What makes someone a rock star? Talent? Passion? Attitude? A lot of each. Movies, however, tend to depict the lives of musicians as burning stars. Films show Elton John, Ray Charles, Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix as artists and addicts to be admired. You know the story arc: talented person struggles to break free, talented person shares talents with world, becomes universally loved, gets hooked on various substances and dies, broken and alone. What? Elton John is still alive? Well, you get the idea. Movies love to glorify the addict in all his or her destructive tendencies. Perhaps this is what makes great art? Not so fast.
The part the stories often gloss over includes years of hard work, practice, trial and error. Elton John and Ray Charles played the piano endlessly, building their harmonies, melodies and song structure. Hendrix played guitar in various backing bands, practiced relentlessly and needed every break to become front man of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Winehouse was expelled from school, crafting lyrics for years before collaborating to make the tunes for her iconic Back to Black record.
Long story short: movies make the long story short by leaving out the years of hard work to focus on the fame, drugs and inevitable crack-up. The films rarely dwell upon the friends left behind, the spouses’ broken hearts and the neglected children. The myths are made but the reality of an addict’s suffering and consequences can be lost on the audience. Is it wise to portray the artist as an addict with a singular vision of fame, and furthermore, does it encourage irresponsible drug use among young artists?
As a young man I agreed with Thom Yorke from Radiohead: I, too, wanted “to be Jim Morrison” and not for his singing chops, but for the glory of oblivion. I couldn’t sing that well: honestly, I was prepared to try anything to get me out of Oshkosh in the 1990s. I’ll admit, as a nineteen-year-old I thought downing a dozen drinks and ingesting every drug under the sun might led to the palace of wisdom. No such luck. Turns out, Oliver Stone and others may have misled many would-be artists: tons of substances don’t make you a success, they just make life harder.
Among the finest artists, you find survivors who have learned to manage or even defeat addiction. Roger Waters, co-architect of Pink Floyd’s rock music masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon said that drug use had “nothing to do with” creating such a work of art. Nick Cave, another warrior of the music scene sums it up from the artist’s eye: “I really think drugs are quite an evil thing and I really wish I hadn’t become involved with them myself because I’m in a situation now where it will take quite a concentrated effort to live without them and it will require quite a major life’s fight to stop taking them.”
Even a seasoned rocker like Cave knows that drugs don’t make an artist shine: drugs make you an addict. Drugs don’t make the myths, alcohol doesn’t make the stars shine. Hard work, practice and passion make the art: in the end, addiction tears down the art. The real art is in the repair and recovery. See these articles for holistic, healthy ways for artists and explorers of all kinds to bounce back.