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February 03, 2014


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Paul Duane

A friend of mine who spent years on and off heroin told me, "it's not a recreational drug. It was designed to make you not notice your leg's been cut off." He hated it, fell victim to it, OD'd at pretty much the same age Philip Seymour Hoffman did. It's a rotten, ever-repeating story and there's a pall of sadness over my world today because of it.


Look, I REALLY do understand the desire not to romanticize junk usage. It REALLY does fuck up people's lives. It's an UNBELIEVABLY bad habit that leads to very, very bad outcomes with high frequency.

But one can wholeheartedly believe the above paragraph and still note a high CORRELATION of talented creative artists who've messed around with the stuff. Now, correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation, and I certainly wouldn't advise aspiring artists to mess around with the stuff in search of creativity. It's obviously amazingly addictive, and once again, addiction to junk tends to lead to very, very bad outcomes with high frequency.

But just because we all agree it's bad doesn't mean we have to go out of our way to try to ignore the correlation, no?


RIP, PSH. Gone way too young. A tragedy for his family, his friends, and for us, his audience.

(Personally, I recreationally snorted junk somewhere between 5 and 10 ten times. I credit my lack of junk addiction to my getting addicted to tobacco against my will later in life than usual, (thus acquiring a sense of the awesome blindsiding power of highly addictive substances), being in a pretty good place in my life at the time of my usage, and no small amount of luck. In retrospect, I'm obviously quite happy I was able to play with fire and not get burnt.)

Sasha Stone

I took cocaine once and thought the same thing. I will never take this again because it is too good. I'm glad I never tried heroin. Everything I hear about it people always say the same thing: it takes away every fear and worry...good stuff Glenn!


As a teenager, I smoked--or "chased," as we called it--heroin many times. Of all the drugs I did, it was the most stigmatized among my peer group, and the most walled off from the common drug culture, which was dominated by the bud. I've always been bemused at the association of heroin with creativity in regard to bebop musicians, Lou Reed and, most commonly, Willliam S. Burroughs, because for me--and, in my observation, other users--it was the least mentally generative drug imaginable. This post is the first time I've read someone else say what I've felt like saying nearly every time I read a dilletantish piece on The Naked Lunch or Miles Davis: heroin is the enemy of creativity. Aside from the wonderful body-stone, what it gives you is a feeling of near-total apathy, mental and emotional nullity, and relaxation. That's pretty much it. And, unlike psychedelics like weed and acid, the variance in individual response is quite narrow. In Vancouver the most common slang term for the drug is "down," which pretty much sums it up. I couldn't say for sure, but I suspect that the correlation Petey cites is statistically insignificant: in a world where millions use the drug, it's unsurprising that a few dozen artists--or more, even--will have been addicts.


I've said this before and I'll say it again. Heroin delivers a wonderfully blissful sense of indifference, yes, but it runs deeper than that. Here is the BEST description of what it feels like to hit up with heroin (i.e., after you get opast the throwing up stage) that anyone has ever conveyed, and I'm including William S. Burroughs in this equation. Here's what it feels like: You've had to take a wicked leak ALL YOUR LIFE, but you never knew it. Heroin coursing through your veins is like taking that proverbial LEAK OF ALL LEAKS. But again, you have to get past the vomiting, which happens the first two or three times.


Re Petey's heroin-creativity "correlation," I think Glenn accounts for it nicely through Pepper's testimony: creative people tend to be radically sensitive, which accounts for their easier access to profound emotions and their wildly empathic perspicuity. But it also accounts for the psychic pain that many of them feel, a pain resistant to quick fixes (and, consequently, afflicting many who can't afford long-term therapy, meds, health insurance, etc.), a pain often belittled by those with "emotional intelligence," and a pain that is also undeniably, albeit fleetingly, medicated—and wiped out beautifully, and with relative efficiency, at least once—by heroin.

But heroin doesn't make great art. Heroin makes rapturous "indifference," as Glenn calls it, which is antithetical to art, even if it makes compelling subject matter now and then. If junk had any part in that session with Stitt, it was to reduce the fear or self-consciousness enough to perform. But the performance was already there, with or without heroin. “OK, I can get through this now,” maybe, but the diminishing returns are almost instantaneous.

Jeff McMahon

Let's think more about the great works of art that we've lost to heroin addiction than of the great works that have been produced (heavy emphasis here) *in spite* of it. RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman and everyone else who fought this battle.


