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Posted on 28 Oct 2014 in Non-Fiction |

ANDREW McMILLEN Talking Smack: Honest conversations about drugs. Reviewed by Toby Creswell

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talkingsmackFourteen interviews with Australian musicians give rare insights into the mystique of drugs and the creative process.

One Christmas a long time ago, I received a yellow card with a big capital ‘H’ on the front and inside, instead of ‘Season’s Greetings’, the inscription read, ‘Taking drugs is better than playing Monopoly – Lou Reed.’ The card came from my teenage friend Richard Hossell. The ‘H’ a reference to his surname and to heroin, the drug with which he then flirted. The Reed quote was from a press conference the New York singer had recently given at Sydney airport. Within six months of that Christmas, Richard was dead by his own hand. His suicide note included a quote from Doors’ singer, the already dead Jim Morrison, about riding the highway west, and I think a reference to Rod Stewart, who was then still interesting. Dislocated by puberty and sexuality, an only child, a sensitive boy with a pink suit growing up in a tough part of town, Richard hid inside the music. That’s where we found our common ground. When he died, I felt a pang of guilt that I had voyeuristically watched Richard work at his heroin habit.

You know some people got no choice

And they can never find a voice to talk with

That they can even call their own

So the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be

Why they follow it. You know it’s called bad luck. 

– ‘Street Hassle’, Lou Reed

Those stars made it all seem so glamorous and so fun. Cults sprang up around Jim Morrison – idiot fans defacing his grave in the Paris cemetery was just the tip of a death-cult iceberg. For me, seeing what happened to Richard leached all the romance out of self-immolating rock stars and songs about ‘rock & roll suicide’ or death trips. It’s not amusing.

One of the many things that rock & roll is about is identity. Around the time that Richard flew off the rails, a friend introduced me to Cosmic Steve, who wandered the streets in a hashish haze mouthing the words to Mick Jagger’s song ‘Memo From Turner’. Steve one day poured petrol over his father and burned him to death. Another boy styled himself completely after Rolling Stone Brian Jones and renamed his girlfriend Anita. After leaving rehab, having conquered a heroin habit, he joined an alternative rock band and made quite a name for himself. Rock & roll is often also about transcending yourself. Drugs are about transcendence and that’s where the music meets the poison.

Drugs go with rock & roll like Wagner and Nazism, drag queens and Liza Minnelli. It has always been the case. Of course the myths of jazz are tied up with drugs too. Harry Miller once told me that when he toured Louis Armstrong in Australia in the 1960s he realised that Satchmo’s famous handkerchief, which was perpetually mopping sweat off the star’s brow, was soaked in cocaine. No wonder he was always smiling. Jazz genius Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction was well known and most of the players of the 1940s and 50s developed similar habits in the hope of finding the key to Parker’s supernatural sense of melody in opiate dreams.

It’s not just the audience that is seduced by the mystique. Teenagers and grown men inclined to pursue rock & roll are also likely to emulate their heroes. Keith Richards coined the phrase ‘elegantly wasted’ to describe himself.  INXS stole the expression for the last album they made before heroin, ecstasy, cocaine and sadness destroyed Michael Hutchence. Michael bought the gimmick, as Iggy Pop would say. So many kids in the 1970s took up heroin following Lou Reed’s lead, just as the Beatles advertised LSD and later English bands popularised ecstasy. And it has to be said: much of the best rock & roll was made on and about drugs – Bob Dylan’s 1960s masterpieces were largely heroin albums, John Lennon’s too; the Beatles’ late work was done on pot and LSD. The Velvet Underground changed music and poetry. The fury of the Sex Pistols and the Clash burned explicitly on amphetamine.

Andrew McMillen addresses all these issues in Talking Smack, a collection of 14 interview/profiles with Australian musicians – few of them talking about heroin per se. The book is refreshing on a number of levels: McMillen has collected a good cross-section of both new and established artists, from up-comers like Jake Stone to superstars such as Tina Arena and living legends like Spencer P Jones.

The book’s big surprise is that it is one of the few pro-drugs books on the shelves. McMillen acknowledges that he dabbles with intoxicants himself and so he has no moral barrow to push. Instead, he wants to investigate the role that drugs have played in various creative processes. The Brisbane journalist is sufficiently disarming to elicit some very candid stories and tells them in a non-judgemental way.

Mick Harvey was for several decades the sideman to Nick Cave – for most of that time one of the world’s most notorious junkies. Harvey is quite open about the way that heroin unleashed Cave’s art and that he benefitted from the way that Cave almost mutilated himself with opiates. To some degree all of Cave’s fans were complicit in this terror – they really wanted to watch him burn because it was such a beautiful fire.

No one has been more open about his or her drug use than the Church’s Steve Kilbey. The psychedelic hit ‘Under the Milky Way’ referred to marijuana, and much of the group’s best music was made on LSD. In the late 1980s, Kilbey developed a heroin problem, which eventually landed him in a New York jail. Kilbey, like Paul Kelly and so many others, was chasing the romantic dream of rock & roll. Yes, it gave them some of their best songs but they were lucky they lived to sing the tale.

Heroin is, on the evidence in this book, more of a baby boomer drug. Ice, cocaine and booze are more frequent tipples for Generation X. Holly Throsby is comical about her brush with Bolivian marching powder, and Powderfinger’s Ian Haug is circumspect on that band’s excesses. Haug recently joined the Church, so Volume 2 might be spicier there.

The real interest in Talking Smack is not so much the drug tales which, let’s face it, are fairly repetitive: get stoned, get sober, get stoned again, ad nauseam. The strength of the book is the insights that McMillen gives into the creative processes of these artists.

Andrew McMillen Talking Smack: Honest conversations about drugs  UQP 2014 PB 272pp $29.95

Toby Creswell has written extensively on rock & roll in books, newspapers and magazines. His many projects include documentaries on Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, Powderfinger and various other artists, as well as launching magazines.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.