The Complicatist : Music for Stoners

Drugs and music, pros and cons, highs and downers

by Gordon Campbell

Whoah…drugs and music have long been partners in pleasure, socially and physiologically. No surprise that a Canadian research group has discovered that the pleasure centres in the brain that respond to drug craving are similarly active when we listen to music. By using a PET scan, the researchers found that pleasurable music triggers a release of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain. “Music, a mere sequence of notes arranged in time, can activate the same reward centers in the brain as drugs such as cocaine.”

The only puzzling thing about this is that music doesn’t resemble other pleasure-producing stimuli, functionally speaking. As the researchers point out, music has no clearly established biological value (unlike food, love, and sex), no tangible basis (unlike drugs and monetary rewards), and lacks the addictive properties of gambling or nicotine. Even so, it consistently ranks high on any list of what people rate as being pleasurable.

True, there is that ‘can’t get that tune out of my head’ feeling, but overall, music doesn’t trigger physical cravings. No one has ever had to go through a withdrawal programme to get over a fixation on the Smiths, or Justin Bieber. There is a lot of music about drugs. Some say drugs are good, some say drugs are bad and some merely try to smoosh the two experiences together. I’ve chosen a list of examples.

1. Teengirl Fantasy : “Cheaters”

Warning : this track could trigger flashbacks in the impressionable, and take them right back to psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore during the Summer of Love. Which means there’s a retro-cheesiness to this video for “Cheaters” that’s nearly impossible to dislike.

3. Abner Jay : “The Reason Young People Take Drugs”

Abner Jay was the son and grandson of sharecroppers, and the last of the old medicine show minstrels at the time he died in 1993. His music is a world unto itself. True, what hits you first is the minstrelly crazy black rascal dude persona. Get beyond that though, and you find that Jay also made some terrific folk blues/pop music – uniquely strange, but totally heartfelt. There really is no one like him. “The Reason Young People Take Drugs” straddles the two styles. “Cocaine” is one of his party turns, while the topical song “ The Thresher” (check out the great submarine footage!) was one side of a 1963 single with “ Cleo” – a song which IMO, is a slice of genius.

5. Julie Driscoll : Season of the Witch

If you need to be reminded of the psychedelic experiments that Teengirl Fantasy were referencing, take a look at this hilarious Julie Driscoll version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” And then there’s Spinal Tap because…why not.

7. Bone Thugs “Weed Song”

Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T and DZA Smoke : “Etc”

Cypress Hill made a career on the doper/hip hop intersection, but this amiable, loping Bone Thugs effort – complete with a spoof of the Shopping Network – is a particular favourite. Among current rappers, Li’l Wayne’s New Orleans protégé Curren$y has patented a similarly laidback, blunted kind of delivery – and since he’s joined on “Etc” by the Mississippi hotshot Big K.R.I.T you have here the two best young talents on the block in completely wasted mode, yet still swinging for the fence. In a genre that tends to over-produce its visuals, this one is refreshingly loose.

9. The Fugs : “Coming Down”

Hello grief bird, what’s happening? Ashes, pits of ashes. Long before he published his best selling book about the Manson Family, Ed Sanders wrote this dead serious attempt at recreating a cocaine withdrawal. Ashes! Ashes and shrieks, ashes ! Ashes and screams, ashes! Ashes and grieving / Eyes with a vision of torture /Fright with a feeling for death ! etc etc” Some bad shit going down, clearly. All set to a catchy, hummable melody that makes you pretty certain the singer will be back for more.

11. Grateful Dead : “Dark Star”

OK, here’s the mamajama of drug co-related musical excursions. While I’ve linked to the Live Dead album version of “Dark Star” known to most, you can also follow the Deadhead literature to any one of the myriad versions of the track offer the most complete experience, and there certainly are advocates for this 1972 version

taken from the Spectrum show in Philadelphia. But here’s the first installment of the Live Dead classic version of the track : :

7. Macy Skipper : “Bop Pills”

In 1956,when preachers were still preaching about the evils of rock’n’roll, a guy called Macy Skipper recorded this counter-argument for Sun Records. Apparently, a dose of rock’n’roll can be a genuine tonic, a sort of benign form of crystal meth. Take a few Bop Pills, suggests Mr. Skipper, and you’ll get so much energy you’ll just want to dance, dance, dance – and will then have to sell whatever you have and then wait eight long hours at the doc’s dispensary to get another three of them pills. There was a great cover version a few years later by the Cramps, too.

8. Dave Dudley: Rolaids, Doan Pills and Preparation H

Country music has had its share of drug casualties including – for a time – Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. In Dave Dudley’s big hit “Six Days On the Road” the dependence of interstate truck-drivers on the same ‘little white pills’ that caused Cash so much grief was duly noted. This time around, Dudley sings in praise of another little helper for truckers. Namely, the pills that relieved the strains caused by them sitting on their fat behinds day in, week out. Haemorrhoid country !

9. Frankie Paul : Pass the Tu-Sheng Peng.

Routinely, reggae gets written off as music for dopers and ropeheads, but this Frankie Paul stepper from 1985 is a charming celebration of marijuana, good food and sex, in that order. When Frankie finally finds his ‘sexy lover’ what is she doing? She’s in the kitchen cooking up some chicken! So what does he do? He reaches for the stick of tu-sheng peng. Great bassline, though.

11. Burial : “Archangel”

This year the reclusive British dubstep musician/producer Burial (aka William Bevan) re-emerged with a new album, and in collaborations with the likes of Thom Yorke. “Archangel” from his 2007 album Untrue remains a personal favourite though ; the track still sounds like a glide through some ruined citadel of capitalism. (Hello grief bird, what’s happening? ) Speaking of archangels, here’s the video that the genius Canadian film-maker Guy Maddin made for Sparklehorse. During its brief span, the song/video circles around the tremulous and overwhelming fact of mere existence, and the precious fleetingness of memory. Whoah.

Footnote : tracks like Heroin, Eight Miles High, White Rabbit, Pusherman, Puff the Magic Dragon, Waiting for the Man etc were excluded from this list, partly because over-familiarity would only kill the buzz.