Many songs have been written about alcohol and drugs – some seeming to celebrate the fun that can be had by taking them both, some warning of the pain of alcoholism and addiction. There are a lot more about the disease part then there are about the sober or recovery part. Joe Walsh wrote a “program” song recently called One Day At A Time but it’s not his best work. Then there’s Lou Reed‘s lyrics to Heroin that are way too one-sided. So we picked five songs that we thought had great melodies, strong messages, biting lyrics and an intent to warn listeners of the attraction and or the consequences of “getting high”. So here we go;
The Needle And The Damage Done By Neil Young – The songs lyrics are so brilliant, honest and simple; for example: “I hit the city and I lost my band – I watched the needle take another man – Gone, gone, the damage done. I’ve seen the needle and the damage done a little part of it in everyone. But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun..” “The Needle and the Damage Done” is a song by Neil Young that describes the descent into heroin addiction of musicians he knew. It was written about the heroin use of his Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who died in 1972 of an overdose, and previews the theme of “Tonight’s the Night“, a song that addresses another heroin overdose and death of Bruce Berry, a roadie for Young and his band Crazy Horse. On the handwritten liner notes included in Decade, Young had this to say about the song: “I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men.”
Cold Turkey by John Lennon – Anybody who ever read anything about John’s period after the breakup of The Beatles knows that he went through a stage of heroin use and addiction in New York City. He had always been very open and honest about his misadventures in that time period. One thing we all remember is the biting music and lyrics in the song he wrote about the pain of detox – the torture of physical withdrawal from heroin. Check out these lyrics; “Temperature’s rising, Fever is high. Can’t see no future, Can’t see no sky. My feet are so heavy, So is my head. I wish I was a baby, I wish I was dead. Cold turkey has got me on the run. My body is aching, Goose-pimple bone. Can’t see no body, Leave me alone. My eyes are wide open, Can’t get to sleep. One thing I’m sure of, I’m in at the deep freeze.”
Under the Bridge By The Red Hot Chili Peppers – What puts this song on the list is certainly not the lyrics themselves. It’s the way The Chili’s lead singer, Anthony Keidis sings his heart out – such feeling and melody mixed with just a great rock ballad voice. You know he lived this when you listen to him. What he originally perceived to be an overly emotional poem that he felt reluctant to show to his band-mates ended up becoming one the biggest singles of his band’s career—not to mention one of the quintessential songs about addiction and recovery. Kiedis supposedly wrote “Under the Bridge” when he was three years sober in an effort to describe the impact that drugs had on his life and how his sobriety was negatively impacting his relationship with his band-mates, leading him to believe that his only companion was the city of Los Angeles (“Sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels”). “I felt an unspoken bond between me and my city,” Kiedis said in his 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue. “I’d spent so much time wandering through the streets of LA and hiking through the Hollywood Hills that I sensed there was a nonhumanity, maybe the spirit of the hills and the city, who had me in her sights and was looking after me.” Kiedis, meanwhile, bounced in and out of treatment facilities for years before reportedly kicking his heroin addiction for good in December 2000.
Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd – First of all, the lyrics in this song are the reason it made it on this list – not just that but the majestic music that accompanies those lyrics is pure genius. Sweeping choral arrangements, echo effects – you name it…easily one of Pink Floyd’s best works. On the downside, it does seem to glorify drug use; what do you think? There is no pain, you are receding. A distant ship smoke on the horizon, You are only coming through in waves. Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying, When I was a child I had a fever. My hands felt just like two balloons, Now I’ve got that feeling once again. I can’t explain, you would not understand, This is not how I am. I have become comfortably numb. O.K. Just a little pin prick, There’ll be no more aaaaaaaah! But you may feel a little sick, Can you stand up? I do believe it’s working, good That’ll keep you going through the show. Come on it’s time to go.
Running To Stand Still by U2 – This song made it on this list for 2 reasons; one is the title! It’s what addiction is all about. And secondly, the way Bono sings this you can feel an outsider’s view of addiction so wonderfully in his voice. The song’s title phrase originated from Bono asking his brother how his struggling business was going, and the brother responding, “It’s like running to stand still.” Bono had not heard the phrase before, and he thought it expressed what heroin addiction and the effects of the drug on the body were like; a writer later described the title as a “perfect distillation of the dynamic of feeding on addiction.” Bono had heard a real story about a pair of heroin addicts, a man and a woman, who lived in the Ballymun Towers Out of money and unable to pay the rent due to their habit, the man became a heroin smuggler, operating between Dublin and Amsterdam and taking enormous risks for a big payday. Bono felt the man was decent at heart but was constrained by his squalid living conditions, as well as poor choices, and Bono wanted to illustrate how these poor conditions affected their lives. The resulting lyric does not describe any of this explicitly, but instead interprets the emotional atmosphere that the couple live in. In doing so, the song is not judgmental and shows sympathy for the woman. “She runs through the streets, With her eyes painted red. Under black belly of cloud in the rain, In through a doorway she brings me. White gold and pearls stolen from the sea, She is raging, She is raging, And the storm blows up in her eyes. She will… Suffer the needle chill, She’s running to stand…Still.“