I'm High on Life!
Do artists do their best work before they get clean?
You cannot write any books if you are dead, of course. It may seem a little impertinent to apply aesthetic criteria to a life or death battle—a version of that cruelest of taunts, "I liked him better when he was drunk." That there is a mellowing, though, is undeniable. Martin Scorsese put down drugs and made two comedies and a film about Jesus. Raymond Carver quit the booze and produced Cathedral, an unexpectedly redemptive volume of stories, complete with allegorical blind men, praised by critics for the luminosity of its prose. Damien Hirst got sober and produced a version of the Last Supper featuring ping-pong balls and a series of dazzlingly colorful butterfly paintings. Even Charles Bukowski, briefly sober to battle tuberculosis, found himself composing a series of poems about his cats and one about the "little bluebird in my heart."
stay down, do you want to mess
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
The headaches are biggest for the bad boys, whether bad-boy poets (Bukowski), bad-boy painters (Hirst), or bad-boy actors (Sheen). Theirs is the most humiliating of climb-downs. Dark sides tend to shrivel beneath the pitiless fluorescent glare of the rehab; nothing shrinks the gonads more than the prospect of drawing up an amends list to the bats whose heads you've bitten off. Stephen King used to drink a case of 16-ounce tallboys a night—he can barely remember writing Cujo, he was so loaded—but after a family intervention in 1987, he finally sobered up, although arguably his work knew before he did. One of the things that makes The Shining one of the best books ever written about alcoholism is that it doesn't know what it is about. It was an act of urgent self-diagnosis, conducted in the pitch dark. Once King shone a light into the closet and found out what the real monster was, his work took on a much baggier, more therapeutic feel, with less overly supernatural elements and more in the way psychological demons, metaphorical ghosts. His work self-exorcised.
There is more going on here than just booze and drugs, of course. Most pop careers, with some notable exceptions, are not designed to last much longer than the five-year mark. It's one reason why the fast-burning metabolism of the average drug career has found such a snug fit in the world of rock-n-roll, where longevity is least expected or rewarded. The anesthetic vocabulary of AA meetings and rehab centers, meanwhile, poses translation problems to anyone with aspirations toward mainstream success. "Apart from anything else, I think doing that puts a barrier between you and those people who had had the self restraint to keep their indulgence in those pleasures within socially acceptable limits," worried Brand in his memoir. In other words: I'll lose my audience.
Arthur may do that all on its own, of course, but as the box office receipts for that film trickle in, Brand, unlike his predecessors in the crash-and-burn generation, can blame neither booze nor the lack of it. He's part of a new breed in show business: the sober young professional who gets sober at his agent's behest and sits in rehab taking notes for his comedy routine. Self-destruction is, like, so last century. The hoary old shibboleths linking creativity and self-obliteration simply haven't been able to withstand the mounting evidence of great works completed while stone-cold sober: Cheever's Falconer, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Goodfellas, maybe Scorsese's best film, and certainly his druggiest, a jonesing, jitterbugging masterpiece which almost exactly reproduces the arc and fall of a three-day cocaine jag. Arguably Scorsese's films have got more druggy—which is to say, high on the self-intoxication of their own style—not less, since their director quit the junk. But then maybe we knew this already: Art is the biggest drug of all.
New York, New York—Martin Scorsese
The Shining—Stephen King
The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs—Eric Clapton
Blue Poles: Number 11, 195 —Jackson Pollock
Dream Song —John Berryman
The Scarlet Letter—Gary Oldman
Honky Chateau—Elton John
On the Road—Jack Kerouac
The Blue Mask—Lou Reed
The Greatest—Cat Power
Raging Bull—Martin Scorsese
Empire of the Sun—J. G. Ballard
Nil By Mouth—Gary Oldman
Want One—Rufus Wainwright
Blood Sugar Sex Magik—Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Iceman Cometh—Eugene O'Neill
Tom Shone is film critic of Intelligent Life and the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
Photograph by Barry Wetcher © 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.