Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Occult History

[previously posted on We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Party]

I won the raffle at a party thrown by a job agency a while back, and one of the prizes was a gift certificate from Starbucks. I don’t drink coffee; a single glass of Coke at dinner is enough to move my sleep time back an hour or more. But Starbucks sells other stuff, so I had a cup of hot chocolate and bought the Dylan No Direction Home CD.

The PBS special on Dylan was directed by Scorsese, and covered Dylan’s career up to the point where he had his motorcycle accident. It feels important, somehow, that Dylan survived the accident, that he didn’t follow the “good career move” that got so many of the other 60s icons. Dylan was always the Trickster, so it also feels appropriate, and besides, living is better than dying. I don’t care how many mediocre albums he’s made since then, how many unmemorable songs. He’s alive; good for him.

One of the things that was very obvious, and left very unmentioned, in No Direction Home was how thoroughly ripped he was for much of the time. The scenes from “Don’t Look Back” were particularly obvious, with Dylan’s speech, wordplay, little tics and gestures, all showing the obvious signs of amphetamine use. Gee, a pop star in the 60s on tour, using speed. What a shock. And a lot of his songs are scornful; just watch one of his press conferences and take a guess as to why.

The obvious reason why the documentary didn’t mention the drug use is that, once drugs get mentioned in any narrative, the overall narrative gets hijacked by the drug narrative. It’s pretty much the same with sex; once sex gets mentioned, it takes over the story line, because that’s what people are most interested in. I’m not sure what happens to a sex narrative once drugs are mentioned, or vice versa. I suspect it’s just that there is a sex/drugs story, and well, there you are.

The drug narrative, in order to be palatable, pretty much has to follow either the “I saw the light and now I am redeemed” plot line, or the “descent into hell followed by death” plot line. No others are really acceptable to a mass audience, although there are specialty tastes, of course, and times do change. It used to be the case that adultery had to be punished, for example, but not so much these days. Of course, adultery used to be actually illegal, and drugs still are. More accurately, the drug narrative is the illegal drug narrative. Legal drugs tend not to get much of a mention because there is no “moral principle” involved, unless the drugs are procured illegally, of course.

This wasn’t always the case. Opium was legal when Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” and that got turned into a morality fable, of a sort. When you examine it closely, however, it’s hard to find what the moral of the tale is. Without opium, there wouldn’t have been a poem; its incompleteness is usually blamed on the “gentleman from Porlack.” It’s also worth asking if “Kubla Khan” would have received the same response if it had not been known as an opium dream, and if it had been finished. Again, no way to know, is there?

Drugs affect art. Hell, everything affects art. But drugs, owing to their effects on the psyche, modify art more than most other things. Of course, love has had more effect on art than, say, heroin or amphetamines, but love has its own neurotransmitters. Pharmacologically, love is a stimulant. Add War, in its most general terms, to the list, and you’re still talking about internally generated substances linked to external events. Love, War, Drugs, go write about those. Let me know if you find richer subjects.

Most of the attention given to drugs in the narrative of the artist and the artistic life follows the plot of seduction and corruption. He had such a promising career until he became an addict. By the time she was 40, she looked 70 and her voice was shot, owing to the combination of alcohol and drugs. And so forth.

I once saw a bio of F. Scott Fitzgerald that referred to the matter as a “Faustian Bargain,” and that has more truth to it. We can decry the art lost to early death from alcoholism, but we cannot know how much of the art during life was the product of that alcoholism. One is supposed to hew to the line that drugs and alcohol only subtract, never add, but can one really listen to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and believe that it would have been the same song without a speed boost?

Dylan in particular was old school beat poetry with a rhyming dictionary. Try to imagine Kerouac without the liquor and speed, Burroughs without the heroin, Ginsberg without the peyote. One might was well imagine Nick and Nora Charles without martinis or Hemmingway without the guns and fights.

In SF, there are also plenty of overt examples of the occult history. In my essay Sleeping in Fritz Leiber’s Bed, I note that Leiber’s alcoholism informed a number of his stories, including ”The Thirteenth Step”, “Gonna Roll the Bones”, and “The Secret Songs”. Leiber might have written other stories had he not been an alcoholic, but they would have been different stories. The same is surely true of Philip K. Dick, whose habit (until his health failed him) was to sell a book contract, then take enough amphetamine to “speed rush” (Dick’s own phrase for it) the book into existence. And really now, does anyone think that Dick’s paranoid, reality-shifting, dark-yet-glittering visions would have been the same without the meth and dex?

The title of this essay is the short-hand that my friend Dave and I use to refer to the general subject of the effects of drugs on history generally, but on art in particular. I think Dave first used it when he’d listened to Elvis: The Sun Sessions and discovered a cut entitled “Bop Pills.” “Jim,” he said, “We overlooked something very important. Elvis was a truck driver.” What he meant, of course, was that truck drivers have always used uppers, and always knew where to get them. “Bop Pills” was part of how you got to bop.

You can certainly make your own list of all the art that has had drugs as part of the pervasive influence. “Wine, women, and song,” has been replaced by “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll.” It’s the same old song, though everything else about it has changed.

Well hell, without sex and drugs, what would the songs be about?


black dog barking said...

There's the scene in "Don't Look Back" where young Mr Dylan challenges the stringer from Time / Life / Whatever about his zombie-like approach to journalism, that there's a story the stringer wants to write and it's not the story in front of him. That Dylan was a fairly private individual in a most public of callings. I suspect a goodly amount of the speed jive was a response to being caught between where he was and where he wanted to be.

First time around, in real time, I bought a lot of Dylan records for the music, ignoring the lyrics completely. That has allowed me to happily "rediscover" this body of work. In a genre where the lyrics were, by and large, throw-aways I'm amazed by the power of the language in his songs. For example, from No Directions Home, She Belongs to Me tells of a somewhat pathetic guy caught in thrall to the Most Beautiful Woman in the Universe, the power of that attraction caught in the line-

She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks.

(He's got it bad.)

BTW, the No Directions Home DVD closes with Dylan singing Lay Down Your Weary Tune, a stunning (IMHO) work that somehow never got to a record bin near me. I thought the Invisible Hand was supposed to make that happen.

James Killus said...

The Invisible Hand abides and provides. It just turns up its nose (which, presumably, is in the palm of the hand) at record bins (though a little checking finds a bootleg of a concert where the song appeared).

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