Straighten up and fly right

Today’s topic is what some rock music fans might call “a buzzkill.”

As most everyone knows, “sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll” was a sort of unofficial mantra of the rock music scene in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Free love, recreational drugs and energetic rock comprised the hat trick of vices scorned by proper society, but to the generation in the thick of it, they were more of a menage à trois, the necessary components of a good time on Saturday night (or any night).

road recoveryThe thing is, when it came to drugs and alcohol, plenty of people overdid it, many because they had developed addictions and obsessive compulsions to keep using when others had stopped.

Musicians in particular were susceptible to this excessiveness because of easy availability and ubiquitous use/abuse among all those around them.  Sad to say, too many talented artists perished from their own self-destructive tendencies or reckless disregard for their own health and safety.  The list is too long and too familiar:  Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Lowell George, John Bonham, Bon Scott, Kurt Cobain…

Sobriety-Unplugged-Logo_no_bgStill, there are tales of triumph, too.  Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh and Ringo Starr, to name three famous examples, all went through a couple of decades of chronic abuse of coke, booze, pills and/or opioids that probably should’ve killed them, as it did their unfortunate peers.  But instead, they saw the light, went to rehab, recovered and have now led sober lives for nearly 30 years now.

In celebration of these guys and all those who are in recovery (including me), let’s take a look at some notable anti-drug rock songs that deal with either the despair of addiction or the joy of recovery.

Let’s start with Joe Walsh, who went straight in the early ’90s as a pre-condition of joe_walsh2_1jpghis participation in the reunion of The Eagles.  Walsh himself tells the story:

“For a long time, my alcoholism and use of drugs was manageable.  By that I mean I would hang out with people who would say, ‘Well, you’re not so bad!’  But you know, it’s a disease, and the last two or three years of my addiction were terrifying.  It gets bad beyond your wildest imagination, and then you crash and burn, and then it gets worse than that.  An awful lot of my buddies died before they hit bottom.  Fortunately, I hit bottom before I died.

“Getting sober was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because alcohol had convinced me that I couldn’t do anything without it.  You start with not knowing how to do anything sober, and you just build up your toolbox.  For a long time, I thought there was a possibility I might not be able to write music sober.  And I said, ‘If that’s the case, I’m just going to have to accept that.’

walsh12-1“So I stopped trying to write, but then one day this song ‘One Day at a Time’ (found on his 2012 “Analog Man” LP) kind of wrote itself.  I ended up telling my story about what it was like to be an addict, and my road to getting sober.  It just came out of me.  But the trick was I had to stop trying.  And so many addicts and alcoholics have contacted me to say they know exactly what I’m talking about in this song.  I’m saying there’s life after addiction, and it’s good.”  Sample lyrics:  “Well I finally got around to admit that I was the problem, when I used to put the blame on everybody’s shoulders but mine, all the friends I used to run with are gone, Lord, I hadn’t planned on living this long, but I finally learned to live my life one day at a time…”

“Kicks,” Paul Revere & the Raiders, 1966

R-7145038-1434724816-3922.jpegThis one is considered the first pop anti-drug song, which came out just as the recreational drug scene was blossoming.  It’s a great little tune, expertly produced by Terry Melcher, and written by pop songwriting gods Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill as a plea to their dear friend and lyricist Gerry Goffin (Carole King’s husband), who was headed off the deep end with drug use.  The upshot was, because of their involvement with this song, Paul Revere and the Raiders, who were never really a “hip” band, became somewhat blackballed by the counterculture as “a tool of the Establishment” (in ’60s lingo).  Sample lyrics:  “Well, there’s nothing that you ain’t tried to fill the emptiness inside, but when you come back down, girl, still ain’t feeling right, don’t it seem like kicks just keep getting harder to find, and all your kicks ain’t bringing you peace of mind, before you find out it’s too late, girl, you better get straight…”

“Cocaine,” Eric Clapton, 1977

maxresdefault-13Clapton had kicked a nasty heroin habit in the mid-’70s, but he then merely substituted copious amounts of alcohol instead.  When he recorded the J.J. Cale song “Cocaine” in 1977, he was drinking heavily every day and using coke as well.  He finally sobered up in 1988 and has stayed drug-free ever since, even establishing rehab clinics and sponsoring fundraising events.  Clapton maintains that Cale wrote “Cocaine” as a subtle anti-drug song.  “He knew if he tried to write a deliberately anti-drug song, it wouldn’t go over with the record buyers.  It would irritate them to have someone shoving that message down their throat.  So instead he wrote the lyrics in a cleverly ambiguous way.  If you don’t listen closely, it just sounds like a song about cocaine, neither pro nor con.  But if you reflect on it a bit, really look at the words, you’ll see it’s saying that cocaine is no good.”  Sample lyrics:  “If your thing is gone and you want to ride on, cocaine, don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back, cocaine, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine…”

