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A Look at the Myth of Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll

Are rock stars really the drugged-out partiers we think they are, or are they just trying to boost sales with an image?

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By Remi L. Roy

06/18/14

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The divide between truth and lie has grown wider with every passing year. Business, media and entertainment – once honorable and upright enterprises – have been tainted by greedy suits and a society that prefers the synthetic to the authentic. The cogs of the lie machine, as I like to call it, churn unrelenting, producing Papier Mâché versions of everything, everyone. Music is no exception.

The lie machine has taken captive every genre that turns a profit. Rap sees correctional officers become gangsters; folk makes upper-class suburbanites into blue-collar indie rockers; country turns insurance salesmen into ranchers; pop transforms schoolgirls into salacious sleazes. Curiously, rock n roll has remained unchanged for the last 50 years. Or so the lie machine would have you believe.

In fact, rock has changed dramatically over the decades. Sex, drugs and rock n roll, once a trinity held as gospel in the genre, has proven to be a recipe reserved for outfits looking to fail. But what profit is there in the image of clean-cut rock stars from healthy homes? Little. And so, the myth prevails: Rock stars are crazy dudes who snort blow before shows on route to a lifelong diet of brown syringes and unadulterated sex with strippers and supermodels. 

In truth, few lifelong rockers who have had any sort of longevity and who have made a lasting impact on the genre are still using drugs or alcohol. Sure, many and most have crawled through Shawshank Redemption-like football fields of sludge to come out clean on the other side of addiction. Yet, without exception, every rock band and artist canonized in the collective consciousness of fans worldwide have taken one of two routes to success: sobriety or death. 

Admittedly, quantifying music is a pretentious practice best left to the likes of cynical critics, record execs and disc jockeys. Because of the subjective nature of the art form, sales rarely equate to quality, and vice versa. But any attempt to underline an argument as arbitrary as the one outlined herein is in need of numbers for proof. And so we turn to the stat sheet – the score card of record sales, a standard of success by which few conclusions can ordinarily be drawn. 

Of the Top-100 selling artists of all time, well over a third are rockers, including Elvis and Genesis, excluding The Beatles and Elton John (to give you an idea of who did and did not make the cut by way of the parameters I’ve applied to the data). Of these 40 or so artists, three categories can be created: the dead, the sober, and the recovered.

The dead is a short but stout list that includes Elvis Presley, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison, eccentric former frontman for The Doors. Lest we forget, the dead can also count many former members of bands that now find themselves in the recovered list. The Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle, Hillel Slovak of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Def Leppard’s Steve Clark, Howie Epstein from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, AC/DC’s Bon Scott, and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. 

This small group is but a jot of the many, many men and women who have been lost to drugs and alcohol in rock and roll. A more expansive investigation would dig up talents like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, Andrew Wood, GG Allin, Paul Gray, Shannon Hoon, Bradley Nowell, Layne Staley, The Rev, Mike Starr and the list goes on… But I digress. 

The sober list is, in essence, irrelevant to this discussion and made up of bands and artists who, to my knowledge, have not ever struggled with the bottle, needle, pipe, pills or powder. This somewhat boring class includes U2, Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams. 

Of note, though, one could include KISS on the sober list. Though both Ace Frehley and Peter Criss succumbed to the seduction of that vile mix of drugs and rock n roll, the only two relevant and remaining original members of the band, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, eschewed the cliché.

Easily one of the most exuberant acts on the planet over the last 40 years, KISS has remained an evocative but healthy outfit since the onset of the group in the early 70s. En route to selling over 100 million records, KISS has continued to spit blood, breathe fire and blow stages to bits with pyrotechnics. In fact, both Stanley and Simmons can be held as an example of how to rock, hard, and stay alive and viable in a genre that destroys more musicians than hip-hop, pop, country, and folk combined.

Mike Bloom, owner of the Pasadena Recovery Center, agrees. For young musicians, whom he believes are more prone to delving into heavy drug use, it is important to find a model for their careers so that they don’t throw their careers to the wind. KISS, says he, is a perfect archetype for new rock acts on the scene. 

“I would look to a guy like Paul Stanley from KISS – real successful, and somebody who never got into heavy drugs. I think that if you’re talking about longevity, that’s what he possesses. Had he gotten into drugs, he wouldn’t be the person that he is. He’s a living legend.”

