Wednesday, May 25, 2011


My brother-in-law, a musician who especially enjoys jazz, once told me that since the great jazz musician Charlie Parker used heroin, the musicians who aspired to be as accomplished as he was used heroin too, believing that the heroin

was key, or at least a significant contributor, to Charlie Parker’s greatness. This ended up ruining the lives of a generation of jazz musicians.

And it created no new Charlie Parkers.

I think about this issue, maybe more than is good for me. It’d be fun to be great, rather than just good. But how exactly do you get there?

I know about hard work. I know about studying your craft. I know about practice, practice, practice. And I agree that these are indispensible elements in the process.

But – objectively and without judgment –

What about drugs?

Those aspiring jazz musicians didn’t take drugs because Charlie Parker took drugs as a matter of hero worship – Charlie Parker wore plaid pants, so all his wannabes wore plaid pants. (I don’t think Charlie Parker ever wore plaid pants. I don’t believe he was much of a golfer.)

The wannabes believed there was something freeing in the drug-taking experience that allowed Charlie Parker to soar to creative heights that he would have otherwise not have been able to reach. It was the drug taking that released him from the conventional approach, and provided him access into uncharted creative terrain.

I know this idea. Not from music. And not from a personal experience with heroin. It almost saddens me to say that. Such a revelation could have energized my mystique.

I know about this idea from comedy. Decades ago, some well-known comedy personages invited me to go into the desert with them and “do mushrooms”, and I turned them down. I never regretted that decision, especially after one the seekers of that mind-expanding experience returned and glassy-eyed and nuts, beseeching me to sit in his room with him for two hours, while he “came down.”

That didn’t look like any fun at all.

(The man kept insisting that his best friend was dead. And I believe, at that time, his best friend was me.)

I never “did mushrooms”, missing out on its liberating possibilities. But, taking it down a few notches, once, I was working as a “stand-in” for a well-known comedian, preparing guests for a game show pilot in which the comedian would ultimately appear.

During the first hour, I was uptight and unfunny. Then we broke for lunch. During which I consumed one beer. When we returned to work, I was suddenly spontaneous, loose and hilarious. The producers confided that, after what they’d witnessed, if it were contractually possible, they’d have dumped the well-known comedian and hired me. And they weren’t yanking my chain. I was sensational.

One beer. And suddenly, I’m spontaneous, loose and hilarious.


And “hm” again.

It was my brother-in-law’s clear implication that Charlie Parker was so great, not because he used heroin, but because he was Charlie Parker. Another close member of my family, who’s a therapist, denies any positive correlation, believing that drug usage makes things not better but immeasurably worse. Fine. But, y’know, don’t therapists have to believe that?

As the saying goes – though after the Michael Vick incident it is somewhat problematic – I hae dog in this fight. For me, overall, drugs – or alcohol – were never a consideration. I’d be thrilled if it could be proven that clean and sober people can be as creatively inspired as those relying on “supplementary enhancement.” The problem is, there are so many contradictory examples.

Sticking exclusively to comedy:

Lenny Bruce, the godfather of truth-telling, laying-it-bare comedy –“Acute morphine poisoning caused by accidental overdose.” Richard Pryor, Bruce’s direct comedic descendant – blew his face off with crack. John Belushi – “Accidental ‘speedball’ fatality.” (I have no idea was what a “speedball” is.)

Sam Kinison, until he cleaned up – a mess. And to a lesser degree though still worth including, Chris Farley – “Cocaine and morphine overdose. Accidental.”

These aren’t just some cherry-picked selection of drugged-out comedians. These are all comedians who went deep, offering insights and existential truths that made you laugh with your soul. They were “all out” comedians. They held nothing back.

Compare this panoply of visceral groundbreakers with another, admittedly, fine comedian, but of an entirely different species –

Jerry Seinfeld.

Funny. Super observant. Remarkably consistent. But reserved. And unthreatening. Nothing disturbing. No personal revelations. No mind-blowing exposures of our hidden feelings and beliefs. Nothing dirty about the Pope.

I realize this was Jerry’s deliberate self-parody of his act, but it’s not that far from the mark:

“Why do they call it ‘Ovaltine’?”

Good. Very good, even. But never dangerous. Never hitting a nerve.

That’s Jerry Seinfeld. No uncomfortable probing. No mind-blowing illuminations. And, as far as I know, and I’d be surprised to discover otherwise,

No drugs.

Jerry Seinfeld is a supremely competent comedian. Is he great?

I don’t think so.

“Greatness.” It’s a good thing. But do you have to do that to get there?

The evidence suggests…perhaps.

My mind is entirely open on the matter.

