My maternal grandparents moved from Iowa City to Washington DC right after my parents got married in 1973. They have lived there since. For most of the time since 1973 they lived on Tunlaw Avenue at 37th Street in the Glover Park neighborhood in DC. Something was going on in that neighborhood in the late 70s. A young neighborhood boy that grew up two blocks from my grandparents on Beecher Street started a band and a record label. The record label still exists, and Beecher St is still its official address. The label was Dischord Records, the guy was Ian McKaye (this bit rhymes if you’re pronouncing it right), and the band was Minor Threat.
Minor Threat played super fast and super loud. They were the definitive hardcore punk band, but they were more than that … they were straight edge. Rock and roll and pop culture, especially since the late 60s, had glamorized drugs. Drugs were cool. Minor Threat advanced the radical notion that drugs weren’t cool, having a clear head was cool.
When I discovered Minor Threat in high school I the typical “drugs are cool” idea knocking around in my teenage head because I was reading beat writers and listening to rock music made by junkies. Minor Threat was a breath of fresh air. I was so excited to hear vicious music accompanied by lyrics that were anti-drugs.
Yesterday I put together an annotated mix of songs by people that died at 27. Many of them were cut down early by drugs. Writing and/or performing an anti-drug song is a gutsy move for a musician because it absolutely does not help you to look cool, which is critical. Here are a few people that dared to look lame, and as far as I know lived to tell the tale.
Track 1- I’m Straight/ Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (Live). If there is anyone in pop music that is anything like Jonathan Richman it’s because Jonthan Richman himself had the guts to exist. He took the Velvet Underground’s sound to the suburbs, but also he was the first shy sweet hipster boy. He deserves a huge amount of the credit, or blame, for all the sensitive cool pop music that came later. Maybe not the sound, but certainly the attitude. This is him in 1971 having the guts to be anti-hippy in the world’s biggest college town. He trashes “Hippy Earl” and “that Woodstock brain, that acid face.” Surprisingly, this is the third oldest song on the list. It sounds so fresh and new, but this performance was before The Needle and The Damage Done, the next track. This makes it that much more impressive. There is no ambiguity here about Richman’s feelings about drugs. He doesn’t give a shit if he alienates some of the audience. Maybe that’s the attitude that led to The Sex Pistols and Minor Threat both covering his proto-punk song Roadrunner? (PS- there are guys in this band that went on to be in The Talking Heads and The Cars)
Track 2-The Needle and the Damage Done/ Neil Young (Live). “A lot of art goes down the drain (because of drug addiction).” Neil Young playing the fourth oldest song on the list. A real heart breaker from a guy that lost friends and colleagues to the needle. There’s a bit more ambiguity about Young’s feelings about drugs in general than Richman’s in “I’m Straight.” Young was a major artist that couldn’t risk alienating a large part of his audience the way Richman could. Still, very powerful stuff from the only singer/ songwriter of the last 50 years that one can even consider mentioning in the same sentence as Bob Dylan.
Track 3- Mama Told me Not to Come/ Randy Newman (Live). This is the second oldest song on the list. The Three Dog Night version is the most famous version, the Animals, among others, also did a cover. Randy Newman is always a little sarcastic, but I can really imagine a young Newman being shocked by wild Hollywood parties in the late 60s. A hilarious ticket into the nasty belly of rock excess.
Track 4- Kicks/ Paul Revere and the Raiders. They didn’t write this song, but it took a lot of guts to be this “square” in 1966. This is the oldest track on the list. It is totally unambiguously anti-drugs. I don’t know if hippies really didn’t think there would be consequences to their actions, but Paul Revere and Raiders certainly seemed to know.
Track 5- Pusherman/ Curtis Mayfield. This song is from the ass kicking soundtrack to the ass kicking 1972 blacksploitation movie “Superfly.” It’s the first song on the list by a black artist, and the point of view is totally different. This song is about the neighborhood drug pusher, not the people taking the drugs. He is the predator that is ruining the neighborhood by “hustling toms on ghetto streets,” but the song also describes the circumstances that create the pusher. It is an early look into the rough inner city world that would dominate rap two decades later.
Track 6- White Lines (Don’t do it)/ Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first well known hip hop group to report on the situation in the American inner city. This song from 1983 is explicitly anti-cocaine. Instead of addressing the dealer/ pusher problem it focuses on curbing the demand. It’s a big deal because in 1983 drugs were completely destroying inner city America. Curtis Mayfield thought it was bad in 1972, but he had no idea how bad crack would make the ghettos in the 80s. This was the early-ish days of America’s war on drugs, which was disproportionately harsh on offenses that were likely to be committed by inner city youth. This led to the crazy imprisonment rates that we still enjoy today.
Track 7- Night of the Living Baseheads/ Public Enemy. Always righteous, always powerful, Public Enemy. From one of the great albums of all-time, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, Night of the Living Baseheads. They don’t make ’em like this anymore- crazy noisy production and super powerful righteous rhymes. Nobody in the rap game has guts like this anymore. Chuck D knew that crack was killing city kids, and he used music to spread the word. It didn’t work, not even with Flav, but he gave it a shot.
Track 8- Say No and Go/ De La Soul. Obviously, De La Soul isn’t as raw as PE, and they didn’t have the same kind of street cred, but this is still a gutsy anti-drug track. Pretty cool for a “just say no” song.
Track 9- Straight Edge/ Minor Threat. Here they are, finally, Minor Threat, fast, loud, and straight edge. I was totally in love with this attitude when I was 18. I was done with it by 19, but I still agree that if you have clear eyes and a full heart you can’t lose, hahahahaha.
Track 10-I’m Not a Loser/ The Descendents. “spending all your money on shitty coke!” This is from the great “Milo Goes to College.” Milo, the singer, did go to college and eventually got a PhD in biology from Wisconsin, nbd. Super catchy, angry, and smart. This song is a lot like “I’m Straight,” but after punk instead of before. Wait, why am I the loser? Why don’t I get the girls? These other guys are retards.
Track 11-Tonight’s the Night/ Neil Young. Heroin overdose track #2 by Neil Young. This is the first track off the album of the same name, and the same dark sad crushing feeling. It’s one of the saddest albums that I know of, and this song is a perfect representative.