When my friend and fellow blogsmith Juan Alvarado Valdivia suggested we continue our dueling Top 10 lists by compiling our favorite drug songs, my immediate reaction was, “Won’t that just be a list of our favorite songs?” He laughed, and admitted that was probably true.
Why is that? I’m not exactly sure. Alcohol has always been my poison of choice, and I’ve never really been that into drugs: I’ve smoked a fair amount of weed over the years, but less than a lot of people I know (less than anyone in my immediate family, probably). I’ve dabbled with hard stuff, but I’ve never gotten on the horse—and looking over my list, it turns out most of my favorite drug songs are about heroin.
I guess the simplest explanation is that people write about what they know. And for musicians, drugs almost inevitably become part of the lifestyle, because you’re usually playing at night, usually in a bar (at least early in your career), and the process of touring is an exhausting one that tends to lead to the use of downers (to help you sleep) and uppers (to get you lifted for the show). And of course as a musician you’re usually part of somebody’s party—and drugs tend to come out at the party.
But enough preamble. Juanito’s—a lucky collection of 13 songs—is here. And mine is below. Enjoy.
Honorable Mentions: A great old drug song is Cocaine Blues, the most famous arrangement of which was done by the Reverend Gary Davis (this is the version that Dave Van Ronk and Townes Van Zandt both cover) … I love love love Gillian Welch’s My Morphine, but it didn’t make the cut … “Rock on, Gold Dust Woman, take your silver spoon, and dig your grave” … Shockingly, I don’t have a Stones song on here, even though basically all of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street qualify … And my father might disown me for leaving off Cream’s Tales of Brave Ulysses. It’s a phenomenal psychedelic song about an Odyssey-themed acid trip, and it’s also the song on which Eric Clapton debuted the wah wah pedal. It should be on the list. I just—I don’t know. Let’s get to the Top 10.
10. I Got 5 on It, The Luniz
The thing that people forget when it comes to drugs, and songs about drugs, is that people start doing drugs because doing drugs is fun! At least at first. And pretty much all of us start out doing drugs the same way: as teenagers smoking weed. And for me and so many other people who were teenagers in the Bay in the ’90s, I Got 5 on It was the jam that you put on the stereo when it was time to smoke the stepped-on, shitty twomp (Bay slang for a twenty sack) of dank that you bought from your homie’s cousin. The Luniz were a duo of rappers from East Oakland, and their lyrics, which revolve around making sure not to let anybody hit the joint without chipping in a couple bucks (I feel like I’m doing a poor version of Rap Genius right now) perfectly sum up what it’s like for a couple of broke teenagers to be scrabbling together a few bucks to get stoned.
Honestly, to this day I feel a little high when I hear the ba-bump-bump beat that starts this song.
9. I’m Waiting for the Man, The Velvet Underground Heroin may be the most famous Velvet Underground drug song (the term “Velvet Underground drug song” is unnecessarily repetitive, by the way—everything Lou Reed ever wrote is about drugs), but this song about a tweaked-out junky (“so sick and dirty, barely dead than alive”) taking the train uptown to Harlem (“Up to Lexington, 125”) to buy smack has always been my favorite. For some reason, I especially love the part that goes, “Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown?/Hey, white boy, you chasin’ our women around?/Oh pardon me sir, it’s the furthest from my mind/ I’m just lookin’ for a dear, dear friend of mine.” I just think it’s funny.
8. Ten Crack Commandments, The Notorious B.I.G.
Because for every Lou Reed junky slinking into the hood to buy drugs, you need a Biggie Smalls to sell ’em. (I’m sure that comes off racist, but it’s the truth, largely because America’s institutionalized racism works to ensure that it stays the truth.) There are a million rap songs out there about slangin’ rocks, but I think Bed-Stuy’s favorite son has the best of them, a witty guide to staying out of jail and out of the morgue while you’re stacking paper.
7. South Nashville Blues/CCKMP, Steve Earle
Steve Earle is one of our most famous contemporary junkie musicians. He got so hooked on drugs that he ended up spending a year wandering around skidrow (he now refers to it as his “vacation in the ghetto”), and he ended up in jail after being arrested multiple times for heroin and cocaine possession. He cleaned up his act after he got out of jail, and these two songs both appeared on one of the first albums he released after getting sober, I Feel Alright. I know it’s a bit of a cheat to take two songs, but Earle often plays these two together live, for a specific reason. South Nashville Blues isn’t what you’d call uplifting—it’s about wandering around on the wrong side of the tracks, looking for a fix and some trouble, and ending up way down in the bottoms and probably in jail. But at the same time, it does have a bouncing, jaunty feel to it; as Steve explains in this clip, “it has a tendency to make that part of my life seem like it was a lot more fuckin’ fun than it was.”
