One of the glaring weaknesses endemic throughout many of the major secondary sources and narratives in Beatles historiography is the failure to acknowledge the impact legal and illegal drugs had on the band’s story. For decades, according to most authors, the Beatles’ drug use seemingly occurred in a vacuum; while some secondary sources might acknowledge narcotic and drug influences on certain songs or albums, the idea that the chemical substances ingested by the band’s members impacted issues beyond their artistry was rarely, and only fleetingly, acknowledged.
Examples of this abound: One of the most influential works of 1970s, Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever, neglects the drug issue almost entirely and soft-pedals the few mentions it does contain. Another, the first edition of Phillip Norman’s Shout!, never once mentions Lennon and Ono’s breakup-era drug use. Such glaring omissions are not only consigned to the early decades of the band’s historiography; Fred Goodman’s recent biography Allen Klein fails to acknowledge, even once, that Lennon and Ono were taking heroin during the breakup period and particularly in the formative period of their relationship with Klein. Those books that have emphasized the band’s drug use, such as Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon, rank among the least popular and are widely regarded by fans as among the least credible works in all Beatles historiography. Peter Brown’s memoir The Love You Make has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on sex and drugs, as seemingly every piece of information is filtered through those particular muckraking lenses. Yet The Love You Make contains assessments and conclusions — “If there was a single reason the Beatles broke up, it was John’s heroin addiction” – which, while overlooked for decades, have begun to establish themselves as aspects necessary to explaining how and why the band’s story unfolded as it did.
This gaping absence has resulted in a Beatles historiography which attempted, for decades, to explain decisions, events and primary source statements, as well as striking behavioral and character shifts while failing to account for the fundamental and pervasive drug influence. This failure to acknowledge this necessary element therefore resulted in simplistic, trite analyses and conclusions – John quit the band solely because he got bored, (Schaffner) Paul was always an overbearing, bossy egomaniac, (Coleman) Ringo was an amiable mediocrity seemingly emotionally unaffected by the band’s split (Norman) – that provided, at best, an incomplete picture. Not only was the band’s drug use portrayed as mainly tangential to the story’s events and outcome; speculation of any kind implying that drug use prompted paranoiac decisions and/or muddled thinking was largely absent, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. The reality that all four members of the band made pivotal, history-altering decisions – decisions that fundamentally changed the band’s trajectory and future — while under the influence of heavy drugs and, at times, narcotics which potentially impacted their thinking and decision-making, was ignored by most writers.
In addition to this failure to acknowledge the impact drugs presumably had on some of the band’s key moments and members, there also has been a significant lapse by many authors regarding how drug use impacts the credibility and accuracy of numerous sources, particularly interviews. Some of the most widely-quoted primary sources in the band’s historiography were given by various Beatles who were either under the influence of drugs at the time they gave their statements, and/or were attempting to describe their personal eyewitness recollections of events which occurred while they were using drugs. Either aspect – whether an interview was given while the interviewee was using drugs, or one recollecting events which occurred during a time period in which the interviewee had been using drugs – impacts the credibility and accuracy of the source. According to historical methods, and particularly Marc Bloch in The Historian’s Craft, this is due to both the intense emotions and the decline in observational skills associated with drug use, particularly heavy drug use. Yet this basic level of source analysis has been largely absent. One of the fundamental flaws in much of Beatles historiography is the willingness of certain authors to analyze and interpret varying Beatles statements and decisions the same way they would analyze the actions and decisions of sober individuals. Simply put; to argue that the Beatles were fully capable of rational thought and therefore fully aware of the scope and impact of their decisions and statements made while under the influence of mind-altering drugs is a flawed premise. Yet this is a flawed premise upon which many Beatles writers have based their evidence, interpretations, and conclusions.
