Musicians and Addiction. Research and Recovery Stories

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Author: Dr Paul Saintilan, editor
Category: Biography, Music and the Body
Sydney: Music Australia, 2020. 366pp.
ISBN-13: 978-0-6486883-0-3 Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0-6486883-1-0 eBook – Kindle/Amazon/MOBI format ISBN-13: 978-0-6486883-2-7 eBook = EPUB format/other eBook retailers
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“An exposé and support resource for those affected and afflicted by the demons that circle around the music industry.”  

This informative, and at times confronting book provides a compendium of information, including industry recommendations and first-hand accounts relating to the effects of addiction upon the lives and work of musicians. The picture painted here is of an industry where an addiction to drugs and alcohol is rife (it could almost be seen as a prerequisite for entering the field), forming a common thread that runs through the careers of most musicians in the popular music industry from the top international icons to lesser-known artists with local careers.

The editor proposes that musicians form a ‘special’ category with regard to their susceptibility to substance abuse and supports this claim with compelling research statistics. The focus of the book is towards addictive substances, sexual addiction, for example, among other non-substance related addictions are discussed only in passing. The position of ‘madness’ – highly labile mental states, severe depression, mania and other psychiatric afflictions – is likewise touched upon, but not fully explored, although the self-written recovery stories that occupy a section of the book strongly indicate that whatever the outward pressures of the music industry, much of the substance abuse that is discussed is a response to internal conflicts and insecurities that surround the ‘self’, and the subsequent impact upon inner creative processes.

Paul Saintilan, editor

One hundred ‘celebrated international musicians who reportedly ran into trouble with drugs or alcohol’ are listed and briefly discussed in the book, the editor noting that the list aims to be neither definitive or comprehensive, rather it is ‘miniscule’ and only the tip of the iceberg. The list is an eclectic mix, with Judy Garland appearing alongside Sid Vicious, Iggy Pop and Billie Holiday. A small number of major classical musicians are listed – Beethoven, Debussy and Tchaikovsky – the inclusion of which is only a glimpse at a larger picture, particularly when one also takes performing artists into account. Two classical artists, however, are represented in the recovery stories. Drug and alcohol addiction apparently is an impartial malaise within the music industry, seemingly impervious to genre, age, sex, race, fame, obscurity or wealth.

This book is a timely exploration of the phenomenon of substance addiction within the music industry, and the editor asks the leading question ‘What is it about musicians?’ noting that it would be inconceivable for a list of one hundred outstanding electricians with drug and alcohol problems to be published in this way.  That musicians, particularly those working in popular genres, were particularly drawn towards a lifestyle that embraced addictions has long been tacitly accepted.  I remember in my teens discovering a photograph of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, taken in 1931, with an empty seat in the brass section.  It took some research to discover that this was a silent tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz cornetist who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 28.  It is timely to discuss openly the role of drugs and alcohol in the lives of artists who may, for a time find that these substances open new doors of creativity for them, only to experience the Janus-faced horrors of addiction taking over their lives, requiring ever more regular and larger doses to reconnect with their desired creative states, followed by correspondingly destructive consequences for mind, body and spirit over time.

The contents are organised broadly into three sections, and also contain a number of useful resources which are given in the 6 appendixes.  Most significant is a companion website, which provides additional information and resources and is planned as an evolving entity.  The first book section outlines current research relating to addiction among musicians.  It summarises the drivers that could be attributed to or exacerbated by the pressures of the music industry itself, including – performance anxiety, social/workplace/cultural pressures, fame and celebrity, imposter syndrome, creative pressures and the heightened emotional turbulence of performance.  These issues are likely to be impacted by natural predispositions, determined by genetics, personality, childhood trauma and the subsequent development of mental health issues.  As Terry Serio writes: ‘Addiction will find its members anywhere and anybody can join. …  Addiction is always looking for its next comrade.  For indeed in the early stages each member feels they have found entré to a very exclusive club.’

The second section of the book presents a collection of autobiographical materials, some from published works and others written specifically for this publication.  Among the many well-known names represented, an account by Herbie Hancock of an early experiment with LSD highlights the contractual flaw in the addict – substance relationship for the creative artist:

I made my way to the piano in the living room, because I had thought it might be a cool, creative thing to play while I was tripping.  But the keys were twisted into a U shape, so I couldn’t figure out how to do it.  And then I realised I didn’t feel like playing anyway – I just wanted to look around at all the weird creatures and scenes that were morphing on the walls and ceiling. 

