A Good Ass Question: How Do Intoxicants Influence Music?

August 6, 2012 13 comments

It’s a quarter to noon on a warm Sunday morning.

“Potent… I need whichever is your most potent.” That’s what I mumbled, swiftly avoiding eye-contact with the sweaty, 20-something, hairy Italian guy in a Bad Brains t-shirt. I’d only spoken to him through a series of rash, equivocal text messages, but we each knew what the other was thinking. He put a nearly-full, transparent bag down on the table. Then another, a bit larger in size. Then, a third; this one with a blue tint, larger still, and nearly bursting at its seam. “The big one’s 40. It’s a little more than an eighth, so you’ll be fucked uhh– you doin’ this shit by yourself?” he paused to inquire. “Nah”, I lied. “So yeah, that’s eight” he continued. I confirmed and handed him the cash. It was that quick, tentative, quintessentially drug dealer-esque transaction that never feels quite as efficient as you’d like it to be. I waited for him to get all the way to the bottom of my apartment complex before I impatiently tore the bag open and recklessly took a bite out of the biggest mushroom cap I could rip from its stem. And then, as Lily Tomlin might put it, shed my “crutches of reality”.

The correlation between drugs and music is as old as, well, drugs and music. You can try as you may to date it back to a source, — psychoactive flower spores traced in Neanderthal percussion tools, Native American peace pipe circles, prohibition mash liquor helmed in Jazz-era speakeasy’s, “The 60s” — but the marriage is amaranthine by nature. Many of my favorite albums have been either formed utilizing drugs, or deeply impacted me while I was under the influence of an intoxicant. So, it’s more than reasonable to assume that drugs and alcohol can enhance the music listening experience. But, that also unearths the age-old dichotomy of “Perception vs Reality”. Is what I’m hearing through the speakers while I’m either high or drunk of its intended nature? Or, is my altered state affixing substance into areas of the music where no substance exists?

I decided to try and find out for myself.

It’s ten to one on a warm Sunday afternoon.

The “come up” is one of the more tense moments of ingesting any psychedelic drug, so planning is key if you hope to have the desired, productive experience. I’ve laid out two records to be played during my trip (anticipating a six hour trial) — with a third to be purchased mid-trip. One must be old, but familiar: MF Doom’s Operation Doomsday. The second, nearly completely new to me, in age and familiarity: Baroness’ latest LP Yellow & Green. The third by way of a five block walk to the Lower East Side’s Cake Shop record store and cafe. Thumbing through the scores of vinyl casings is an adventure in and of itself, especially when the high begins to kick in, but the visceral reaction to the album covers emits sensory responses that form inner dialogue to the tune of:

“Oh shit, the volvelle on Zeppelin’s “III” is crazy elaborate.”

“Oh SHIT! How did I never notice Diddy on the “Midnight Marauders” sleeve?”

“… If I have to stare at Bradford Cox’s concave torso on this Atlas Sound cover for one more second I’m not gonna make it home.”

I left the store with Smith Westerns Dye It Blonde for the simple reason that the aquatic warped flower pattern was lucidly soothing. My afternoon vinyl triumvirate stood complete.

The blueprint, of course, isn’t purely hallucinogenic. As Kendrick Lamar might tell you in his latest single, alcohol can foster some mind-altering states that turn, what may otherwise be, a boilerplate radio jam, into the GREATEST SONG IN THE HISTORY OF EVER, all in a matter of sips. I tend to believe that this falls into the category of “mood music”, but those qualifications are easily skewed with alcohol because you’re in control (then, subsequently, out of control) of the mood fairly quickly. Especially since there’s no drunk plateau. You’re either getting more sober, or more wasted. High-energy music comes to mind when I think of the ‘clear’ liquor effect: TNGHT’s self-titled EP, Waka Flocka, Dope Body, even that drill vibe (hella bandz, yall) to name a few. The ‘brown’ influences a smoother disposition, making me opt for more transient fair such as Marvin Gaye, certain A$AP Rocky tracks, and the terminally chill Washed Out. Beer makes me do all of the above, urinate vigorously, and invite people to my home, of whom I wake up no longer wanting there.

It’s two o’clock on a humid Sunday afternoon.

