Dependence and Influence: A Look into Artists’ Relationships with Intoxicants

The Beatles. By United Press International (UPI Telephoto) Cropping and retouching: User:Indopug and User:Misterweiss [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Gaga, while recording her newest album, ARTPOP (2013), hinted that she had used various kinds of drugs to help boost her creativity. Multiple songs on her album allude to drug use – some subtly, others explicitly (“Mary Jane Holland,” “Dope,” and “Jewels n’ Drugs”). In an interview with Elvis Duran, the host of U.S. radio station Z100’s morning show, Gaga clearly revealed that she did in fact use drugs to help her work creatively; her drug of choice was most frequently marijuana. In that same interview, she publicly worries that in the future she will not be able to conjure up anymore of her unusual brand of uniqueness without the help of drugs. She admits that she is working towards to no longer relying on illegal substances for her art, but said, “I do put that pressure on myself; I have to be high to be creative. I need that, that’s an error in my life that happened for over 10 years… Can I be brilliant without it? I know that I can be and I have to be because I want to live, and I want my fans to want to live” (Gaga, 2013).

Lady Gaga during artRAVE: The ARTPOP Ball Tour. By Gabrisagacre14 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the past two hundred and fifty years, drug use has had a place within the arts. For writers, musicians, and other artists alike, the mind-altering effects of drugs have played a part in certain artists’ works. For a modern example, we can look to Lady Gaga; however, it is not hard to find others who found influence from intoxicants. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether or not the use of drugs tarnished their reputations. For some, drug use was a hindrance upon their careers; for others, it helped make them even more famous.

Three artistic figures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who had intense experiences with drugs were Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, and Charles Baudelaire. For each of these men, opium greatly influenced their work. Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” (1816) was composed one night after he experienced an opium-induced dream. Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that he learned during his dream until he was interrupted by other business. The hour-long disruption caused him to forget the rest of the lines he intended for the poem, which, to this day, remains unfinished. It is fair to say that Coleridge had an intimate relationship with opium; waking from an opium-induced dream was something he did regularly (Poetry Foundation). He used his addiction to create a persona: one of a dreamer, a poet who created and lived drug-induced fantasies. His addiction, although physically debilitating, allowed him to gain fame and prestige. Had it been a different drug that served as his aid and muse, he may not have been able to garner such a following; however, opium struck a chord within the high-minded, bourgeois society because of its quasi-legality and its taboo-like nature. It was not exactly illegal, but it was not something in which high-society should participate.

Laudanum Poison. By Cydone.Cydone at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Thomas de Quincey, another man of this era, is most famous for his autobiographical account, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). It chronicled his laudanum addiction and the effect it had on his life. His book was criticized during his lifetime as presenting an overly positive image of the effects of opium. Many scholars even suggest that, in publishing this work, de Quincey brought the genre of addiction literature to Western audiences (Morrison). However, despite the criticism, his influence was widespread; one such person who was influenced by his work and life was Charles Baudelaire.

Charles Baudelaire. Étienne Carjat [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1860 Baudelaire wrote Les paradis artificiels, a book that was directly influenced by de Quincey’s Confessions. It focuses on the state of being under the influence of both opium and hashish, which creates an “artificial paradise.” Besides opium, Baudelaire was a frequent drinker of absinthe. Baudelaire, unlike Coleridge and de Quincey, did not receive fame during his life. He had always wanted to see himself become a successful poet, and when his dreams did not pan out as he had hoped they would, he was not shy in finding comfort in alcohol and other drugs (Charles Baudelaire – Son œuvre). When his work Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) was published and was not met with the praise he had hoped for, Baudelaire did not truly recover. He slipped into a world of excess: alcohol abuse, drug use, and many sexual endeavors. He never really convalesced from this descent, and his already poor reputation suffered as well. Some of his work was banned; others did not get published for fifty years or longer after his death. His drug and alcohol use did not help his art; rather, unlike Coleridge and de Quincey, it held him and his work back.

From the time of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the twentieth century, opinions on art and intoxicants had changed a bit. With the introduction of the Beat generation in the 1940’s and 1950’s, to the free-love era of the 1960’s, drug use became much more popularized by the public, but especially by artists. The stigma that Baudelaire faced did not dampen the careers of new writers and musicians. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, we have a man, furiously typing at his typewriter, never once changing the roll of paper for fear of a break in his thought process, taking breaks only when needed. Surrounded by 120 feet of paper, full of letters and words that decode his stream of consciousness, a new kind of writer emerged. Jack Kerouac, a Beat in his own right, embraced the usage of alcohol and drugs in his everyday life as well as in his literary pursuits. His most famous novel, On the Road (1957), was written in a span of three weeks; this marathon of writing was spurred on by an ample dosing of amphetamines. His nonstop writing birthed a new kind of style that Kerouac dubbed “Spontaneous Prose:” a method that may not have come into existence had he not been under the influence of uppers such as Benzedrine (Pekar et al., 2009).

