Like much of my generation, I was thrilled by rock & roll, beginning in my case with the Beatles. It was an amazing musical time. Maybe it’s like that for everyone when they discover music, but it still seems different to me. Music was coming from all over the place and cross-fertilizing, getting more complex and exciting all the time.
In the late 1960s I began to be disappointed. After Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band I liked what the Beatles were doing less, partly because I had left high school, left home, was working for a living, and was pretty depressed about it. Bob Dylan also changed radically in a way I didn’t like.
There were other bands coming along, though, a great explosion of them, so I remained a musical addict for some years more. But eventually I lost interest in contemporary popular music. Part of it was because of new styles, metal, disco, punk, and eventually rap, none of which I liked much. But I think part of it too was that the musicians I had loved got decadent.
At the time I thought drugs like marijuana and LSD were a good idea, or at least not bad. That may have been naive, but I wasn’t naive enough to think that speed, cocaine, heroin, barbituarites, or too much alcohol were a good idea, and not only did I begin hearing more about those, but the music started to be less good too. A book, Live at the Fillmore East and West informs me that there was even more over-indulgence in that period than I’d known. Lots of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. With all this seems to have gone a lot of very egotistical behavior. Not very inspiring. It seems as if when musicians became successful they also graduated to harder and more addictive drugs. It’s disappointing to think so many heroes of my youth were so insecure–at least that’s what I presume it was.
Of course, I started picking up addictive behaviors too, though most of them were legal, unlike a lot of my musical heroes. I smoked marijuana, for a short time took (what I was told) was LSD and mescaline, but took very little else that was illegal. I began smoking cigarettes (to learn how to smoke marijuana), and that became habitual, lasting some forty-seven years. I also started drinking, and for several years drank like an alcoholic. After awhile I got tired of being hung over all the time, and began losing my tolerance (that may have been because I had Hepatitis C, unbeknownst to me), and began drinking less. And my very first addictive behavior had been reading, beginning from the time I learned, and continuing to this day.
I think it’s pretty clear to most of us that addictions usually have to do with pain. Sometimes it’s physical pain. I think even more often it’s emotional pain. We don’t want to fully experience that, so we run away from it. An interview I listened to yesterday suggested that meditation is a good way to approach emotional pain, not that it’s an easy fix–it still takes a lot of effort–but it’s a method of looking at pain objectively in which one focuses not so much on the pain as its characteristics and where it comes from. But it’s always tempting not to try to do anything effective about it, and just keep running. It’s certainly not a problem I’ve solved to any extent, even at my advanced age.
There’s always been drug abuse in this country’s history, especially if you count, alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. There was an explosion of illegal drug abuse beginning sometime in my youth. Exactly when it began is debatable. It really got going among white people in the late sixties, but it had become a plague in Harlem about 1950, when heroin hit town. Now heroin is no longer an urban phenomenon. It’s a plague in rural America too. Overprescription is frequently blamed for the latest manifestation, but I think the main temptation for addictive drugs is hopelessness.
There are some objective reasons for hopelessness in this country, as well as reasons that are more subjective. Many of us grow up unhappy with our parents, with school, or many other things. But we shouldn’t ignore objective reasons too.
One is financial. In my early life I didn’t find it hard to support myself ( I also didn’t have a wife or children), but for people much younger than me this was much less true. I won’t try to go into the reasons for the financial instability of many, but only say it’s a major reason for lack of hope.
Along with financial instability, rapid cultural changes of all kinds have had a bad effect on people. Divorce has broken up a lot of families, which has caused economic and other kinds of instability. Do children feel more neglected now than they did a couple of generations ago? I don’t know, but fewer families have both parents now. And not only is there neglect, but other forms of abuse. Those kinds of problems generate feelings that many people try to deal with by self-medicating.
So do problems like bipolar disorder. I don’t know if disorders like this, ADD, and ADHD are more frequent now than they were before the diagnoses were formulated, but in any case, the medications are available, so the temptation is always there. As long as we have drugs they’re going to get used, unless our culture changes tremendously.
Heroin took over Harlem for awhile, and spread across the country, because people’s lives in ghettos like those were not very happy, and drug use was an acceptable way out. It still is, no matter how people preach about it. The only way to end drug abuse, as far as I can see, is to get to the roots of it in each individual case, which would be very difficult and inconvenient. People adopt addictive behaviors often because they feel unloved. Loving them effectively would take a tremendous effort that many people don’t want to make. And since we live in a capitalist society, as long as there’s a market for addictive things (drugs or other) there will be someone to supply them. If you’re selling things you have to consider addiction as part of your market strategy. If people can’t get along without your product, you’ll have a steady income.
It’s a shame this is how we live. It’s not how humans were meant to live, and getting really caught up in addiction can make us less than human. But our addiction as a society isn’t just to drugs, but to our whole lifestyle that is destroying the natural world that allows us to live. It’s a shame we live the way we do, that drugs destroyed the music and many of the musicians we’ve all loved, and that most of us don’t have the courage to turn away from that. But that’s dwarfed by the way in which we’re destroying not only our individual worlds, but the great world around us too. And it’s much easier to just go with the flow than to actually do anything effective about it.