Acknowledgement of drugs’ importance has gradually emerged over the last fifteen to twenty years. Similarly, and not entirely coincidentally, the same time period has also witnessed increasing authorial speculation regarding the band members – and particularly Lennon’s – psychological issues. The mid-90s saw Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head directly tie Lennon’s excessive LSD use to his crumbling psychological health; this is an analysis with which Doggett broadly agrees in You Never Give Me Your Money. In the first volume of Tune In, Lewisohn also attempts to explain some of Lennon’s particularly violent, unstable behavior – such as the incident in Hamburg in which Lennon, upon finding McCartney engaging in sexual intercourse with a woman in their shared room, responded by screaming profanities at the woman, stabbing the wardrobe with a pair of scissors, slicing her clothes to shreds and driving her from the room – by noting Lennon’s mental instability and significant preludin intake. (One can only wonder what sort of interpretation Norman or Coleman would have made, in their earlier work, for the reasons behind this event). Most current Beatles authors (with Goodman as an obvious exception) such as Steve Turner in Beatles ’66 now incorporate acknowledgments of the band’s drug use while also offering informed speculation regarding the interpersonal, psychological, and musical impacts resulting from the Fab Four’s drug intake. Turner’s work also emphasizes the importance of drugs with its revelatory claim that McCartney’s first LSD trip occurred in December of 1965, significantly earlier than the timeframe provided by McCartney himself and indicating that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the musician had dropped acid before work began on Revolver.
The reasons for this initial, decades-long skittishness regarding acknowledging the band’s drug use and its impact are up for speculation. In the band’s early years, the press willingly turned a blind eye to the band’s chemical excesses in exchange for their own access to the Beatles. As the sixties advanced, “Turning on” was regarded as an essential element and point of identification with the counter-culture; and the rock press, which dominated the band’s historiography, may not have wanted to be seen as criticizing drugs. During and after the breakup, certain topics, such as Lennon and Ono’s heroin use, could and were used as weapons. As the 70s ended, acknowledging and emphasizing their continued drug use threatened to chip away at the preferred personas – Lennon the contented house-husband, McCartney the domesticated rock star, Harrison the spiritual seeker, and Starr the amiable celebrity — each man sought to present to the press and the world. It did not help that those secondary works – such as Goldman, Spitz, and Brown’s memoir (which qualifies as a primary source) — which did hammer away at the drug issue suffer from significant methodological errors. This, unfortunately, convinced some readers to disregard the entirety of the evidence and conclusions presented. Real life issues also presumably played a role: In 1984, McCartney lied regarding the extent of his and the other band member’s heavy drug use, citing his children as justification.
Whatever the reason behind this significant initial failure to acknowledge and analyze the drug issue, the result ultimately left Beatles readers with an incomplete and flawed picture. History is riddled with examples of famous men and women who made decisions and statements of historical consequence under the influence of drugs: Adolf Hitler would be one, Ulysses S. Grant another. No responsible historian would attempt to present an accurate portrayal of Grant – the business failure, victorious Union General, and eventual President over a corrupt administration – without first acknowledging Grant’s issues with alcohol and extensive use of the drug, and then providing informed and objective analysis and authorial speculation regarding alcohol’s impact on Grant’s life and, therefore, the history of the United States.
Like Grant, Beatles history and historiography cannot be clearly understood without acknowledging the pivotal role played by drugs, and their impact on the band’s artistry, relations, characters, decisions and statements. Certain authors such as Doggett and MacDonald provided a beginning: by devoting an entire book of informed, objective analysis to the subject Joe Goodden’s Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs (2017), proves itself to be an essential new work in Beatles historiography.
This introduction was far longer than I anticipated, but after finishing it, I concluded it offered a significant brief on how the Beatles’ drug use has been presented (or not presented) in the band’s historiography. Given that this was supposed to be a review of Joe’s book, the title of which I only mentioned in the last line, I have decided to break this review into two parts. Consider the purpose of this post to underline just how significant the drug aspect is: the second part, hopefully posted soon, will include the actual review of Joe’s book. Sorry: I only took you half the way there. Comments and questions are welcome.
30 thoughts on “Setting the Stage: The Beatles and Drugs, Part One”
Compelling read, Erin.
I tend to think part of the oversight is that most people (and writers are people) don’t fully appreciate the impact of alcohol/drug abuse on the brain, and how it can detrimentally affect someone’s personality. John’s pill-induced attack in Germany is a perfect example of this, but yet few biographies seem able or willing to connect all the dots. In fact, in an interview about it in Beatles’ Anthology, George Harrison characterized the incident as “John got that way sometimes.”
It seems as though the only time alcohol/drug use is considered to have a significant impact is when someone dies. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Michael Jackson, Keith Moon, etc–you wonder whether their prolific drug use would have been covered as thoroughly had the artists not overdosed.