I loved, continue to love, and have been influenced by some of the great smack narratives including Lou Reed, William Burroughs, and Jim Carroll, whose title "Living at the Movies" I think best sums up the positive experience with the drug. But I think gcg gets it. Heroin makes great subject matter for a great artist but is not responsible for the art itself. I'm sure much more often it's a detriment.

Somewhat related, best book I've read on a closely related subject may well be "Opium Fiend," by Steven Martin. Fascinating story and just when you think it ends predictably, it doesn't.

Sam Adams

Philip Seymour Hoffman told me that Love Liza, a movie about a man grieving his wife's suicide, was "was a real specific exploration of what somebody does to not go boo hoo hoo" and a part of me — the part, maybe, that's given to glib writerly explanations — wonders if that wasn't what drugs were for him: a way not to feel. There's (some) overlap between what drives (some) people to create and (some) people to do drugs, but the idea that the latter leads to the former has killed far too many people to let that toxic notion survive.

Jordan Hoffman

It's a real concern. From a purely selfish perspective, I shiver to think of a world where Eric Clapton didn't get addicted to heroin. The music he recorded once he started using the stuff (the Derek and the Dominoes years) really changed my life at a young age, and led me on a path to explore the "jam rock" I listen to constantly.

Heroin nearly killed him, and once he got clean he never ever did anything remotely as good. And the earlier stuff is good for the occasional Scorsese montage, but doesn't have the transcendent quality of his heroin years.

This is, I'm sure, just one example pulled out of a hat, but it is one I think about when I think about addiction and creativity.



Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly is one who does not believe that heroin addiction is inevitable:

In an interview with Kerry O'Brien for ABC's 7:30 Report, Kelly gave his reasons for writing about his heroin usage: "I thought I had something to say about heroin that was different to the usual narrative. The usual story of heroin is either a tragedy or redemption. I just thought there was another story there. People do use hard drugs recreationally and not all the time. People can use drugs like heroin without having a habit. I never did."


@GCG: "If junk had any part in that session with Stitt, it was to reduce the fear or self-consciousness enough to perform. But the performance was already there, with or without heroin."

If you're arguing that Pepper could have delivered that performance without heroin, I'm not sure I agree. It's not always possible to tap one's talent completely for some. People are inhibited in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons, and for some, drugs are the only way to fully remove that inhibition.


@MW: "Heroin makes great subject matter for a great artist but is not responsible for the art itself. I'm sure much more often it's a detriment."

That's certainly possible, especially to those who think of it as some sort of shortcut to "great art." As I mentioned above, it appears that some people need it to access the art that's already there.

Having said that, I'm taking Pepper's characterization of his Stitt performance at face value, but I'm open to the possibility that his characterization doesn't square with the facts and is in some way a form of self-justification for his heroin use. Wouldn't be the first time a drug user rationalized his/her drug use.

Matt B.

"Heroin nearly killed him, and once he got clean he never ever did anything remotely as good."

Yeah, but heroin also is one of the major reasons he couldn't sustain that peak or keep that band together. It's a miracle that one album actually got finished, from the stories you read about the sessions.

Also, when he "got clean" he slid into decades of alcoholism.

Jeff McMahon

Growing up in poverty is a pretty great way to inspire great art as well, so let's encourage more people to do that.


Isn't the whole heroin/creativity fallacy moot in this context? Hoffman led his entire extraordinary career in the period when he was not using the drug. If the accounts are to be believed, the relapse happened recently. A terrible loss.

craig keller

Powerful piece, Glenn.


I've always assumed that the benefit of drugs like heroin has to do with precisely what Glenn discusses: the radical indifference that it creates. Who could miss the appeal of something so perfect at numbing the pain of life? The creative wonders - the true ecstasies - aren't being fueled by the drug. The drug's contribution is indirect, either by relieving pain/anxiety/despair that might otherwise prevent the artist from doing her work, or by facilitating mental focus, or by lending a sense of structure to a chaotic existence.

Several artists - perhaps most prominently, Keith Richards, have praised heroin for its regulating effects. In addition to the immediate purpose of numbing psychic pain, it has a way of focusing the life of the junkie into a predictable cycle of getting high, working, scoring, wash, rinse, repeat. Many compare it favorably to alcohol, the effects of which are far more unpredictable, and the physical side effects of which are more immediately corrosive.

