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Drugs in Heavy Metal
Claiming they are or aren't essential is missing the point
April 2, 1997
This article is the screed on drugs in heavy metal which I wish someone had handed to me when I was less experienced. Specifically, it is not what I did get handed, which was propaganda from either side. The conservative side, namely all those who believed society still had a culture and values in common, said "don't do drugs" but couldn't explain why, resorting to shock tactics that made you think the instant you puffed a joint you'd die; when that didn't happen, the whole house of cards fell apart and all their propaganda actually inverted in value. The leftist side, comprised of all Hollywood and entertainment figures and most of my teachers, said that drugs wouldn't hurt you and it was a lifestyle choice, do it if you want.
Neither gave what was needed: an accurate depiction of how drugs are used, and the effects both long-term and short-term. Metal emerged from popular music, borrowing the instrumentation and roles of rock music, which is commercial society's way of inducting teenagers into adult consumerist life: define yourself by buying things. As a result, it inherits the ego-mania and external focus of rock music, which includes people rebelling by taking drugs. There are also some who take some drugs for the "mind liberation" capabilities ascribed to those substances. However, most are just trying to grow up, and for them partying, sex, and learning to be a consumer are vital nodal points in that process.
Much as defining ourselves through external adornments is a problem for metal, as it encourages dishonest promotion of crap music, defining ourselves by drug use is also an error. If you approach the drug question, do so from a clarity of mind. It will not make you cool or uncool. It will not reveal the secrets of the universe, but will also not obscure them. It will not clarify your philosophical positions, but also will not muddy them. It is like anything else, a detail that without corresponding architectonic details, remains without context and with minor influence on your life, excepting biological impact.
First, we should look at drug use as character definition, and next consider the biological factors.
Most people who approach the drug issue will try to convince you that it's like religious people versus atheism, or conservatives versus liberals. You either believe the world has an objective purpose, and so you're against drugs, or you're with the chaos, freedom, individualism, irony and rebellion program, and you believe life has no purpose except whatever you decide to make of it. While most people fit into these categories, we must remember that categories are imposed, and that they describe one trait of multiples rather than a single, objectively-defining trait. So you've got NSBM fans smoking pot and liberal straight-edgers. Drug use does not define your political identity.
Furthermore, it only marginally influences your social prestige. I'd estimate that most drug users at college are secretly insecure and socially-awkward people who see drug use, like politics or flagrant sexuality, as a way to gain more social power. You start smoking dope and you have an instant social group. But a social group of confused people in transition is probably not going to last, nor will you get over your fears of your social abilities. Further, some of the most popular people at colleges neither take drugs nor drink. They merely socialize. More power to them for taking the direct route to the answer they needed.
Finally, it will not create character for you. If you romanticize the derangement of the senses, remember that drugs cannot teach you what you need to know to appreciate derangement of the senses, and uneducated intoxication is basically just being wasted. It will not make you into William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Morrison or Paul Ledney. You do not automatically embark on a Journey to the End of the Night because you laid hands on some drugs. That's a reversed logic consumerist mentality, where purchasing the tool makes you a user of it. You wouldn't expect to become Andres Segovia just by buying an expensive guitar, would you? Neither should you expect drugs to make your character for you.
But mostly, when thinking of the external effects of drugs, think like a metalhead. Other than biological factors, it's not going to do anything of substance (no pun intended) for you or against you. It's going to be another experience. Do you want this experience? If you have doubts, I urge you to cherish your innocence. Stay in a world where hallucinations only occur when you have a fever, and where your most urgent need is food or a bathroom. Innocence keeps cynicism about life itself at bay and helps you see the potential in the wholesome, simple and ever-present joys of life, like family and having some career, hobby or calling that fulfills you. Losing innocence and gaining cynicism distances you from that potential, or at least delays it by what looks to me (anecdotally) as a decade at a minimum. If you have innocence, and like your life, and have a decent grasp of philosophy, there is nothing drugs will teach you except to lose a little bit of that innocence.
Biologically, drugs are a mixed bag. Injecting clean heroin with a clean needle and doing a good job of it will cause you zero health problems, literally. Marijuana leaves more resin in your lungs but that resin departs more easily than the gluey tobacco resin that can helpfully bond cancers into your tissues. Cocaine makes your heart race and you might forget to eat, but unless you go hog-wild, you're probably going to be OK. LSD may fry brain cells; it appears to vary between individuals. MDMA/Ecstasy and methamphetamine clearly do fry brain cells in everyone.
