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."

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.

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."

I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?

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.

DRUNK
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
Poesies—Arthur Rimbaud
On the Road—Jack Kerouac
 
SOBER
Cathedral—Raymond Carver
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
Falconer—John Cheever
Want One—Rufus Wainwright
Blood Sugar Sex Magik—Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Iceman Cometh—Eugene O'Neill