Punk’s holy trinity, if it has one, would be sex, drugs and rock & roll. For the past 30 years, author and filmmaker Martin Torgoff has examined the middle pillar of that trinity: Drugs. Torgoff believes the fascination with, and profligate use of, drugs has been a part of youth and underground culture since the 1930s and that each generation had its own soundtrack, literary heroes, cinematic anti-heroes—along with its own buffet of drugs. Benito Vila spoke at length with Torgoff about how punk fits in to the narrative, how drugs have inspired and destroyed Americans in about equal measure, and what they mean now in a time of opiate epidemic and political madness.
Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I absolutely needed to get high and those words meant more to me than I’ll ever admit. The fact that “Sound of Silence” is currently played by high school orchestras, and is in rotation on office playlists nationwide, belies the treachery and deceit conveyed by the rest of its lyrics. The escapist urge explicit in its opening line has lost its connection to the shadowy world of hustlers, dealers and poets who inspired it. That song is not alone in the phenomenon of its lost context. There are people who sing along to the doo-doo-doos of “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”, or repeat its refrain, forgetting that Holly left Miami as a man, that Candy was not a girl either and that speed and valium made those scenes possible. That’s how drugs work. They are so insidious, become so ordinary, so normal, so much a part of “everything,” that it’s impossible to see them doing what they do.
Writer/filmmaker Martin Torgoff has spent a good part of the last 30 years researching and documenting the inner workings of drug culture and its influence on modern society. Early on in his book, Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000, Torgoff introduces Herbert Huncke, the Times Square hustler, who befriended Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady and who embodied the live-for-the-moment principles they made famous. Huncke’s out-of-the-norm life included hookers, transvestites, heroin, Benzedrine and marijuana as well as the bebop jazz of saxophonists Charlie Parker and Jackie McLean.
That 1940s scene sets Torgoff off into a series of drug-culture-creation stories, from the psychedelic experiences of Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert to the political and social potency of marijuana in the lives of Ed Sanders, Hugh Romney and Dennis Peron, from the amphetamine-fueled art of Andy Warhol’s Factory to the cocaine and Quaaludes miasma that made Studio 54 the over-the-top mecca all kinds of queens wanted to be a part of and that no one could look away from. Torgoff’s narrative delves into the societies fashioned by of each of those “popular” drugs as well as the social orders fostered by heroin, amyl nitrate, crack, PCP, nitrous oxide, ecstacy and a host of other sedatives, tranquilizers and antidepressants.
Can’t Find My Way Home is chock-full of in-the-know characters, from Prankster Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams to Factory actress Mary Woronov, from singer David Crosby to Drug Policy Alliance founder Ethan Nadelmann. Hardly anyone or anything on the post-war cultural scene is left out. Torgoff weaves in the implications of widespread drug use on America’s political, legal and social structures, and calls out the far-reaching influence of Saturday Night Live. My copy of Can’t Find My Way Home rests on a prominent shelf in my house, in a place where I see it almost every day. It sits there for its content and for my having met Torgoff in a Manhattan church basement at the time he started his research and began his personal recovery. Lately, I’ve been wondering what Torgoff is seeing in current drug culture and how that’s being reflected in mainstream society. I called him to find out, but before I did, I read Bop Apocalypse, Torgoff’s tracking of the personalities and places that shaped drug culture before the war. That book opens with Kerouac questioning, “What’s the use of not being high? You gonna be low?” and with a young Terry Southern coming across a dazed, droopy-eyed cow, the creature contently laid out flat after eating “loco weed”. The good stuff, indeed.
PKM: I asked the PKM editors about you and I got an email back saying, “He’d be great to talk to.”
Martin Torgoff: [Laughs] There’s a bit of a connection between me and Legs. He was one of the primary characters in the documentary based on Can’t Find My Way Home, a documentary that VH1 did, called The Drug Years.
PKM: I didn’t know that. Legs hasn’t mentioned it.
Martin Torgoff: Yes, he’s in it. He’s quite good. Interestingly enough, I prepared a whole chapter on punk and heroin that was never included in that book.
PKM: Who took the chapter out?
Martin Torgoff: I did. The canvas of that book was so huge. At one point the manuscript was at 1,300 pages and I was only about a third of the way through the story. It was crazy. I had to make some hard decisions and that chapter was something I had to take out. As you can see, I’ve ended up doing two books. I still have that punk material. To this day, I haven’t published it.
