Rehab: it’s not rock’n’roll

The Heroin Diaries, by a cleaned-up, self-deluded Nikki Sixx, is probably the last in the classic genre of the bad rock memoir. And it reminds us that early rock’n’rollers’ idea of freedom can’t be found in rehab.

Guy Rundle

Topics Books

A stage occupied by a troll and Steptoe with a guitar. That’s what a widely published photograph from Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert in London at the end of last year seemed to show. There were 18,000 people in the audience; a further 20 million had tried, but failed, to get tickets. Around the same time, smoky chanteuse Amy Winehouse was seen wandering the streets of London, half-dressed, in apparent psychological disarray following her bottom-feeder boyfriend Something Fielder-Civil’s remand on a variety of charges.

The antics that Led Zeppelin celebrated in the portentous Seventies road film, The Song Remains The Same, were a glorious bacchanal of the high-life (which would almost certainly get them arrested today). Winehouse’s ongoing public flip-out is by contrast as tawdry and wearying as Pete Doherty’s revolving rehab trip – and his stagy paparazzi runs, wet cigarette hanging perpetually from his baby-moonface like a liquorice twist. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll ain’t what it used to be. Particularly rock’n’roll.

Half a century after it hit Europe, with Bill Haley’s 1957 tour, the three chord, single rhythm, chorus-verse-solo form still dominates popular music. Every time it has morphed a bit too much – think Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart or Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ – something or someone has drawn rock’n’roll back to basics. Whether it’s the Sex Pistols (who sound more and more like Bill Haley every year), or the new school rock of The Vines and The Hives.

Some insist, in vain, that this is just a natural process of musical evolution – Louis Armstrong-era jazzers only went on playing until they dropped, so why shouldn’t this happen to rockers? Yet nothing really dispels the continual astonishment that this music – which more than any other movement based itself on a celebration of youth – should still exist, should be purveyed by people who were born well after its initial rise and fall had been completed.

Some compare rock with past explosions of musical celebrity, à la nineteenth-century violin virtuosos like Paganini. Such men may have lived fast and (due to circumstances) died young, but there was no cultural assumption that they needed to do so in order to be authentic. Long after the romantic revolution had occurred in literature, and effectively until the advent of recorded music, the musician continued to be seen as something between an artistic genius and the provider of a service. Not exactly a talented plumber, but no Keats either.

That conception lasted all the way into the early years of rock, which is why old lags – like the recently departed Ike Turner, who pretty much separated the style off from R&B with ‘Rocket 88′ in 1951 – were still gigging around small venues across the world, while the generation that followed them fell to excess.

Rock only acquired its mythical status as the voice of youth in the mid-1960s, when it supplanted jazz and folk as the music of an increasingly educated youth, inspiring and inspired by cultural revolt. From Bill Haley to The Doors and Jefferson Airplane in 10 years. An extraordinary cultural transformation during which rock effectively drew in the whole of twentieth-century modernism – from political revolution through Nijinsky to surrealism and the Beats – as part of its stylistic pallet.

It wasn’t inevitable that the self-conception of the rock star would change from working muso to vitalistic genius, an image ingrained forever by the near-simultaneous excess-deaths of Jimi, Janis and Jim. The template was set for a career-path that became as rigid as a fitter-and-turner’s apprenticeship – early wild success, cultural hero status, world tours, excess, exhaustion, jadedness, breakdown, and the option of early death or eventual return; older, wiser, grislier, just wanting to talk about the music, man.

In the Nineties, a crucial new stage was added with the popularity of rehab spells hitherto the preserve of the film industry, and the whole tradition became enfolded with Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide – the first big star to die not from misjudging the dose but from an exact calibration of it, blowing his head off as an enactment of extreme self-loathing. Since then, like Mother Courage’s cart, rock stars have been dragging, rather than riding, the wave of excess, as their couple of years of wild glory comes to be seen as mere pretext to the main business of collapse, redemption through rehab and the rediscovery of the simple things in life. This without anyone really noticing that the rock’n’roll lifestyle has become its very opposite. The early excess is now simply a long Shrove Tuesday before the dutiful lessons about original sin and concupiscence are taught to the downloading public.