Bloom has seen rock’s track marks first-hand. He has a contract with the MusiCares Foundation, which aids artists dealing with health crises, and works with the Musicians Assistance Program, set up to help musicians in need of drug rehabilitation treatment. For 15 years, he and his family, founders of the facility that hosts Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, have watched rock stars barrel through the doors, get clean (or not) and leave rejuvenated men and women with new leases on life. 

“Addicts, the ones who develop the illness for drugs and alcohol, have a hard time maintaining professionalism,” Bloom says. “What unites them is the suffering that they’ve caused themselves and the suffering they’ve caused other people. We’ve had many rockers come through over the years, and it [addiction] has affected their careers. Drugs do not enhance your music“

The recovered is an extensive and exciting list of some of the many acts that have tried to defy that sentiment. Most had to hit rock bottom en route to the top of the charts. 

AC/DC took the highway to hell before the brothers Young put the bottle down. Every member of Motley Crue – easily the most infamous 80s outfit – is clean after decades of antics outlined in detail in The Dirt and bassist Nikki Sixx’s The Heroin Diaries. The Crue has arguably made its best music in the time since Sixx, the band’s lead songwriter, got sober. The opposite can be said about Metallica records in the decade-plus since lead singer James Hetfield dried up, but the L.A. four-pack is perhaps more entertaining and energetic than ever on stage. 

Eddie Van Halen, The Who, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fleetwood Mac, Def Leppard, Aerosmith (most of the time) and The Rolling Stones (kinda sorta) can also be included among the revered and recovered rockers in the Top-100. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses could no doubt be counted among this class but, unfortunately, none of these bands exist in original form. 

It goes without saying that the recovered list is made up of some of the world’s favorite bands – rockers whose music is certified, celebrated and canonized. What would a hockey fight or football game be without some AC/DC Thunder Struck blaring in the background? Sad. How about a NASCAR race missing a side of Metallica’s Fuel? Slow. Or a UFC champ’s prizefight entrance less the Chili Peppers’ Give It Away? Soft. The soundtrack to the entertainment element of our lives has, like it or not, been written by ex drunks, junkies and fiends. 

I enjoy bobbing my head to that fact. When the alternative is to hang it and mourn the loss of yet another great rocker taken years before his or her time, lauding the sobriety of one-time gnarly characters is cause for celebration. Most of the recovered artists listed above, I’m sure, would have followed in the path of Hendrix, Joplin, Mercury et al had it not been for getting that devilish monkey of addiction off their backs. 

And so, it seems, rockers have their pick of two paths: success and sobriety or drugs and death. The high road or the back alley. Rockers, though genuine in the realm of trade and no doubt opportunity, are no exception to the rule that regulates all addicts – get clean or face a sad fate. Death, jails and institutions, they say, are where addicts spend their days if they don’t get clean. While some rock stars do go to jail or wind up in institutions ranging from Betty Ford to Shutter Island, most that don’t kick the habit end up pushing daisies. Sad, sure. But true. 

The lie machine will continue to sell the dream of sex, drugs and rock n roll. But, in truth, that lie died sometime in the mid-90s when the final nail went in the coffin of grunge rock with Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Black Sabbath lived it, Motley Crue lived it, Nirvana lived it. The rest that have claimed it since are faking the funk, bouncing back and forth between bad and ballad in a sad balancing act of chaos and conformity. 

And still, that great discord between what is, and what is perceived to be, continues to be stretched by the powers that be, for profit no doubt. Whether it’s politics, media or music, the line between fact and fiction will continue to be eroded in the name of capitalism and consumerism. Why mess with a good thing? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Let it be, let it be. Any number of clichés can help to illustrate why rock has changed so much in both sound and in regard to the comport of its composers over the last 50 years, but so little in the eyes of a public that still holds that artists should live up to a myriad of stereotypes, most including some form of alcoholism or drug addiction. 

Nowadays, acts like Arcade Fire rule the day. But, admittedly, bands like Buckcherry still hold sway. Delusions of drug and rock fantasies have not been put away, even though the vast majority of bands at the top of the heap are relatively clean rockers. The reason for the divide is evidenced when looking at other genres. In a music world where country stars are raised in the city and gangster rappers have never stepped foot in the projects, anything is possible. Or so the lie machine would have you believe. 

Remi L. Roy, founder of Martyr Magazine, last wrote about holding doctors responsible for prescription drug deaths.

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