David Bowie and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to the 1970s

[Aleister] Crowley does not figure on Bowie’s debut LP, but by the time of Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971), he would be an influence directly on Bowie’s lyrics and continued to influence Bowie’s lyrics, ideas, and philosophies throughout the 1970s. Of particular interest to this chapter are Crowley’s experiments with drugs and his ideas about how drug use is related to creativity and religious experience, two ideas that Bowie also pursued in his work.

Eric Pellerin, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 69-70

Between 1970s’ drug culture and its ultimate origin, Romantic-era drug literature in the works of Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), lies Aleister Crowley’s (1875-1947) Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922), the seminal work of an author who became a central figure to many rock figures of the 1960s and 1970s, even appearing in the upper left corner of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Diary of a Drug Fiend is generally considered a roman à clef: a work of fiction based upon real people and actual events. Crowley, in my opinion, is generally misunderstood in some ways that he would find flattering and in other ways that he brought upon himself, and it’s not clear to me that the work needed to understand him would yield much in the way of real benefit. But he deserves the dignity of honesty about his legacy–while I’m not a Crowley scholar, and never will be, I will attempt to tell the truth about him as someone who is neither an adept in his religion nor hostile toward him as “the most evil man alive.”

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend follows the life of Sir Peter Pendragon, a minor English aristocrat who, early in the story, on a single night meets a woman whom he marries without knowing and takes cocaine for the first time. Their honeymoon consists of a drug-fueled romp across Europe that becomes part tragedy and part comedy of errors, as Pendragon’s judgment is badly impaired by drug use. They progress from cocaine to heroin, rapidly degenerating into a serious addiction that leads them to the point of suicide until rescued by Basil King Lamus, who had been their guide through drug use from the beginning and is a leader in the religion of Thelema. On the one hand, the narrative propagates the myth that even heroin use can be controlled to lead users to higher states of consciousness, but on the other hand, it is graphic, detailed, accurate, and unflinching in its depiction of the worst aspects of heroin addiction.

Thelema in this novel and its follow-up, Moonchild, is a syncretist religion that appears to me to use the Sefirot (Kabbalah’s Tree of Life) for its conceptual structure, the teachings of Christ for its moral consciousness, and then associates the insights of other religions and empirical science on different nodes of the Sefirot. Adherents of this religion practice “magick,” which because of Thelema’s study of nature is able to create real effects in the world (according to the religion). “Magick” is therefore not an occult practice as commonly understood but the proper understanding of the relationship between human beings and the natural world, the ultimate integration of empirical science, philosophy, psychology, and religion.

The fundamental principle of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt,” but it’s carefully distinguished from “Do as thou wilt,” the former being the practice of deliberate action moving toward carefully chosen goals while the latter is the practice of caprice or mood without regard for consequences. Thelema and the practice of magick by its own account should be distinguished from Satanism and the practice of black magic: while Crowley could write poems like “Hymn to Satan” in the very early twentieth century, probably working with a gnostic view of Satan, by the 1930s he would compare practicing black magic to a mouse trying to make a pact with a cat. Thelema, overall, is conceptually naive in that it makes identifications among objects based on superficial similarities alone, and it is dependent upon early twentieth-century science only partially understood by the author. However, in many ways, it’s not hard to see how so many rock stars from the 1960s and 1970s would be attracted to Crowley — Diary of a Drug Fiend at times reads like a user manual for a 70s’ rock star: the life of someone wealthy, aristocratic, young, and free.

Eric Pellerin in chapter 4 of David Bowie and Romanticism, “Drug Use and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to David Bowie,” covers the ground described in his title, locating Bowie’s 1970s’ lifestyle and songwriting about drug use at the end of a lineage of drug literature that begins with Coleridge and De Quincey, moves through Baudelaire and Crowley, and then moves on to David Bowie with additional discussion of contemporaries such as Jimmy Page.

Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism: you can order the book from The Bookstore or ask your local, college, or university library to order it for you.

Eric Pellerin is Assistant Professor and the Electronic Resources & Serials Management Librarian at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. His research interests include genre theory, authorship in film, and Hong Kong cinema.

See the Virtual Book Launch for David Bowie and Romanticism

If you weren’t able to join us for the virtual book launch for David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan 2022), you can watch the recording below. Held live on location at Savvy Vinyl Records on 28 Laurie St. in Melbourne, FL. Many thanks to Michelle and Martha for their generosity hosting the book launch.