The whole process long ago became ghastly boring. With the premiere of the Osbornes reality show it became genuinely funny. With the publications of Nikki Sixx’s Heroin Diaries it has reached a sort of self-parodic anti-perfection that makes Spinal Tap look like Thirty-Two Films About Glenn Gould.

Sixx was the bass player and songwriter for Mötley Crüe, the ‘heavy’ metal band that had a few hits in the 1980s and 90s, and later became famous as the band of Tommy Lee, husband of busty Baywatch star, Pamela Anderson. Mötley Crüe were part of the second wave of Heavy Metal. As its unitary form – as represented by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest in the 1970s – split into different strands, the relentless quasi-industrial hardcore style of Metallica and the showier glam-rock influenced the metal-pop of Crüe themselves. As hardcore metal became increasingly a resistant and acquired taste, more harmonically challenging (its dominant expression being the Tritone chord, much loved by Wagner, which hangs perpetually in suspension in the Western music scale), metal-pop provided an entry level, especially for listeners in the 11-15 age bracket, many of them young girls. The metal-pop bands were highly camp, their names were ridiculous, they didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously, right?

Wrong, according to Sixx’s record of these years. Sixx was an artist, trying to get at the heart of life, and he was disdainful of bands that weren’t serious, like the light-as-fluff Poison. Moreover, throughout most of the 1980s and 90s, he was apparently in acute emotional pain, which he assuaged by locking himself in a cupboard and shooting smack and coke straight for days on end. Now clean, the diaries – buffed up by a co-writer – are of course a record of those days, an attempt to ‘paint a fuller picture of addiction’. It is dedicated to ‘all the alcoholics and drug addicts who have had the courage to [can you guess] face their demons and to pass on the message that there is [can you guess] light at the end of the tunnel’.

In the words of St Oscar, you would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing while Sixx’s book. From the knock-off Ralph-Steadmanesque design through to the O-level essay series of medical definitions that function as a preface (taken from that illustrious source Wikipedia) through the endless self-absorbed self-exploration, Heroin Diaries is a comic classic, as redolent of its era as Diaries of a Nobody were of the Victorian bourgeoisie, with Sixx as a sort of Pooter of pot and poon.

‘Merry Christmas…That’s what people say at Christmas, right? Except they’ve usually got someone to say it to…and they’re not watching their holiday spirit coagulating in a spoon…I’m starting this diary because 1) I have no friends… ‘

So reads the first entry, and it pretty much sets the tone for the next – ohmygod – 350 pages. Interspersed with the endless tales of three-day benders, groupies – occasionally enjoyed, more often not – despair, self-loathing, overdose and miraculous non-death, are current-day reflections from Sixx himself and his bandmates. Recalls Tommy Lee:

‘Sixx and I, in particular, took a lot of narcotics and he would always want to push things: “hey what about taking heroin and cocaine together?”’

A speedball. Genius.

There’s more, much more, of that, including serial interventions by Sixx’s sort-of-girlfriend, Vanity, as she then was known. Today, she goes by the name of ‘Evangelist Denise Matthews’ and ‘would rather be stuck in a pond with a starving shark than take on such a foul name of nothingness [as Vanity]’.

And who could but agree?

Vanity/Evangelist is the closest Sixx got to human contact in those days, but as his manager notes, he’s a strong-willed man: ‘Nikki is a very driven individual. Sometimes he’d put drugs on the back-burner for a while for cars or seventeen-foot trucks….’

And then, of course, there’s the music. The book includes generous excerpts from Sixx’s lyrics, straight from the back of the exercise book:

‘Insanity runs deep/In the Company I keep/Insanity runs deep in everyone but you/My padded walls you call my eyes/My dreams that you call my lies/Around my wrists and shackles lay/Razor blades and cocaine to pass/The time away.’

While an encounter with a Catholic schoolgirl inspires him to spend a day and a night on a ‘lovely lil love song’:

Kneel down ye sinners/to streetwise religion/Greed’s been crowned the new King/Hollywood dream teams/Yesterdays trash queens…

A day and a night? 24 actual hours?

Not only is it practically impossible to find a competently written lyric to quote among the dross, it is pretty agonising to have to leave so much out (like ‘candy coated Holocaust/hidden in the past’). Heroin Diaries just keeps on giving.