I make it back to my apartment just in time for my motor skills to start acting up. I manage to load the record-changer and drop the needle on Operation Doomsday. The skits don’t hit me immediately but, the thing with shrooms is, when it kicks in, there’s no reasoning with it. You are where you are. So when Doom opens the second track “Doomsday” with “I used to cop a lot/But never copped no drop/Hold mics like pony tails, tight, and bob a lot” the words came alive in the most radiant, animated manner. The beat to the next track, “Rhymes Like Dimes”, didn’t ease that sensation either, with its Saturday morning cartoon bounce and jazzy keyboard. I’m officially “rolling”. I make it all the way to “Who You Think I Am?” (track 10) before any major visual effect begins. Then, suddenly, the walls pulsate with a cathartic ripple, the sofa dips and warps incrementally, and my row of ceramic Delhi figurines begin eerily bobbing in time. This would continue for the duration of the album and, without a doubt, I’ve never felt more a part of “Operation Doomsday” before.

Now, I’ll have to be blunt here (no pun intended), my “drug” of choice is marijuana. I understand people who don’t use for various reasons, and it isn’t for everyone (though, no intoxicant is). But, I wouldn’t hide my affinity for it either, which is what makes today’s current musical climate such a joy to revel in. Potheads are giving zero fucks in the music industry nowadays. Whereas the field was limited to niche corners with artists like Kyuss, Snoop, Devin the Dude, Sleep etc., (omitting pioneering psych-rock staples like Blue Cheer) the dominance of Wiz Khalifa, the refinement of Curren$y, and the legitimacy of Juicy J, –not to mention nearly every mainstream rapper making, at least, a passing reference to its use in one way or another — have made it easier for the casual smoker to relate. I’ve had damn near religious experiences going on blunt rides through scenic valley’s listening to Outkast’s ATLiens, or Incubus’ Morning View, and certainly spent many a high school night trying (and failing) to freestyle to Dilla instrumentals. Pot is, in some ways, “the great equalizer” drug, sitting on a pedestal that is easily accessible, but can no doubt hinder creative process if used as a crutch for conception. Regardless, the recondite effect that weed has on the endorphins in the cerebral cortex almost always alters music for the better. Plus, me and Mary Jane just “get” each other.

It’s half past three on a sweltering Sunday afternoon.

“Yellow Song” is a deceptively docile way to introduce the heaviness that is Baroness’ Yellow & Green. The Explosions in the Sky style ambiance dissipates into the sludgy march of “Take My Bones Away”. My speakers are bleeding. No, not metaphorically. From the punishing drum roll that intro’s “March to the Sea” to the comforting soft groove of “Where I Belong”, I’m literally envisioning a thick, mahogany ooze leaking from the stereo, and into (not onto) the floor. I should’ve gotten up to touch it, but the sullen tones and atmospheric backdrops that round out side one of this album leave me immobilized. The record is extremely aesthetically pleasing. A surprising departure from the prog-metal that highlighted their previous color-coded LPs, Red Album and Blue Record. I feel the contrast between heavy and delicate in my bones. The second half of the album leans on the more melodic side, with “Board Up the House” becoming an instant highlight for me. “Stretchmarker” is giving me the feeling that this trip might go a lot smoother than anticipated, but then penultimate closer “The Line Between” proceeds to MELT MY FUCKING FACE OFF. At this point, I don’t even know if I’m being metaphoric or literal anymore.

“I made a song about DMT, Soulja Boy did one right after”, rapped Ab-Soul on his Childish Gambino feature “Unnecessary”. Musicians embracing psychoactive pharmaceuticals is nothing new, I mean, what did you think was in Pimp C’s “lean”? Flinstone vitamins? But, today, the interplay between the pilled-up musician and the pilled-up fan is nearly one-for-one in some sectors. In the early-mid 90’s, mainstream media got a scare when it was discovered that ecstasy actually wasn’t that fake drug from ‘Beverly Hills 90210’, and “hip” techno clubs across the country were filled with zooted-up youngsters swollowing “sex pills” and raging with glow sticks and pacifiers. Today, with the prominence of dubstep and trap-house, psychotropic medicine is relatively commonplace. Nowadays, I can’t think of a better way to enjoy some live EDM than gobbling some molly and basking in a giant, frenetic dance party like Dayglow. There’s certainly a communal aspect to this grade of drug, which can enhance the music listening experience, whereas depressants like Xanax and Vicodin (on the other end of the spectrum) can produce an ancillary affect, almost taking the brain outside of the auditory framework. Certain pharmaceuticals can augment specific experiences but, most of the time, it takes more ingredients than just music to create that remarkable high.