Many thanks to contributors Eric Pellerin, William Levine, Samuel Gladden, Aglaia Venters, Paul Rowe, Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, and Julian Knox for their time and contributions, and to guests Sherry Truffin and Alicia Daily for their contributions and insights.

Support a working author by purchasing the book on his website or feed the corporation machine.

Virtual Book Launch for David Bowie and Romanticism

Check out the book and, if you like it, order the book.

Please join us for a virtual book launch for David Bowie and Romanticism on Saturday, September 17th, from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. ET via Zoom and Instagram Live Feed @rock.and.romanticism. Contributors will be discussing their chapters.

I’ll be on location at the Melbourne, FL record store Savvy Vinyl Records. It’s a small, independent, woman-owned and operated business. 

Note that FL recently voted for permanent Daylight Savings Time. 

12:00-12:15 Introduction to the book and welcome to the event. Virtual walk through of Savvy Vinyl Records. 
12:15-12:30 Eric Pellerin, “Drug Use and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to David Bowie”
12:35-12:50 William Levine, “Capitalist Co-optation, Romantic Resistance, and Bowie’s Allegorical Performance in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth
12:55-1:10 Samuel Gladden, “‘Rebel Rebel’: Bowie as Romantic ‘Type’”
1:15-1:30 Aglaia Venters, “The Goblin King, Absurdity, and Nonbinary Thinking” 

1:35-1:50 Paul Rowe, “Relics of The Future: The Melancholic Romanticism of Bowie’s Berlin Triptych”
1:55-2:10 Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, “’Blackstar’: David Bowie’s Twenty-First-Century Ars Moriendi
2:15-2:30 Julian Knox, “Too Late to Be Late Again: David Bowie, the Late 1970s, and Romanticism”
2:35-2:50 Julian and Jim talk about Romanticism and Heavy Metal
2:50-3:00 wrap up

If you’d like to join the Zoom session rather than watch on Instagram, please email me at jamesrovira (at) gmail (dot) com for the meeting ID and password. 

Read more about the book at https://jamesrovira.com/2022/09/02/david-bowie-and-romanticism/

David Bowie and Romanticism is now available for 20% off through October 17th. See The Bookstore for details.

Roger Waters, Live at the Amway Center 8-25-22

Writing about Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, to me, isn’t just writing about music. It’s writing political autobiography. Pink Floyd’s Animals was released in 1977. I was thirteen years old that year and had been introduced to Elton John, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Who, but didn’t catch up to Pink Floyd for another year or two. I’d been shown Atom Heart Mother and sampled a couple of tracks at a friend’s house. When I did finally own my own Pink Floyd, it was Animals. I pored over Waters’s lyrics around the same time I was reading Orwell’s Animals and 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, all within a one to two year period, and all of which Waters name checked as influences during his concert last night at the Amway Center. Waters, along with Rush’s 2112 and these three books, contributed significantly to my own early political consciousness, so as I write this review of Waters’s performance at the Amway Center on August 25, 2022, I’m going to reflect upon Waters’s politics to understand my own early political influences.

Last night’s concert was part of Waters’s This is Not a Drill tour, originally scheduled for 2020 but put off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Waters said about this decision, “If delaying [the concert] saves only one life, it was worth it,” then loudly cheered audience members who had been holding their tickets for two years now. They could have received a refund the day after the original date, but didn’t. The Wikipedia page for the tour seems accurate in all details I could verify by my attendance — the two set lists are accurate, the sets divided with a short intermission, the list of performers is accurate, and Waters’s comments about the tour itself as described on the page were confirmed by him in concert.

This tour, and each of his performances, are very explicitly political with the exception of a touching, middle segment performed in tribute to Syd Barrett. I’d heard the interviews before. I knew how much of Wish You Were Here (“Have a Cigar,” the title track, and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” made up this segment of the concert) was about Waters and the band missing Barrett. Listening to Waters talk about Barrett in person, though, was another thing entirely. Waters described a time that he and Barrett were in school and had just left a Gene Vincent concert (The Rolling Stones were an opening act). They both agreed at that moment to form a band once they started college in London. They did and, as the words on the screen projected, “the rest is history.” So when Waters sings, “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl / year after year,” he’s singing about him and Barrett. The album is about a great deal of loss — not just Barrett, who walked in on the band while they were recording the album, but about disconnections within the band itself and Waters’s own divorce from Judith Trim in 1975. He said he was falling apart, “lost” in his own words, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Before I talk about the screen, though, I’d like to talk about the setlist.

