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Music from the Heroin Songbook: Revisited

Music from the Heroin Songbook: Revisited

Diacetylmorphine abuse has been widely discussed in literary forms, as well as in song. In the December 2014 issue of Counselor, the connection between musicians and this highly addictive substance was explored. In part two of this investigation, we once again examine how popular music attempts to define the destructive characteristics of heroin. 


This powerful narcotic powder was first synthesized from morphine in 1847 by British chemist C. R. Alder Wright at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London (“The heroin,” 2010). Heroin was used as a cold medication for children but was heavily promoted as being nonaddictive, and therefore an excellent treatment for morphine addiction. Bronchitis, tuberculosis, and other cough-inducing illnesses were also treated with heroin. In 1906, the American Medical Association approved heroin for general use, and recommended that it be used in place of morphine (“Heroin history,” 2015). Around 1913, there was an explosion of heroin-related admissions in east coast cities, especially New York City and Philadelphia, where a substantial population of recreational users was reported. Some of these users supported their habits by collecting and selling scrap metal, hence the name “junkie.” Prohibition seemed inevitable and the use of heroin without prescription was soon outlawed in the US (Askwith, 1998). 


Heroin remains a huge problem and today we are in the midst of another tidal wave of heroin abuse. In February 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder called the prescription drug and heroin epidemic a “public health crisis” (“Heroin overdoses,” 2014). 


The escalation of the numbers is troubling. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2012 about 669,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year, a number that has been on the rise since 2007. This trend appears to be driven largely by young adults, aged eighteen to twenty-five, among whom there have been the greatest increases. The number of people using heroin for the first time is unacceptably high, with 156,000 people starting heroin use in 2012, nearly double the number of people in 2006 (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2013). In contrast, heroin use has been declining among teens aged twelve to seventeen. Past-year heroin use among the nation’s eighth, tenth, and twelfth-graders is at its lowest levels in the history of the Monitoring the Future survey, at less than 1 percent of those surveyed in all three grades from 2005 to 2013 (NIDA, 2014).    


Although countless everyday people become addicted, their stories often go unheard. No so with high profile celebrities such as rock superstars. Far too many contemporary musicians—including Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, James Taylor, and Steven Tyler—have publicly acknowledged their heroin addictions. These musicians are representative of the deadly relationship between heroin and the singular music community (Furek, 2008). 


There were other musicians as well. Art Pepper’s career as one of the leading jazz alto saxophonists was repeatedly interrupted by several prison stints stemming from his addiction to heroin, as detailed in his biography Straight Life (Pepper, 1994). Pepper rationalized that his love for heroin stemmed from a destructive self-hatred and violent, alcoholic parents. Still, he justified that, after getting high, “I looked in the mirror and I looked like an angel. I looked at my pupils and they were pinpoints; they were tiny, little dots. It was like looking into a whole universe of joy and happiness and contentment” (Pepper, 1994). Pepper’s “joy and happiness” led to a life of misery and punishment. Pepper served several sentences in San Quentin prison. In the late 1960s he joined the controversial Synanon drug rehabilitation group, headed by Charles E. Dederich, and later began a musical comeback in the mid-1970s after successful methadone therapy.


Because of its severe physical withdrawal, heroin is a difficult addiction to treat via traditional interventions. For many, the solution is to score one more time, search for a vein that hasn’t collapsed, and then inject. It is a short-term fix that finds the addict dealing with the same pain after scant hours of numbing self-medication. It is the never-ending cycle of desperation, craving, and use. 


The Songbook


The following songs, all depicting heroin addiction, do not convey Art Pepper’s “joy and happiness.” What they do present, however, is a common theme of agony and despair. The songs, listed in chronological order, offer a historic perspective as well as a reminder that, while the problem persists, the song remains the same.


1967: “I’m Waiting for the Man”


Lou Reed’s driving heroin rock opera takes us “up to Lexington, 125” and even though he’s “feeling sick and dirty” continues “to a Brownstone, up three flights of stairs” where he is “just looking for a dear, dear friend.” Reed reveals in this Velvet Underground tune: “I’m just waiting for my man,” an obvious reference to the dope dealer who’s “never early, he’s always late.” 


1968: “Cloud Nine”


In “Cloud Nine,” Motown’s in-house songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, penned one of their strongest antidrug social messages. As observed in The Sounds of Social Change, “The Temptations could leave that smooth ‘middle-of-the-road’ Motown route, take off on ‘Cloud Nine,’ that junkie’s dream, and without even mentioning “drugs” in the lyric, touch every nerve in the ghetto” (Denisoff & Peterson, 1972). Describing that addiction is nothing more than a wicked fantasy, the lyrics state, “Ain’t got no responsibility / Cloud nine / And every man / Every man is free / Cloud Nine / And you’re a million miles from reality.” 


1970: “The Junkies’ Prayer”


This unusual and unexpected antidrug song from the country-pop group The Statler Brothers, was penned by member Lew DeWitt. The song, included in their LP Bed of Roses, revisits the horrors of addiction: “For I soon must return to my gutter of thrills / Where joy is the needle or a bottle of pills / Where a man welcomes misery like an old friend from home / That he uses and abuses till the misery is gone.”