PKM: What is the connection between punk and heroin?
Martin Torgoff: It’s a visceral connection. The whole lineage of punk that came from William Burroughs through to Lou Reed has a real heroin component to it. The key players in the beginning of the scene became junkies, like Richard Hell being an obvious example of it. But there were so many others and a lot of them went down. Like any heroin scene, there was a recognizable level of attrition involved.
PKM: You mean death?
Martin Torgoff: Degradation, dissolution, and, in some cases, death. In the case of Sid Vicious, death. Johnny Thunders, death. A lot of people got caught up in it. It was very prevalent in the scene. Debbie Harry talks about her addiction in her new book. She was a junkie. The nihilism of punk went naturally with the junkie sensibility, that romance of darkness and self-destruction that has always been a part of heroin, as we know it.
PKM: Isn’t that nihilistic experience also available through alcohol?
Martin Torgoff: Yes, it is. It’s available through alcohol, but I didn’t write about alcohol because I decided, at some point, that my work was going to be about illicit drugs. Alcohol was absolutely at the center of everything, except for in the psychedelic culture, unless you look at somebody like Janis Joplin who was much more into alcohol than psychedelics, and who eventually also became a junkie. Generally, the psychedelic scene was not about alcohol.
PKM: Dropping LSD into Jack Daniel’s is a bad combination.
We’re living in the world of fentanyl and ayahuasca. That pretty much tells the story. There are people taking spiritually-guided ayahuasca trips to evolve into beings who are as devoted to saving the planet as other people are devoted to completely obliviating themselves with an opiate that is umpteen times more powerful than the purest heroin ever.
Martin Torgoff: Yes, but it’s not like people didn’t do it.
PKM: Your first book went up to the year 2000. How do you describe illicit drug use in more modern culture? What’s happened in the last 20 years?
Martin Torgoff: Wow. Like the saying goes, “Everything old is new and everything new is old.” Nothing ever really goes away in drug culture. There are vogues that happen, that involve new things, but primarily the pharmacopoeia remains essentially the same: marijuana, psychedelics, opioids, amphetamines, various and sundry pills. What we’ve seen in the new millennium is that drug culture is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. We started to see that in the 1990s with ecstasy, MDMA and the rave culture. That generation was the product of more anti-drug advertising and hysteria than any generation in history. Look back at Partnership for Drug Free America and the amount of money put into that and its drug war. You would think all that would have had some impact on the generation coming up. It didn’t. That generation was just as avid about experimenting, exploring and finding their scene as any other generation. I remember going to raves in the Bay Area in the early ’90s and being amazed at what I saw. This new generation was reaching for an experience with ecstasy that was no different than what happened 35 years earlier in San Francisco with LSD and the psychedelic culture of Haight-Ashbury. It was almost a carbon copy of it. The rave culture evolved their own music, their own artistic aesthetic sensibility, their own value system––all based around one drug. Then, there were the same kinds of crackdowns that happened to LSD when the DEA criminalized ecstasy. Look at the legislation. They were setting up and trying to criminalize the rave culture.
PKM: Who are the heroes of that culture?
Martin Torgoff: There were heroes, but there weren’t the towering figures of the 1960s, like a Jimi Hendrix or an Owsley [Augustus Owsley Stanley III], the Haight’s acid chemist. There were those kinds of people in the scene, but they did not garner that same kind of mass cultural recognition. There were MDMA therapists who were just as messianic about its potential as anyone was about LSD in the ’60s. In the MDMA/ecstacy drug culture there was a kind of a replication of the LSD scene, but it didn’t end up with the same kind of worldwide impact or media attention. The music that came out of that scene became a phenomenon of the new millennium: EDM, electronic dance music, and House Music. Those became the most commercially successful areas of the music industry at a time when industry revenues were in decline. A new generation cleaved onto that music with its own drug, called “Molly”, which was that generation’s version of ecstasy.