 These issues are expanded and highlighted in a series of intensely personal recovery stories, that outline patterns of developing addictions, which for a time offer creative insights and facilitate access into other, interior worlds that cannot be accessed within normal conscious states.  Over time, however, these heightened experiences prove to be transitory, unreliable, or illusory.  Any short-term gains from the substances quickly devolve into lives spiralling out of control, as creativity falters.  Most of the contributors have been in recovery for a number of years, some for decades.  One is never ‘cured’ of a major addiction, and those who make it to being ‘in recovery’ will remain in that state for the rest of their lives.  While some of the musicians included have continued their involvement in the world of music, others have moved on, immersing themselves in spiritual practices, or providing support to a younger generation of addicts in search of a way out.  All stories have in common the arrival at a state of rock-bottom, an ‘a-ha’ moment,  followed by an ensuing struggle on the part of the artist to (re)connect with their ‘self’, usually with the help of some form of spiritual practice.  Several of the stories are harrowing and give poignant insights into the extent of personal carnage which is, to some extent glossed over by the music industry.  This section of the book concludes with a number of professional perspectives which are gathered from those who work in the area of addiction recovery.

The third and final section of the book discusses steps that may be taken to address the issues raised in earlier material.  This is the shortest part of the book and is described by the editor as a ‘sketch of possibilities, and areas to explore’.  This well sums up the aspirations of the volume as an open-ended resource and focus of discussion, for which the companion website is an important reference (www.musicianaddiction.org.).  This final section of the book outlines a 13-step programme for the recovery of individuals, along with advice for industry (professional music organisations), along with an invitation for them to become involved in this enormous issue.

Paul Saintilan has undertaken an important and long-awaited task in providing a multifaceted resource to encourage discussion, understanding and action around these complex issues. It is a huge field, and I can imagine a related work being produced that focuses towards the classical musical industry.  The fundamental issues and causes are similar, but in the finer details, behind the smart evening dress and canonic cultural artefacts, there are specific matters that are particularly pertinent to the ‘classical’ field. This book is, and I predict will remain for some time, an indispensable reference tool for those who work with, represent, counsel and treat musicians with addiction issues.  Parts of it will also be of interest to insiders within the music industry, who can hardly have avoided encountering these issues in the workplace.  Artists themselves, may gain personal insights and come to better understand their own creative processes.  The afflicted may find that they are not alone and derive comfort from the fact that there is help, with resources only a website away.  Arts managements may come to recognise that the problem is not one of ‘problematic’ addicted individuals, but rather a collective problem which impacts a large proportion of those in the industry (including some of those held to be the most accomplished and talented (high functioning), and for which support should be provided.

This thought-provoking book is available in Australia through the distributer, Windhorse Books in Newtown, or else directly through the publisher, Music Australia via the companion website www.musicianaddiction.org where it can be purchased either in paperback or as a Kindle eBook.

Postscript

The subject of this book might, in earlier times have appeared under a title like ‘Music and Madness’.  As the nineteenth century unfolded, it became acceptable for the ‘Romantic Artist’ to display eccentric, unexpected behaviours, to the point of ‘madness’ – the arts became a means by which the bourgeoisie could dabble and interact with notions of madness, which were tied up with extremes of personal freedom and identity. A kind of fascination arose around the later works of Robert Schumann, for example, as speculation grew as to whether these compositions in some way charted or reflected the onset of his affliction, and whether his inner struggles would be discernible in these compositions.  Just as the artists discussed in ‘Musicians and Addiction’ explored substances in order to connect with other parts of themselves, so did classical music lovers and experts alike study Schumann’s final works in order to discover whether the works composed following the onset of madness might be more interesting than those composed in lucidity? The same questions could (and have) been posed regarding the later works of Hugo Wolf, or Gaetano Donizetti.

The classical music industry has, until recently cloaked, ignored and suppressed a wide variety of behaviours that can be recognised today as destructive, addictive, anti-social and illegal.  This was perhaps more widespread in the area of performance then composition.  A certain amount of creative temperament was expected of a musician – particularly a leader, such as a noted soloist, or conductor.  This meant that erratic or eccentric behaviours were ‘normalised’, tolerated to an extent that is no longer acceptable today.  These behaviours (particularly the more affected versions of them) generally masked addictions, or mental health issues which are more readily and easily recognised today.  Even a giant of the twentieth century like Leonard Bernstein has, through biographical scrutiny, come to be seen as not just one of the major musical minds of the century, but also a deeply conflicted and addictive human being, who perhaps was unable to face his demons at least in part because he was unable to separate his addictive urges from his creative ones.  A similar exploration of the classical music industry awaits.

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