Thursday, 25 April 2013

Self Medication Blues: Opiate Aesthetics


Back in 1999 Ministry's Dark Side of the Spoon made me so angry. Not angry in the way that Pantera or Lamb of God make you angry. It was an anger born of betrayal. I loved Filth Pig, in fact, I still do. That album is such a defiance of expectations yet is coherent and paradoxically satisfying as well as making you want more. Spoon on the other hand to me simply sounded like shit. Like a few guys in a studio with too many drugs enjoying a few too many in-jokes that had nothing to do with me.

Then a few months ago I finally got around to watching the Ministry documentary, FIX. I now feel like I understand something about Ministry that I never really grasped as a teen: Al Jourgensen is/was a straight up junkie. I mean, songs on Psalm 69 such as "Just on Fix", the accompanying video and embedded samples are not exactly opaque opiate references. I watched scene after scene of a rapidly diminishing (body mass, hair) Jourgensen shoot up, rant and rave was a fantastic disillusioning event. It was obvious, Spoon was made by a drug fucked junkie. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I recently re-visited Spoon and while it sounded exactly as it did fourteen years earlier, post-FIX I noticed that it was much easier to hear the heroin. The strung out melodies, slumbering vocal performances and jarring instrumentation (banjos, saxophone) all evoke a drug fueled cognitive fog, total pleasure and willful absurdity. Underneath is a coherent neurosis, paranoia and claustrophobia so out there on the fringe as to make one wonder just how this album even got released, let alone on a major label (Warner). Hats of to Jourgensen for getting this malformed ugly little baby out into the world. While it still sounds the same, does it still make me angry? Is it as bad as I had originally thought?

It is not. In fact it is actually quite good. In a way it is the perfect execution of Jourgensen's muse, it is the point where he had given himself to the drug. Opiates had underpinned Ministry for a long time but it was not until Spoon that they came to dominate. The sense of physical and psychological decay is immense and a perfect explication of what had always been obvious yet implicit.

Alice in Chains

I have written elsewhere (perhaps that was an earlier version of this blog?) about Alice in Chains' Dirt. My opinion has long been: as an album, Dirt is less grunge and more metal and doom than its zeitgeist fans and critics positioned it. Rarely moving beyond a gentle gallop, the guitars are thick and the vocal style morose and eerie. It also happens to be a perfectly produced suite of love songs to heroin. However, where Dirt is essentially still in the infatuation phase, the follow up Alice in Chains (the self-titled with the three legged dog cover) is the saga of a man stuck in a vortex of codependence where non-opiate reality is steadily dissolving. With Dirt, Layne Staley was still in control, on Alice in Chains he was out (of it).

How far, indeed how bad did things get before Staley's death by overdose in 2002? Numerous people have pointed to the MTV unplugged set where Staley sat almost motionless in longsleeves (to cover up needle marks, scars) and sunglasses. If it was the case that he was virtually crippled by smack at that point then it was truly an amazing performance. He would have had to have dug deep. Or just be jonesing, dopesick for another fix with his eye on the prize to get it. This is not praise but neither is it condemnation.

Post-Staley Alice in Chains is to me a disappointment. While I am quite a fan of Jerry Cantrell's solo work, especially Degradation Trip (it maintains a twisted soul darkness carried over from the former band), Black Gives Way to Blue while a perfectly fine alt-rock record holds very little interest for me. Ultimately and most distubingly, what made Alice in Chains such a compelling listen for me was the opiate stained and scarred defiance and desperation of Layne Staley.


Now we come to the reason why this article was written. Blake Judd's Nachtmystium are/were one of the main reasons I was drawn to black metal several years ago. The nihilism and spite was tempered by a musical progressiveness, incorporating psychedelia, electronics and atmospherics. Furthermore, where most black metal tends to be (anti)religious, Nachtmystium is entirely urban, modern and bleak. Opening the sleeve of the Addicts vinyl reveals a young woman shooting up. The monochromatic picture is stark, she might as well be naked.

Earlier this month metal news sites all over the internet apparently misconstrued information about Nachtmytium, claiming the band were over. Delving into the comments of these articles revealed that many people held rather negative opinions of Judd. Particularly common was the experience of claiming to have been "ripped off"by him in mercantile transactions. The man seems to have a severe shortage of friends in his native Chicago. The reason for all of this supposedly being heroin.

Judd brings a third perspective to this riff on dope. Jourgensen in addition to being somewhat smart, was on a major label for a long time and had a reliable entourage of friends and folk with money invested in him to keep him in check even as he ran off the rails. Jourgensen had vision and was also an addict. And is also a survivor (and still an addict?). Staley was a straight up dope fiend, an artistic type with a personality perfectly configured to the drug. Perhaps lacking the determination of Jourgensen, he was burned alive by his addiction. Judd, meanwhile seems to be a mixture of the two. Here is a businessman coloured by opium. His product, his method, his execution are less entwined with dope as born from it. This makes his method somewhat dependent on it too. Yet like Jourgensen, here is a junkie with a will to survive, he keeps pushing through even as he burns those around him. How far can it go? The man is clearly inspired and smart but somewhat too cunning for his own good. With as many enemies as he supposedly adds, could he be a puncture wounded dead body in an alleyway?

So where does it all end? Inevitable overdoses? Prison terms? Rehabs and finding Jesus? There have yet to be significant numbers of successful careers founded on opiates. However, when combined with the traditional user/self-medicator, the rise and spread of the peculiarly American pharmaceutical company facilitated opiate addiction industry, who can say just where this will lead? I think I will just consult my oracle for answers...

Walks away and puts on Eyehategod's Self Medication Blues and wonders is smack was the primary reason for the utter suffocating nihilism of Pantera's Great Southern Trendkill.

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