Another example of what’s happened since 2000 is the meth thing. It started heating up in the Midwest and in rural areas in the 1990s and then flamed up in the new millennium. That was pretty astounding because the cultural ground of methamphetamine use had always been part of underground gay culture, but grew to reach unprecedented heights in rural America and the Midwest. To me, that was an example of how we just don’t seem to learn the lessons of drugs in our culture. There have been terrible “speed kills” scenes since the ’60s. Part of one of the reasons why Haight-Ashbury went down the way it did was how everyone started using speed. I have this kind of thesis about drugs in America. We suffer from a kind of cultural amnesia about it. Every generation has to go off and make the same mistakes with drugs that the previous generation made. The lessons aren’t learned. They’re not passed on.
PKM: Why is that?
Martin Torgoff: That’s largely because, for a long time, we as a society weren’t comfortable with openly talking about drugs, talking about the impact they’ve had on our culture. That, and because for decades and decades, as absurd it sounds, the stated focus of the United States drug policy was protecting a drug-free America. Such a thing has never existed in the history of this country, or any country for that matter. The discourse about illicit drugs and what they’re really about, why people really use them, the impact they’ve had, the positive as well as negatives, has not been a subject people were comfortable talking about, which is one of the reasons why I wrote my first book.
I have this kind of thesis about drugs in America. We suffer from a kind of cultural amnesia about it. Every generation has to go off and make the same mistakes with drugs that the previous generation made.
PKM: You make a point the drug-free white America propaganda goes back a long way. You associate it with a way for law enforcement to demean and make the black man “wrong”. You also point out people do drugs to escape from society because social norms are so twisted. We now live in a society that has gone from “fringe-element” experimentation and escapism to the “middle” getting its kicks and finding oblivion every day. How do you describe that progression?
Martin Torgoff: It’s complicated. The thing about drugs and the history of drugs in America is that it’s a challenging subject because to get a good look at it you need to know a lot about a lot of different things to get a sense of what’s really going on. You need to know about politics, and sociology, and race, and the arts, and pharmacology. It just goes on and on, and on. It’s a multidisciplinary subject and there aren’t easy answers. When you find out “the truth” about a drug, you oftentimes see its opposite, which is just as glaring, just as real, and just as true.
PKM: For example?
Martin Torgoff: Look at marijuana, that’s a good example. It’s something that’s in my life now because I have a teenager who’s messing with it. What I’ve learned about my own journey through drugs, and sobriety, and recovery, is that there were some drug experiences at different times in my life that opened me up. Like, when I was a teenager first getting high in the ’60s, dabbling with it and listening to music, I went through a period that really changed my life in a way that I can only look at as positive. It sensitized me and opened me to a lot of different ideas. It put me in touch with different creative aspects of myself. It was a big part of me becoming a writer and, eventually, a filmmaker. It also gave me a bonding experience with other kids, and being a lot of fun, it made me able to laugh at some really crazy and cruel things about life. That aspect of it was positive.
There were aspects of psychedelics that were positive too for me, although there were aspects of that experience that were unpredictable. The biggest problem with psychedelics in the late ‘60s was the fact that there were a lot of people who were coming into contact with them and using them, who really had no idea of what they were getting into and were not prepared by any means to deal with an experience that intense. Those people, without the kind of guidance necessary for such an intense experience, were opening themselves up to the possibility of really, really big trouble. For other people, it was an amazing experience that really changed their lives in ways for the better. Then, as that generation moved on, a whole other cornucopia of drugs came in: the opiates, cocaine, and also, at that point, a lot of alcohol. And that happened for me, too, so that while my initial experiences of marijuana and psychedelics were mind-and-heart-opening, the rest of my using experiences started closing me, shutting me down, isolating me, which was the exact opposite of how I first experienced marijuana and psychedelics. Now, I have a kid who has fallen in love with weed. It makes me really nervous, for many reasons.
PKM: What do you say to your son?
Martin Torgoff: I’m honest with him and I keep talking even when I don’t think he’s listening. I’ve tried to explain that there was a part of weed smoking that was very positive for me, but there was a part of it that was also problematical––that it ingrained itself into my life and distanced me from my emotional development. That’s the best way that I can describe it really. I could never have imagined when I was 16, 17, 18 years old, that at the same time that I was experiencing these “openings”, that there was also an aspect of me, that had always been there, that would eventually lead me to become an addict and an alcoholic. I’ve told him that part of me did not make itself known until later and that I couldn’t have seen it because everyone else I was with were doing the exact same thing. The irony is that I find myself in the same position with my son that I was in with my father.
