Stephen King: Do artists do their best work before they get clean?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 11 2011 5:15 PM

I'm High on Life!

Do artists do their best work before they get clean?

Arthur. Click image to expand.
Russell Brand in Arthur

Of course they weren't going to allow Arthur to stay drunk. What were the chances that the new Arthur, starring Russell Brand as the billionaire lush who loses his butler, keeps his millions, gets the girl, wouldn't end with him in an AA meeting, knees clamped meekly together, learning how to take it a day at a time? The studio didn't even allow any alcohol in the trailers. The original film, in which Dudley Moore did all this and stayed drunk the whole time, looks more and more radical with every passing day, a capsule from another era, before Dr. Drew and Celebrity Rehab arrived on the scene, a time before Lindsay and Paris and Britney, a Land That Oprah Forgot, otherwise known as the inside of Charlie Sheen's head.

Dudley Moore based his beautifully sozzled performance on his partner Peter Cook, the doyen of Cambridge's Beyond the Fringe and star of the satirical shows That Was The Week That Was and Not Only But Also, whom Stephen Fry called "the funniest man who ever drew breath." You've probably never heard of him. Cook's Hollywood career was a nonstarter, and the BBC managed to wipe the entirety of his work for them, leaving his status as the Withnail of English comedy—the genius underachiever, whose gifts for sodden surrealism seem forever intertwined with his gifts of lurking self-sabotage—resting on a series of dazzling chat-show appearances and phone-ins to local radio stations, in which Cook, battling sleeplessness, pretended to be a Norwegian fisherman named Sven. ("Sven explains his delight in finding not all British radio 'phone in's are about fish," runs the summary for one such call, preserved at the Peter Cook Appreciation society. "Unlike Norway, where the fish phone in's have become so bad, Sven's wife, Yuta has left him.")

Curiously enough, it's a TV tribute to Cook—and Cook was exactly the kind of comic's comic, like Bill Hicks, to whom others were always paying tribute—that was playing on TV when the 27-year-old Russell Brand checked into a cold, damp rehab in Suffolk in 2003, to be weaned off a $150-a-day crack-and-heroin habit, in Brand's 2009 memoir, My Booky Wook. "I've always favored Peter Cook over lovely Dudley Moore," he writes, with that unerring instinct addicts have for sniffing one another out. "I suppose I must be more strongly drawn to the romantic Don Quixote archetype than the Sancho Panza Realist."

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The difference between Cook and Brand, like that between the 1981 Arthur and the 2011 remake—we are all Sancho Panzas now, longing for the days of Don Quixote—helps explain the strangely ghoulish cult that has sprung up around Charlie Sheen, as he turns resistance to recovery into an existential act reprising the best parts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Sheen as McMurphy duking it out with Dr. Drew and other assorted cable yakkers in the Nurse Ratchett role, humorless in nursing whites. "You're completely missing the point if you think the Charlie Sheen moment is really a story about drugs," wrote Bret Easton Ellis in Newsweek recently. "It's thrilling watching someone call out the solemnity of the celebrity interview, and Sheen is loudly calling it out as the sham it is. He's raw and lucid and intense: the most fascinating person wandering through the culture."

Ellis, ever the Zeitgeist Whisperer, was right to catch wind of a backlash against the current prominence of recovery in pop culture, from Lindsay Lohan's neverending courtroom drama to Karl Lagerfeld's "quotation" of alcohol-detector ankle bracelets in a recent fashion show. The transformative storyline of recovery, so perfectly attuned to the rhythms of modern-day fame, not to mention the crash-and-burn arc of VH1's Behind the Music, has become the most prominent celebrity narrative, a myth of hubris and redemption, in which the modern-day Prometheus is struck down at the height of their acclaim, spirited down to the underworld to do battle with their demons, before emerging victorious and chastened, a new album clamped under their armpit, with liners notes that thank God and say things like "Here are the songs that mark my journey."

Some skepticism is to be expected. The critics were not kind to Eminem's 2010 comeback album, Recovery, in which he sought to combine old-school rap disses with a more inspirational message of 12-step togetherness, a contradiction he resolved primarily by taking out some of his ire on his previous comeback albums. "The last two albums didn't count / Encore, I was on drugs/Relapse, I was flushing 'em out/I've come to make it up to you now/No more f---in' around," raps Mathers, revealing that in his darkest hour he considered dissing Kanye West and Lil Wayne, the two rappers who gained the most during his absence, but resisted the impulse. "Thank God that I didn't do it / I'da had my ass handed to me."

For some, the idea of a kinder, gentler Eminem was no Eminem at all. "At this point, the number of times he's sounded rudderless on record are catching up to the times he's sounded alive," wrote one reviewer. "Recovery is a morose picture of an artist grappling, and often losing his grip," another, recalling the cruel notices that John Berryman received for his poems to his higher power ("Under new Governance your majesty") or for the novel he wrote in rehab, also entitled like Eminem's opus, Recovery, and which was to have incorporated "a bloody philosophy of both history and Existens, almost as heavy as Tolstoy." It remained unfinished; within weeks of leaving rehab, Berryman threw himself from the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis.

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