“That Smell,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1977

Lynyrd-Skynyrd-1977-Street-SurvivorsAs Lynyrd Skynyrd grew successful, singer Ronnie Van Zant was becoming concerned about the band’s increasingly reckless indulgences, including his own.  A near-fatal car crash by guitarist Gary Rossington ultimately led Van Zant to write “a morbid warning song” about the possible consequences of careless overuse of drugs and alcohol.  In the wake of a plane crash that claimed Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and others, only three days after the album’s release, “That Smell” became notorious, thanks to the line “The smell of death surrounds you.”  While the crash had nothing to do with substance abuse, the lyrics offered dire warnings about it:  “Angel of darkness is upon you, stuck a needle in your arm, so take another toke, have a blow for your nose, one more drink, fool, will drown you, ooh that smell, the smell of death surrounds you…”

“Snowblind Friend,” Steppenwolf, 1970

220px-Steppenwolf7Thanks to songs like “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam,” Steppenwolf had an image as a “druggie band,” but like many quickie interpretations, this reading was wrong.  As it turns out, the group, popular between 1968-1975, mostly shunned drugs.  In fact, “The Pusher,” made famous by its inclusion in the soundtrack of the counterculture classic “Easy Rider,” was an anti-drug song, pointing the finger at the guy who enables the addicts.  Country singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton wrote it, along with another song about the tragedy of drug abuse, “Snowblind Friend,” which lead singer John Kay liked and brought to the group.  It focuses on the difficulty of trying to help a cocaine addict:  “He’ll always be a problem to his poor and puzzled mother… He said he wanted heaven, but praying was too slow, so he bought a one-way ticket on an airline made of snow, did you say you saw your good friend flying low, dying slow…” 

“No No Song,” Ringo Starr, 1975

51t-FC5YaNL._SX466_Hoyt Axton shows up again as the songwriter, this time for a #3 hit song that takes a whimsical approach to drugs and alcohol.  Ringo sings the tale of the narrator, a recovered alcoholic/addict who is offered Colombian grass, Spanish cocaine and Tennessee moonshine, only to refuse them all because “I’m tired of waking up on the floor.”  Axton, who had struggled with addiction early in his career, claimed he was poking fun at himself.  Ringo, meanwhile, with a touch of irony, was a heavy drinker and pot smoker at the time the track was recorded, but he got clean in the late ’80s and has been sober ever since.  He still sings the song in concert:  “No no no no, I don’t smoke/snort/drink it no more, I’m tired of waking up on the floor, no thank you please, it only makes me sneeze, and then it makes it hard to find the door…”

“Running to Stand Still,” U2, 1987

U2T71592The song’s title phrase originated from Bono asking his brother how his struggling business was going.  He replied, “It’s like running to stand still.”  Bono was intrigued by the phrase, and thought it expressed what he’d been told about heroin addiction, which was raging through his native Dublin in the 1980s.  In his review of U2’s “The Joshua Tree” LP, Andrew Mueller of The Ultimate Music Guide agreed, saying the phrase was “a perfect distillation of the dynamic of feeding on addiction.  You’re always running, but you’re going nowhere.”  The song describes a woman’s hellish life on heroin:  “She runs through the streets with eyes painted red, under a black belly of cloud in the rain, in through a doorway she brings me white gold and pearls stolen from the sea, she is raging, and the storm blows up in her eyes, she will suffer the needle chill, she is running to stand still…” 

“Amazing,” Aerosmith, 1993

aerosmith_-_get_a_tripEveryone in Aerosmith has confessed to abusing drugs and/or booze during their initial run of success (1973-1979), and the group’s early ’80s splintering was due to internal tensions exacerbated by drugs.  Singer Steven Tyler in particular had several embarrassing public episodes, including passing out on stage, which ultimately led to an intervention and a lengthy stay in rehab.  By 1989, the group was clean and back on top of the charts to stay.  For the 1993 multiplatinum LP “Get a Grip,” Tyler (with help from songwriter Richie Supa) wrote the power ballad “Amazing” about his sobriety.  The lyrics do a commendable job of explaining the desperation of bottoming out and the exhilaration of recovery:  “There were times in my life when I was going insane, I was so sick and tired of living a lie, I was wishing that I would die…  It’s amazing, with the blink of an eye you finally see the light, it’s amazing, when the moment arrives that you know you’ll be all right, it’s amazing, and I’m saying a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight…” 

