Going Clean: Drugs and Creativity in the Lives of 10 Musicians

One of the most depressing things about the whole sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll mythology is how persistent and pervasive it remains in 2011. We don’t buy into hands-over-ears “Just say no” sanctimony here, but equally, there’s something sad about the fact that musicians still buy into Baudelarian mythology about drugs driving creativity. Equally, however, there’s the  uncomfortable fact that plenty of musicians have a) made great music while on drugs and b) made mediocre music after going clean. Here at Flavorpill, we have a theory about this — that musicians’ drug-taking coincides with the early stages of their career, and they often get clean at about the same stage they run out of ideas. But clearly, this isn’t always the case — so join us after the jump as we put this theory to the test by looking at ten artists who’ve been very, very bad, then eventually got clean, and evaluate their work before and after the change. The results are… interesting.

David Bowie

It’s hard to believe that the man who invented Ziggy Stardust was shy, but Bowie apparently started using cocaine for the same reason many people do — to reduce his inhibitions, and also because he had so many ideas he didn’t want sleep to get in the way of being able to continue working. It all sounds awesome in theory, but as ever, the reality is somewhat different — in Bowie’s case, it ended up in subsisting on milk, bell peppers, and half of Colombia’s GDP, giving Hitler salutes, and trying to exorcise a swimming pool because he believed Satan was hiding in it. It’s also a measure of just how strung out he was that moving to Berlin with Iggy Pop constituted a relatively healthy lifestyle decision. He finally got clean in the early ’80s, a period that coincided with a distinct drop-off in quality — although having said that, has anyone ever had a decade as fertile as David Bowie during the 1970s? Let alone be able to sustain such a run for longer? In 2004, he reflected on the question of drugs and creativity: “So many people find it fashionable to say you couldn’t write those things if you weren’t on drugs and all that. I just doubt that’s the truth at all, because some of the best things I wrote in that period I had already cleaned up.”

Insobriety: A decade of genius
Sobriety: Three decades of (largely) dignified elder statesmanship