“I tend to think part of the oversight is that most people (and writers are people) don’t fully appreciate the impact of alcohol/drug abuse on the brain, and how it can detrimentally affect someone’s personality.”
I think there’s a lot of truth to that, Karen. And I do understand a certain reluctance from authors to delve into issues of the psychological and interpersonal consequences of drug addiction, especially if its not their area of expertise. I’m guilty of a similar avoidance: Music analysis is not my area of expertise, which is why I almost completely avoided it in my book. So I’d guess its not just ignorance of the subject/failure to truly realize its importance, (in that they really don’t appreciate, the way someone well steeped in the subject would be, just how transformative and devastating drug use can be) but also a reluctance to delve deeply into an academic area in which music journalists (which most Beatles authors have been and are) are unfamiliar and untrained. And again, there’s that reality that those books that really do bash away at the drug issue are among the most deeply unpopular with fans. If your purpose as a writer/journalist is to sell a book, do you really want to delve deeply into an unpopular and unfamiliar topic? Better to skim.
“In fact, in an interview about it in Beatles’ Anthology, George Harrison characterized the incident as “John got that way sometimes.”
I remember that justification from George. (Which, frankly, set my teeth on edge. Mini-rant here: every depiction of this scene, in any biography I have read, seeks to explain, if not justify, John’s actions. None of them — not one — has ever expressed even a minimal kernel of sympathy for the anonymous girl, who only wanted to have sex with Paul, and instead found herself screamed at, shamed, driven away and her clothes shredded by a scissors-wielding John Lennon. But I digress).
“It seems as though the only time alcohol/drug use is considered to have a significant impact is when someone dies.”
I’m afraid I’m not terribly familiar with the patterns of the rock press in general and how they acknowledge and/or don’t the impact of drugs on rock star lives, but this rings true to me.
Same here. But then I remembered, later on in the same interview, I think, George saying that John was “more screwed up” than he/they realized. Clearly, there was a pinprick of awareness there.
Full disclosure: I’ve come to realize, over the years, that I expect too much of people in this regard. I think you’re spot on: when it’s not one’s area of expertise and/or experience, the smart thing to do is keep your mouth shut and your pen capped. 🙂
And your comment about the girl is well-taken. While I tend to focus on the personal psychology that would send John into such a bizarre rage, preludin notwithstanding (if there ever was better evidence of homoerotic jealousy I don’t know where), I can only imagine the girl’s horror at this lunatic’s behaviour. The “John got like that sometimes” was pretty diagnostic, in its own right.
“But then I remembered, later on in the same interview, I think, George saying that John was “more screwed up” than he/they realized. Clearly, there was a pinprick of awareness there.”
My memory is that both of those comments — George’s account of John’s scissors incident and his “John was even more screwed up than I thought” — come in his retrospective Anthology interviews.
“those books that really do bash away at the drug issue are among the most deeply unpopular with fans.”
That’s true but I think it could be because they do bash away as you say and they don’t provide a balanced perspective. No one wants to read a sleazy, tabloid account about sex and drugs with negativity and nothing else. I think that’s why Steven Gaines and Albert Goldman’s books hit such a sour note. Doggett on the other hand got it just right because his book was balanced and I think the response from fans was more positive as a result.
“That’s true but I think it could be because they do bash away as you say and they don’t provide a balanced perspective. No one wants to read a sleazy, tabloid account about sex and drugs with negativity and nothing else.”
That’s an excellent point, and one I agree with. Gaines/Brown and Goldman did Beatles historiography a service in dragging issues like the drug use and John’s psychology into the light, but they did so in methodologically flawed and gleefully belittling ways. The methodological flaws allowed fans who didn’t want to confront the issue to dismiss the entirety of the research, while the gleefulness turned off an enormous amount of fans. Particularly with Goldman and his portrayal of John, there’s an element of mocking the book’s readers: “You know this guy you thought was so great? Well, I’m going to make you, his fans, feel like a fool for ever admiring this guy.” What reader wants to receive that message? And Goldman just hammers away at it, again and again.