The Needle and the Damage Done,” Neil Young, 1972

young_neil~_harvest~~_101bThis delicate, haunting Young tune deals succinctly with his grief over the heroin overdose of friend and Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten.  Appearing as a deep track on his #1 LP “Harvest” in 1972, this song summarizes Young’s experience with drug tragedies.  “I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see because of heroin.  And it started happening over and over again.  Then it happened to someone I knew.  So I just wrote a little song.”  Sample lyrics:  “I hit the city and I lost my band, I watched the needle take another man, gone, gone, the damage done…”

“Stone Cold Sober,” Del Amitri, 1989

51vnBO+xdeL-1I found it curious that there are about a dozen songs with this title, and only a couple have anything to do with being sober!  In fact, Rod Stewart’s 1975 track is all about not wanting to be stone cold sober.  The British band Crawler had a great 1977 song with that name, but it has more to do with wanting to flee town on the next train.  On its 1989 debut LP, “Waking Hours,” the Scottish band Del Amitri recorded its take on “Stone Cold Sober,” written by guitarist/singer Justin Currie, that explores the endlessly vicious circle of obsession with alcohol:  “And these dark days make the nights seem brighter than they are… So we get loaded and totally legless, but stay the same, I may be stone cold sober, but I’m looking for bottles of love…”       

Other anti-drug songs from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to check out:  “Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hand),” The Dramatics, 1973;  “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Etta James (1967);  “Just Dropped In,” Kenny Rogers & The First Edition (1968);  “Demon Alcohol,” Ozzy Osbourne (1988);  “Needle of Death,” Bert Jansch (1965).

Unknown-18Songs concerning addiction or recovery seem to have become more prevalent in recent years.  Coincidentally, both Kelly Clarkson and Pink recorded different tunes called “Sober” in 2007 and 2008, respectively.  In 2014, Seventies singer-songwriter John Batdorf released “Soundtrax 2 Recovery,” an extraordinary collection of sensitive tracks inspired by the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here are just a few more examples of such songs released in the past 25 years:

“Wise Up,” Aimee Mann, 2004;  “It’s Been a While,” Staind (2001);  “Young Homie,” Chris Rene (2012);  “Fallen,” Sarah McLachlan (2004);  “Slow Suicide,” Scott Stapp (2006);  “Powder Blue,” Elbow (2001);  “Habit,” Pearl Jam (1996);  “Devil in a Bottle,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1994);  “The Drugs Don’t Work,” The Verve (1997);  “Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley w/Alison Krauss (2004).

Jammin’ in the name of the Lord

“This is my message to you:  Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right…” — Bob Marley


Insistent yet gentle offbeat rhythms.  Lyrics of overwhelming positivity and confident pursuit of justice.  Fiercely defiant, yet warmly exhilarating.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of reggae music.  Or, as any Jamaican bus driver will tell you: “It’s island music, mon.”

3340414-reggae-wallpapersReggae, born in Jamaica in the ’60s, blends a tantalizing hybrid of ska, mento and calypso musical strains with a powerful lyrical message that focuses on social criticism and political consciousness, and the need for positivity, eternal love, joy and peace.  It’s most readily distinguished by its rhythmic emphasis on the offbeat, or backbeat (the second and fourth beat), instead of the downbeat (first and third beat), which characterizes most pop music styles.

Much more than many musical genres, reggae also has strong ties to religion, specifically Rastafarianism, a religious and social movement (they prefer “a way of life”) founded by Afro-Jamaicans in 1930s Jamaica primarily as a rejection of British colonialism.  Its beliefs include the healing powers of copious cannabis use and hypnotic, rhythmic music “to achieve the spiritual balance necessary for a satisfying existence.”

Hmmm.  Not exactly mainstream thinking in America at that time, although fringe audiences in isolated regions around the world took to it enthusiastically — both the music and the message.

Reggae first found favor outside Jamaica in the mid-’70s in England, where West Indian communities in and around London helped expose music lovers to the genre there.  Indeed, major British pop stars like Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton developed an interest in the island rhythms from hearing it performed by Jamaican musicians in the clubs of London.