There’s no end of bad rock memoirs, so why pay such attention to Heroin Diaries? Because, in its agonised sincerity, it appears to be the final classic form of the genre. No one could write a book more overblown, more evident of a virtual absence of self-knowledge, wisdom from experience or rueful amusement at the world’s folly. Sixx doesn’t sound like a bad person (now – at the time the diary entries were written he sounds like a bit of a pathetic prick, as he pretty much admits). But he, and the people around him, are so transcendently stupid that they serve as Holy Innocents in Babylon. To see the heavy metal world through their eyes is to remember what it was like to be 13 and want to be a rock star, or a groupie.

Yet what is most significant is the source of Sixx’s self-delusion. He has taken the title – songwriter – and drawn from it an identity as a Writer in the grand romantic sense. That is, as someone with a deep and unfathomable interior which needs must be expressed to the world – the full Wordsworth trip. This, above all, is the signal development of Sixties and after rock music; the belief that one was doing something more than running a danceband.

When Bo Diddley wrote ‘I’m Bo Diddley yes I am’ – this was the entire lyric of the song, repeated umpteen times – he knew the purpose of the lyric was just to have something to sing, to provide a counterpoint for the grinding guitar rhythm. A host of subsequent artists would show that rock lyrics could be art, and that subsequently came to be taken up by all rock musicians – by virtue of making music, they were writers.

Yet the composition of such songs is barely like capital-W writing at all. Effectively it is a craft, in which a song is assembled around a riff taken from a pretty limited set of options. That is not to disparage it as a life activity, simply to suggest that the culture tends to suggest to people that such an activity is only meaningful if it is an expression of unique selfhood, rather than the development of a given talent to successively higher levels. It is in other words a primarily narcissistic process, and inevitably subjectively destabilising.

Joyless excess is the self-willed corollary to that, for people who have discovered a small talent within themselves that leads to freedom from the restrictions of everyday life. There is nothing inevitable about that in wealth or fame, but one could surmise that the greater the given talent, the less likely one is to go down the drain. Thus, Blur seem to have been able to enjoy the perks while moving onwards and upwards, while Guns and Roses left two good albums before falling into 15 years of an ‘unfinished masterpiece’. Yet part of the predicament that so many rockers get into is an expression of the stuck nature of the form itself – as a revolutionary form that became routinised, a mode of youthful expression that aged without anything new coming along to shove it out of the way, a measure of a certain stuckness of an era proffering a great deal of counterfeit rebellion.

When rock was exploding – in an era when freedom was still limited by explicit censorship, anti-homosexuality laws, limited access to contraception and so on – such excess was an expression of freedom, the transgression of imposed limits. Yet as these legal restrictions were abolished, excess became autonomous, compulsive and effectively compulsory.

Another idea of freedom – of transcending simple desires (such as that of opiates) to higher and more complex forms of satisfaction vested in work and self-shaping as a musician – were forgotten, identified as it was with repression. Instead, the surrender of autonomy – the rehab trip – became the only other alternative. By seeking new limits – cultural rather than law-enforced – burnt-out rockers would become truly free, knowing however that they must never drink/smoke/snort etc again. Rock, frozen as a musical form, serves as a cultural enforcer of a distrust of one’s autonomy, because the only form in which autonomy is rendered is as essentially deconstructing oneself with drugs.

Nikki, Robbie and Doherty become pilgrims progressing to grace abounding unto the last of sinners – the chance to enjoy a normal day without getting loaded, courtesy of the aptly named Priory. To many, the rehab trip thus offers both a story of heroes – larger than life, they flew too close to the sun, they fell – and also the possibility of redemption in one’s own life, that one day the slate will be wiped clean and I can start again. For those of us with a different idea of freedom, it is wearying and wasteful. We just want the competent lounge-singer Amy Winehouse to turn up to that concert we paid for, for people like Nikki Sixx to make good head banging music, and for Pete Doherty to accept his destiny, retrain as an accountant and marry a nice girl from Amersham. And for Zeppelin to put on some more concerts, dammit.

Guy Rundle is publications editor at Arena (Australia).

The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star, by Nikki Sixx is published by Simon & Schuster. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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