You there, with that line of coke. Just hang on a second….

I’ve done my fair share of cocaine.

I’m not saying that to shock. Obviously, I want to grab your attention. But some of you know it anyway, and I want to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.

Because this week I’m going to talk about drug cartels (and, yes, I’ve written a song about them!).

Have you been watching Narcos? It’s a series on Netflix, their version of The Sopranos.

Except that Narcos is a true story, about real people.

And these people – well, it’s hard to believe we share a planet with them.

Mind you, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. The first series of Narcos is the story of Columbia’s Pablo Escobar. It starts off as the story of a folk hero, at least to his own people. He takes on the government of Columbia, which is impervious to the needs of ordinary people, who are poor and neglected beyond our understanding.

So Pablo gives them jobs, builds schools and hospitals and ends up more popular than film stars or singers.

Which, of course, the government cannot tolerate. What happens next is an escalation of violence that makes you question humanity and your own sanity – how could you possibly have thought Pablo Escobar was anything but evil?

Well, bad as he was, the Mexican cartels are worse. Transgressors are tortured, skinned alive (flayed), decapitated, dismembered, hung from motorway overpasses. In one six year period to 2012, 100,000 people were slaughtered in the interests of cocaine trafficking.

And yet Americans alone spend about $30bn a year on the cocaine that is causing untold misery just the other side of their border.

Not to mention the environmental damage. The process of maceration – turning the innocent coca leaf into a paste, the basis of cocaine itself – requires a mixture of kerosene, sulphuric acid and lime. This appalling cocktail, once it’s done its job, is allowed to run off into local waterways.

You will never stop these people. There’s always someone ready to take their place. The means of smuggling becomes ever more sophisticated. In 2011, US officials found their first narco submarine. No-one knows how many there were/are. Costing $2m to build, one submarine can carry $60m worth of drugs along riverbeds and into America.

But even as the first submarine was discovered, the narcos were already investing in drones. They are always one step ahead.

I stopped buying cocaine in 1982, when small time dealers started ‘stepping’ on it. There might be five or six ‘stepping’ stages – bulking up the cocaine with baby milk, talcum powder and laxative (oh yes!).

But then it got worse. As the cocaine ( £60 a gram) became less and less of a constituent, the familiar ‘sting’ to the nasal passages was missing. So they started using scouring powder (Borax in America, Ajax in the UK).

Ajax – yeah, that stings alright.

And then, of course, as the cocaine element in your £60 envelope diminished, so did the expected effects of the drug. So they replaced even more of the cocaine with amphetamine sulphate (£15 a gram) for an extra kick.

Unfortunately, amphetamine sulphate (speed to you and me) is highly addictive. Which, of course, brings a whole slew of new problems with it.

Stopping using pure cocaine was easy. Stopping using something that is less than 20% cocaine (but still at cocaine prices) bulked up with the highly addictive sulphate would be a different proposition.

In the intervening 33 years I’ve accepted a line here and there maybe half a dozen times. It has routinely proved to be crap. And disgusting crap at that.

So: torture, death, addiction, environmental pollution, all for a fraudulent product; not to mention one trillion dollars flushed down the toilet in the ‘war on drugs’ – what does it take till a supposedly civilised society throws up its hands and accepts the case for legalisation and control?

It was Richard Nixon who started the war on drugs. He allocated a budget of around a half billion dollars. Most of the money was to be spent on treatment and rehabilitation of addicts. Today America alone is wasting over $100bn a year on an actual war – fought against narco cartels whose annual turnover is sometimes larger than that of the country they operate in, and whose private armies are better-equipped than the army of their sovereign state. (You think I’m exaggerating?).

Throughout the world we already have the means of clean and controlled manufacture. In our international network of regulated pharmacies we also have the means of controlled distribution and sale.

Wipe out the narcos raison d’être overnight: take drugs off the street,  tax their sale to fund treatment for addicts, reallocate the $100bn war-on-drugs fund (£10bn in the UK) – isn’t it a no-brainer?

Meanwhile, there’s a Mexican tradition of corrido, songs that – in a pre-digital era – spread the news, and revolutionary ideas and expressed the feelings of ordinary people.

Today there’s a nasty extension known as narcocorrido – songs that celebrate the drug cartels, their acts of violence and the power they wield.

These narcocorridos are not spontaneous outbursts of admiration. They are coerced. “Write a song about me and make it respectful and adulatory – or I will kill you.” As Pablo Escobar himself said: “Take my silver or take my lead (ie: my bullet)”.

In other words, there’s no middle ground. If I ask for your help and you refuse, you will be killed. As will your family. And anyone else we can think of who will help to spread the message that you don’t say no to the cartel. And if they haven’t invited you in, you still don’t go against them in any way.

No-one doubts it. The media in Mexico has been extremely circumspect in recent years, simply because large numbers of journalists and broadcasters have been slaughtered as a means of intimidation. In some areas the local cartel literally controls the media.