Here in the United States, the acceptance and assimilation of reggae into the popular music market seems to have had a peculiar off-and-on history throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

johnny-nash-hold-me-tight-festival-3Its first appearance here, it’s generally agreed, came when an American-born artist — Johnny Nash, a Houston-based pop singer-songwriter — took his version of Jamaica’s indigenous music to #5 on the U.S. charts in 1968 with the catchy “Hold Me Tight.”  But if record companies were expecting to then cash in on a flood of reggae songs and bands, it didn’t happen.  (At least not yet.)

True, The Beatles, always savvy and forward-looking in their musical development, took a shot at reggae during sessions that same summer for “The White Album.”  McCartney explains:  “I had a friend named Jimmy who was a Nigerian conga player, and he was a happy happy guy all the time, like a philosopher to me, because he had all these great expressions about life.  One of them was ‘obladi, oblada, life goes on, bra…’  I told him I loved it and was going to use it in a fun little song I was writing that used a rhythmic approach I was starting to hear from Jamaican bands in the London clubs at the time.  Wonderful vibe, this music called reggae.  So that’s what ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ was, our rudimentary attempt at reggae.  I don’t know if we quite got it, but we had a blast trying.” But it wasn’t a single, just one of 30 album tracks, so it didn’t achieve widespread popularity until nearly a decade later.

R-532201-1371131732-1351.jpegSo reggae went back into hiding for a few years until the great Paul Simon, always curious about “world music” and intriguing new rhythms, visited Kingston in 1971 to record his new song “Mother and Child Reunion.”  He admired reggae artists like Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker and wanted to explore the music further at its source, using Jamaican musicians who instinctively knew the way it should be played.  He invited Cliff’s backing group to accompany him on the recording, and the result was also a #5 hit that put reggae back in the public eye.

MI0001597709The attention Cliff gained from that connection helped him later that year when he released “The Harder They Come,” the soundtrack album to the movie of the same name (in which he also starred).  The film, a crudely made crime drama, was largely ignored but later became a favorite with the midnight-movie crowd.

Then, in the fall of 1972, a reggae song finally reached #1 on the charts here (and in Canada) when Nash returned with “I Can See Clearly Now,” the most popular song in the U.S. for four straight weeks.  A year later, Clapton took the plunge that inadvertently brought reggae to an entirely new level in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Recalled the guitarist, “We were in Miami cutting the album that became ‘461 Ocean Boulevard.’  One day, guitarist George Terry came in with an album called ‘Burnin” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, a band I’d never heard of.  When he played it, I was mesmerized.  George especially liked the track ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and kept saying to me, ‘You should cut this, we could make it sound great.’  But it was hard-core reggae and I wasn’t sure we could do it justice.  We did a version of it anyway, and although I didn’t say so at the time, I wasn’t that enamored with it.  Ska, bluebeat and reggae were familiar to me, but it was still quite new to American musicians, and they weren’t as finicky as I was about the way it should be played — not that I really knew myself how to maxresdefault-8play it.  I just knew we weren’t doing it right.

“When we got to the end of the sessions, and started to collate the songs we had, I told them I didn’t think ‘Sheriff’ should be included, as it didn’t do the Wailers’ version justice.  But everyone said, ‘No, no, honestly, this is a hit.’ And sure enough, when the album was released and the record company chose it as a single, to my utter astonishment, it went straight to Number One.  Though I didn’t meet Bob Marley until much later, he did call me up when the single came out and seemed pretty happy with it.  I tried to ask him what the song was about, but I couldn’t understand much of his reply.  I was just relieved that he liked what we had done with it.”

Marley had been a tireless devotee and champion of reggae throughout its early years of development, when his fellow Wailers (including Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), along with Toots and The Maytals, were the true pioneers of the genre.  It was Marley, through his songwriting, singing and relentless performing, who caught the eye and ear of Chris Blackwell, founder of the seminal Island Records and a native Jamaican himself.

In Marley, Blackwell recognised the elements needed to snare the rock audience: “Rock music was always rebel music at heart, and so was reggae.  I felt that demonstrating that similarity would really be the way to break Jamaican music in the U.S.  But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in, it was clear to me that he really was that image.”

marleyHe signed Marley to a lucrative contract in 1973, let him loose in his studios in the Bahamas and England, and sat back and waited.  The debut LP, “Catch a Fire,” marked the first time a reggae band had access to a state-of-the-art studio and were accorded the same care as their rock ‘n’ roll peers.  Blackwell, hoping to create “more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a rudimentary reggae rhythm,” restructured Marley’s arrangements and supervised the mixing and overdubbing.

