Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Puff the Magic Dragon

Of course, Rock isn't just about poetry. It's also, and often more importantly, about drugs [1]. Obviously, I can't spend a week blogging about Rock and not talk about drugs, so here goes. My top 5 drug songs of all time [2]:

1. The Beatles: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

You just can't beat the Beatles, can you? I mean, how do you go from being a bunch of cheeky but clean-cut lads to writing rock songs about tangerine trees and marmalade skies? At one level, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a surrealist masterpiece - an exquisite combination of mind-blowing imagery coupled with the lurking sense of a plot ('who is the girl with kaleidoscope eyes?' you catch yourself thinking, knowing full well the question makes no sense). At another level, it's almost an anti-song: the slow drone of that voice (so hypnotic in its languor) erupting into brief moments of visionary high, only to collapse back into flat monotone. You just have to listen to the song once to know that there will be others - songs about the drug experience, songs that bring out the hallucinatory and the surreal, songs that work by distorting reality, songs that shift wildly in tempo to convey the sudden exhileration of the high.

And as usual, the Beatles will have got there first.

2. Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit

How can you not love a song that works off Alice in Wonderland, bringing out (if it hadn't occured to you before) the more sinister side of "one pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small". This is music straight from the other side of the looking glass, its other-worldliness heightened by Grace Slick's eerie witch-chant of a voice. White Rabbit is also that classic kind of drug song - the one that starts low and builds monotonically to a screaming climax of white noise at the end. Incredible stuff [3].

3. Jimi Hendrix: Purple Haze

If the ability to create and sustain a distinctive sound is the hallmark of a great musician - Hendrix may be just about the greates of them all. Nobody sounds quite like Hendrix - even today the opening chords of Purple Haze (or of Voodoo Child or of Machine Gun) are instantly recognisable as coming from Hendrix' guitar. The lyrics to Purple Haze are irrelevant. The sound captures perfectly that sense of hysterical dementia, of a screaming, helpless transcendence. To listen to Hendrix play is to hear the world being torn apart, sheet by metal sheet. If there is a message in Hendrix, it is that pain - merciless, unbearable pain, is a form of beauty all by itself.

4. Velvet Underground: Heroin

It starts off so softly. The gentle strumming of the guitar, Lou Reed's slow drawl of a voice. And then suddenly, in mid sentence, the song accelerates, the drumming picks up like a heartbeat, the words come spilling out, caught up in a barely controlled frenzy. And then, just as you're beginning to get into the tempo of it, it dies again. Only not quite. A little bit of the momentum survives, the sound of it a subtle addiction - you know what's coming now, you know how fast and high the song can go. You sit there waiting anxiously for the next crescendo. Over and over again, the cycle is repeated, and with each pass the song returns to a slightly quickened heartbeat, with each pass your need to hear the song explode is greater. So that when Reed sings "Heerroooooin / Be the death of me" you can feel the longing, the desperation of the desire. And when the song finally bursts out in an orgasm of noise, the music screeching away in the background, while the lyrics talk about death and destruction in a voice that has to struggle to be heard, it feels right somehow, you feel happy, you feel sated.

5. The Cranberries: Salvation

You know how in the old days they had a rule where you couldn't make a movie where murder went unpunished? Well, just in case you were planning on getting on your high horse and criticising this post for supporting drug use, I thought I would put in a song that manages to combine a more positive social message with some incredible music. Salvation has to rank among my top 5 Cranberries songs (I'm particularly likely to think of it, for some reason, coming into Penn Station on my trips to New York City; I think it has something to do with emerging out of the tunnel and seeing the light filtered down through the skyscrapers) - it's a powerful song, bursting with a nervous but hopeful energy. More than anything else, though, it's an insistent song, one that demands to be listened to, one that requires that you sing along with it at the top of your lungs.

Other favourites anyone?

Notes

[1] Actually, there's a fair deal of correlation between the two. With a lot of rock you have to be really, really high to see the poetry. Just listen to Frank Zappa and you'll see what I mean.

[2] heh heh: didn't you put a post like this sometime back, perhaps in an earlier avatar? I was looking for it, but couldn't find it. The only song I remember from it that isn't on this list was Coldplay's Yellow. Please to add to comments section.

[3] Jefferson Airplane's performance of White Rabbit at Woodstock is one of my signature performances from that event - ranking up there with the sound of Joe Cocker howling 'With a little help from my friends', Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner (did you know that apparently three quarters of the people who attended Woodstock had left by the time Hendrix came on - that's a lot of regret), Joan Baez singing Joe Hill, and this amazing song by some woman called Melanie, who I've never managed to find anything by, except the one song.


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34 comments:

Crp said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Crp said...

CSNY's "Deja Vu" -- about the mushroom experience ? Not very sure.