Even blogging isn’t safe. They may be barbarians, the cartels, but they are not living in a barbaric age. They have the technology to track you down. Bloggers have been killed. It’s a brave soul who speaks out.

So the narcocorridos are no surprise. Given a choice between a horrible death and putting up a YouTube video of a song celebrating those who will kill you if you don’t, what would you do?

Well here’s what I’ve done. This is a narccorrido, but not sung in praise. I wouldn’t be so brave if I lived in Mexico, believe me.

And if you want a cracking good read, and an education in the drug trade, I highly recommend Don Winslow’s Power Of The Dog (2005) and its more recent sequel, Cartel. Brilliant novels on any level.

And the Channel Four documentary The Legend Of Shorty, and Cocaine: History Between The Lines, an exceptionally well made documentary recently shown on Sky and currently up on Vimeo.

If you’re a user, you won’t want another line until you can get it from your local Boots.

This is a Narcocorrido
That tells of their cowardly ways
This is a Narcocorrido
But not sung in praise

It tells of how they flay the living
Skin them alive as they scream
Then pray to the dead for the giving
of life as a dream

Cut your throat and take your head
to the mall so children can see it
Hang your police from a freeway overpass
so you get the message

Oh to be a narco hero
You can have your own corrido
Written and sung in fear
Oh it must make you proud

Don’t forget it’s me who’s running the
town and the city and country
The federales are my army and who can help you?
Nobody. Nadie.

Sing me a song mi cantante
Or I’ll kill your mother and sister
An accordion and a bajo sexto
y muchas corista


Elvis died of medicine

Well, there’s cheerful, eh?

But I’ve written a new song, and that’s its title.

Yes, you read that right. It’s a song, and its title is Elvis Died of Medicine.

How do I explain? Well, here’s a starting point: there are drug addicts and drug addicts.

One of my favourite images – a perfectly staged piece of post-modern irony – is of Elvis with Richard Nixon.

In 1970 Presley wrote to Nixon, in his own hand, and persuaded the President to appoint him an honorary federal drug enforcement agent. Nixon even had a special Bureau of Narcotics badge struck for the singer.

Which one is The King? Elvis making the President look like a bank clerk.

Which one is The King? Elvis making the President look like a bank clerk.

Elvis, of course, had been taking a cocktail of drugs throughout his adult life, starting during his army service. By the time he met Nixon, he’d already had a full 12 years of increasing dependency on a whole cocktail of medicines.

But because these drugs were initially given to him by his superiors in the army, and later prescribed by doctors, he never thought of himself as a junkie.

When he wrote to Nixon, it was in a spirit of being anti drug-use of the illegal kind. It was the pot smokers, LSD gurus and heroin addicts Presley and Nixon had in their sights. These people were fomenting an anti-American revolution. (Mainly, they just wanted the Vietnam War to end, and their sons and brothers brought home safe. But in the fevered paranoid universe that inhabited Richard Nixon’s head they were all enemies of the state).

The Beatles were top of Elvis’s list. According to him, they had “come to America, made their money, and then gone back to England to promote anti-Americanism”.

Elvis was never the brightest bulb in the chandelier. The Beatles, of course, loved America. In John’s case, so much so that he made his home in New York, even outliving and defeating Nixon’s attempts – with the FBI’s help – to deport him.

As an artist, I bow to no-one in my admiration for Elvis (which I’ll write about in a later post). But he was an emotionally stunted individual for whom his manager Tom Parker, his Memphis Mafia (effectively just a bunch of freeloading hangers-on) and his doctors provided a support system that negated the need for him to grow up.

He wasn’t the first, and he most certainly wasn’t the last to fall prey to this kind of life.

It was common practice in Hollywood to hand out amphetamine pills so that actors could keep working beyond their natural cycle. This is what lead to Judy Garland’s dependence on a variety of drugs, and on the doctors who would prescribe them. Once you’ve taken amphetamine for prolonged periods, the only way you’ll get a good night’s sleep is by using heavy barbiturates. A side effect of all that will be constipation or its opposite, so now you’re going to need another drug to regulate your toilet habits….

All of this came to my mind a couple of weeks ago when I was listening to Joni Mitchell in the car. One of the songs – Sex Kills – has a line about “pills that give you ills”. Straight away, the songwriter part of my brain went into overdrive. The phrase “My mother died of medicine” lodged in my frontal lobe.

The last time I saw my mother functioning on any level at all, was watching her count her pill boxes, 15 in all. More than half of these pills were to counteract the side effects of the ones she really needed. Some of them were to counteract the side effects of the side effects. Even a self-confessed hypochondriac (moi!) should understand when enough is enough.

Within a few weeks, my mother was dead. At the end, it was a close run possibility that she was going to drown in her own bodily fluids. Fortunately, her heart gave out first. She literally died of medicine.

Now there’s a cheerful subject for a song. But let’s face it – legal drugs take their toll just as effectively as illegal ones. Michael Jackson, Elvis, Judy, Marilyn Monroe, Margaux Hemingway, Nick Drake, Brittany Murphy – these are the famous victims.