Set 1
Comfortably Numb” (PF, The Wall, 1979)
The Happiest Days of Our Lives” (same)
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” (same)
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3” (same)
The Powers That Be” (Solo, Radio KAOS, 1987)
The Bravery of Being Out of Range” (Solo, Amused to Death, 1992)
“The Bar” (Solo, new composition)
Have a Cigar” (PF, Wish You Were Here, 1975)
Wish You Were Here” (WYWH)
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)” (WYWH)
Sheep” (PF, Animals, 1977)

Intermission
Set 2
In the Flesh” (The Wall)
Run Like Hell” (same)
Déjà Vu” (Solo, Is This the Life We Really Want?, 2017)
Is This the Life We Really Want?” (same)
Money” (PF, Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Us and Them” (same)
Any Colour You Like” (same)
Brain Damage” (same)
Eclipse” (same)
Two Suns in the Sunset” (PF, The Final Cut, 1983)
“The Bar” (reprise) (Solo, new)
Outside the Wall” (The Wall)

Roger Waters drew most of his setlist from The Wall (7 songs) and Dark Side of the Moon (6 songs), with one song each from Animals and The Final Cut and four songs from his solo albums. He also included one new composition: “The Bar.” “The Bar” is about that — bars — where people meet and talk about anything and everything, everywhere they are found. For Waters, the whole world is a bar, a meeting place for people. When in the second video below the screen text tells people who “love Pink Floyd but can’t stand Roger’s politics” to “fuck off to the bar right now,” he’s not just insulting people too dumb to understand it was all about these same politics, all along, for 50 years (as Waters himself later said). He’s also telling them to get out and talk to other people, people who are not like them. “The Bar,” Waters confessed, was largely a ripoff of Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” but about his own sad-eyed lady, his wife Kamilah, whose sadness comes from her concern for other people and their suffering.

The setlist creates the impression that the concert is primarily Waters performing bits of The Wall and most of Dark Side, which is true, but that impression underestimates the importance of Animals, which was not only performed but visually referenced throughout. The pig appears during “In the Flesh,” a song from The Wall. Animals is his central political text used to interpret and nuance his commentary on his other albums: by the time we get to Dark Side of the Moon (excerpt of the performance below), we understand that the images of faces that have been appearing on the screen are victims of human rights abuses, the “dark side of the moon” being the place of the dead: I’ll see you there. That insight is the meaning of the tour title: This is Not a Drill because people are really dying. The song is a love song, but it implies meeting after death, “And if you happen to get there before me / Leave a message in the dust just for me.” His new context makes it a love song for human rights victims.

Now I need to talk about that screen.

The screen structure is a long, central, black wall bisected by another, shorter one to create a cross-shape. Everything was projected onto those screens. The video above shows the third announcement that the show is about to begin. These announcements started at the fifteen minute mark and reappeared every five minutes until the show started promptly at 8:30 p.m. Doors opened a bit before 7:00 p.m.; the ticket listed 8:00 p.m. as the start time. After seeing the structure, I thought to myself — great, I’ll get to see ¼ of the band. Interesting way to visually represent disconnection. Maybe Roger will wander around to each part eventually? But as you see in the later videos, the structure lifts. It’s hard to advise best seating for this concert. I feel like a more distant vantage point is a better one for this kind of visual, but my seats were a bit too high: the light rigging got in the way of the upper part of the screen. I’d advise seating no higher than the lower promenade, unless you want someone on stage to sweat on you. Floor seats help you see more of the performers, but less of the entire spectacle. Think about what you really want.

This video starts the concert, gives Roger’s warning, and leads in to the first notes of “Comfortably Numb.”