Yes, Doggett got it right. Despite the high level of speculation, I think MacDonald did an excellent job with it as well, and he was really the first since Goldman to address the issue and the first to attempt to present it in a fairly objective, less muckraking fashion. Given MacDonald’s own psychological struggles — he committed suicide around 2000, I believe — one can speculate if there was an element of self-projection or identification in his evaluation of John. I also think the response to Doggett was more positive because the groundwork had been laid by those earlier, deeply unpopular authors; by 2009, the reality that drugs had infused the band’s story was almost impossible for an informed fan/reader to ignore, and at least Doggett’s references and acknowledgements of the drug issue weren’t shrill and judgmental like Goldman’s, or prurient like Brown’s.
Erin I just purchased Riding So High for my Kindle Fire, after reading your article here. I can’t wait for your full review on it. This article was so interesting. An in depth discussion on their drug use and it’s wide ranging impact is long overdue. I’m interested to see how Mark Lewisohn is going to cover it in book three. I think Doggett did a great job. Would you recommend Beatles ’66? I’m intrigued by it since you say Turner uncovered the fact that Paul dropped acid in 1965. Very intriguing and kind of earth shattering since accepted wisdom has the date much later. I’m leery of Turner after reading in A Hard Day’s Write, that he seemed convinced And Your Bird Can Sing was about Paul. I would have liked to think a Beatles writer knew better than to assume every nasty song John wrote was automatically about Paul. As if John always had his lower lip stuck out over Paul’s very existence and despised him so much he just couldn’t bring himself to stop writing nasty songs about him and pretending they were really about birds and bulldogs and nowhere men. I was enjoying the book until I came upon his trite interpretation of the song. Stuff like that annoys me. Anyway is Beatles ’66 worth my time?
I agre with you Linda. As for As Your Bird Can Sing, John himself said it was about Mick Jagger bragging endlessly about Marianne Faithful. It got on his last nerve, so he was inspired to write that song.
“As for As Your Bird Can Sing, John himself said it was about Mick Jagger bragging endlessly about Marianne Faithful. It got on his last nerve, so he was inspired to write that song.”
Thanks I didn’t know John said that. It makes sense since Marianne was a singer and she was Mick’s bird at the time. Cynthia seemed to think the song was about her because she had given John a mechanical song bird for his birthday and she knew he secretly hated it and thought it was stupid. I also read somewhere that the song was about Frank Sinatra because John had read an article in a magazine about Frank’s lavish lifestyle and it annoyed him. Nowhere is there any evidence though, that the song is about Paul. What annoyed me so much about Turner’s little interpretation and other interpretations I’ve seen that Hey Bulldog and Nowhere Man are about Paul is that it follows the Lennon Remembers Narrative to a T and it reeks of ignorance regarding the relationships between the Beatles and John and Paul especially. You would think someone writing about the band would know a little bit about those complicated dynamics within the group and would instinctively realize that John would not have written nasty songs about his band mates (not even Paul) as early as the mid sixties. And especially 1966….That was the year Paul insisted on sharing with John the royalties from that Haley Mills film that he wrote the music for. All the evidence points to the Beatles closeness at that time.
Great to hear from you, Linda!
“An in depth discussion on their drug use and it’s wide ranging impact is long overdue.”
I agree wholeheartedly. Joe sent me his book after hearing my SATB podcast where I answered that one of the crucial unexplored areas of Beatles historiography was their drug use. I think you’ll enjoy Joe’s book; it includes a lot of necessary information, dispels a lot of convenient myths, and essentially provides a primer on who was on what in what time period, while offering information regarding the common side-effects of those particular drugs.
I liked Doggett’s take as well; he didn’t shy away from the issue the way so many other writers did.
Overall I did like Beatles ’66; if you can get it from the library, I’d suggest it. I found it objective, but it didn’t have citations with in the text, and their absence bothered me. I thought his methodology on the Paul/LSD issue was very good — not foolproof, but he makes a very plausible case for switching the date. In all honesty, I haven’t read A Hard Day’s Write, so I didn’t really have any idea of what sort of writer Turner was when I picked up Beatles ’66. I’ve seen the “And Your Bird Can Sing” speculation being about Paul before — I think (not entirely sure) MacDonald makes the same assumption — but I’ve also seen it pretty firmly debunked. Does Turner flat out say AYBCS is about Paul, or does he identify it as speculation? Speculation I can see, but a definitive “This is the answer” would be presumptuous of any author on that particular song.
