its inherent darkness. It drops names of places in NYC with generosity, and now having lived there I understand them. But beware: this is New York as seen through the eyes of a heroin addict, which colors every perception.

The album starts with a tinkly, delicate celesta melody, followed by a fey voice. “Sunday Morning,” the first track, is a soft introduction to this dream-like landscape, and a very pretty one. The name “Sunday Morning” was penciled in at the top of the track list on the album’s back cover because it wasn’t originally intended to be on there. Verve Records bigwig Tom Wilson suggested late in the game that the record needed one more song with lead vocals by Nico, to potentially be a big single. In the end, Nico only sang background on the track.

It might be said (incorrectly) that the album truly starts with the second track, “I’m Waiting For the Man.” This is Lou Reed’s deadpan and surprisingly frank description of the narrator (presumably Reed himself) going up to the corner of Lexington Ave. and 125th St. (Spanish Harlem to the uninitiated) to buy $26 worth of heroin, and use some of it on the premises. It bears a trademark of Reed’s writing in that it deals with important subject matter in a morally neutral voice and observational tone. Even though it’s in 1st person and the narrator is in the thick of heavy drug use, Reed doesn’t comment or expound; he merely presents.

This motif is also present in “Heroin,” the seventh track. The music of “Heroin” is intended to be representative of what it’s like to be on its namesake drug, and the lyrics detail with some startling beauty the feelings associated with it. I’ve never been on it myself (I prefer not to take drugs that don’t prevent me from dying), but I remember it being described as the best orgasm you’ve ever had x100, and lasting several hours. To me, the best description comes from Reed himself: “I feel just like Jesus’ son.” Reed caught a lot of flack, some people saying that in his naked and uncommented portrayal of drug use he was implicitly glorifying it. It was a sin of omission at worst; I would wager that anyone tipped over into heroin addiction by this song was already too far gone.

The pairing of Nico and the VU might seem awkward and unnecessary, but it was worth it for the creation of a single 6 minute track. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is like a hazy specter, haunting and beautiful. Nico’s deep alto is the centerpiece of the song’s deadened plodding. John Cale’s relentless piano (complete with a chain of paperclips woven throughout the strings) and Lou Reed’s ostrich guitar (all 6 strings tuned to the same note in different octaves) work in perfect harmony with Nico’s non-histrionic voice, creating a sound that can’t be duplicated. There is so much magic here that it boggles the mind. Its subject matter is that the celebrity/high art/rich living lifestyle, which the Factory was a big part of, is ultimately empty and unfulfilling. Lou Reed was very good at self-examination, but not so good at self-improvement.

Nico’s other two contributions fall pretty flat. “Femme Fatale” is a song Andy Warhol asked Lou Reed to write about Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick, sung by another Factory superstar. Andy’s odyssey with Edie is the stuff of legend, and “Femme Fatale” is a fairly accurate portrait of her, as well as true to Andy’s perception of her. But the song itself is rather bland and unexciting. I think Nico’s voice is best used in a doomy, unsettling presentation, like “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the third Nico song on the record, are simply not that. They’re both little more than pop tunes, sterling though they may be. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is even one of Reed’s favorites; after Nico and the Velvets parted ways in late ’67, they performed the song imitating Nico’s German accent.

More about VU&N on Wednesday!