PKM: You didn’t listen to your dad either.
Martin Torgoff: My dad’s generation believed if you smoked marijuana, then you were going to be a heroin addict, that marijuana was the gateway drug. Some people still believe that now, but it was a widely held belief then, “a truth” that people repeated all the time. What happened, of course, was that as me and my generation smoked and got high, we realized, “Oh my God, this is great. And I’m not turning into a fucking heroin addict.” All it did was kind of disprove what they were saying and make us smoke more marijuana. It’s like we acted out just to disprove their impossible theory. I see a replication of that between us, my son and I. I said before how generations don’t seem to pass on what they learn. I’m trying to pass on my wisdom, my understanding, my experience, but he’s not hearing what I have to say, even though he respects me, even though he loves me. He’ll have to learn his own lessons about it. That is really difficult to accept as a parent. It requires that I let go and focus on what I can do for myself on a day-by-day basis.
PKM: That vividly describes your personal experience, the micro. Doesn’t the mainstream of society, the macro, do that, too? Don’t the ones who aren’t into illicit drugs just shrug and carry on the best they can?
Martin Torgoff: Yes, in some ways. What’s happening in the country now with marijuana is like so many other things: we’re turning into two Americas. You’re going to see that more and more. You see it with marijuana; you see with abortion; you’re going to see it more and more with guns. We are becoming two separate countries about all those things, even though we have one federal government. We’re in a situation now where you can go to Colorado, get all sort of edibles, get stoned out of your gourd and get a cannabis-infused beverage. It’s twelve different amazing strains of cannabis cultivated and sold to bring about hundreds of different dimensions of the cannabis high. Meanwhile, in Kansas, the state next door, if you get caught with even a small amount of marijuana, law enforcement is going to make your life as miserable as they possibly can. So we have part of our society normalizing it, commodifying it, and we have another part of the country still mired in the same mindset as a century ago. That’s amazing when you think about it.
PKM: It’s an issue of liberty––as it relates to women’s rights, civil rights, drugs, guns, sexual preference. The way you describe the two Americas, there’s so much more to it. One thing you haven’t described in modern culture and drug use since 2000 is hip-hop.
Martin Torgoff: Wow. Yes. I’m not of the hip-hop generation, but I wrote a chapter in Can’t Find My Way Home about crack that alluded to hip-hop. It wasn’t until 2009 that I became fascinated by hip-hop. That’s the year I made a film with Richard Lowe called Planet Rock, which was the story of crack from the point of view of four African-American teenagers who were crack dealers, who later became seminal hip hop figures: RZA and Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan in New York, and Snoop Dogg and B-Real in South Central Los Angeles.
It was an amazing experience for me to immerse myself in that film, because I found myself deep in another intense cultural scene that was inextricable from the phenomenon of a specific drug. We all know crack was unbelievably destructive and yet these kids, who became rappers, documented what had happened more truthfully and vividly than almost all the national news media. Making the film also gave me an appreciation for the creativity of hip-hop and for how hip-hop helped these four characters survive. Their choices were incarceration or, in the situation of the gangs, death from gunshot. Hip-hop became their way out of that crack world and, ironically, it became their way into the American dream. The classic example is Jay-Z, who was a teenage crack dealer in Brooklyn, and now is about the most iconic figure of African-American empowerment there is.
PKM: He’s re-writing the soundtrack of pro sports, at every conceivable level, from the inner-workings of the front office to the music on the sidelines.
Martin Torgoff: It’s incredible all Jay-Z has done.
PKM: In your books, you touch on people like Herbert Huncke, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Terry Southern, Norman Mailer, John Belushi and so many others. It’s obvious these people have a real draw for you. What inspired you to write about drugs and the influence on modern culture?
Martin Torgoff: Everything with me begins personally. What I really look for in my work are different ways of telling the story of America. Being a kid of “my generation” meant I was a teenager in the late 1960s. Coming of age then, it’s obvious that, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll would be personal and meaningful ways in my telling the story. In terms of my interest in drug culture, I crashed and burned at the age of 37, and went into recovery grappling with my own understanding of it. I came out of my 21 years of drug-using wondering how I, this suburban teenage boy, got so lost in something that started out as anything other than what it turned out to be.
