While we all struggle with playing
and writing and trying to get our music heard, some musicians are
struggling with problems of a completely different, much more diabolical
nature. Its a cultural phenomenon, to be sure, and not particular
to rock and roll. But the form that this takes in the context of rock
and roll can be especially sickening and perverse when musicians that
are incapacitated by chronic drug problems play out their worst nightmares
not only in the public arena, but onstage as well. Its sickening
to see these people have to live through these periods of their lives
while under unrelenting public scrutiny and its perverse to
see how they are aided and encouraged to do so by a music industry
that is utterly lacking in any sort of compassion for these troubled
The music industry has always been
about selling music. It has never been about anything else. It is
not some grand artists consortium or musicians club. It is a
collection of bars, theaters, promoters, managers and record companies
that are all attempting to derive profits from the production of live
and recorded music. The people who run the establishments are only
concerned with one thing -- what the artist can do for them. What
they can do for the artist is only a byproduct of what the artist
can do for them. For example, if an artist makes a record that becomes
a hit, the record company makes money and the artist makes money.
Everyone is happy, financially speaking. If the artist makes a record
and it flops, the record company may drop the artist from its
roster of acts. But the record company is always protecting itself,
not the artist. When an artist makes a record for a major record label,
the record company charges the artist for the production costs up
front. What that means is that until the record makes enough to cover
those charges, the artist makes not one penny for his work. If the
production costs arent covered by the sales of the record, the
artist is in debt to the record company. The record companies interest
only lies in how much money they make, knowing that if they make money,
the artist makes money. This is as much of an interest as they will
ever take in any artist.
This is the environment all musicians
must try to make a living in. It should be well understood by every
musician who seeks commercial success that they must take care of
themselves. Because what at first seems like a lark turns to grueling
work soon enough. Schedules have to be maintained, deadlines must
be met. Interviews, tour dates, personal appearances, yadda,yadda,yadda!
And dont forget that through all of this you still have to find
it within yourself to be creative and innovative with your music.
Pretty soon that golden road to unlimited self-fulfillment can turn
into a highway to hell!
This is what success in the modern
music industry can be like. And mega-success produces mega expectations
in all the people that are there to "help" you succeed.
Jerry Garcia (we will talk more about him later.) said once "
Success sucks, and everything that goes with it!" John Lennon
wrote a song for his last album (written and recorded after a five
year hiatus from the music biz) called " Watching the
Wheels " in which he speaks of
the joy of being out of the music biz and refers to being off the
merry-go-round. The fact of the matter is, most artists who achieve
mega-success end up feeling very ambivalent about what they have achieved.
Better watch out what you wish for cause you just might get
What this all results in is a very
predictable predicament. The rock and roll life is an excessive one.
Success produces excessive demands. Which leads to excessive behavior.
Which, unfortunately, usually results in excessive drug use in order
not only to relieve the stress of an excessive work schedule, but
to meet the demands of that same schedule. Then just try to break
the cycle at that point! Lennon talked about getting off the merry-go-round.
But how do you extricate yourself from something that just keeps spinning
faster and faster, all the while promising you more, better, bigger?
Especially when you are still deluded by the innocent vision of the
music biz as something that will set you free, compounded by not being
able to think straight from the ever increasing and varied diet of
drugs you now ingest?
The list of casualties is pretty damn
long. Starting with numero uno, the King, Elvis himself. Who was there
to help Elvis stop what he was doing? Colonel Tom Parker? Not likely
that he wouldve wanted the cash cow to stop giving up the milk.
So, maybe his "circle of friends"? Did he even have any
real friends left in the crowd of sycophants, yes men, gold diggers
and hustlers that surrounded him towards the end of his life? If he
did, they were most likely powerless to stop the inertia at that point.
Sometimes when you are driving down the path of self-destruction,
roadblocks only slow you down. They dont keep you from reaching
your final destination.
The list continues on. Jim Morrison,
Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain, Shannon Hoon,
Jerry Garcia and many, many more. Those are only the most famous.
And there is more to come, certainly. Because, for whatever reason,
rock and roll loves a pathetic spectacle.
Ill never forget the image of
Elvis on TV from Hawaii; bloated beyond recognition, mumbling and
stumbling around on stage virtually unable to perform while an audience
blinded by adulation cheered his every off-balance karate move. What
was he even doing on stage in that condition? What was the audience
cheering for? Couldnt they see what I was seeing, that he was,
in fact, no longer Elvis? That up on that stage was a man in dire
need of help, lots of help!
And what happened to Jerry Garcia?
As a person, I was a Deadhead. As a songwriter and guitarist, Jerry
was my guy. It was a particularly painful experience watching this
guy decline right in front of my eyes. And to see his mighty guitar
technique deteriorate to such an extent that by the last time I saw
him play with the Dead in the summer of 94, he was essentially
absent from the proceedings. Yes, he was on stage. But he had such
little impact on the music that he may as well not have been. He couldnt
sing or play at all, anymore. At least not to the lofty standards
that he had set for himself, or that I had come to expect. That was
the last time I ever saw him play and I drove home with an awful feeling
that Jerry would not survive much longer.
I asked myself many questions that
night: "Why cant the Dead just stop until Jerry gets better?",
"Why cant Jerry stop doing heroin?" (It was obvious
that he was back on the stuff; he stayed in one place on the stage
and barely moved, staring down at the floor, unless he was singing).
Why, why, why?