It's also worth pointing out that almost everybody - the figure is something like 90% - who tries drugs, even the most reputedly addictive, like meth & heroin, never become addicted. This is way too often obscured by our particularly insane national attitude towards drugs. Heroin might be the ultimate high, might be like being back in the womb, etc. But almost everybody that tries it manages not to form a habit. I say this only to diffuse some of the woo surrounding heroin.

All of which is not to downplay the dangers of so potent a drug (although, again, its illegality has a lot to do with the danger) that just claimed another life, tragically.

Glenn Kenny

Zach, I certainly don't doubt Richards believes what he says. Richards is also a fellow with a good deal of bravado, it should be noted. And the fact is that somewhere along the line he did feel obliged to give the stuff up. The "regulation" factor is not that far from what Burroughs describes in "The Algebra of Need," albeit with a very different emphasis—an emphasis that I find more, for lack of a better word, convincing.


Glenn - I agree. I think Richards is on record somewhere as saying that smack "saved his life" which is certainly bravado of some kind or another, not to mention a little perverse. I'll have to check out specifically what Burroughs said, I'm sure it's at least more nuanced.

Glenn Kenny

Here, it's actually first invoked in "Deposition: Testimony Concerning A Sickness" which is customarily attached to "Naked Lunch:"

"I have seen the exact manner in which the junk virus operates through fifteen years of addiction. The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below (it is no accident that junk higher-ups are always fat and the addict in the street is always thin) right up to the top or tops since there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on basic principles of monopoly:

1--Never give anything away for nothing.
2--Never give more than you have to give
(always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait).
3--Always take everything back if you possibly can.

"The Pusher always gets it all back. The addict needs more and more junk to maintain a human form . . . buy off the Monkey.

"Junk is the mold of monopoly and possession. The addict stands by while his junk legs carry him straight in on the junk beam to relapse. Junk is quantitative and accurately measurable. The more junk you use the less you have and the more you have the more you use. All the hallucinogen drugs are considered sacred by those who use them--there are Peyote Cults and Bannisteria Cults, Hashish Cults and Mushroom Cults--"the Scared Mushrooms of Mexico enable a man to see God"--but no on ever suggested that junk is sacred. There are no opium cults. Opium is profane and quantitative like money. I have heard that there was once a beneficent non-habit-forming junk in India. It was called soma and is pictured as a beautiful blue tide. If soma ever existed the Pusher was there to bottle it and monopolize it and sell it and it turned into plain old time JUNK.

"Junk is the ideal product . . . the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy. . . . The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client. He pays his staff in junk.

"Junk yields a basic formula of "evil" virus: The Algebra of Need. The face of 'evil' is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: "Wouldn't you?" Yes you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need. Because you would be in a state of total sickness, total possession, and not in a position to act in any other way."


Thanks for posting! Pretty grim stuff, but lucid. I'm curious about that new Burroughs biography...


I don't think there's just one story that explains a relationship between heroin and creativity, especially as there are different possible phases a heroin user will go through up to the evil virus and algebra of need described by Burroughs. And I don't think it's all related to the numbing of the pain described by others above. Just as it's impossible to know how someone else's pain feels, I suspect it's impossible to know how heroin, or anything for that matter, affected someone else's creativity. Seems to me that most often it and its sub-culture provides interesting subject matter. Then there can be no question that the numbing of the pain or freedom from social cares provides creative opportunity for some. And I'm guessing that Jim Carroll titles like "Living at the Movies" and "Book of Nods" are clues to another way it might enhance creativity for some. Large chunks of "Naked Lunch" for example, read like the author is more or less transcribing a nod. That's not the only example. And for plenty of others, no doubt the great majority, and probably like Hoffman given how much of his best work was done during the 20 years or so that he was off the stuff, it probably has nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with them just wanting to get high and then not properly respecting the addictive qualities of the substance.


I'm an artist. I learned art is there, always, you just have to be free enough to tap into it. Getting out of your own way is an art in and of itself. That's the art. There is no book on that. I was a complete pot head in the past and have been clean for 22 years. I must admit that now that the drug culture is being more openly embraced by our country, it kind of pisses me off. It will open the door to a new bunch of "acceptable junkies" which anyone in the arts is supposed to think is great. I don't. I think it's sad. I guess I'll be some kind of counselor to them one day, since I know the road.

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