Beatles' "She Said She Said" -- pretty sure this is about drug addiction.

Clapton's "Cocaine" and maybe "Strange Brew" ?

Lovin' Spoonful's "Coconut Grove" -- feels like a drug song despite the lyrics.

Tabula Rasa said...

Dark Star, the theme song of the acid tests. Unless you're restricting the list to songs, that is.

dazedandconfused said...

what, no Hotel California?! I know, the song is so popular that its tough to admit that one likes it, but still...

So what's next, has to be Rock and Sex, as someone demanded.

MockTurtle said...

Hey, come on now, Puff the Magic Dragon is not about grass. That's a much debunked urban legend.
How about Jonathan Edwards "Friday Song", or the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker", or G'NR's "Mr Brownstone"? And I'm surprised after that last Stones post that you missed out "Mother's Little Helper".
Anyone heard that "Hey Jude" was about heroin? Remember the "Let her under your skin" lyric?
-MT

MockTurtle said...

Damn, and I forgot Dylan's "Rainy Day Women"

Quizman said...

Hey Jude was originally 'Hey Jules', written as a piece of advice by Paul to John's son on the event of his parents' divorce. mockturtle - Was it about drugs?

There is a lot of controversy about Lucy in the Sky, with Paul claiming that it was indeed about psychedelia, while John presented his son's drawing and mentioned Lewis Caroll. [This is mentioned in the (anthology) bio of the Beatles]. There is a detailed wikipedia article on this topic.

There's also the infamous song on valium - 'Mother's little helper' by the Rolling Stones. There's a nice dark song by Joni Mitchell that I can't remember now. The CD had a cover of a self-potrait of her smoking on a bar stool.

But for achieving the pinnacle of their aesthetic abilities through chemical means, one needs to go back further - to Dinah, Thelonius, Miles, John and Charlie.

MockTurtle said...

@Quizman
'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is the quintessential drug song. McCartney's an ass if he expects anyone to beleive otherwise.
About 'Hey Jude', there's a bunch of theories, from the remotely possible - Paul singing to his impotent penis (Jude) to try to arouse it for sex ("You're waiting for someone to perform with"), to the completely preposterous - Paul singing to John's son (Jules) to try and persuade him to give him head ("So let it out and let it in").
Read the lyrics here and make your own interpretation.

http://www.brave.com/bo/lyrics/heyjude.htm

Crp said...

All this analysis gets old pretty quickly, especially when it involves such a banal composition as Jude. I don't believe in all this fiddle about Rock and Life. Drugs are passe. Even for the jazzmen mentioned above I see very little evidence of drug enhanced creativity.

I'll make one exception though: Art Pepper's Village Vanguard sessions chronicled in 9 sublime CDs -- wild, labyrinthine compositions that could only have been written by a junkie.

Quizman said...

Mr. Tambourine Man was another song about drugs.

Mock: Let's just agree to disagree.

Storm said...

Use the man - Megadeth
Chemical addiction - Alice in chains
Mother's Little Helper - Rolling Stones
Under The Bridge - Red Hot Chili Peppers

Can't think of more right now, but there must be many more actually. And lots of others that can be interpreted as drug songs (like the RHCP one).

Falstaff said...

crp: Am disappointed in you - why the retraction of the tall claims about She Said She Said. Haven't heard the Lovin' Spoonful's so can't comment.

tabula rasa: No restrictions - the more the merrier.

d&c: true, true. Had fallen off my radar.

mockturtle: I did think of the Stones - but I was trying to pick my top 5, and Mother's Little Helper didn't make the cut. And no worries, I forgot Rainy Day Woman too (aargghh!) so I'm in no position to cast the first stone.

quizman: Not sure what Mitchell song you mean - the album you're talking about is the 2000 Both Sides, Now presumably, but I can't think of anything obviously drug related there - unless you're thinking of Case of You? Agree with mockturtle about LSD - there's no way I'm going to buy that that's not a drug song.

Oh, and Mr. Tambourine Man. I see the argument for that one, but somehow I've never managed to buy it - I'm not saying it's not about drugs, just that I've never been able to think of it that way. It's too vital a song to me for that.

crp: Hmmm...I haven't actually heard the Art Pepper recordings you speak of. Ah well, as Joni would say "life is for learning".

Storm: Thanks. And welcome?

Crp said...

>>why the retraction of the tall claims about She Said She Said.

I posted that comment while I was at work -- came off the top of my head. By the end of the evening I had remembered others so it was no longer my favourite song.

>> Haven't heard the Lovin' Spoonful's

You're not missing much. That's about the only good song they wrote. Brian Wilson and a host of others covered this song but the original is by far the best.