And what about the Deadheads? Couldnt
they see Jerry was in trouble? It was frustrating for me talking to
some of my friends after this horrendous show. Many of them said they
thought Jerry seemed fine. I dont think many Deadheads were
really listening at that point. I think they were just going for the
party. And as long as Jerry was up there, it was party time, regardless
of how incapacitated he was by drug and health problems.
I also still dont understand
what kept a band like the Dead truckin on and on. Of course
everyone in the Dead scene knew Jerry was in trouble, so why didnt
they just pull the plug, for Jerrys sake? It would be sadly
ironic if this proto-hippie group, espousing hippie ideals such as
the rejection of the materialistic culture and boldly proclaiming
themselves not to be (or become!) slaves of the almighty dollar, kept
lurching along in pursuit of that same dollar. And yet, sadly again,
this is probably the most likely explanation.
As sad as seeing Elvis and Jerry on
stage was for me, the worst, most pathetic spectacle I have ever witnessed
(and the catalyst for me to write this article) was very recently
seeing Johnny Winter at the Fillmore.
Johnny Winter was unquestionably one
of the greatest white Blues guitarists of all time, on a par with
Eric Clapton and Steve Ray Vaughan. He just never attained their level
of fame. But in his prime, he was amazing, fast and fluid, with an
encyclopedic knowledge of all the Blues styles and licks. And his
slide playing was second to none. It was well known that he was also
a heroin addict and that, in the last ten years, was not as capable
as he had been. I had seen him play in 1994 at Slims in San
Francisco and he did not seem to be in trouble at that point. He sang
strongly and played well. He delivered the goods. He also seemed healthy;
he was animated on stage and having fun.
So, Johnny Winter at the Fillmore sounded
like great fun! My wife, her brother and I all headed up to the City
excited to go be going to the show. We got to the Fillmore, had a
few celebratory martinis and listened to the opening acts. As the
time approached for Johnny Winter to come out, we jostled through
the crowd and got close to the stage. We were psyched; cmon
Johnny, lay it on us! After the usual scampering and last minute tweaking
by the roadies on stage, a wan, incredibly thin and frail ghost of
a man in tee shirt, jeans and a cowboy hat was led up on the stage
and out to the far left microphone. He was not escorted, he was being
assisted physically by two good sized young men. He was obviously
having trouble moving. He was not able to put his guitar on by himself,
so a roadie lifted the strap over his head as he lifted two pale white
matchsticks of arms into the air and the strap attached to his trademark
Gibson Firebird was placed on his shoulder. As soon as he had the
guitar on, he began absent-mindedly fingering the strings as he swayed
from side to side (he swayed from side to side like a marionette throughout
the entire show, whether the music was going or not). My wife and
I were standing very close and the smell was unbelievable. It was
a very particular odor, not just the stench of the terminally unwashed.
This, my friends was the smell of death (ooh, that smell!) and it
was emanating from the man in the spotlight. Ladies and gentlemen,
the great Johnny Winter!
My wife and I stood there frozen in
shock. We turned to each other with equally dreadful expressions of
disbelief. The music started. I was amazed anyone in his condition
could play at all, even if it was nothing more that rote and soulless
playing. After the first song, the crowd went wild. My wife and I
left our spot near the stage and, eventually, the auditorium altogether.
We went out to the front lobby and sat on the bench there, while the
festivities continued inside. We wanted to leave, both of us were
afraid to go back in. We thought "This guy could die, any second!".
But after debating the issues through about 3 more songs, we decided
to go back in and make the best of it. We stayed in the bar through
the rest of the show, all the while wondering how this could be going
on. Whos responsible for this? Didnt the Fillmore people
know what kind of shape he was in? What about his manager? How could
he put this poor guy on tour? He shouldnt be on stage, he should
be in a hospital bed on a slow drip!
This was, without a doubt, the sickest,
most perverse thing I ever witnessed in my life. Most people die before
they ever get to the level Johnny Winter is at. I must confess, I
do not know the reasons for his current condition. Is it heroin addiction?
Is it something not self-inflicted, like Parkinsons disease?
Whatever the case, it is disgusting and sick to parade this shell
of a man around like this and its almost fraudulent to sell
tickets to his shows. That night, many people did leave the show in
disgust. The people who stayed either enjoyed the spectacle or did
so out of respect for what he once was. After the show, on the drive
back home, there was nothing but silence. We were shocked and saddened,
just how you want to feel after the Friday night Rock n Roll
What conditions exist to make putting
on a concert or continuing a career so desperate? I certainly do not
know. But I just dont see how, especially with someone in Johnny
Winters predicament, that the show must go on. Personally,
I think that people in the industry need to find a way to stop this
sort of spectacle from occurring. And I think that the business people
that run the music biz need to care more about their acts as people,
not just as what they can contribute to the bottom line.
Its so easy for a rock musician
to end up in this kind of shape. Its too easy, really. From
the ease of obtaining any old dope you want (which is no different
than it is in any other realm of society) to the demands placed on
an artist these days, to the culture of celebration that surrounds
the production of modern music (and that makes the use of drugs de
riguer for every occasion) its not an easy trap to avoid falling
into. But what is especially evil is when the whole rock and roll
money machine, from manager to promoter to record company, gets behind
an artist who is obviously sick and in trouble. One who is having
trouble even getting to the the gig, who is too sick or strung out
to even be able to do a decent impression of himself onstage.
peoples lives more important?