“Does Turner flat out say AYBCS is about Paul, or does he identify it as speculation? Speculation I can see, but a definitive “This is the answer” would be presumptuous of any author on that particular song.”
Admittedly it’s been years since I read the book and I borrowed it from the library so I can’t check. I don’t remember if he worded it in such a way that he was saying it definitively, but it really didn’t matter at the time. Actually to me even if he was speculating, it doesn’t matter. As I said to Karen thinking that any negatively toned John song is automatically about Paul smacks of the Lennon Remembers Narrative to me. In the mid sixties they were The Mates. Any Beatles writer worth my time should know that. If John was going to write nasty songs about Paul I think he would have done it during the Abbey Road period, yet there are no songs from that period said to be about Paul. My point is, if John ever thought to write an angry piece about Paul it would have been much later, when there was serious friction between them and someone like Turner should have been able to discern that. Just my two cents though.
Yes I put Beatles ’66 on my list of library books to check out. The Kindle version is $11.99 on Amazon and that’s too expensive. I bought Joe’s book because the kindle version was only $2.99 so I grabbed it. Anyway I’m looking forward to reading them both.
It’s great to hear from you too, Erin.
“As I said to Karen thinking that any negatively toned John song is automatically about Paul smacks of the Lennon Remembers Narrative to me.”
Unfortunate but true. If an author sets out to interpret evidence to fit a certain theory, they can certainly find it. I don’t recall if Turner makes the same statement regarding “AYBCS” in the Beatles ’66 book, but going by memory I’d say he doesn’t. It looks like “A Hard Day’s Write” was published in 1999, which is still what I’d identify as the transitional period from the Shout! to the Lewisohn narrative, so Turner may have been overly influenced by the time period in which he was writing … and, with the powerful remnants of the Lennon Remembers Narrative still influencing so many authors/interpretations, still have been locked into that flawed perception.
“looks like “A Hard Day’s Write” was published in 1999, which is still what I’d identify as the transitional period from the Shout! to the Lewisohn narrative, so Turner may have been overly influenced by the time period in which he was writing …”
Ok then he gets a pass. It’s understandable that someone writing in that time period who came up as a writer much earlier is going to follow that narrative. If I had read the book in 1999 I probably wouldn’t have noticed his interpretation of the song and I may have even agreed with it. I read A Hard Day’s Write probably around 2008 when we were well into the Lewisohn Narrative.
I recommend a limited definition of “narcotic” and using the term to refer to opiates, codeine and similar “downers.” I realize that the term is often used extremely broadly. But medically speaking, amphetamines, marijuana, LSD, and mescaline are not narcotics.
I’m looking forward to part two!
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Thanks for supplying the distinction, Carl: I was using “narcotic” in the broadest possible sense; I’ve since edited the post. I’m glad to hear you’re looking forward to part II; hopefully I’ll have it up fairly soon.
This is becoming an enthusiastic thread of comments!
I’m writing to add some subjectivity to the topic of drug usage and behavior.
I’m sure that some of the drugs that the Beatles took affected their judgements and decisions, Lennon especially, given his sometime tendency to make broad, definitive statements that he later abandoned or reversed. As you know, it’s also possible to make extremely constructive judgements, decisions, and statements on some drugs, ranging from caffeine to nicotine to marijuana (if one is habituated). This topic vis-a-vis the Beatles is ripe for research, examination, and discussion. There will always be, of course, some conjecture when looking back at the drug-related behaviors of historical figures. How did drugs affect each individual?
You write: “Some of the most widely-quoted primary sources in the band’s historiography were given by various Beatles who were either under the influence of drugs at the time they gave their statements, and/or were attempting to describe their personal eyewitness recollections of events which occurred while they were using drugs. Either aspect – whether an interview was given while the interviewee was using drugs, or one recollecting events which occurred during a time period in which the interviewee had been using drugs – impacts the credibility and accuracy of the source.” Well stated, in both examples.
I’d also add that sometimes heavy drug users later recall earlier events in impressive detail and perhaps accuracy. Keith Richard’s memoir comes to mind–how did he remember all that? Heroin users have reported both disengagement and the ability to focus at the same time while high. In his autobiography, saxophonist Jimmy Heath reported that when he and John Coltrane shot up, Coltrane would often go off and practice! The sad addict-musician who was arrested in connection with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death said that he worked on projects with maximum focus when high on heroin ( https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/nyregion/an-addict-with-friends.html ). That shocked me. Understand that I don’t romanticize dangerous drug use, much less approve of it.
