Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 230
Fri. Oct. 05, 2013
“The Drugs Don’t Work”
Richard Ashcroft & The Verve
It’s amazing how two people can hear the same tune and have two different emotional experiences for the same song. It begs the question, what makes a song like The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work” eternally sad to some or lyrically inspiring to others? In different moments in my own life, “The Drugs” has been a song so personally tragic that there are days, because of the emotional state that I was in, just trying to listen to Richard Ashcroft’s very intimate Urban Hymns number would just put me to tears. There’s a reason Spin Magazine reported in a study commissioned by Nokia U.K., in a Top Ten list, “The Drugs Don’t Work” was named the number one sad song of all time. Nokia U.K. is wrong because today, luckily was not one of those days, hearing “Don’t Work” made me see the beauty in Ashcroft’s desolate penned classic.
In a 1997 MusikExpress article, when asked by writer Amo Frank after seeing an ashtray overflowing before the interview, Richard was asked bluntly, “The Drugs Don’t Work?” Ashcroft responded, “You just have to decide what’s important to you in life. The drugs don’t work is not really about drugs, but about love, passion, if you like. Of course drugs work. But I had to wait too long for our current success for this beautiful reality to slide away from me again.” Like most artists, I want to believe the chemicals quiet the demons so Ashcroft can unleash the reflective melodies floating inside his subconscious or as The Verve front-man later explained, “Without music I wouldn’t know where to put all that madness, that madness inside my head.”
But Ashcroft was realistic when asked by Thomas Beller in another interview this one from 2004, referencing “The Drugs Don’t Work,” Richard said, “The Verve recorded their first record on acid. That’s not something that I would advise for most people going into the studio for the first time. But it’s a personal thing, depending where you are in your life. Some people can drink two pints of beer and become a psychotic ass, and someone can have fifty and be fine.” Richard’s is right but some people don’t realize their limits and discover their chemical induced tendencies too late before their addiction takes over their lives. It’s not people on drugs that trouble Ashcroft as he explained to Beller when The Verve front man said, “I feel a disillusion with people who are doing metaphysical experiments, who are deeply into meditation, who suggest that they have these incredible powers, and yet at the same time their family or their relationship is breaking down. That’s what I found, and I got disillusioned. I think the mind can change molecules in water. I can believe in that. But I also think there is a life to live as well. Let’s make something solid. That’s why music is my prayer, my meditation.”
When thinking about his songwriting legacy, Ashcroft waxed philosophical when said this in a 2010 interview when Richard said this about “The Drugs, “Some of those songs I’ve written in the past, they’re covered by guys outside railway stations. Someone heard the song “The Drugs Don’t Work” on Christmas Day in Africa on a beach which is really, really surreal, so that’s the extreme, you can have a busker outside a train station or someone on a beach in Africa, but at the end of the day I’ve got the right, more than anyone I believe, because once you write a song and release it, it really isn’t yours anymore. But you sing it live, if you choose to as the author, then it’s your moment to have a little bit of ownership over the tune again, in a sense.” I wonder what Ashcroft thinks of Ben Harper’s cover of one his most personal songs. Harper recorded a live version on his 2001 Live from Mars CD. I hear Ben’s rendition as a tribute, listen to way that Harper carries the emotional intensity with his tenor like vocal making this version a tribute more than just another cover version of one The Verve’s most famous songs. Ben’s almost perfect acoustic interpretation becomes an actual modern day Urban Hymn.
In a 2010 interview with The Irish Times, Ashcroft cleared the air about the true meaning behind “The Drugs” when Richard said, “There is an air of calm and peace in my life now. But you remember The Drugs Don’t Work? Whenever we played that live there would be rows of grown men crying. It was almost like these guys couldn’t cry when they needed to cry, but that song operated like a pressure valve for them and it was okay for them to cry at a big rock concert. That song is so misunderstood [It’s not about drug use: Ashcroft wrote it about his dying father and the medication used to try to keep him alive] and when I won an Ivor Novello award for it, I was walking up to the stage – and really you would expect better from a serious music award such as the Ivor Novello – there were all these pictures of hypodermic needles all around the stage. Bloody irresponsible.”
Shocking but not surprising. I’ve known many friends and acquaintances that have been in that same kind of addictive condition or worse. I’m not going to throw stones or judge because I’ve at times in my life needed, like some of my creative heroes, the chemical inspiration to fuel my writing. But recently have discovered that I don’t need to take this or experiment with something else because the creative light is inside me and I am the one who fuel the inspiration or let the light go out with my own sense of inner doubt. No matter what I’ve exhaled, music has always been the constant state of euphoria and reflective understanding that I’ve needed most. Richard understood this when he said, “But this all gets back to the power and imagery of rock music. I really believe it to be one of the most powerful art forms in that you can have a good melody like Bittersweet Symphony or The Drugs Don’t Work which can suck people in and then when you have them, you can talk about genetics, inevitability or whatever.”
Richard Ashcroft doesn’t just see himself as another Brit-Pop rock star. In fact he sees his profession with someone with the responsibility to make the world a little less tragic with his inspirationally moving lyrics. The Verve’s singer and chief songwriter talked about his job as an artist who expresses himself with song when he explained, “But also I’m a bit old-fashioned, and I believe that if you’ve been working in a job, perhaps that is not fulfilling or stimulating and you’ve bought a ticket to a show, I’m not there to be cantankerous and so forth, I’m there to lead you into another place which hopefully is going to give you a brief respite or help you celebrate the beautiful life you’ve created for yourself, either which way it is… I understand that feeling because I had it when I was much younger.”
So if you’re wondering why “The Drugs” didn’t bring me down today it’s because sometimes we all need to find beauty within the darkness spaces where the sound makes everything less taxing with light. And on my turntable today, this Verve gem shined reflective honesty and sense of hope in Richard’s song about his own battles with personal demons spawned “The Drugs Don’t Work.” The Verve made my day with this timeless classic that may at first seem sad but lifted my spirits more than any chemical ever could. Go ahead a try this hit, with “The Drugs” you may just taste the inspirational euphoria that I experience today.
Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 230