Got any ideas?


Diann said...

It could also be the opposite - that some people see so deeply and live with their emotions so close to the edge that it comes through clearly and strongly in their art, but that lack of barriers also causes them so much pain that they turn to drugs for the escape.

joe said...

Setting aside the drug angle, this is something that I wrestle with...what does it mean to be "great?"

At this nanosecond, a lot of people equate greatness with "changing the game" or "challenging preconceptions" or whatever.

An apt analogy -- feel free to disagree -- can be found in the world of automobiles, where often you have two make choice between creative engineering and "build quality."

Think of a typical 30 year old Ferrari. A lot of innovative engineering features. Exotic alloys, cutting-edge developments; all at the service of performance. acceleration, cornering, braking, steering all honed to a keen edge, by design. Then think of a Rolls-Royce of the same vintage. Soft, silent, stately. Acceleration is leisurely, steering is done by appointment, and so forth.

But is one really better?

It seems an over-emphasis can be placed on mere shock value. "He said that about Elbonians?" or "Did she just do a routine about molesting livestock as a girl scout??"

I suppose the real emphasis for greatness might be in being able to break new ground and do so with craftmanship without going to an early grave.

Chuck Sigars said...

Here's some conventional wisdom from the chemical dependency field (not me; I just sat through some classes once, and know a few).

We look at law enforcement people, and know that statistically there's a high rate of alcohol and other drug abuse there. And we think, yeah, tremendous stress, anxiety, fear...lots of reasons.

What we don't do is stop to think about what kind of person decides to become a cop in the first place.

This is a very complicated subject and not well understood, but you get my point, right? I'd suspect, from the cheap seats here, that whatever personal psychology made Pryor brilliant was also what made him predisposed to drug abuse/dependency. And Charlie Parker, Belushi, Poe, etc. This is how the pros seem to look at the subject anyway.

This is easier for me to accept than the idea that altering your state with drugs produces a creative environment (although for writers, say, I could see it). And since I'd think most drugs would ruin timing during performance, we'd have to assume that that genius of Belushi was created offstage, then reproduced while he was sober enough to perform.

Rebecca said...

Having personally experienced a great deal of drug use in my past, though not heroin, I think this is a topic that would need deep clinical studies to find the truth of the matter. I mean, the points Diann and Chuck raise right off the bat are valid perspectives. And, certainly, your own experience of 1 beer loosening you up enough to release more creativity/awareness is a common enough example.

Our subconscious minds are powerful things. And some of us, involuntarily, keep a very tight lid on it. I do believe it's possible to learn how to relax enough without chemicals of any kind, to allow creativity/awareness to emerge naturally. But I think most of us encounter the seemingly beneficial effects of drugs/alcohol long before we realize that it's possible to achieve the same results without them. And it's just so much easier/quicker to just take something...until the long term effects become extremely inconvenient. Or, you know, fatal.

Jon88 said...

I used to study improvisation with a Very Significant jazz musician. One day I marveled at his (and his bandmates') ability to be excitingly creative for two or three sets a night, six or seven nights a week. He said that the need for such creativity yields tremendous pressure, and then added, "That's why a lot of jazz musicians do drugs." It's not so much about *being* creative as it is *feeling* creative.

Mac said...

I do believe some people have produced amazing work on drugs or booze that they otherwise wouldn't have. It's freed up something in their creative process.
Also there are some who can regulate it into short bursts of being stoned/drunk and very productive, followed by longer periods of sobriety where they rework/edit etc.
The writer/director Bruce Robinson was drinking heavily when he wrote the classic "Withnail and I." He said he had to get drunk before he could 'hear' the characters talking. He's since stopped drinking and has never written anything comparable, although maybe he wouldn't have anyway.
Interestingly, he did re-evaluate his attitude to booze & drugs as being inspirational for writers, saying he ended up in bars looking at drunk writers and thinking, "why are none of them writing?"
He also likens writing to his old alcohol dependency, saying it's something he has to do which takes him out of himself. And I suppose he'll live longer with a writing habit than an alcohol habit.
I'm also very conscious of romanticizing it. I've seen talented people who thought they had to get drunk or stoned to access their creativity, when in truth their best work came from being focused and sober. I've also seen those who definitely were better on booze and drugs, but while they burned brightly for a short time, they burned out pretty quickly too. Not all of them, but most of them.
Personally, I've written works of genius when I've been drunk and/or stoned, only to read it sober the next day and realize that it's utter rubbish. So it definitely apply to my creative process, which is fine by me.

Mac said...

that should be "definitely doesn't apply."
I don't need to get drunk to make typos. said...

Quite effective info, thank you for the post.