In the prologue of Bop Apocalypse, I talk about the first night I ever smoked pot, down in the basement of my parents’ house on the North Shore of Long Island. My older sister turned me on. Then she put on “Blue Jay Way” from the Magical Mystery Tour album and said, “Put your head between those speakers.” [Chuckles.] Quite literally, my life has never the same after that moment. To have it end up the way it did, I began trying to understand my own kind of transit, my own journey. That led to thinking about how it shaped my generation. That led to thinking about how it changed the whole damn country. That was the inspiration for Can’t Find My Way Home, which took me over a decade to do.
When I started researching that book, I set in looking at the story of how-the-hell-did-that-marijuana-get-into-that-basement. That’s when I began to understand, yes, the ’60s were going on, it was Dylan and the Beatles, but it really went way back to the birth of jazz in New Orleans because the fact is that marijuana arrived on the streets of New Orleans exactly as jazz was beginning to coalesce, exactly at the same time. What does that mean? That took me way, way, way, way deep into a kind of pre-history, sort of the origin story of drugs in America, that came long before telling the story of the counterculture and then the movement of drugs into mainstream use which happened in the ’70s and the ’80s. I began to realize the story starts even before 1910, with the 1920s and the 1930s becoming a critical period. That’s when the war on drugs begins with Harry Anslinger and that’s when the racial implications of that war became institutionalized. I went off into this thing and I wrote and wrote and wrote. In no time, I had 300 or 400 pages of writing I couldn’t even use for what became Can’t Find My Way Home, because that book was supposed to about the post-World War II era. I wrote one chapter in Can’t Find My Way Home called “Bop Apocalypse”. That was the story of Charlie Parker and one of his protégés, Jackie McLean, and also simultaneously the story of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I didn’t get into Burroughs in that chapter much, but all those people cross-pollinated in the 1940s into what became the bebop phenomenon and eventually the Beat Generation. I had always wanted to go back to the beginning of that pre-World War II story and flesh it out with the whole cast. That’s eventually what I did in Bop Apocalypse, which is, of course, the prequel to Can’t Find My Way Home. That’s how and why I initially delved into writing about drugs, the meaning of it for me personally, and then what happened as I went down the rabbit hole of the whole subject.
Hip-hop became their way out of that crack world and, ironically, it became their way into the American dream. The classic example is Jay-Z, who was a teenage crack dealer in Brooklyn, and now is about the most iconic figure of African-American empowerment there is.
PKM: What drugs were people doing a century ago, going into the Roaring ’20s?
Martin Torgoff: That’s fascinating. Early on in Bop Apocalypse, I quote Jelly Roll Morton who was speaking for an oral history on jazz that Nat Hentoff did, called Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya. The quote describes what Jelly Roll Morton saw on the streets of New Orleans as a kid and it’s extraordinary because it shows you how everything that we have now, with the exception of the drugs that have been born in the laboratory, was already there. Opium was there, marijuana was there, and laudanum, a tincture, a form of opium, was there, too. Opiates were completely legal. They weren’t criminalized until 1914. It’s amazing to look at the profile of the opiate addict in the United States. The first addicts were middle class and upper middle-class white women who became addicted to the drug as a result of doctor’s prescriptions. [Laughs] If you know the character of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill play Long Day’s Journey into Night, she’s an opium addict. Eugene O’Neill’s mother was an opium addict. When those drugs were criminalized, a lot of these people were cut off. Initially there were these clinics, allowed by the government, where these people were able to continue to get their drugs.
There was this whole moral hysteria about that then, as there so often is moral hysteria about drugs in America. When Harry Anslinger came along in the 1930s that was the real beginning of the war on drugs in the United States. As soon as he began his xenophobic “anti-drug” campaign, those clinics were cut down and, basically, we had this population of people who were addicted to drugs and had no place to get them. That was the beginning of the underground trade in opiates in the United States. By the early 1930s, too, there was already a marijuana culture that was deeply ingrained in jazz through legendary characters like Louis Armstrong. With this whole underground culture of drug use, heroin becomes prevalent in the 1930s for the first time. Before that it was largely morphine and opium. Heroin comes in at the same time people are beginning to learn how to use needles for intravenous use, but it was small scale at first. It was just in some of the big cities, like New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Eventually, the mafia began to see that they could make some money from it and that laid the seeds for what would become the global heroin trade of the 1940s.
