Grunge, Heroin & Conformity

The passing of grunge rocker Chris Cornell this week means that of the five major bands to emerge from the early 1990s’ grunge scene, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana all have lost lead singers to early deaths.

Only Pearl Jam has not. 

Mostly, these were singers whose lives were mangled by heroin/opiates, whether they died from it or not.

As I read the news, it occurred to me how deeply the grunge scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s swallowed the greatest drug scam ever sold, which is that heroin use is somehow a sign that the user is a rebel, an outsider, an artist finding his own tormented path on the margin of a claustrophobically conformist society.

The reality is that the drug, more than any other, is about commerce – about cold, hard business — and about enslavement to consumption. All of which, needless to say, is about as low-brow conformist as it comes.

Heroin should have been forgotten not long after it was invented for it has few medicinal benefits that other opiates don’t provide with far less addictive risk. It survived because it was a great drug for traffickers. It was easy to conceal, easy to cut, and it created customers that had to buy the product several times a day. A businessman’s dream.

The drug got its underground cachet beginning with Charlie Parker, the legendary saxophonist in the 1940s, who died in 1955 at the age of 34, having wasted much of his prodigious creativity in the pursuit of smack, while bringing an entire generation of younger musicians to dope. (Trumpeter Clifford Brown was staking out another path for jazz musicians – one of great devotion to art and improvisation combined with a sober lifestyle – when he was killed in a car accident at age 25.)

Beat writer William Burroughs helped solidify the drug’s reputation as an outsider’s substance.

Heroin got a bigger cultural boost from the Velvet Underground’s first album in 1967 and Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” followed as the years passed by notably addicted rockers like Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious and, of course, Keith Richards. So that by the late 1980s, heroin was fully established as the go-to drug for anyone – often a pasty-faced white kid with a rocknroll heart — wanting a personal image as a non-conformist.

To the extent of few others before it, the grunge scene bought this fiction with gusto. Heroin, moreover, seemed the perfect drug for grunge’s nihilistic, dirge-like sound. So an entire scene was created that seemed to emerge from the swamp of the Velvet Underground’s first album. Many others died from it. Grunge did, too.

My music was punk rock and the grunge thing happened later. My focus in life was by then on writing and storytelling and not so much on the latest wrinkle in rocknroll. Grunge was too slow, too hopeless and depressing. Also, I lived in Seattle during this time, and didn’t like the city and left as soon as I could and moved to Mexico. So all in all, grunge didn’t do much for me. (Stone Temple Pilots were a bit different, and appealed to me more, in that the music was less grungy and they weren’t from Seattle, though their singer’s story is the same.)

There was, nevertheless, a do-it-yourself ethos to the scene that I found attractive. Bands were especially afraid of “selling out,” thus many of them first signed with the local Sub Pop label.

It’s a sad epitaph to the scene that the folks who created it fought mightily to avoid the taint of commercialism in their music and conformity in the way they lived — and ran, as they did, to the embrace of a drug that embodied everything they were fleeing.

11 Comments

Filed under Culture, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

11 Responses to Grunge, Heroin & Conformity

  1. Tim Taylor

    One minor correction: Stone Temple Pilots were lumped into the grunge scene and were often accused of being Pearl Jam rip-offs but they came out of San Diego, not Seattle.

  2. Crag Keeper

    People in general are ignorant. Sports and alcohol , for example, are two big areas of commerce that are quite deadly. Tailgating , over consumption of a liquid that is nothing more than a “cleaning fluid” and sold as a food item coupled with the brain damage of Football head injuries and other permanent bodily damage to young people in pursuit of some odd dream of becoming a winner and all around great person .
    Bologna. Rock and Roll was a better goal. And God forbid that people would be taught to be “happy” from early on. That in itself is the deadly element of conforming and either complying or not. In the end, whether it’s the Grunge artists’ angst or the old Bluesmen’s burdensome song, we’re taught Not to be Happy. Because a society comprised of happy people would not buy whatever it is that’s being sold as a destination point. But we still have hope – maybe in another few hundred generations here on Earth. Happy people that don’t buy into the marketed Dream. Happy people with nothing to be irritated and forlorn about.