Many anti-drug pamphlets talk about the secondary problems of drugs, like you deciding to peddle your genitals/ass in order to buy more, or committing crimes, or arrest, or the people you're going to hang around with. These are biological consequences as well, and while we can be witty moderns and divorce our consideration of these from consideration of drugs, I think that's illusory. Drugs become part of a lifestyle. If you take something regularly, you have to be able to afford it and to find someone to sell it to you, so it's at the very least like taking on a hobby. It will take time to do correctly. You may go to jail and be sodomized. If you are very susceptible to addictive substances, recognize that the instant you go into debt and can't stop taking the substance, you are either going to become a drug dealer or prostitute. It happens every day and while some escape, they're never the same again. More than denting their innocence, they've fractured it. You see a lot of people who end up alone, in their 40s and 50s, stringy and somewhat blown out, because of their hard-partying lifestyles. Are you ready to commit to that future? If you're still thinking maybe you'd like to have something other than a drug or lifestyle choice be what fulfills you, be wary.
Many musicians will note this fact: drugs have destroyed more careers than they've enhanced. For every pothead Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix, there are 4,096 guys who can play guitar really well but between working at Wal-Mart, affording drugs and staying out of jail, they never managed to launch that career. Oh well -- drugs will teach you quickly that life doesn't give a damn if you blow your brains out or go invent a cure for cancer. You are the only one in the driver's seat, much like humanity is the only master of its fate, and you are the only one who can make that choice for good or ill. Life is like an open field. You will walk through and feel just fine, even if your next step is coming down on a mine or you're about to have the time of your life. Fun things can be destructive. Miserable things can be rewarding. And vice versa. There are no simple rules here except pay attention to the obvious: drugs will take time, effort, and will make social and biological changes to your life. If your goal is to be a musician, you probably want to spend that time practicing instead.
All of that being said, what is the role of drugs in metal? This is unclear and like the debate over atheism/agnosticism, can never be proven. Some of metal's most powerful people, like Suffocation and Morbid Angel, launched their careers in a haze of drugs -- but they also worked very hard to get where they are. Others, like Dave Mustaine, got kicked out of better bands (Metallica) for violent alcoholism and then spent the next ten years doing insane amounts of dangerous drugs, to the detriment of their careers and personal lives. Metal people have lost girlfriends, wives, band members and friends because their drug habits were more important than other aspects of their lives. They have also made great art when their music was more important than their drug habits and other aspects of their lives.
In the 1980s, many metalheads and metal bands were enamored of methamphetamine (crystal meth, speed). Twenty years later, we can see the negative consequences clearly. Any time you run into someone missing front teeth -- speedy drugs, like a huge dose of caffeine, make your mind "speed up" and so reality goes more quickly and seems more easy to master, leading to enhanced ego and loss of fear; however, a consequence is that you grind your teeth -- who has trouble sleeping through a night and possibly has very tough, almost bleached skin, you've run into one of these meth experiments. Meth fries brain cells and specifically roasts serotonin receptors, making it difficult to maintain energy or a state of rest. After seeing early casualties, many metalheads switched to cocaine, which is safer but can make you behave like a personal injury lawyer. Of note is that each generation has to re-learn this knowledge. In the 1960s, speed casualties were well-known, but the only people who talked about drugs were either cops or those who kept taking drugs. The cops were ignored because they became propagandists, and those who kept taking drugs were hard-pressed to say bad things about drugs as a genre. Your generation, whenever it is, will also suffer for a lack of information because your peers will be too lazy to look up and parse any actual information and will prefer propaganda, because it fits what they want to hear.
The stereotype of metalheads since the black metal days has been of people who do not take drugs, or if they do, limit themselves to smoking marijuana and drinking beer. From a biological perspective, this is not a big strain on your body. Alcohol is probably the more dangerous of the two. While marijuana can disrupt your ability to have a regular appetite, mess with your hormones a bit, and possibly make you a bit lazy, it's also unlikely to do anything more than that. Cognitive slowdowns reverse when use is discontinued, and your lungs clean up rapidly. Whether for these reasons or for the wide variation in use, from a simple buzz to a complex hallucination, marijuana seems preferred by hessians. Anecdotally, the best hallucinations I have experienced have been from high doses of marijuana in a clear mind, usually bolstered by caffeine and a small amount of tobacco in the bong. LSD hallucinations are more mechanical and while psilocybin produces the most intense hallucinations, they are often incoherent, like watching a television channel tuned to the neurotic chaos of someone caught between worlds. Marijuana could be considered two different drugs, from the different strains ("races") of marijuana: the more body-intensive sativa, and the more mind-intensive indica. Everywhere I have been where there have been hessians, marijuana consumption has been occurring.
Yet on the flip side, a good many metalheads will have nothing to do with any drugs, including alcohol and cigarettes. It's harder to find examples here because people who don't need drugs rarely shout out loud about it. However, if bands like Immolation and Burzum appeal to you, you know of powerful metal acts that avoided drugs entirely. If you think clearly from cause to effect, you will realize that to achieve transcendent states of mind or be good at your instruments, you must go through certain thought processes. Even if drugs aid these, the fact is that they must happen in your mind, and since your mind exists without drugs, you can make them happen without drugs -- and you don't incur the slowdowns of hangovers, buying drugs, dodging cops, getting anally violated in jail, etc. If you think backward, you see someone else taking drugs and then succeeding, and as a result assume that the drugs caused the success, when there's only a marginal correlation, since five hundred of his buddies are still living in dingy apartments, high as lords but no further along in what would really fulfill them in life, such as having a band of artistic prominence even if unnoticed by most people.