PKM: In Bop Apocalypse, you describe Burroughs being introduced to opiates by Huncke, by way of a military medical device, a syrette.
Martin Torgoff: Yes, morphine syrettes. They were all over the battlefields in World War II. You can see how they were used in war movies. A guy gets wounded, the medic comes along and takes this thing out of his pack and jabs it in the wounded soldier’s arm or leg to kill the pain. There were huge amounts of morphine available to soldiers. That later got siphoned off into the underground.
PKM: Huncke was already using opiates long before he ended up in Normandy [in the Merchant Marines].
Martin Torgoff: Huncke. [Laughs] Did you ever meet Huncke?
Martin Torgoff: What an amazing character he was. So fascinating to talk to.
PKM: Everyone describes him as being in the know and as being shifty. In American Hipster, Hilary Holladay writes about Huncke stealing Charley Plymell’s typewriter, and quotes Plymell as saying, “He wouldn’t take more than you were worth. A typewriter here, a TV set there. His thievery depended on how bad he needed junk.”
Martin Torgoff: [Laughs] Exactly.
PKM: What was he like in person? How old was he when you met him?
Martin Torgoff: When I met Huncke, he was in his late 70s and he was still using drugs. That’s how he was. There’s a chapter about him in Bop Apocalypse. He was still chipping away with heroin and completely unapologetic about it, completely open about it. There was no moral self-judgment whatsoever from Huncke about his or anyone else’s use of drugs. That was the thing that made Huncke so remarkable to people like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. You have to remember society was filled with hysteria about drugs, with the Reefer Madness campaign of the late 1930s being an example. Drug addicts were the absolute worst, nothing more debased, nothing more frowned upon. There were two characters in American society of the 1940s who are absolutely beyond the pale: one was a homosexual, and the other was a drug addict. Of course, Huncke was both, and, of course, Burroughs became both.
There were two characters in American society of the 1940s who are absolutely beyond the pale: one was a homosexual, and the other was a drug addict. Of course, Huncke was both, and, of course, Burroughs became both.
PKM: They were the only ones willing to tell the truth.
Martin Torgoff: They had their own truth about it all. It was amazing to Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac, and their circle of writers who were fascinated by drugs––the creative potential, the sexual potential and all of that stuff––and here was someone who was completely nonjudgmental about it. Huncke’s whole attitude was that, “Look, the world is so fucked up. You’re going to tell me that what I am doing is wrong when you have an obscenity like the atomic bomb that can basically wipe off like tens of millions of people from the face of the earth, and you’re going to tell me that it’s morally wrong for me to smoke a joint or take a pill?” It’s true. Huncke was a hustler. He wasn’t about to make his money in a licit way, but he wasn’t a hardcore criminal. He served a lot of time in jail but it was mostly for petty robbery and things like that. Huncke wasn’t some sort of heavy criminal. Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, they saw that. To them, he was a classic example of someone who was being persecuted.
PKM: How do you see the cycles of drug use and music playing out now?
Martin Torgoff: I listen to WFUV, the indie music station out of Fordham University, a lot. They’re always playing new music, stuff that’s roots and rock-based. What I hear there are a lot of references to drugs, music that openly and clearly shows that drug use, that drug experiences, are as ingrained in the lifestyles of today’s musicians and this generation as anything was in my generation. Father John Misty is someone I heard there that I like quite a bit. He has a song called “I’m Writing a Novel”. In that song, he makes references to a Canadian shaman giving him ayahuasca. That’s one of the new psychedelic vogues: the use of the ayahuasca vine, a vine that comes from the Amazon basin. People have known about it for a long time. Burroughs actually went into the jungles of South America to look for ayahuasca and experienced it way back in the early 1950s. In the new millennium, it’s becoming the new vogue and there’s a whole subculture coming up around it. Father John Misty references it in his song in a humorous way. There’s a lot of that going on in today’s music.
PKM: Why are drugs and music so connected?
Martin Torgoff: It’s a multi-faceted answer. The easy answer is that drugs alter your mind and therefore they alter your perception of music, whether you’re playing it or hearing it. But there’s a cultural answer as well. The “high” bonds musical communities, bringing together different people, different styles and different traditions, that coalesce around a specific drug, or mix of drugs. There’s also the cachet of “the new”, a cachet of rebellion, a cachet of pushing the envelope that is always near and dear to the sensibility of artists, musicians especially. The answer is a combination of all those things.