Bringing things back to the Beatles: You most likely know the scene from the Let It Be movie in which McCartney talks at length at Lennon about Harrison’s misgivings about putting out a movie. Lennon smokes a cigarette and stares blankly and with boredom at McCartney. I’ve wondered if Lennon was on heroin that day; he looks so disengaged. Of course, Lennon was by that time alienated about McCartney with or without drugs.
In listening to this McCartney interview ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nguRK37qI54 ), it sounds to me as if he’s either just woken up, high, or hung over. Granted, he’s asked to recall something recent, not far in the past.
Sorry this post is so long.
Bring on part two!
I always enjoy long posts; mine are almost never brief, so don’t worry.
“There will always be, of course, some conjecture when looking back at the drug-related behaviors of historical figures. How did drugs affect each individual?”
What a great discussion point, Carl. I was having a similar discussion with our history department head, and her point was the same as yours; the same drug can impact different people in wildly differing ways, so unless you have additional evidence indicating how the specific individual reacted, an author is forced to describe the basic symptoms and then speculate on the individuals response. I believe we have enough other sources regarding John’s reactions — to alcohol, which made him verbally and at times physically violent; to LSD, which destroyed his ego and sense of self-worth, to unfettered drug use, in the early days of the Lost Weekend — to draw conclusions regarding his reactions to varying drugs. We know considerably less regarding Paul and George’s reactions: Were they happy drunks? Mean drunks? Lazy ones? The speculation has been made by others, and also by Gooden, that Paul’s cocaine use in the Pepper period fueled his creativity but also, for such an “A” type personality, presumably amped up his perfectionism and obliviousness to his bandmates feelings. But we don’t, so far as I now, have sources attesting to that; we’re just speculating based on what we know of Paul’s personality and the standard affects of cocaine use.
“That shocked me. Understand that I don’t romanticize dangerous drug use, much less approve of it.”
That is shocking. My knowledge of drug use and hard-drug side effects is fairly minimal, but much of the literature I have read — and Joe’s book as well — makes the case that heroin induces euphoria, detachment, and profound insularity, none of which would seemingly encourage a creative spurt of hard work. Unfortunately, because most books on historiography and historical methods were written pre-1960s (Gaddis being a major exception) the only drug you’ll find referenced as impacting source credibility is alcohol. There aren’t clear standards regarding what type of/how much of a drug significantly influences a source’s credibility, and giving the varying responses of individuals to varying drugs, I guess there’s really no way to make a definitive determination.
I take your point that drugs affect everyone differently, and that there are those who profess that certain drugs enhanced their creativity and recall (not having ever taken drugs before I’d have to take their word for it. 😉 ) I would suggest, though, that it’s not about whether someone can remember events; it’s about the quality and accuracy of those memories. Indeed, a person might have good recall for details but certain executive functions, like their ability to extrapolate meaning from their enviroment (i.e., the adequacy of their situational awareness), would be a little suspect.
To quote a recent study, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse:
This doesn’t mean, of course, that one should disregard a person’s version of events simply because the person was high at the time, but it does suggest that drug use/abuse has the potential to impair judgment and distort recollections. And, if those recollections are used to form an historical record of events, then that’s an important factor to identify.
Thanks for your perspectives and the excerpt from the National Institute of Drug Abuse-funded study. I agree that “it’s about the quality and accuracy of those memories” when artists recall years later about events that happened while they were on drugs. Also, as you say, the quoted study is relevant to cocaine and heroin’s “potential to impair judgment.” So interesting.
I’m glad that the Beatles’ drug usage vis-a-vis their music and their career decisions is being examined more thoroughly now!
Totally agree Carl, that it’s an important and timely topic. As I said earlier, I’ve never taken drugs myself, aside from smoking a joint once or twice. And I can tell you I couldn’t find my way to the bathroom after, let alone create music or recount events from years ago with any accuracy. Keith Richards is rather amazing! 🙂
To add to your research, Karen, here’s an excerpt from the most recent edition of Time, which includes a story on America’s opioid crisis:
“Neurologists now know that drugs like opioids can change the brain in people who develop an addiction … the regions responsible for impulses and emotions take precedence over the thinking parts, which evaluate things like risk, benefit, consequences and delayed gratification.”
