It is the happiest sound imaginable. It comes at two minutes and ten seconds into Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Cinnamon Girl. It’s the sound of guitarist and singer Danny Whitten, losing himself in the music he was making. “It feels so good, you have to laugh,” writes biographer Jimmy McDonough in Shakey, his book about Young.
Neil Young described Whitten as the “one guy on the planet” he could play with “better than anyone else”. A couple of years later, he was dead. Young had kicked him out, and Whitten, horrified, died attempting to kick heroin using Valium and booze.
In researching a book about musicians, I’m encountering a lot of these stories. Kurt Cobain is a central figure. His sad induction into the 27 Club, in 1994 - alongside Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and, later, Amy Winehouse, all of whom died at 27 - is etched into my youthful memories. The spectre of Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan, who died in February aged 57, haunts the book. (His cause of death has not been announced, but his health had been seriously impacted after catching Covid and he’d endured lengthy battles with addiction over the years.)
There are happier endings too – Tony O’Neill of Kenickie and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, for example, who escaped heroin to become a brilliant underground novelist. Steven Adler was fired from Guns N’ Roses for being too high on heroin to play his parts. Thankfully, Adler went on to survive one of the worst tales of addiction imaginable.
But many of the stories in my book only go one way - that of Bob Stinson of the Replacements (drug-induced organ failure) and David Ruffin of the Temptations (cocaine overdose).
So what is it about drugs and music?
In some ways it’s simple. Music performances take place at night – they’re part of nightlife, where everybody wants to kick loose, unwind and have a few drinks. Once you’ve had a few drinks, a little bit of something else can seem a good idea.
Musicians work in this setting. Night after night in different places when on tour. The nerves backstage are palpable. A friend of Danny Whitten’s told of his being unable to perform when coming off heroin. That must have been terrifying – and was certainly unsurmountable in his case.
There’s relentless socialising in music. Playing and recording together. Going on tour. Dinners with label staff or radio people. Interviews and journalists. Other bands, friends of friends and one-night stands. On tour, there’s no anchor. For most of us, the daily grind of regular work offers a good way of staying on the straight and narrow. On the road though, fun is always on offer. It might be the hundredth night for the band, but for fans and friends at the show it’s the first, and they want to celebrate.
Music is visceral. Players and audience want to lose themselves in it. This can easily be enhanced with substances. House music and ecstasy, hip hop and weed, rock music with uppers, jazz with smack.
A lot of people in music try drugs at some stage. After that, there’s an element of lottery as to how addictive a personality is. The good news is that things are getting better. The industry is more aware of the dangers. I’ve only ever met one musician who was a regular user of heroin. Cocaine is treated more disdainfully than it once was. These days you’re as likely to find bands practising wellness as you are hunched over a table with rolled up notes. Johnny Marr’s running habit shows it’s just as easy to form a good one: “They say it takes eight times to become a habit and eight weeks to become a lifestyle,” he notes. Bonobo’s band do group yoga sessions on the road, and Ellie Goulding has graced the cover of Women’s Health, not the most obvious magazine for the pop PR plan. The drug use that remains is often a bit more organised. Early nights and then unwind after the show on Saturday – that sort of thing.
There’s a greater emphasis on safety in all aspects of society now, and it’s happening in music too.
But way back in the hedonistic wilds of the 1970s, Danny Whitten had less chance of escaping the nightmare within which he was trapped.