Jack Kerouac. By Tom Palumbo from New York, NY, USA (Jack Kerouac) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsJack Kerouac, along with the other Beatniks, had placed themselves of out the mainstream of society. Some people did not laud their drug use and experimentation, but others most definitely did. At any rate, it did not ruin their careers. Such experimentation influenced others greatly (along with their new style of writing, new life-styles, and general call for liberation). One such group directly influenced by the Beats was The Beatles.

Over the course of a decade (1960-1970), The Beatles had taken the world by storm. One great influence in their work was often drugs. From Benzedrine to heroine, the four men took many different drugs during this decade. The Beatles’ first introduction to the main stage of the world was as a clean-cut, pop band from England; this image changed throughout the course of the sixties as their lives changed. Benzedrine and amphetamines were the first drugs of choice for The Beatles. They both allowed for The Beatles to get through long nights performing in clubs. “Prellies” (Preludin) was, according to Ringo Starr, “the only way [they] could continue playing for so long.” Cannabis usage, another drug frequented by The Beatles, affected their songwriting; it made their music mellower and more introspective. Songs such as, “Got to Get You into My Life,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and “She’s a Woman,” all reference marijuana. Interestingly, each of these songs was a hit. People enjoyed listening to this drug-influenced music (The Beatles Bible).

When The Beatles started using LSD, it brought them even closer together and further changed their sound. According to the British media at the time, it was also a bad influence on their fans (The Beatles Bible). In an interview with Independent Television News, Paul McCartney admitted to taking LSD four times and gave his opinion on how he believed it would or would not influence his fans. He said that although he did take LSD and publicly admitted to doing so, it was the media that were bringing this attention to the public and to fans. The media were propagating this information.

 

Video via Beatlesbible on Youtube. 

The one drug that had a truly negative consequence for The Beatles was heroin. John Lennon started using heroin with Yoko Ono. The other Beatles were disappointed by Lennon’s new habit because they did not know how they could help him stop using. McCartney, however, did say, “It was a tough period for John, but often that adversity and craziness can lead to good art, as I think it did in this case.” Songs such as “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” were both influenced by and reference John’s heroin addiction. His addiction peaked during the Let It Be era, which caused him to drop from the band creatively. This, along with the heroin-induced experiences Lennon shared with Ono, did help contribute to the breakup of the band (The Beatles Bible). For The Beatles, drug use helped and hindered their career. It helped to create a plethora of hits and helped to change music greatly, but it also, in part, led to their ending.

For each of these artists, intoxicants of some kind influenced their work. For some, this was a hindrance on their careers. For others, personas were created, books and records were sold, and impressions were made upon the world. The kind of drug or alcohol used and the era during which it was used had a major effect on whether or not the user was well received. Although opium usage for both Coleridge and de Quincey helped their careers, for Baudelaire, his usage coupled with his absinthe addiction, did not allow him to see a positive reception to his work during his lifetime. Jack Kerouac’s work was greatly shaped by the usage of drugs. It did not dampen his career; rather, he created a new writing style (spontaneous prose) that critics and audiences loved. His work and lifestyle, along with the Beats, bled into the culture of the following decade: the 1960’s. During this era, we see The Beatles; not only did their drug use change over time, public reception to their usage changed as well. The mellowing effects drugs like cannabis and LSD had on their music appealed to a different audience than their Benzedrine and amphetamine-fueled performances of their earlier songs. However, both styles of music The Beatles produced were well liked. From the examples looked at, it is clear that intoxicants influence artists and their art; they also play a part in how the public receives their work. The norms of each artist’s society helped to dictate in which light the usage of intoxicants would be seen: a positive light or a negative one.

Sources:

  • “WATCH: Lady Gaga Does Not Want To Reinvent Herself On Every Record | Z100.” Z100. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.z100.com/articles/z100-news-451815/watch-lady-gaga-does-not-want-11814837/>.
  • “Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/samuel-taylor-coleridge>.
  • “Thomas De Quincey (1785 – 1859).” Thomas De Quincey Home Page. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.queensu.ca/english/tdq/>.
  • Morrison, Robert. “Gimme Shelter: De Quincey on Drugs | OUPblog.” OUPblog Gimme Shelter De Quincey on Drugs Comments. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://blog.oup.com/2013/03/de-quincey-on-drugs/>.
  • “Charles Baudelaire – Son œuvre – Litteratura.com.” Charles Baudelaire – Son œuvre – Litteratura.com. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://baudelaire.litteratura.com/?rub=oeuvre&srub=ess&id=8&s=1>.
  • Long, John. Drugs and the “Beats”: The Role of Drugs in the Lives and Writings of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. College Station, TX: Virtualbookworm.com Pub., 2005. Print.
  • Pekar, Harvey, Ed Piskor, and Paul Buhle. The Beats: A Graphic History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. Print.
  • “The Beatles and Drugs | The Beatles Bible.” The Beatles Bible. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.beatlesbible.com/features/drugs/>.

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