  3. Deb Richmond

    As a female in long-term recovery who grew up in the 60s in a small, mostly affluent Ohio town, I remember that when my brother got caught using heroin, I was shocked and terrified. You just didn’t do that drug. The social landscape is very different now – the young veterans I work with are not afraid. They are familiar with prescription narcotics and they want both the excitement they experienced in battle, and to escape from terrible memories. For those who are not veterans, there is still the young person’s desire for exploration and conquest. Heroin seemingly offers both the feeling and the challenge – as well as a way to “escape” a society that offers them less and less opportunity to attain the American Dream. It’s absolutely the story of Portsmouth, Ohio, where I lived for two years in the early 80s, and which you so eloquently write about. Musicians and artists, as we know, are often the barometers of the injustices and inequities in a culture. Your observation that heroin is the worst expression of commerce and capitalism without values is absolutely right on – and young people are the least able to see that. Their brains and bodies crave new experiences. Pair this with a societal context with less financial opportunity and in which families are overly stressed in most areas of life, and you have the perfect recipe for alienation, anger and escape. In that case, it is easy to become attracted to what is traditionally seen as “nonconformist” without the older person’s capacity for reflection on the larger cultural and economic backstory.

  4. Alice Caroll

    I disagree with your assumption that Chris, Kurt and the other heroin users are somehow conformists because of their heroin use. They are above all artists. Many artists have traditionally used drugs. Some believe they enhance their creativity. Look at the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper as an example. Many famous writers have used drugs, also Sherlock Holmes, a heroin user and Sigmund Freud a cocaine user. You cannot demonize drug use as conformity for these artists as they are so rich that they don’t care one bit what the stuff costs.

    The FDA and the DEA would like everyone to believe that the dosage must constantly escalate and that you cannot function as a productive member of society. These are lies. If true, everyone prescribed an opioid would become a lifelong user. People can use these drugs and lead a normal life as long as supply and quality are maintained. The reason for Chris and Kurt’s suicides we’ll probably never know. I might add that self medication has always been a part of human existence. No law will ever stop this. Prohibition of alcohol never worked. You have no idea if these artists used drugs to be non-conformist or they simply liked to experiment and found out they liked them or if they are dealing with a profound deep-seated pain or mental illness that these medications provided some relief from.

  5. Greg Rudolf

    This spotlight on the dichotomy of the perceived “outsider’s cachet” of use of heroin by the user (“sexy”), and the cold, hard commercial forces driving the drug’s proliferation (“NOT so sexy–except for the $$$”) is insightful to the point of unique in my experience of reading on this topic and working in the field of addiction medicine. As a fan of Dreamland and Sam’s writing, I admire his examination of the business of heroin trafficking via Mexico and how it changed the trajectory of our opioid epidemic after prescription painkillers set the stage.

    It may, however, be tempting to place too much emphasis on the heroin user’s desire to be a hip outsider. There are quite a number of factors that draw people into an opioid use disorder, and Sam knows as well as anyone that this can happen to anyone, including the quarterback of the football team in a small town environment, now that heroin is available there and pills remain relatively easy to find. My point is, while it may be true that artists and creative types are often drawn to seeking out mind-altering chemicals, they certainly don’t represent the majority of users these days, if they ever did. They may still have an outsized influence on the young and impressionable due to their fame and the impact of their art.

  6. Marta Mueller

    Love your blog. I humbly suggest “cachet” is the spelling you might be looking for.

  7. Larry

    Woah thanks so much for this !!! I loved this post so much, and I think THIS is really key to breaking down what’s going on in our country right now with the opiate epidemic. It is becoming harder and harder (in my opinion) to stand out, and more and more important that one does, and heroin provides this strange mysticism, especially if youre able to maintain a somewhat decent life while you’re doing it. You feel like you have discovered some secret that all the other idiots haven’t, when the truth is just the opposite. Like, holy shit, this piece was mind blowing. I’d like to see you write a longer exploration of this idea, as I feel there is so much more you could say.

    Thanks so much.

  8. alan

    Charlie Parker did not die of an overdose. His health was compromised due to the problems associated with prohibition. Fifty sixty years on and the situation is much the same yet the war on drugs continues.

  9. Brilliantly said, and in particular: ” the greatest drug scam ever sold, which is that heroin use is somehow a sign that the user is a rebel, an outsider, an artist finding his own tormented path on the margin of a claustrophobically conformist society, which he bravely rejects, and the proof of that is that he uses a forbidden substance like heroin. The reality is that the drug, more than any other, is about commerce – about cold, hard business — and about enslavement to consumption. All of which, needless to say, is about as low-brow conformist as it comes.”

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