With the caveat that drugs impact different individuals to varying degrees and in varying ways, this is why I have significant problems with current authors such as Goodman, who fail to acknowledge that John and Yoko were both heroin addicts when they decided to sign Klein as their manager. Whether John would still have made the same choice had he not been under the influence of heroin is impossible to know, but the reality is that Klein appealed to John’s emotion and ego at a time when John, already a mercurial and emotional person, was ingesting chemicals that encouraged impulsive and emotional behavior and decisions. And given that Klein is such a divisive force in the band’s breakup, to omit the fact that John and Yoko were using heroin when they invited him into the band’s structure is simply an irresponsible omission on Goodman’s part. It could be considered a fairly benign lapse, if not for Goodman’s repeated failures to acknowledge contradictory evidence that failed to fit his pre-determined thesis which was, evidently, to redeem Klein.
I’ve been lurking and enjoying the discussions, and don’t want to get in the way too much, but I would like to comment on this. I’m Joe, the author of Riding So High.
Carl – you mentioned Let It Be. Have you seen the Two Junkies interview? It was recorded on 14 January 1969, so right in the middle of the LIB project (at Twickenham, shortly before George quit and they moved to Apple). It’s a tough interview to watch, but shows that Lennon was definitely using heroin that month. He’s high, and at the 16-minute mark he’s on the verge of vomiting. The interview is paused shortly afterwards and when it starts again he’s a little more lucid.
On the subject of heroin and productivity, my understanding is that it varies from person to person. In the early stages, and before a habit fully develops (and while a user is still able to get high rather than just maintaining) it can indeed be motivating and give people energy. Some people, not everyone.
In the book I do explore the effect of heroin on Lennon’s productivity. It’s impossible to separate the drugs from the people and their creations – everything is intertwined – and Lennon’s demotivation with the Beatles arrived at roughly the same time as heroin and Yoko Ono. He didn’t stop working, he just did a lot less with the Beatles because he had new matters to focus on. Here are a few of paragraphs from my book which illustrate what I’m talking about – Lennon was a BUSY man in 1969:
“Heroin left him placidly indifferent to the activities of the Beatles, and as more of a supporting actor than in a leading role. There was no single cause of the Beatles’ break-up, but if any one drug was the main catalyst it was surely heroin.
“Ono claimed the drug helped calm their overactive selves. ‘We both felt it was very effective in the sense of slowing down our minds,’ she said. ‘If you get an upper, because we’re both very up people anyway, we would just go crazy with this. So we couldn’t take an upper, you know. We took a downer.’ And yet, although addiction had a deleterious effect on Lennon’s Beatles work, it didn’t do the same to his energy outside the group.
“For Lennon, 1969 was an astonishingly busy year, his most active since the frenetic days of Beatlemania. In addition to his work with the Beatles, he appointed Allen Klein as his manager; formed the Plastic Ono Band; performed live in Cambridge, Toronto and London; married Ono in Gibraltar; honeymooned in Paris; made a lightning trip to Vienna; staged bed-ins for peace in Amsterdam and Montreal; changed his middle name to Ono; bought and moved into Tittenhurst Park; took holidays in Wales, Scotland, Greece, India and Denmark; was hospi‐ talised after crashing his car; flew to the Isle of Wight to watch Bob Dylan perform; made several films; resolved to leave the Beatles; returned his MBE to the Queen; released Unfinished Music No.2: Life With The Lions; recorded and released Cold Turkey, Give Peace A Chance, Wedding Album and Live Peace In Toronto 1969; made an unreleased fourth experimental album; gave an array of television, radio and press interviews; appeared in documentaries for Man Of The Decade and the BBC series 24 Hours; and launched the ‘War is Over’ poster campaign. These were clearly not the actions of a stupefied drug zombie. His focus had merely moved from the Beatles to his new chief collaborator.”
Hi Joe, and welcome.
Man, that interview was hard to watch.
John’s frenetic activies while on drugs aren’t, to me at least, evidence of how drug use positively effects productivity. I guess it depends what you consider productive, but John was in the business of making music and selling records. He really did neither. Instead, I think his actions during this period were singularly designed to dump his “Beatles” image and create a more desirable (to him) artist persona, and consolidate his union with Ono. I don’t think he was a stupefied drug zombie, but I don’t think he was particularly creative, either. And Ono’s explanation for their drug use is right out of the addicts manual.