The question of drugs for a new metalhead is complicated in the USA and Europe by the near-complete breakdown of the family. If you're lucky enough to have two parents consistently, they're busy working -- and when they're home, they launch into escapism like TV, mass religion, buying stuff, and the kind of useless but well-meaning projects that only dying wealthy nations can invent. With role models like that, drugs appear to be an alternate form of this escapism, and so seem palatable not only because they're rebellious but also because they are a parentally-sanctioned behavior.
As mentioned above, you get either a pro-drug message or an anti-drug message, because the messager wants the problem -- the question of whether drugs are good, whether they're controlling you, whether you'll give a damn -- to just go away, and so they concoct some statement that because it seems simple, appears to a be a highest level abstraction of the question, but is in fact just a partial truth. Highest level abstractions are things like "the universe re-organizes energy and matter to produce information, allowing it to become more efficient and thus grow" but partial truths are things like "don't masturbate because it'll put hair on your palms."
Parents in this day and age, beset by doubt and swarmed with bad data from careers and politics and a dysfunctional culture, want to tell you something simple and get the problem off their desks. It's our shame as a culture that when kids ask -- or indirectly ask, by probing, which allows an adolescent to preserve aloofness while getting answers -- for vital information on drugs, sex, etc. that parents in lieu of analyzing the issue give them some pithy half-truth that's the epistemological equivalent of FUCK OFF.
And sometimes, drugs are the answer. Anyone who tells you that marijuana is not a blast is probably on the cheap drugs. Clearly mushrooms are more shamanistic than fun. In the right context, either drug can be a conduit to some useful revelations. On the other hand, that conduit isn't needed. Music can sound awesome under the influence of marijuana; on the converse, bad music can sound a lot more awesome than it is. Many of us have in the past loved our drugs, but as time went on, we observed how many people around us lost momentum to their lives because they were focused on the method of feeling good, instead of building the structure to their lives that made them feel good. Method of feeling good = jogging or taking drugs; building the structure to life that makes goodfeel = accomplishment, family, learning, discipline, spirituality, eternal things that change how you choose to spend your time and the results of it. Feelgood methods are palliative care, or addressing symptoms without finding a way to hit the cause. Re-structuring life can change some of the cause (you can't change the fact you live in a dying time when idiots rule). It's the same mistake parents, teachers and cops make when they assume kids take drugs and become possessed by evil, when the more complex and less popular truth is that kids get bored and ape their parents' own detachment from reality, but use drugs, and that's the possession of evil. First comes alienation with life, then comes compensation (a form of cognitive dissonance not unlike morality): if I can't enjoy life, I can make my brain happy with drugs, and maybe that will "be enough."
There's a parallel to life here. If we make our primary goal to avoid conflict as someone might get hurt, we have to compromise ideals to include everyone's divergent opinion, so we don't initiate conflict with them. This means we always get the lowest common denominator in every situation. If we make our primary goal into our primary goal, which is the achievement of some act or another, we will come into conflict with others but will get a fuller, more complete vision of whatever it is we're trying to accomplish. Drugs are in a way like conflict avoidance: instead of facing life warts and all, we lubricate it with alcohol or drugs or cigarettes, and make it more palatable. But in turn, this obscures from us what we really find fascinating and troubling in life, and so like kids on antidepressants, we miss the lows and then later find out we missed the highs. Much later, as Paul Di'Anno of Iron Maiden found out after he left the band due to drug problems and only a decade later got his head on straight to find his career had passed him by.
As far as metal culture: does it endorse drug use? Metal culture endorses realism. That's the point, not some pithy partial truth to make you feel better. Drugs can destroy your life and screw you up, or be a lot of fun. It depends on who you are and what you use. It depends on when you're willing to stop. It depends on what you expect from the drugs. Metal is, if anything, opposed to a pro-drug or anti-drug "blanket statement." Not surprisingly, metalhead uses of drugs vary widely. One activity has always been to go purchase new albums, then go home and get rippingly high while you listen to the CDs. Metallica gained popularity in part because their long albums outlasted the high for many people, providing a transition through a mentally hedonistic experience to a gentle comedown. Marijuana helps make music seem simultaneously synasthetic, or the manifestation of patterns in parallel between music, visuals, thoughts and memories. But again, some choose not to; the album can be just as intense sober. It is possible this issue, like this article, will never have a conclusion, but will present only a collection of anecdotes and facts to trace the silhouette of a truth, which is that no one rule works for everyone; some are rising, some are falling, and some pass through as gentle traceless travelers. You will have to find your own path in metal, with or without drugs.
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