So he follows it with CCKMP, an acronymic title taken from the song’s first line and chorus, “Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain.” I love how he introduces it in that clip by saying “Welcome to my nightmare,” because the song is a true nightmare, about how “cocaine cannot kill my pain,” “whiskey got no hold on me,” and “heroin’s the only thing.” Earle’s voice is so strained and haunted when he sings those lines. It’s so dark, and so awesome.
6. Needle in the Hay, Elliott Smith
Speaking of dark … this is one of the darkest songs ever recorded. An interesting thing about Elliott is that while he became an infamous junky (it’s been reported that at his worst he was using thousands of dollars worth of heroin and crack every day), according to all of his friends and family, he wasn’t into hard drugs early in his career. The drug references in Needle in the Hay and so many of the other songs from his Portland period are much more metaphorical than literal. With that said, Needle in the Hay is just about the most down-and-out junky song ever written. That acoustic guitar riff starts out dark, the whispered vocals about a kid that’s “strung out and thin … trying to cash some check” give me chills to this day … and there’s that final verse: “Down downstairs to the man/He’s gonna make it all OK/I can’t beat myself/I can’t beat myself/And I don’t want to talk/I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet/Whenever I want/So leave me alone/ You ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks.” That last line, which uses the double entendre for a schoolboy’s grades and a junky’s track marks, is just brilliant. God, what a great song.
5. Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd
How many songs have been written from the perspective of the drug itself? Or at least what the fiend thinks the drug is saying. The verse opens with the famous line, “Hello, is there anybody in there?” and continues with the drug’s seductive offer, “I can ease your pain.” The chorus shifts to the user’s perspective, as he slips into being “comfortably numb,” with the pain receding, ships on the horizon, and hands like balloons. And following the chorus is the guitar solo, one of the greatest in rock history; if any solo ever deserved the adjective “soaring,” it’s what David Gilmour does on this track. Check out Gilmour and Roger Waters playing it in a rare joint appearance during a 2011 performance of The Wall.
4. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, The Beatles
Back in college, my buddies and I used to spend hours having those music fan arguments that everyone’s had a million times: Clapton or Hendrix? Pearl Jam or Nirvana? Best Beatles album? That last one came up a bunch, and while I eventually settled on Rubber Soul as my favorite, for a while I was pretty staunchly in the Sgt. Pepper’s camp. I’ll never forget my old roommate Jeremy’s response to my Pepper fandom: “I like the Beatles when they’re influenced by drugs, not totally dedicated to them.” He has a point: Sgt. Pepper is surely the Beatles’ acid record, but it’s just so goddamn good, and the pinnacle of the drugginess on this album is John Lennon’s ode to LSD.
Lennon, of course, claimed that the song wasn’t about acid—because John, as much as I love the man, was an asshole sometimes. That trippy organ, the psychedelic imagery, “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes”? This song is about tripping balls. And while it was recorded almost 50 years ago, it remains the best song there is about tripping balls.
3. Under the Bridge, Red Hot Chili Peppers
2. Hotel California, The Eagles
I’m gonna write these two up together, because they’re so similar. Both are set in California and performed by LA bands. Both feature iconic arpeggiated guitar intros. Both are about the downward spiral that drugs can take you on. Both feature a crescendoing ending that captures that spiral—for the Eagles it’s that epic guitar solo; for RHCP it’s that haunting coda with the chorus singing “Under the bridge downtown…” I used to listen to both of these all the time when I got high, and in my freshman comp class, I wrote a paper comparing the two. (I got an A. I wish I still had that paper.) There are key differences, of course. Under the Bridge is very literal. It’s about becoming such a destructive junkie that you end up under a bridge. Anthony Kiedis, no stranger to drugs, actually wrote it after seeing a home movie of guitarist John Frusciante being totally strung out on heroin.
Hotel California, meanwhile, is written more metaphorically. It’s about the seduction of drugs, the lifestyle they seem to offer, particularly to rockstars. (My reading, by the way, is that while Under the Bridge is clearly about heroin, Hotel California is a cocaine song.)
All things equal, I actually probably like Under the Bridge just a tiny bit more. So why does Hotel California come out ahead? All I have to say is, get stoned and listen to that guitar solo. So fuckin’ epic, bro.
1. The Needle and the Damage Done, Neil Young
A friend who was into drugs once told me that everything you need to know about heroin is in The Needle and the Damage Done. It’s shockingly beautiful, but it only lasts a couple minutes, ending seemingly before it’s really begun and leaving you totally fucked out. As Young explained when he played it live at Massey Hall in 1971 (for the incredible album of that name), he wrote it about all the musicians he had seen die from heroin—including Danny Whitten, the great guitarist in the original iteration of Young’s band Crazy Horse.
That descending finger-picked chord progression … that piercing vocal … those lyrics, especially the closing line, “Every junkie’s like a setting sun” … It’s just so fucking powerful. The Needle and the Damage Done isn’t only the greatest song written about drugs—it’s one of the greatest songs ever written, period.