1971: “Dead Flowers”


The Rolling Stones’ countrified observation on “Little Suzie, Queen of the Underground” was ostensibly inspired by Keith Richard’s continuing heroin addiction. Recorded on December 15, 1969, it wasn’t released until 1971 on the highly successful LP Sticky Fingers. The song confesses, “Well when you’re sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac / Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day / Ah, I’ll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon / And another girl can take my pain away.”


1972: “The Needle and the Damage Done”


Neil Young’s song from the LP Harvest addressed his personal loss after Danny Whitten, one of the original members of Crazy Horse, overdosed. As the story goes, Whitten came to rehearsal high on heroin and was fired by Young, who gave him a plane ticket back to Los Angeles and $50 for rehab. Whitten spent the money on pure heroin, and, in death, became part of Young’s memorial: “I hit the city and I lost my band / I watched the needle take another man / Ohh, ohh, the damage done.” 


1973: “The Devil is Dope”


Detroit’s Dramatics were a soul music group featuring lead singer William “Wee Gee” Howard. This was one of the first antidrug songs to identify the drug that plagued the inner city. The listener is warned, “He’ll make you a slave then / Put you in your grave / And close the door.” Scripted by songwriter Tony Hester, The Dramatics also recorded Hester’s “Beware of the Man with the Candy in his Hands.” Jason Elias’ All Music Guide noted that, “1973’s A Dramatic Experience seems to split the difference between a concept album dealing with the evils of drugs and polished, well-arranged ballads and dance tracks” (2015).


1987: “Mr. Brownstone”


In “Mr. Brownstone,” the oft angry and out-of-control Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose described the progression of heroin use, typically from casual use to social use to compulsive use and then full-blown addiction. Rose explained, “I used ta do a little, but a little wouldn’t do / So the little got more and more / I just keep tryin’ ta get a little better / Said a little better than before.” The song is included on their major label debut LP Appetite For Destruction


1991: “Under the Bridge”


Singer Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers tells a sad tale of homelessness and despair brought about his by heroin addiction: “Under the bridge downtown / Is where I drew some blood.” The song, which propelled the group to stardom, was released on their LP Blood Sugar Sex Magik and the resulting video, directed by Gus Van Sant, won the group an MTV Video Music Award. 


[H2]1992: “Junkhead”


Here Alice in Chains’ lead singer Layne Staley boasts of his heroin use, mocking those who do not. He said: “What’s my drug of choice? / Well, what have you got? / I don’t go broke and I do it a lot.” Guitar World magazine went even further and observed: “Alice In Chains’ videos are elegant little travelogues of junkie life. Heroin addicts and struggling former addicts hear something in Layne’s grade-school junkie poetry, a kind of siren” (Gilbert and Aledort, 2011). Staley died on April 5, 2002, ironically the same date as Kurt Cobain’s suicide death. Staley’s body was not discovered until two weeks later. The autopsy report concluded that Staley died of an overdose of heroin and cocaine, the fabled “speedball.” “Junkhead” appeared on the CD Dirt along with “Godsmack” and “Angry Chair,” a failed attempt to find the music in addiction.


2002: “Hurt”


This Nine Inch Nails song was written by Trent Reznor, but later reinterpreted by a somber Johnny Cash. It is one of the best literary representations of heroin addiction that is equally intelligent and immediate. Reznor’s lyrics reveal: “I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / The only thing that’s real / The needle tears a hole / The old familiar sting.”  


2005: “A Baltimore Love Thing”


Curtis James Jackson, aka 50 Cent, is recognized as one of the major proponents of early twenty-first-century gangster rap. His single mother worked as a drug dealer and was murdered when Jackson was only eight years old (“50 Cent,” 2015). He was raised by his grandparents and, after a life of crime, drugs, and violence, began a career as rapper 50 Cent. In “A Baltimore Love Thing” from the CD The Massacre, the rapper compares heroin addiction to a love affair, offering: “We got a love thing where you try to leave me / But you need me, can’t you see you’re addicted to me?” 




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Denisoff, R. S., & Peterson, R. A. (1972). The sounds of social change: Studies in popular culture. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally. 
Elias, J. (2015). The Dramatics: A Dramatic Experience. Retrieved from http://www.allmusic.com/album/a-dramatic-experience-mw0000320316
Furek, M. (2008). The death proclamation of Generation X: A self-fulfilling prophesy of goth, grunge, and heroin. New York, NY: i-Universe. 
Gilbert, J., & Aledort, A. (2011). 1996 Guitar World interview: Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains discusses songwriting and band’s new self-titled album. Guitar World. Retrieved from http://www.guitarworld.com/1996-guitar-world-interview-jerry-cantrell-alice-chains-discusses-songwriting-and-bands-new-self-titled-album?page=0,0
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National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2014). What is the scope of heroin use in the United States? Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/scope-heroin-use-in-united-states
Pepper, A., and L., (1994). Straight life: The story of Art Pepper (revised ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
“The heroin drug history and heroin facts.” (2010). Retrieved from http://heroininfo.org/heroin_facts.html
US Department of Health and Human Services. (2013). Results from the 2013 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresultsPDFWHTML2013/Web/NSDUHresults2013.pdf