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A 21st century necessity: Definitive study of what cocaine has done to American culture

An open letter to the American publishing industry:

I have a not-so-modest proposal for you. Someone desperately needs to write a history of cocaine’s influence on the last 50 years of American popular culture.

The book I envision is a work of serious journalism and historical scholarship requiring several years of endeavor by a formidably gifted historian, researcher and reporter. He or she needs to be someone with both proper contacts and the resources to find all the others that might be needed.

Believe me, I understand how prohibitively difficult such a project would be for even the most dedicated historian. But I think the time is finally right to embark on it.


We are seeing an immense number of memoirs these days by rock and pop figures of fame and influence. And increasingly commonplace among them is a startling frankness about drug consumption, including all possible politically, socially and culturally incorrect protestations of devotion to the drugs that almost killed their survivors.

When it came time to write his memoirs and talk about it on television, Keith Richards understood how pointless it would have been if he weren’t honest about how much he loved heroin, probably the most powerful killer of all illegal drugs. I’m told by my colleague Jeff Miers – to whom I gave the book when a review copy came in – that Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” is brutally candid about drug consumption, including his partiality to cocaine and his rationale for it.

That, to me, is why the project is both increasingly necessary and increasingly possible. Wholesale candor is fast replacing terror-stricken denial. There is now a chance for truth to set people free.

We are, increasingly, seeing some of the most famous consumers of cocaine not only survive their addiction but, in an era of escalated addiction and recovery both, become completely candid about all of it.

Robert Downey Jr. has become one of America’s great cultural heroes. Once close to unemployable, he is now among one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. Until depression finally took him, Robin Williams was sometimes frighteningly candid about his drug consumption.

In the world of rehab and 12-step programs to have had so much success with addiction, it is that very disposition toward total personal revelation which has made it possible for successful communities of addicts to form and fight it together.

Now is the time to start documenting how cocaine blasted some careers into orbit; and then blasted those same careers as well as others to smithereens – as well as annihilating lives altogether.

I understand that the biggest problem of all about a book about The Cocaine Years of American Show Business is that what is needed from such a book is an exhaustive analysis of everything about cocaine’s influence on comedy, music, film and performance itself. And that has to include much that, like it or not, has been salutary. For such a fuel of American creation and American public performance, we need to know exactly how it has worked, from those who know.

That is the pit of both terror and self-righteousness that awaits anyone attempting total truth about cocaine’s effect on the popular culture of the past half century.

It is, for one thing, illegal. And unlike marijuana, whose relative benevolence – especially when stacked up against organ-annihilating alcohol – it is never going to become legal in America.

But that’s the point. I’ve been watching the effects of cocaine over the past half century. I’ve been reviewing it in many different areas for much of that time. I’ve seen singers and musicians die from it.

But I’ve come to understand – completely from the outside, I assure you – why there were good reasons why Sigmund Freud, for one, was an early cocaine enthusiast.

In the book “An Anatomy of Addiction,” Howard Markel wrote “under the influence of cocaine, one feels supremely confident, almost electrically charged with faster thoughts, better ideas (at least in one’s own mind at the time of the high) and an increased speed of speaking.”

In other words, it seems a drug just made for performers of any sort – comedians and actors especially but also singers, musicians and writers about to sit down to hours of concentrated creative effort.

If cocaine, then, can make even those who aren’t Robin Williams feel as if they are, what more logical drug could there have been for shows that were remaking late-night comedy by confidently putting together things never seen put together before? (The lunatic very first sketch on the first “Saturday Night Live” featured the late drug enthusiast Michael O’Donoghue instructing fellow drug enthusiast and life casualty John Belushi to say, “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.”)

If you were establishing a show on late-night television where a whole new generation of coke-using comedians was going to feel comfortable doing just about anything they jolly well chose, your green room was likely to be ground zero for blasting off just before air time.

How many comedians have we seen on late-night talk shows fearfully brushing phantom powder that didn’t exist from their noses and clothes?

I cannot tell you how many actors in movies I have seen who have previously displayed a certain range of talent and then suddenly exploded into wildly unexpected and completely incendiary, high-velocity genius on camera in a way most logically explained by some toots just before camera time.

Gary Busey has been so open about cocaine that he’s joked to Maxim magazine that he once snorted coke off his dog. Take a good look at what he does in the 1980 movie “Carny” directed by Robert Kaylor, who doesn’t seem to have directed another film afterward. Busey is wild, brilliant, explosively off-the-wall and makes the film worth seeing all by himself.

The price of too many explosions of confidence and undeniable creativity is, unfortunately, often all semblance of “quality of life” and indeed, life itself.

If the “psychedelic era” taught us anything, it is how much we could actually see about the influence of illegal drugs on music, in particular. Keith Richards can jokingly tell you what heroin feels like but only because he was lucky enough to survive it. Those who didn’t comprise a very long and very tragic list indeed.

Cocaine has been different. And that’s the essence of both its insidiousness and its covert power.

We need to look at it fearlessly, just as we need to look at everything else fearlessly.

We need to know who. And what resulted from it.

We need to know all the things, including careers, that were freshly re-created; and the lives that were destroyed and lost.

It’s been the elephant in the room of American culture for too many decades. It’s time to start cleaning up.


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