It’s a quarter to five on a hazy Sunday afternoon.

I’m well aware that after multiple listens last year, Dye it Blonde is an album that I’m just lukewarm on. I’m also aware that Smith Westerns will probably provide less of an emotionally fluctuant experience than any of the previous records. So, preconceived notions aside, I’m just going to allow the familiar George Harrison-like riff of “Weekend” to crescendo, and let Cullen Omari’s glam-garage vocals lull me into contempt. The interesting part of being 4 hours into a trip is that you can materialize thoughts without feeling confined to any linear sense of thought process. Put it this way, I didn’t like the singing on this album sober, but the reverb and instrumentation on tracks like “All Die Young” and “Smile” took me away from that aspect while I tripped, almost like being in the shadow of a collapsing wall of hertz and compression. I find myself actually enjoying parts of the album I couldn’t pick out before, and contextual intonations grasp me indeterminately. I was wrong about avoiding emotion with this album, and by the end of “Dye the World”, I’m sitting up on my couch with my legs folded, tightly gripping my ankles. And, yes Ms. Tomlin, my “crutches of reality” as well.

Ask Stevie Nicks and Keith Richards about the affect “the white pony” has on songwriting. Cocaine is the ultimate high-risk/high-reward intoxicant known to modern music. Very few speak of the drug glowingly (unless they’re pushing it), but the influence of coke isn’t as destructive as, what many others may describe as, “hard drugs”. Rick James memes aside, everything from Sabbath’s Vol. 4, to Bowie’s Station to Station, to Miles Davis’ On the Corner; all records that have heavy cocaine themes and, in a lot of cases, can be traced back to nights of rolled up 20 dollar bills and four-inch lines. My experiences with coke don’t stretch as far as alcohol, weed, ecstasy or psychedelics (including LSD), but the one distinctive trait I can pull from (what I remember of) my cocaine music-listening experience is the razor sharp focus it provides. Psychostimulants like Adderall will get you wired, (maybe even enough to help you write a lengthy dissertation about drugs *wink wink*) but coke narrows the point of convergence to such a ridiculously minute center. I can recall late night bumps with some of my, more shady, friends and reaching a binary connection with the inner workings of the time signature and composition in Radiohead’s In Rainbows — Those strings on “Reckoner” felt like being cosmically wisped away into galactic constellations. But unfortunately, coke quickly, and almost always, leads to more coke. So, I wouldn’t base my casual listening on a “designer” drug.

It’s six o’clock on a temperate Sunday evening.

There really is no definitive “come down” with psychedelic mushrooms. Every once in a while you’ll pass out and have some odd, semi-realistic dream that’ll jut you up into sobriety. Today, I’m hopelessly awake. I began the trip taking notes diligently, but the details have become more sparse and exponentially less distinguishable. I’ll attempt to summarize:

Operation Doomsday left me pleasantly confused. I don’t know if it was the combination of the obscure samples that I hadn’t picked out previously, or the descriptive elocution within DOOM’s lyrical approach. Whatever it was, my respect for the album hasn’t changed since the high started.

Baroness is a band I might not have listened to a year or two ago. Yellow & Green was the perfect entryway, and experiencing it for the first time, under the influence, was quite the intuitive listen. I don’t know if I would have been able to disregard some of my apprehension to this kind of music pre-trip.

Dye it Blonde was a huge surprise. I thought I had this album figured out last year, but my eyes were opened a bit here. The thing is, I was so blatantly aware of my altered mind state that, while I can appreciate some things I’d overlooked, I’m more grateful for the semi-revelatory experience than the album itself.

What is there to cull from this information? I’m not 100% sure. That’s part of the reason I do this, though. A seemingly futile search for universal meaning within highly personal occurrences. I know that drugs and alcohol can access certain facets of music not easily accessible when sober. I also know that drugs and alcohol can fool a person into perceiving certain music beyond what is actually being presented. But, what I absolutely know for sure, is that there is no drug (or drink) that has the same effect on every single individual in the same way.

That seems to be the extent of my input. What do you think? What were you’re experiences with drugs and alcohol as they pertain to music? Is the moment enhanced, or lessened? Do you think drugs help musicians creatively? Or is it a “crutch”? And, beyond the drink, or the plant, or the powder, or the pill, or the serum; isn’t it possible that the music itself is the drug?

Now, that’s a good ass question.