Tag Archives: drugs

“AMY” AND “LOVE & MERCY” DISCLOSE THE UNDERSIDE OF ROCK MUSIC

Q: About three years ago I read the results of some research on 1,489 rock, pop, punk, R&B, rap, electronica and New Age stars who became famous between 1956 and 2006 – from Elvis Presley to the Arctic Monkeys. Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University found that 137 of the stars, or 9.2 percent, had died, representing “higher levels of mortality than demographically matched individuals in the general population. So I was struck when two films now on general release examine the decline of two rock artists. I imagine you’ve seen Amy, about the late Amy Winehouse, and Love & Mercy, which is about Brian Wilson, who is still living, but went through a mysteriously dark period in his life when he didn’t get out of bed for over three years. Any thoughts?

A: Both films are superb. Amy is a bio-documentary, even better than the director Asif Kapadia‘s previous film Senna, which was excellent. Kapadia’s thesis, if we can call it that, is that Winehouse never craved fame and when it arrived was totally unprepared for it. The film stitches together footage from her childhood and adult life, so we actually see her saying she would probably kill herself if she ever became famous. Of course, she became accustomed to the bright lights pretty quickly, but never seemed fully comfortable. This was a factor in her death in 2011 at the young age of 27. Brian Wilson, now 73, was also a troubled soul, though the attention of the media and adulation of audiences was never a problem: in fact, he craved recognition and was embattled with other members of his band, the Beach Boys, and his father who managed the band, who wanted to stick to a proven musical formula while Wilson tried to break musical boundaries. “Who do you think you are, Mozart?” asks one of his fellow band members in the film. Wilson doesn’t answer, the implication being that he probably did see himself this way.

Q: One of the findings of the study I mentioned was the role played by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Both Winehouse and Wilson were no strangers to toxic substances, right?

A: True, but the power of both films, in my view, is that they show that rock musicians on the rise tend to attract the close attention of people who don’t typically share their creative aspirations. In Amy, we see Blake Fielder-Civil assist her towards her use of hard drugs. Fielder-Civil comes across as the kind of guy who puts his own interests before all others’. Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse is angry about the film which reveals him ready to exploit her fame, at one point pushing her to have her picture taken when she clearly wants to escape this kind of thing. We hear producer Lucian Grainge explain that, when she became a bigtime celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, Amy acquired what he describes as an infrastructure of agents, bodyguards and assorted other personnel to act as a kind of buffer zone between her and the media. Grainge says it was necessary, “but it wasn’t reality.” Wilson’s father was a famously tyrannical type, who initially managed the Beach Boys in the 1960s. Bill Pohlad‘s film is a drama, rather than documentary, and paints an ugly picture of Murry Wilson, Brian’s father. Anyone who has read Wilson’s autobiography knows that Murry was a domineering dad who beat his children. In the film we see him pouring scorn on Brian’s attempts to experiment with rock music. Wilson felt challenged by the work of the Beatles. His father mocks his son’s striving to keep pace with their innovations. Wilson’s masterwork Smile was never completed and was released only in 2004. Like Winehouse, Wilson used drugs, but the film doesn’t big up their role in his retreat. Though Wilson himself has talked openly of this. The other key character in Wilson’s life was Dr Eugene Landy, who is show to be a therapist-cum-guardian-cum-protector, who takes care of Wilson, but in a way that suits himself.

Q: So the so-called rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is probably to blame for the troubles of both artists, but not in the way many might think. It seems you’re saying there is a kind of sociological process going on in which artistic and commercial success attracts self-serving people who see rock stars as exploitable.

A: Yes. Remember though, in Wilson’s case, Murry was probably well-intentioned, but, like a lot of intensely ambitious parents, just didn’t allow his son enough freedom to express his art. This may or not have been a factor in Wilson’s mental state. The conclusion of both movies seems to be that rock music presents a landscape in which artists can flourish, but where there other figures who see them as geese who lay golden eggs.