But I bet you all know someone who never thought of doubting their doctor. We’re hopefully a little wiser now.

So here we go with Elvis Died Of Medicine. It’s not a finished recording; two weeks from start to finish is way too fast a process for The Driver. But I hope it’s in good enough shape that no-one feels the need to prescribe further treatment.

Remembering the lows of getting high

Amy Winehouse was a rare talent – a soulful, intuitive singer with music radiating from every pore. Watching her towards the end of her life, screwing it up while the whole world watched was truly horrible.

If Lindsay Lohan wants to pose for Playboy (oh yes, she did!); if Charlie Sheen wants to pose as an intellectual giant whilst being moronically self-destructive; if Britney Spears wants to pose as a bald person; well – honestly? – I don’t really care. These are not major talents, plus they still manage to function in their day jobs.

But Amy squandered her massive and unique talent, on stage, in front of the world, not just once, not just twice, but to the point where people were buying tickets to her gigs so they could say they were there when she fell off the stage or, even better, died.

There was a time when this sort of thing was de rigeur.

I once went to see Tim Hardin at The Rainbow in glamorous Finsbury Park. He was so off his head he leaned on the microphone for support (never a good idea) and just mumbled. He didn’t seem to know where his hands were, so the guitar hanging from his shoulders was a complete mystery.

We watched this for about five minutes before a stage hand came on and gently led him off. Here’s the man who wrote If I Were A Carpenter and Reason To Believe and now he can’t even stand up to play a few songs. I found this so depressing, I had no stomach for the main attraction, The Steve Miller Band.

Hardin’s Bird On A Wire album was a favourite road album – not driving rock for driving fast to, but summer day reflective and melancholy as I drove from town to town in a search for talent in my first weeks as an a&r man. If you like your heart broken from time to time, have a listen to Love Hymn.

Another time I went to the Marquee in Wardour Street where Granada Television were filming the Stones playing a small gig. Well, that was the idea. As it turned out, two of the boys were ‘indisposed’, so we all milled around tut-tutting (I was all of 19, so my tut-tutting was quite precocious). Eventually we were ushered out without a note being played.

My abiding memory of that night was of how small the available Stones were (Mick and Bill in particular), and how their heads seemed too big for their bodies. These people who look like giants on stage or on screen, are dwarfed by a normal six-footer. Keith and Brian were the two I didn’t see, so I guessed it was they who were indisposed. It’d be a fair guess, wouldn’t it?

A happier memory is of going to see Leon Russell (again at the Rainbow; if my tickets hadn’t been free, I’d have saved money by paying rent I was there so often).

Leon Russell had seemingly gone from nowhere to superhero by saving Joe Cocker’s American career. The US Musicians’ Union refused to let Cocker tour with his English band. Russell called Cocker and told him he could put a band of American musicians together and that’s how we were bequeathed the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, album and film.

Then Russell played a major part in George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh.

So there was high excitement for his first London gig. We got there, we waited. And waited. And waited.

Concerts were supposed to start around 8pm and be over by 10.30 so we could all get home before the tubes and trains stopped running.

Musicians began filing onstage just before 10 o’clock, and finally Leon Russell appeared. He had, he admitted, been drunk, but he was now sober-ish, and he was truly sorry, and for our patience he would reward us by working super-hard.

And, oh my gosh, did he. We all stopped worrying about how we were getting home, and just rocked right out. I think it was almost one o’clock in the morning before we left, and I doubt anyone there has ever forgotten that night.

But these stories don’t always end so well.

My job at Music Week required me to go out several times a week to review live performance. This was often a joy, but sometimes a chore, and on the nights it was a chore, I got more irritated by the fact that I could be back home with my wife and children.

So it was on a night in September 1968 that I left my pregnant wife at home and set off to see The Doors and Jefferson Airplane at The Roundhouse. I wasn’t keen on The Doors (I know; shocking, eh?) and as for Jefferson Airplane, I could scarcely have cared less.

Still, sometimes you see people you don’t rate, and it turns out that live is where you need to see them. This may have been the case with The Doors and the Airplane. I never got to find out. By 10.30, the stage was unsullied by musical persons and I finally decided enough was enough. I went home.

Google tells me that the Saturday performance would be filmed by Granada TV “due to problems with filming last night”. So maybe it was the Friday I was there, and maybe, like me, the camera crew got fed up waiting. It would certainly qualify as “a problem” for a film crew if there was no-one to actually film.

In the 21st century we expect our stars to have more discipline, maybe even to have learnt from the mistakes of others.

But we don’t, do we? Getting drunk, getting high. We’ve all done it. But few of us have let it ruin – or even end – our lives. This week’s song – Just The Night – is about the things we do when we’ve over-imbibed, it’s dark, and we think maybe no-one will notice. It’s just the night, after all.

I know you know what I’m talking about….