Thursday, 1 May 2014

Dying Under the Doctor - Prescription Drugs and Rock and Roll

- Check out this post contributed by Imogen Reed!

Dying Under the Doctor - Prescription Drugs and Rock and Roll

Music has been associated with booze and drugs since the dawn of time. Ever since Dionysus danced through Greek myth with his wild music and his distinctly altered states of consciousness, mind-altering substances have woven themselves in and out of the lives of musicians, leaving an indelible imprint upon their output. Due perhaps to the association of rock music with rebellion and nonconformity, the drugs which spring to mind when people consider rock music are invariably of the illegal variety – cocaine, heroin, marijuana, LSD and so on. However, there is a trend just as prevalent for musicians to overdo it with these street drugs’ less cool cousins – prescription medication.


Prescription drugs can have effects on the mind just as powerful as those of illegal drugs. Rockers who cite the altered states of consciousness brought about by illegal drugs as a creative aid could just as easily – and legally – gained the same effect from prescription medications such as the benzodiazepene commonly known as ‘Xanax’. Xanax, as the experts at explain, “is commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders”, and is also highly addictive if used recklessly. Using anxiety medication doesn’t carry quite the same street cred as mellowing out with cannabis or heroin, which is perhaps why we don’t hear quite so much about Xanax abuse in rock’n’roll circles – but the fact is that many musicians have in fact used and abused it in the same quantities (if not more so) as its illegal counterparts. As the New Yorker mag have pointed out, “U2 and Lil Wayne have written songs about Xanax”, and it has been found in the toxicology reports of many a dead celebrity – including Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Heath Ledger. Xanax is not the only prescription medicine which is commonly found in the musical drug cabinet, however. Sleeping pills, heart meds, antidepressants, painkillers…all of these and more have been cited as reasons for the erratic behaviour, musical brilliance, and even deaths of many a musician.

Elvis's Toxic Cocktail

Although some may believe Elvis to live on (although he’d be approaching his eightieth birthday by now), the fact remains that he died in 1977, allegedly in less than salubrious circumstances. The ultimate cause of death is usually attributed to heart failure and drug dependency. However, what drugs, precisely, he was dependent upon remains little known. People hearing the word 'drugs' in association with a musician assume that the drugs in question were illegal. This is not the case. According to a Guardian report on a new show, ‘Dead Famous DNA’ aired on Channel 4, Elvis suffered from “a heart disease that causes a thickening of the heart and weakening of the heart muscle”. The paper also points out that Elvis “relied heavily on prescription drugs” which may well have weakened his heart still further. The Telegraph report that Elvis’s doctor, George Nichopolous, “prescribed over 10,000 pills to Elvis…They included narcotics, barbituates, amphetamines, sleeping pills, tranquilisers, hormones, and laxatives”. It’s a toxic cocktail which could cause terrible problems for anyone – let alone someone suffering from genetic heart disease. And Elvis is by no means the only musician to have gone out in such a fashion.
A Stressful Business
‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson’s posthumous toxicology report made headlines worldwide, as did the subsequent trial of his doctor, Conrad Murray, for ‘involuntary manslaughter’. Jackson, as the New York Daily News breathlessly reported, died surrounded by “oxygen tanks, prescription pill bottles and other medical supplies” - and it was the prescription pills which finally finished him off. Of course, Jackson was never a model of sanity, so his fate may not be indicative of general trends within the music industry, but it does seem that musicians are fatally drawn to the lure of the pill bottle. Perhaps at the high-performing end of the industry anti-anxiety aids such as Xanax are considered necessary to keep down the stress of the high-powered demands upon musical celebrities. Stress-busting is a big deal even for ordinary people, with companies worldwide offering stress-relief products like Aromatherapy Associates “De-Stress Mind Bath and Shower Oil”, which can be sold at a premium to desperately frazzled customers. Self-medicating for stress is something which easily gets out of hand in anyone, let alone those who live constantly in the spotlight (and have the resources to employ personal doctors who will prescribe precisely what they desire them to).

The Creative Mind

The fact cannot be denied, however, that musicians and other creatives do seem particularly prone to mental peculiarities – some of which they wish to exacerbate and some of which they wish to control. John Lennon and George Harrison both found themselves drawn to Sivananda Yoga, which promises such mental benefits as “a calm mental attitude” according to the Light Yoga Space. Indeed, the Beatles are by many considered to have been instrumental in bringing about yoga’s current popularity in the West. Other musicians, however, sought this ‘calm mental attitude’ elsewhere. Mental illness appears to be particularly common amongst musical artists – the Guardian report that “creative artists are fifth in the top 10 professions with high rates of depressive illness”. The reasons behind this phenomenon are as yet unknown, but that many musicians have suffered from mental illness of one sort or another – often depressive - is self-evident. While the Beatles may have brought their creative minds under control through the practice of yoga (although they were not immune to the allure of drugs), others have sought solace in medication. Jimi Hendrix died of a sleeping pill overdose after he, as the BBC delicately put it “fell ill with stress and exhaustion”, while Def Leppard’s Steve Clark died of an antidepressant overdose.

A Problem Deserving of Publicity

Clearly even ‘good’ drugs can do bad things if abused, and musicians appear to be particularly prone to such abuse. While so-called ‘hard’ drugs get all the press (in a move perhaps perpetuated by the rockers themselves in a desire to seem rebellious), it is the doctor-prescribed ones which frequently prove fatal. This may be because people assume that prescription drugs are inherently ‘safe’, while harder drugs come with an awful lot of societal messages regarding their dangers. Many musicians ‘get clean’ from the illegal substances and, to all intents and purposes, present a sober face to the world. However, they are sometimes still ‘high’ off the effects of drugs prescribed for them by a doctor. Keith Moon ironically fell prey to the drug Heminevrin, which he had been prescribed to help get him over his alcoholism. Prescription drug abuse is a big problem in the world in general, so it is perhaps time that the tales of the musicians who perished due to prescribed drugs should receive greater publicity. The deaths of artists who overdosed on cocaine and heroin are always held up as salutary (if tragic) examples to society – why not so with those who died of legal drugs? If nothing else, it may help to prevent the loss of more musical talent in the future.

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Thanks for taking the time to write :)