SURELY YOU CAN’T BLAME WALTER WHITE FOR THE RISE IN CRYSTAL METH … CAN YOU?

Q: You’ve been all over the media lately. What’s all this about Breaking Bad and the rise in crystal meth use? You’re kidding, right?
A: Well, there’s a report that there has been a sharp rise in the use of crystal meth across Europe and the upturn started at almost exactly the same time that the US show came on our screens.
Q: And the narrative of the show is about a chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the beginning of the series. He turns to producing and selling crystallized methamphetamine, in order to secure his family’s financial future before he dies. His partner in crime is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Their transformation from crystal meth cooks into industrial-scale drug producers reflects a well-documented phenomenon in the US. But when the series started in 2008, hardly anyone had heard of crystal meth over here.
A: That’s exactly the point: people started to get curious about this interesting new drug and its effects, so started to make inquiries. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that this is cause-and-effect. I know some scholars think watching tv changes our behaviour; for example, some swear the amount of violence we see on tv and in movies has translated into actual violent behaviour on the streets. But I don’t buy this at all. So I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the relationship between Breaking Bad and crystal meth use. Equally, you’d have to be naive to think the media doesn’t affect us: it shapes, influences and changes us in all sorts of ways.
Q: But the series is hardly an advertisement for the drug. Matter of fact, it depicts the destructive consequences of longterm crystal meth use.
A: Agreed. That’s not the point. The mere fact that it is a key part of the show’s plot gives it power. We are inquisitive animals and inevitably probe. Nobody just watches television inertly, that is without thinking about it. Watching tv is like reading a book: we engage our minds. So the human spirit of inquiry has stimulated interest in the drug and, eventually, this has translated into more widespread use.
Q: As always, the Cashmoronic theory has picked up more than its fair share of critics. Don’t you think you’ve put your foot in your mouth again?
A: I’m used to it. Anyway, I think it’s spurred an interesting debate. I agree with the critics who argue television doesn’t change our behaviour in any direct way. I’m not arguing we watch the show and rush out to find where we can score some crystal meth any more than we watch Twilight and start biting people’s necks to find out what blood tastes like.
Q: Hang on! I read somewhere there has been a rise in vampirism since Twilight took off.
A: Mmmm. Well, I’m not going that far. Television, like other parts of the media, isn’t just a screen in the corner of the room, or on our tablets. It’s a source of information that we use, not abstractly, but in practice. Film and internet sources affect us, but television remains a dominant influence on us. Advertisers wouldn’t spend so much money on commercials if they thought we remained unmoved. Dramas that portray social issues often sign off with something like, “If you have been affected by any of the issues show in this programme, contact … ” We are affected by tv. I think that much is beyond dispute. Its effects are not always predictable. Anyway, I must leave you know. The X Factor is starting soon.

Should doping be allowed in sport?

Who believes athletes are squeaky-clean innocents whose most serious vice is a nicotine patch? Then why do people pretend to be surprised when we discover that some high-profile champion has been using dope?  Rarely a week goes by without some figure from sports returning a positive test.  Since 1988 when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold and chased back to Canada in disgrace, there have been many, many supposedly great athletes reduced to “cheats” after the discovery of banned substances.  Diego Maradona, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and so many others have been involved in drugs scandals of some kind.

The lesson is clear: athletes across the whole spectrum of sport have indicated their preference to take drugs.  And, like it or not, we – and the media – encourage them.  Not obviously, of course.  But we demand athletic performances that make almost inhuman demands on the body, and are disappointed when we get less. What if we simply allowed athletes to use whatever substances they choose, then ask them to declare what they’ve been taking?  Then we could commission research, investigate the substances, their effectiveness, their side-effects and, where necessary, their dangers.  We could feed the information back to athletes and advise accordingly.  It would create a more open, honest and, most importantly, safer environment.  It’s not a popular idea and, in this video, I discuss it on Channel 5 news.

Tour de France: Do we care if the riders use drugs?

