The Addiction Paradox | Pushing the Wave

The Addiction Paradox

Opinion, 17 November 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Graffiti on the Wall in Berlin Germany
Berlin, Germany, where many of my favourite artists took inspiration.
Why is it that addiction, that final destination on the road of excess, seems so alluring for would-be artists?

When I was trying, and failing, in my youth to find myself as a creative, I was obsessed with The Cure, Depeche Mode, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Blur, The Prodigy, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Kurt Cobain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hunter S. Thompson, Aldous Huxley and many, many more.

From my viewport in the incredibly staid and boring suburban Leicester of the 1980s, they seemed impossibly glamorous. I wanted to be them. I studied their lives, hoping to find some clues as to how I could make the jump from being pathetic me to glorious them.

And it didn’t take long for me to notice that heavy experimentation with drugs, often leading to periods of addiction, were a ubiquitous feature.

It may seem ridiculous to say so, but drug use and addiction, beyond any opportunity to see the universe in a new light, are tempting to creatives because the voices of doubt that plague us all are amplified ten-fold in those who would present their private fears, hopes and dreams as a public work of art, in whatever format.

It is an audacious and frightening idea for most people to put themselves ‘out there,’ and the life that comes with it is precarious. It is understandable that even the most well-adjusted individual would struggle in the face of that.

Worse, artists are driven to do create by some unknown inner force that takes a complete hold of them and does not take any account of their underlying personality.

And of course we can never live up to what we perceive as the effortless brilliance of those who we admire. We cannot see from the outside there is so much more blood, sweat and tears required to be creative than one would ever imagine, and certainly far more than anyone tells you (with the admirable exception of The Bestseller Experiment).

After all, as Thomas Edison supposedly said, inspiration is only a very minor part of genius, the rest being perspiration.

The result is that drugs, alcohol, tobacco and adrenaline, often at the same time, are used liberally to dampen down fear and a sense of inadequacy. Creative people who who do not slip into the trap of relying on them are few and far between.

Maybe they had a more stable upbringing, perhaps they were more roundly educated, maybe they received more love as a child.

But if they had all of those those, perhaps they wouldn’t have wanted to be creative in the first place, or would have ended up mediocre, as they would lack the pain and chaos that are such drivers of innovation in art (although that is rather a sad admission).

Reading a recent interview with Pete Doherty and Katia de Vidas in The Times, I had the impression he has reached the stage of personal insight about his battle with addiction in which he has accepted that he does not know all the answers or is able to see into every issue.

To my mind, it is the embracing of the unknown, in ourselves as much as in the world around us, that reveals to us a potent aspect of life. It allows us to achieve a maturity of understanding and move beyond addiction and reliance on substances to quell our sense of inadequacy.

He could have ended up like Chet Baker, but thankfully didn’t. It is probably because of meeting Katia and the steadfast support of his friends, but I also wonder if it is slightly thanks nowadays to social media shining a very clear light, with laser-like clarity, on public behaviour and its consequences.

If that had been available when Baker was alive, I doubt if he would have been such a prolific and destructive substance abuser for so long.

Beyond all that, I must say I do not agree with anyone who suggests that intoxication is an aid to creativity, at least when both are attempted at the same time.

Although it doesn’t seem so from the outside, artistic endeavour requires sober application to be really effective and inventive, and that is just not possible if your head is elsewhere.
Moving from music of one kind to another, last week I finally got my hands on the Dmitri Kitaenko performances of the Rachmaninov symphonies with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in the mid-1980s.

They stand as a compelling contrast to the highly commendable sets I under the batons of Tadaaki Otaka, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, on Nimbus Records, and of Alexander Anissimov, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, on Naxos, alongside the many, many versions of individual symphonies I have scattered across various box sets.

As expected, the Kitaenko versions are bright, fast and illuminating, with wonderful passages, and that oh-so unique sound of a Russian Orchestra in the middle of the 20th Century.

Any journey through the works of Rachmaninov is coloured, however, by him being dismissed by many as a composer not of the first rank. This rankles, as he is clearly one of the greats (and I have recently complained about the similar treatment that is often meted out to Camille Saint-Säens).

Personally, I believe the gripe against Rachmaninov is not so much about his compositional abilities but more about his popularity.

Sniffy people who want classical music to be a private club for the clever-clever don’t like public acclaim. They think that if something is popular with the ‘masses’ it can’t be intellectual, and vice versa. Puccini also suffers from this, although he is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all opera composers.

It is similar to the prejudice self-identifying intellectuals have against those who are good looking: it is assumed that anyone beautiful cannot be clever. Worse, it is believed they must, in fact, be dumb. This is the judgement that Marylin Monroe had to endure, and her spirit endures it to this day.

It’s all utter nonsense, of course.

And Rachmaninov’s other crime, apart from being well-liked? Overt displays of emotion. They are considered vulgar. I was once infected with this stupid idea, and thought it clever to be cold.

But now I think: Who wants to be that dry and dusty? I’ll take sweaty passion over that any day.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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The Addiction Paradox | Pushing the Wave