PKM: Each generation pushes against the generation before them. The ‘60s Pranksters were coloring up the Ward Cleaver ’50s. The pendulum is swinging back toward that sort of conformity. How do you see drug use playing out over the next 10 years or so?
Martin Torgoff: What’s most obvious is that we are entering a period of tremendous uncertainty, tremendous anxiety and tremendous chaos, the likes of which we can’t even begin to fathom. There are so many apocalyptic aspects to where the world seems to be heading right now. That will definitely shape people’s relationship to drug experiences, to the use of drugs and to addiction to drugs. My son’s generation is growing up in an unbelievably cynical time.
The nihilism of punk went naturally with the junkie sensibility, that romance of darkness and self-destruction that has always been a part of heroin, as we know it.
PKM: It’s always been at war. Anyone born in America after 2001 has always been at war.
Martin Torgoff: Yes, that’s true. Having published these books and made these television shows, I occasionally get asked to come speak at colleges or universities. I talk about all this drug stuff. A lot of times kids come up at the end and want to shoot the shit, go out for a coffee or whatever, which I always enjoy. In one of those post-speaking get-togethers, an earnest kid asked, “If you look at what’s happening today, is it like the ’60s with the chaos and the craziness?” I thought about it for a second and I said, “No, no, it’s not like the ‘60s at all. Back in the ’60s, even with the war in Vietnam, even with assassinations, even with the cities erupting in race riots and flames, I never felt the peril that I do now for the world.” There were a lot of groundbreaking things happening then. There was the civil rights movement, the birth of environmentalism, the birth of feminism. It inspired hope for the future. What I told the kid was, “I imagine that today probably feels more like the 1930s must have felt to people who were in that situation. There were these things going on in the world, like the rise of fascism. You sort of saw the handwriting on the wall. You looked at the horizon and you saw the storm clouds gathering. People felt they could not stop it from happening, but they could not fathom the magnitude of the shit that was going to come down.” That’s the situation that we’re in today. Where you can see the shit gathering on the horizon, the dark clouds and a lot of people feel like, “Oh my God, what can I possibly do to stop this?” There’s a pull to the precipice.
Look at our opiate epidemic. It’s Trump’s America that has essentially been going through the worst of it. As I mentioned earlier, the first opiate addicts in America were middle-class white women, looking for relief from the pressures they felt. Then it became something hip young men in the cities did. Then it took hold of young black people living in the poverty of the inner cities, and that’s where it stayed for 25 or 30 years. Now, it’s in the Rust Belt and in rural America. That’s Trump’s America. These are people who feel they have been completely left out of everything, left out of the economic growth, left out of social change, left out of everything a lot of us know as “normal”. Their addiction is so embroidered into that worldview, into lashing out, into emotional destruction. How is that going to play out in terms of new drugs, new lifestyles? Who can tell? The reasons people use drugs are in play today, and have always been in play, at all times in every era. What changes is the emphasis on which drugs come to embody and reflect the times.
PKM: So, we’re on the precipice between synthetic opiates and organic psychedelics?
Martin Torgoff: [Laughs] Yes, we’re living in the world of fentanyl and ayahuasca. That pretty much tells the story. There are people taking spiritually-guided ayahuasca trips to evolve into beings who are as devoted to saving the planet as other people are devoted to completely obliviating themselves with an opiate that is umpteen times more powerful than the purest heroin ever. That’s the dichotomy of where we are with drugs today. And we’re able to chase it all down with a cannabis-infused beverage.
Jelly Roll Morton: [From Bop Apocalypse. The influential pianist/composer describes his growing up in New Orleans of the late 1890s/early 1900s] The streets were crowded with men. Police were always in sight, never less than two together, which guaranteed the safety of all concerned. Lights of all colors were glittering and glaring. Some very happy, some very sad, some with the desire to end it all by poison, some planning a big outing, a dance or some other kind of enjoyment. Some were real ladies in spite of their downfall and some were habitual drunkards and some were dope fiends as follows: opium, heroin, cocaine, laudanum, morphine, etc. I was personally sent to Chinatown many times with a sealed note and a small amount of money and would bring back several cards of hop [bags of weed]. There was no slipping or dodging. All you had to do was walk in and be served.