Out of curiosity, Karen: what are the standard justifications for drug use?
I take drugs when I’m sad. I take drugs when I’m happy. I take drugs when I’m high. I take drugs when I’m down. I take drugs to get the edge off. I take drugs to get the edge on. And on and on.
In other words, there are as many excuses and justifications for drug-taking as there are drugs. The standard justification is that if I need an excuse, I’ll find one.
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I don’t think I replied to your question. Thanks to you, now I have seen that interview. It is indeed hard to watch. I agree with you that they really seem to be disengaged due to being high on drug.
I am looking forward to the next post from Erin on this subject!
Regarding my being shocked, here’s that quote: “A lot of times you have a deadline and you have to work for 24 hours. This lets you do it with no pain, no tiredness,” he went on. “If I have to write a book, get me high — I’ll have the book written in two weeks.”
I have also read jazz musicians’ accounts in which they say that being high on heroin gives them the ability to focus and “hear” what’s to come while improvising. That’s until they stop playing and only live for their drug.
But, some heroin addicts are able to regulate their habits to an extent and function in their careers. Have you heard of the pioneering modern jazz drummer Kenny Clarke? I read in a bio of him that while being a heroin addict in the 1950s in New York, he maintained a busy schedule in the clubs and recording studios and kept a well-organized calendar (or such) of upcoming (and past) gigs and recording sessions. My impression is that he was considered reliable.
All of which is to say that heroin and related opiates for the most part detach one from daily life and commonly make people inert, but not in all ways for all people.
If I respond again to this topic, let it be about something less destructive!
There’s an unfortunate school of thought among fans (which doesn’t say much for my circle of acquaintances I suppose) that drugs were the best thing that “happened to” the Beatles. That if there’d been no experimentation with substances, they would have remained in their Moptop phase forever. That somehow an explosion of creativity, Revolver, Pepper would have been impossible without substance abuse.
IMO this is too much of a simplification of their talent. Surely they were open to a variety of avant-garde musical forms and would have evolved as artists if they hadn’t indulged.
It reminds me of literary fans of an earlier age who were convinced their favorite writers got a creative boost from alcohol, rather than being muted and finally destroyed by it.
Welcome back, Sam!
FWIW, I’ve always found this debate — whether the drug use was necessary to their creativity or not — a very interesting question. It doesn’t help that two of the best people to know — George Martin and Paul — disagree on the answer.
You have Martin declaring, point blank, in a 1971 interview that drugs did not make them better songwriters/musicians, and that they would have been able to make the same creative leaps in music without it. Then, of course, you have Paul years later saying that drugs are what made Pepper possible. Paul may be telling the truth, or he may be too close to the issue and his own marijuana addiction to see beyond that. Regardless, I think the part of the interview where Martin declares that, if he had been doing drugs, the music wouldn’t have come out as well, is a pretty accurate analysis.
Overall I’d speculate that both John and Paul (and George) were gifted enough, intelligent enough, curious enough, and competitive enough (with both one another and other rival bands) that they would have advanced in their artistry regardless.
As you know, although some Beatles authors may treat this as an either/or topic (either “if there’d been no experimentation with substances, they would have remained in their Moptop phase forever” or: they “would have evolved as artists if they hadn’t indulged”), it can be treated as a both/and topic.
–The title “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was demonstrably not derived from the term LSD
–Lennon was verbally creative and imaginative before he ever got high on pot or took LSD
–The way that the lyric imagistically unfolded and the dreamy vocal delivery/instrumental sounds that Lennon wanted on “Lucy” may have been inspired by getting high on pot or LSD.
In other words, Lennon quite easily might have written a song based on the title of his son’s artwork without having any pot/LSD experiences, AND the song and recording may have developed differently because he had had those experiences.
Clearly, LSD was not required to conceive of and execute avant garde Western classical techniques such as musique concrète (see Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge of 1955-56)! George Martin, with no pot/LSD experience, was enamored with such techniques. McCartney and Lennon may have been attracted to the techniques in part deriving from their pot/LSD experiences.
Thanks to Erin for starting this discussion!