View From The Side: No Substance, Just Substances


Another day, another drugs article.

As anyone with a long standing track record of abusing themselves will know, those who avidly partake in recreational drug use love to talk about recreational drug use, love to read about drug use, love to hear about it in films and music and TV,  and generally get a kick out of even the most minor insinuation towards the idea of drugs or doing drugs.

Fact is, once you’ve had them goose-stepping around your endocrine system for a number of years it’s extremely difficult to stop them marching. They stage a coup, take over, and turn you into a self-centred and pedestrian bore-monger. In the case of people like me, once the revolution! has been and gone, you realise in a moment of tremendous banality that, amongst other things, you are 27 years old and still living at home. Wake up mate, the party’s over. Time to pack up the deckchair and get back to the real world.

After nine or so lost years of racking rascal and rolling rumblers, it was in fact not very difficult to stop. After the wholesale onset of undesired psychological and physiological effects, the usual gang of substances were phased out one by one. Cocaine, the primary aggressor, was the last to go. And despite being the long term owner of a mind-numbingly mundane habit, I was let off the hook on a technicality: as is painstakingly documented, at the lower echelons of the consumer cocaine pyramid there is no cocaine in cocaine any more. The near-total lack of the advertised active ingredients meant I may as well have owned a loyalty card for a major coffee chain. Yeah- I was’t getting the good stuff! – I know mate, I know.

Over all the years, doing drugs had become rather like what I imagine going to a weekly backgammon club must be like: the same folk in the same place saying the same things, playing by the same rules at the same designated time. It was something to do, somewhere to be. Most people were in it for the fun, and still are- good for them. Some were further down the line- self-aware, but blurring boundaries between fun and function. Others, however, had talked themselves into a career, and every 24 hours they were holding a press conference.

It is the self-perpetuating mythology of this last category of ‘free-thinking individuals’ that is perhaps the most depressing yet simultaneously arresting aspect of the drug culture scenario. Specifically,  the lingering, bag-eyed mechanics of romanticism: to be part of a microcosmic, exuberant and seemingly indestructible cell of denialists that believed there is still some form of statement in the act of drug-taking from which they could glean a sense of nonconformist veneration.

Even after fucking up their jobs and seriously compromising their health, the ‘outsider motive’ was something they actively strived for. In every nebulous paragraph there lived a closed off and elite chemical vanguard at the outlaw periphery of a straight-laced society in aspic. Two-fingers to the suits and pencil pushers, the insect world of the morning commute; taxes, tasks, obligations- an insufferable environment where only suckers moved and followers shook, cowering at the mercy of The System. And I was one such non-con in the number; prone to go as mentally far afield as believing we were some sort of new-wave Beat Generation teetering on the edge of the post-postmodern abyss. Rebels without applause.  Saving up and moving on; snakes and fucking ladders, man!

Yet beneath the fug of false hubris and fake emotion, the inexplicable status symbolism of it has, and always will continue to baffle me. Where was it going? How long could it last? Why were we doing it? I had long accepted the lurking depression of arrested life development on my part, of which I was often at liberty to discuss at length whilst under the influence. For a lot of people it seemed to be a similar case. How couldn’t it be? But in ‘higher’ quarters such questions were looked upon as childish trivialities by those who could pass muster in the face of 4 days without sleep and counting. I believe these people are still ‘awake’ and will be for a while.

And then inevitably at some point you witness the nadir. The worst of this corrosive psychology was epitomised by my best friend in a lofty boast about partaking in a ‘commemorative’ week-long smack binge in the company of a now well-known band with an egocentric reputation for ‘statement’ drug use, beginning on the day of Lou Reed’s death. Two years later, sat upright in a hospital bed surrounded by the dying elderly, he didn’t seem so confident about previously held ‘non-conformist’ values. Manifesto discontinued.

The most noticeable reaction when relaying themes like this to friends that don’t use drugs is the complete sense of bemusement at the prospect that seeking to be ‘non-conformist’ – or for nostalgic purposes rock and roll! – is still a thing or motive when embarking on a prolonged period of drug abuse. Faced with the idea that for some this ‘period’ is enthusiastically regarded as a potentially indefinite life choice the incongruously high-minded ‘image junkie’ – bemusement bypasses disgust and ends up in baulking cynicism at the exasperating stupidity of humankind. Are you for real? People actually think that? That’s fucking sad. Sad, embarrassing, and reeking of morgue.

This reaction will be particularly poignant for the more conceited former fuck-heads previously grown used to coveting a sense of superior resent for non-using friends. As ubiquity would have it, how stupid we feel now, with the revolution! long ago televised in documentary form, and the lasting influence of which conclusively open ended. Lets face it: at the current stage of play, any new participants in the chemical insurgency might as well wear a wristband while they are forced to share the available cubicles with every form of nondescript citizen Mike and spreadsheet Jim society has to offer. So much for the counterculture man! Even so. I doubt that I can convincingly say I’m anti-drugs as a result. I definitely don’t hate them. As any zen head will tell you- I just hate myself.

Dissatisfaction is the mother of romanticisation. It’s hard to imagine homeless addicts extolling themselves as rebels. It seems to me that secluded inner misery is the spiritual force behind the latest generation in the lineage of non-committal anything goes degenerate thrill seekers, so devoted to their art they can no longer leave the room. Conclusively, then, this  cannot be more than a corollary epitaph for quasi-adult hacks unable to resolve an overgrown ideal of teenage rebellion that fulfils no practical function outside self-deception, and the narcissistic neediness of playing up to the image that goes with it. With the threadbare curtain now thrown back, the spectre of the drug-toting non-conformer looks a sickly and outdated sight stood prostrate onstage opposite a target audience of braindead also-rans. And with all the mystique of a car crash, the phantom at the opera is singing horrifically out of tune. 

Words: Jack Mullinger; Rebel without a pause. Writer & musician – email him here

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