A mysterious contagion is blighting the planet; earth has fallen prey to zombies. Am I going to write a review of the $200 million Hollywood blockbuster World War Z? No: I’m commenting on the Tour de France, which starts for the 100th time on Saturday, June 29.

Cyclists now resemble the undead against whom Brad Pitt battles in the film. Doped-up automata, unresponsive to their surroundings, they are like corpses controlled by chemists. At least that’s what our media would have us believe.

Cyclists have always taken dope. When the Tour first started in 1903, strychnine and cocaine were the drugs of choice. By the late 1950s, synthetic stimulants, especially amphetamines, were regularly used to sustain competitors through 23 days of the most exacting physical demands. Jacques Anquetil (1934-87), who won the Tour five times, spoke openly about how cyclists didn’t opt to use drugs: they just couldn’t do without them. No one cared. Only after Britain’s Tommy Simpson died during the 1967 Tour, did cycling – indeed, sport generally – begin to wonder whether competitors needed protecting from themselves. Anti-doping rules were introduced in the early 1970s, but have had little effect in cycling.

Last year, during his confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong was asked if doping was part of the process required to win the Tour. He answered: “That’s like saying we have to have air in our tyres or water in our bottles. It was part of the job.”

If Armstrong is to be believed, drug taking in cycling is not seen as a transgression: it is normal behaviour. Armstrong was a scapegoat: someone blamed for the wrongdoings of others, especially for reasons of expediency. It made more sense to hang the most famous cyclist in history out to dry rather than examine the entire culture of the sport. Armstrong merely confirmed what most people have known, or at least strongly suspected for years. Cycling is a sport in which doping is an everyday practice.

Here’s my question: do we care? The media tell us we do, or, if not, we certainly should. The media themselves care: they have turned Armstrong from one of the greatest heroes in world sport to the biggest cheat in history. I’m not sure the rest of us feel the same way. Some years ago, I was involved in a round table radio discussion in which one of the discussants suggested that we should stage two Tours de France: one for riders who used dope, the other for those who chose to compete au naturel. “It’s possible,” I replied. “But who’d watch the clean Tour?” We’ve all become used to athletes pushing themselves towards and, occasionally, beyond the limits of the human body. We love intense, unbridled competition. Sport conceals its own preparation: we won’t see the riders taking drugs, yet we’ll know they are using something; and we will enjoy the competition just the same. People like eggs for breakfast; they don’t need to see chickens that produced them fed.

If consumers were so turned off by cycling’s close association with drugs, the Tour wouldn’t have lasted long after 1973 when the first authentic tests revealed the widespread use of drugs by riders. Since then, a steady crescendo has built, every Tour yielding cases of doping. The 1998 Tour was so affected by doping that it was known as Tour du Dopage. And yet the race continued to grow in popularity. In terms of live spectators, the Tour is the biggest sports event in the world – by some margin: over 12 million people throng the streets over the period of the race. The Tour is only thinly popular outside Europe, but an estimated 2.5 billion people are exposed to it, counting those who read about it in newspapers. Television corporations pay about $200 million per tour to the organizers. Sponsorship deals are valued in dozens of millions.

Despite Armstrong’s evidence about the ubiquity of drugs in cycling, despite 2006 winner Floyd Landis’s claim that the cycling’s corrupt governance has created an environment where cheating is required, and despite last week’s admission by Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 that “almost everybody back then took performance-enhancing substances,” enthusiasm for this year’s Tour will be undimmed.

There is a disconnect between how the media reacts to doping in sport and how fans think and feel. Consumers don’t share the delirium that follows a positive test. We have doubts, but they rarely interfere with the satisfaction we take from the Tour. In common with all other athletes, cyclists are not there to provide decency, moral direction or lessons in propriety; they are not supposed to be paragons of rectitude whose most iniquitous habit is an occasional e-cigarette. They are supposed to send a sudden, strong feeling of excitement or exhilaration through us. When they do, they solicit our approval. We’re not in denial: we know they will probably be using dope. Sport is a world long since purged of goodness.