Since the 1940s and 1950s, many of the music industry’s most iconic figures have turned to heroin to withstand the pressures of instant stardom.
Even though many eventually admitted their addiction was destructive to their music, the drug was often celebrated in their work and lifestyles—and copied by other would-be musicians—as the “ultimate in coolness,” says Barry Spunt, author of the recently released book, Heroin and Music in New York City.
“Heroin is the pinnacle of drug ugliness,” Spunt, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said in an interview aired this week on CUNY-TV’s Criminal Justice Matters. “(But for many musicians) it also created a desired self-image: you were the ‘ultimate in coolness.”
Spunt focused on 69 prominent musicians in genres ranging from jazz and bebop to punk rock and salsa to explore the motivations for the acknowledged widespread drug use in the industry. He used published interviews with the music-makers to draw conclusions about their motivations, and the impact of heroin use on their lives and careers.
“I look at subcultures, and heroin use is not just a personal pathology, but it was part of a subculture in which heroin use was seen as a good thing,” Spunt told host Stephen Handelman, who is also executive editor of The Crime Report.
Accounts from self-acknowledged heroin users, ranging from Billy Holiday and John Lennon to Iggy Pop, Dion (of Dion and the Belmonts) and Keith Richards, showed that many turned to the drug because of the stresses and tensions of their lives.
“It’s the tension of being a millionaire at age 20—all of a sudden you’re a superstar,” Spunt said.
Others admitted they relied on heroin to help them focus on their music and “block out noise” that prevented them from concentrating, or just to survive their breakneck performance schedules, he added.
Spunt found few musicians who claimed that it made them better at what they did—even though it often became a subject either veiled or directly mentioned in their music.
“You’d have to stretch to find anyone who said anything positive about (heroin),” said Spunt.
Still, younger musicians following in their footsteps often tried to emulate the older stars by using heroin to win “street cred” and attention.
“A lot of bebop musicians for example wanted to play like Charley Parker, and they (figured) if I used, then I would sound like him,” said Spunt.
Widespread heroin use also extended to the venues where musicians performed, ranging from the New York jazz clubs of the 1940s to the discos of the 1980s. “Two of the top disco DJs in New York were users,” said Spunt.
Spunt said that while heroin was no longer central to contemporary music culture, its continued availability –particularly in light of fears of a new heroin “epidemic” in many parts of the U.S.—still made it a cautionary tale about current drug policy.
“Heroin is so easy to get –it’s just as cheap as it was in the old days—and even purer than before,” said Spunt. “It suggests our war on drugs is pretty much a failure.”