While the album and its immediate follow-up, “Burnin’,” didn’t do much on the charts, the songs were getting better, and the rock critics and savvy listeners (especially in the UK) caught on.  When Marley made his debut live appearance in London in 1975 (and the concert was later released as the “Live!” LP), he had become a major sensation there, with his iconic “No Woman, No Cry” climbing to #8 on the UK charts.

Marley had been complimentary of the efforts of Nash and Simon to expose American audiences to the world of reggae, and he publicly endorsed Clapton’s version of “Sheriff,” but he remained determined in the belief that only Jamaicans could play reggae as intended.

He told Britain’s Uncut magazine in 1976, “The real reggae must come from Jamaica. Others can go anywhere and play funk and soul, but reggae — too hard.  Must have a bond with it.  Reggae has to be inside you.”

By the release of “Rastaman Vibration” later that year, Marley’s music had broken through to the U.S. market.  While its single, “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” stalled at #51 on the fd16-bw-bob-marley-billboard-1548pop charts, the album soared to #8 and the 1977 followup “Exodus” (with the FM hits “Jammin’,” “Waiting in Vain” and “Three Little Birds”) was a respectable #20.

In the UK, “Exodus” stayed on the charts for an astonishing 56 consecutive weeks.  Reggae’s boom there existed concurrently with the burgeoning punk movement, which shared that same rebellious streak.  But the message in reggae’s lyrics offered a more lasting form of rebellion — the one-two punch of hope and truth, which ultimately won out over punk’s dead-end nihilism.  It’s why reggae’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent decades while punk, frankly, isn’t much more than a glorified footnote (even more so in the U.S.).

The Police evolved from their punk/New Wave beginnings in 1977 to become international superstars in 1983, but reggae definitely played a pivotal role in their repertoire, from hits like “Roxanne” to deeper tracks like “Walking on the Moon” and 1981’s mantra-like “One World (Is Enough For All of Us).” As drummer Stewart Copeland put it, “We plundered reggae mercilessly.”

stevie-wonder-master-blaster-reggae-reggaetoday-okIn America, Motown/funk superstar Stevie Wonder was so taken by reggae in general, and Marley in particular, that he wrote a tribute to him in 1980 called “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” which became a #5 hit in the US and #2 in England.  Marley and Wonder even performed several shows together that summer.

While many of Marley’s most cherished songs preach love and serenity, his final efforts — 1979’s “Survival” and 1980’s “Uprising” — adopted far more militant tones, as he felt compelled to speak out more against the social injustices he saw on the rise as the ’80s began.  Just glance at the changing mood in the song titles:  Instead of “One Love” and “Positive Vibration,” we have “Africa Unite,” “So Much Trouble in the World,” “Zimbabwe,” “Ambush in the Night,” “Real Situation,” “Redemption Song.”

Jamaica was rocked to the core when Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981 at only 36 years old.  More than three decades later, Marley is still regarded as a figurehead and near-deity among the Jamaican people, and the spread of reggae worldwide is due in large part to his impact.  Several of his 11 children have picked up the Marley mantle ziggy_marley_australian_toursince then, most notably Ziggy in the late ’80s (particularly “Tomorrow People” in 1988) and Damien in the ’90s, perpetuating and growing the reach and influence of reggae music as their father intended.

In the Eighties, acts like Blondie kept reggae prominently in the picture with their #1 cover version of The Paragon’s “The Tide is High,” and Culture Club contributed reggae-flavored hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” which was more an amalgam of multiple styles that included reggae.   As Boy George remarked, “In the the ’70s, we had glam rock, but we also had reggae and ska happening at around the same time.  I just took all those influences I had as a kid and threw them together, and somehow it worked.”

Some purists regarded these and other non-Jamaican acts UB40 as “weaker, pastel versions” of true reggae — one critic called it “reggae that wouldn’t frighten white people” — and truth be told, they’re probably right on.  And still others never liked reggae to begin with.  Morrissey, the iconoclast who served as frontman for The Smiths, one of England’s most popular bands of the ’80s, summarized his feelings this way:  “Reggae is vile.”

Me, I enjoy a little reggae now and then, but usually only if I’m sitting by the pool or on the beach.  To my ears, it has a certain sameness to it that gets old after a short while.  But damn, it’s fun, it’s soothing, it gently gets under your skin, in a good way.  Take a listen to the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below for a healthy cross-section of reggae’s earliest hits and timeless anthems.  Or, if you prefer, you certainly can’t go wrong anytime you play Marley’s incredible “Legends” CD compilation, which has now sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.