Reviewed by Thuy On
Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche but drugs and rock 'n’roll are forever twinned in the annals of history and Talking Smack explores the idea of the (seemingly) necessary partaking of various substances to inspire and sustain creativity. Public expectations certainly contribute to the perception that debauchery is needed to achieve musical greatness. As Andrew McMillen points out, no one wants to hear about how musicians treat work with the grim sobriety of the average salary slave. “We’d much rather hear about how a hit song was written at the tail-end of a five-day bender in Ibiza, its creators torn and frayed after a non-stop cocaine-and-booze-fest.”
It’s irrelevant whether rock stars can actually create under such hedonistic conditions; those of us who lead quiet, desperate lives still like to live vicariously through them. And if they happen to indulge in consciousness-altering pills, then so be it: the myth glows all the more strongly with a bit of technicoloured, psychedelic haze around it. Talking Smack offers interviews with various performers in Australia with the goal of presenting undiluted stories about drug use. After all, as McMillen notes wryly, “There are very few industries in which the use of illicit drugs is permissible, if not tacitly encouraged. Music is one such profession.”
Each chapter presents the musings of one of the 14 musicians featured, casting a retrospective glance at whether or how they’ve traversed the windy paths of success and failure with a little bit of help on the side. The candour with which they confess how drugs affected their work, relationships and careers is voyeuristically fascinating. Without moralising, and with only a few interjections, McMillen allows his subjects to speak for themselves about the agonies and ecstasies of dabbling in legal, prescription and illicit drugs, from alcohol to cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Steve Kilbey from The Church, for instance, expands on his 11-year addiction to heroin, and though he defined his habit as a “slow erosion”, it enhanced his creativity, and his usage bled its way into his songs. And yet to achieve the necessary high, he was borrowing money, antagonising his bandmates and wife, even hocking his guitar to pay for his chemical dependence. At one point Kilbey missed playing a gig because he was jailed for the night after being busted for drugs in New York. Years later, he retains a sense of humour about it, telling McMillen that reports of his lock-up “wasn’t bad for business”.
While Kilbey is liberal with his praise and use of recreational drugs, they featured only sparingly in Wally de Becker’s life and didn’t act as a stimulant in his music-making. Gotye’s frontman remains intrigued by how creative impulses may be fired up by judicious usage of various mood enhancers, but he explains, “I don’t feel like I have the energy to bother with the possibilities of things going wrong, versus what I might be missing out on.”
For Paul Kelly, heroin was used “as a treat” at first (wanted but not needed), but he admits falling in thrall to its seductive power and strove to wean himself off it when he figured out that each day of exultation was balanced by two days of comedown angst and suffering. Elsewhere, Tina Arena wonders why there isn’t a focus on drugs in the political, corporate and financial arena; why it’s always artists who are demonised about their experimentations.
Talking Smack is a valuable contribution to the national discussion on drug use and though McMillen is frank about his own excursions in the area, he assures the reader that the book was written under the influence of nothing stronger than caffeine.