>>I haven't actually heard the Art Pepper recordings you speak of <<

They are well worth owning ... not a single weak spot in the entire 9 CD set. I can email you a couple of tracks if you wish to explore...

Quizman said...

Falstaff: As the Beatles themselves have repeatedly mentioned, they have had no qualms in talking openly about drug use. John said that if they had written Lucy about LSD, they would've have admitted it as they have admitted other things. I buy that argument.

Mr. Tambourine Man is a reference to a pusher. [Aside: If you haven't seen the film already, check out, the film Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer. She does a nice take on Dylan (Bob D and D Thomas) to a classroom full of inner city kids.

Heh Heh said...

Well here's a few of my favorites that are not here:
Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd)
White light white heat (VU)
Death drugs (Violent Femmes), Needle and the damage done (Neil Young)
Cocain (clapton/jj cale)

I dont like Yellow by Cold Play all that much, btw - although the reference about drawing lines is there.

eM said...

Ooh, you forgot Everybody Must Get Stoned, Dylan (or did someone already say that?) And there's this fantastically hysterical song by the Bare Naked Ladies called Marijuanaville, which I love (especially the bit where they imitate Dylan) Link here:
http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Marijuanaville-lyrics-ICP-Insane-Clown-Posse/89EE30C7EE5C4FA948257067000DD01A

Great post, btw :)

Manish Bhatt said...

Then there's:

'Up in smoke' by Cheech & Chong. But then all Cheech & Chong stuff is about dope.

'Mr. Tinkertrain' by Ozzy Osbourne

I belive the reference has to be a little oblique to make it to the list. What's the fun in songs like 'Heroin' and 'Cocaine'. I mean even a dope (pun intended) can figure out what they are talking about.

Aditya Bidikar said...

My favourite drug songs (actually they're kind of anti-drugs) are Godsmack by Alice in Chains and Sister Morphine by the Rolling Stones. Sister Morphine sounds especially cool if you're listening to it in the dark at 3 am.

Abhinav Goyal said...

Oh well ... its personal choice I suppose, but then this list just didnt seem right without

- Brain Damage, DSOTM, Pink Floyd

Saad said...

Casey Jones by the Deads...

How about day tripper? I'd say it's got drug references...

Ajit Chouhan said...

Gud post mate...u can also include
Deep Purple's:highway star
Door: this is the end

km said...

I wouldn't put "Needle and the damage done" on my list of "drug songs". It's an anti-drug song. I think this post is about pro-drug songs ;)

Umm....Falstaff, how about an entire box-set of psych and garage rock called "Nuggets"? EVERY song on that box-set is about a trip or a drug. Guaranteed :) One of the best compilations EVER released.

And let's not forget Moby Grape, QMS and the other great mid-60s Bay Area bands. Those guys practically co-invented the psych-rock genre!

Falstaff said...

crp: Thanks for the tracks. good stuff.

quizman: As I said, I know rationally that Tambourine Man is a drug reference, but it just don't connect to it that way. It's a song too close to my heart for me to compartmentalise it that way.

heh heh: Haven't heard the violent femmes. White Light White Heat came very, very close to making it to the Top 5, but I finally decided to go with Heroin. And Cocaine was so obvious that I decided to leave it out as well.

em: nice. The Everybody Must Get Stoned song is Rainy Day Woman. Which is the one I (and then mockturtle) forgot.

m: Haven't heard the cheech and chong. Actually my only exposure to cheech and chong is their hilarious guest appearance on Joni Mitchell's Twisted. (Unless you're counting their guest appearance on Scorsese's After Hours, that is). One of those gaps I intend to make up one of these days.

Don't necessarily agree about the obliqueness of the reference. I think the song either has to slip the drug references in subtly or be an out and out celebration of the drug motif. Heroin is about the most vivid ode to the drug experience I can imagine, which is why it deserves to be on that list (I'm less convinced about Cocaine, though). Also, it's hard to know where to draw the line on obliqueness. Is Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds oblique? Is White Rabbit?

Aditya: Ooh, Sister Morphine. Yes. Yes.

Abhinav: Okay, if you like. Whatever works for you.

Saad: Haven't heard. And Day Tripper? hmmm.

Ajit: I don't know. I think the fact is that at some level all good rock songs are drug songs but I wouldn't pick Highway Star (or for that matter, Brain Damage - see Abhinav's comment) as drug songs per se. I mean, I would pick Astonomy Domine as being a drug song over either, and even that didn't make it to my list. Still, as I said to Abhinav, whatever works for you.

km: Not really. Salvation is pretty anti-drugs as well.

Just checked out Nuggets on Amazon. Oh, wow!

Mr. D said...

Isn't Jumpin Jack Flash also a drug song? I have this thought somewhere in my mind that it is.

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