“Comfortably Numb,” of course, showcases one of David Gilmour’s great guitar solos and one of the great guitar performances of the 70s. Waters recruited guitarist Dave Kilminster for this tour, who has longtime progressive rock cred, performing with Keith Emerson, The Nice, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, John Wetton of King Crimson and Asia, Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep, Carl Palmer (ELP), and as a touring musician for Roger Waters since 2006. On every song Kilminster matched Gilmour note for note and riff for riff: Waters’s band, overall, so perfectly emulated Pink Floyd’s sound that they made the original band sound like sidemen for Roger Waters, which they essentially were on Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut. But on “Comfortably Numb,” Gilmour’s guitar work was left untouched. Waters’s backup singers (think Dark Side of the Moon) covered these parts, recasting Gilmour’s guitar parts beautifully.

Fortunately, the stage rose by the third song, “Another Brick in the Wall,” Waters appearing at the bottom right section of the cross-shaped stage.

The following videos are Water’s performances of “Sheep,” “In the Flesh,” and “Dark Side of the Moon,” which was the climax of the show.

“Sheep”

“In the Flesh” — the pig had little propellers that helped direct it a bit less haphazardly than the sheep.

And finally, “Dark Side of the Moon” — visually stunning.

In terms of sheer spectacle, this was one of the best concerts I’ve attended. The closer you sit, the more you’d feel immersed in a rock video. The only concert I’ve seen that rivaled that effect was U2’s Zoo TV tour. I was on the thirty yard line and felt like I was inside a rock video due to the sheer size of the set.

I think it’s time to get explicit about Waters’s politics. But what are politics? Politics are a programmatic, legislative attempt to serve the interests of a people group. When the gun industry convinces people their freedoms are at stake to protect their own profits at the expense of human lives, that’s politics: give the antelope guns, tell them they’re predators, not prey, and you own them. When Bernie Sanders wants to provide affordable healthcare for all Americans, that’s politics. He’s not working for an industry but for working and middle class Americans. When health insurance companies make you fear “socialism” so they can continue to enrich themselves by collecting premiums and not paying out claims, that’s also politics.

In that sense of the word, Waters did not make a political statement at all last night. For Roger Waters, politics are human rights. That’s it. Every single life matters to him, including the lives of photojournalists killed as “collateral” damage during a drone strike halfway around the world. He’s not anti-American. He is pro-human-life. His major objects of critique were the United States, England, and Israel for human rights violations, but they weren’t his only targets. His biggest target wasn’t Trump, whose face did appear on the screen at times, but Ronald Reagan, whom Waters labeled a “war criminal” because of 30,000 dead in Guatemala. Footage of one of Reagan’s speeches appeared during one song, his face dissolving away over and over again, juxtaposed against images of human-like, animated figures being brutalized by guns and batons. The images were disturbing, but they were necessarily so. They were meant to be. The names and faces of victims of human rights violations from around the world appeared on the screen throughout the night.

His primary target of attack is an international corporate environment that provokes these human rights abuses around the world to protect its own financial interests. The bad guys are fascists, as they always are, but Waters emphasizes how closely fascism and capitalism work together, as they always have. And yes, they did very much work together in Hitler’s case, who reinvented a national socialist party to gain power with the blessing of the oligarchs. The screen structure served many purposes, but at times it projected the lights you’d see on an office building, and in one image it topped four skyscrapers, one under each of its four outermost points.

Waters’s politics is merely to advocate for human life, especially when it is sacrificed for the profits of multinational corporations.

But after all of that, on the way out of the venue I overheard a 30-something white guy say that he liked Pink Floyd, that he liked the music, but he didn’t like Waters’s politics. “That stuff happens all around the world,” he said, “why just target the United States?”

Waters didn’t just target the United States, and more importantly, that night he was only performing in the United States. After all of that, even after the opening warning, the man fell back on a banality that renders him immune from concern. He chose his own immediate emotional comfort over human life.

Stay on message, Roger. You won’t get through to everyone, but you got through to me. Thank you.

How to be a Great Writer

How to be a writer. Not just a writer; a great writer. Two easy steps.

  1. Sit on your butt.
  2. Write.

Beverages and music allowed.

That means you don’t dodishescheckemailmakecallsbalancethecheckbookpaybillsdochoreswatchtv or blog.

I’m writing this waiting for the tea to boil, so I’m claiming the beverage exception.

Don’t tell me how busy you are. It implies I’m not. I am. If you want it, you make the decisions you need to make.

But yes, sometimes you need to stop to clear your head, and yes, once you’ve written, trying to sell that writing kills your writing time. That’s truly the worst.

Tea’s done, time to stop.

P.S. Vinyl is better than CDs.

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