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

 

The BBC needs to show some humility to maintain the high ground.

I’m 22 years old . There’s a BBC press conference. The room is full of fag-ash hacks, men in suits and stroppy photographers. I’m not even a boy by comparison. I’m a baby.

And there’s the BBC brass, at a table up front, proudly announcing the signing of a new contract with Terry Wogan.

Terry wanders in as his name is called. He beams. Cameras flash, microphones are thrust, questions are shouted.

When it’s all calmed down, I put my hand up. I’m an easy mark: hippy-ish clothes, long hair, too young to be serious. So, yes, let’s have a question from Music Week’s young radio correspondent.

“How much is this contract costing?”

Chins drop. Pins drop – and are heard. Fleet Street faces turn to see – who is this cheeky fucker?

A cough, a sheepish look down, and the BBC spokesman says, “Er, we don’t discuss that kind of thing.”

“But I’m a licence payer. Everyone in this room is a licence payer. That’s our money you’re spending.”

We’ll draw a veil over the rest of it. Wogan, to his credit, was vastly amused. We bumped into each other on the street afterwards. We’d both got out of there as quickly as we could, while the rest slurped and supped at licence payer expense. “Ah,” he said. “The young whelp who asked the awkward question.” He obviously didn’t give me the answer I wanted, but he was clearly impressed I’d asked what no-one from Fleet Street had dared.

In that little vignette I think we see the genesis of the BBC ‘problem’.

‘We’re competing in a commercial market’, they say, ‘and we can’t let our competitors know our terms’.

Except, of course, that’s not what the BBC is for.

First off, let me say – I love the BBC and I completely support the licence fee as a form of finance. But its (the licence fee’s) days are numbered, with or without political interference.

The British without the British Broadcasting Corporation would be vastly poorer culturally. That’s my opinion. I’m open to rational arguments to the contrary, but I’ve never heard one.

However, the BBC is its own worst enemy. When your budget, taken from the public purse, is approaching £4bn annually even the rational among us must begin to ask questions.

Here’s what I think.

  • As a public service broadcaster, there’s no need for more than two television channels (and hold your horses, because I have other options).
  • I also cannot see the point of Radio 1, except as a hook to get young people into the BBC habit. Well, that’s not happening. Young people have a different agenda today, and public service broadcasting (which Radio 1 is not) is not on their horizon.
  • There’s no public service requirement for 6 Music. Oh, I know we all love it (well, some of us). But it’s not doing anything that can’t be done commercially.
  • There’s no public service requirement for Radio 4Xtra.
  • I would also get rid of mono-cultural stations. We’re supposed to be building a cohesive society here. Broadcasting to social ghettos is not helpful.
  • Jeremy Vine’s show on Radio 2 – what’s that all about? It’s like a news version of the Jeremy Kyle show. I’ve got my doubts about Radio 2 having any genuine public service value.
  • In the era of apps for traffic and weather, and with your local news available on whatever device is closest to hand, there is no longer a rationale for the local radio network.
  • Finally, the BBC website is a monopolistic disgrace, and absolutely illustrative of the Corporation’s overweening ambition; what I call corporate ego. It should be reduced to news headlines and links to programmes. It is a massive drain on programme budgets and generally speaking a vanity project of the most narcissistic kind. It is also inexcusably anti-competitive.

That’s the bad news. Now some good.

The World Service should be restored to its former glory, properly financed and no argument.

Radios Three and Four should have their budgets increased, maybe even doubled. They cost pennies by comparison with the big tv budgets. Radio 4 is the most important entry point for comedy and drama, and massively important to the ‘national conversation’.

BBC4 is what BBC2 used to be – great documentaries, un-dumbed down cultural interviews and fantastically entertaining and educational programmes about a vast range of music.

It also used to make great original dramas, but that budget was slashed, and the output stopped. Today, the vast majority of BBC4 is repeats.

So closing down BBC4 and scheduling its new output on BBC2 would scarcely be revolutionary. In the digital age, when the majority of viewers can access iPlayer, there’s no excuse for BBC2 running repeats of The Rockford Files, QI (on almost constant rerun elsewhere), Yes Minister and ‘Allo ‘Allo. We also don’t need cookery programmes from BBC2 (again, hold your horses; solution coming up).

So, two TV stations, Radios 3&4, The World Service, and a cut-down website. That might represent £1bn cut from its cost. It would put a huge dent in the argument which is forcefully, continuously and self-righteously conducted in the pages of many national newspapers – the Mail, the Times group (Murdoch-owned, of course) and others; not to mention increasing numbers of UK residents.

A stripped down BBC could see the licence fee back under the £100 mark. The argument for turning it commercial would lose its edge.

That would give the BBC room to breathe, time to figure out its role in a world where television becomes less and less about destination viewing. The recent primetime Sunday night drama, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, didn’t even make BBC1’s own top 10.

That’s not a reason for not making it. It’s just indicative of a new reality. We have no idea how our grandchildren will be viewing, but somehow we have to get ready for it.

So, in its new incarnation, let’s give the Corporation a third channel (BBC3, say) to develop a subscription model.

If people want programmes like The Great British Bake-Off, The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing, they will surely pay £6.95 a month to subscribe to a BBC version of Netflix.

But the beauty of a model like this is that the BBC could continue to develop great drama (as HBO has done, with Netflix now following in its wake).

And while we’re at it, let them have a fourth channel (BBC4, say; see how this is working?). It would be On Demand, where people pay for the programme they want, when they want, like, I dunno, Virgin and Sky. £0.99 for half an hour (to watch all those great old sitcoms); £1.99 for anything an hour or more – drama series and nature programmes. I know you’ll say, “We’ve already paid for them”, and so we have. But future generations haven’t.

There will – no doubt in my mind about this – come a time when the licence fee is socially (and therefore politically) unsustainable. In 10 years, the BBC could have developed a whole new finance model that would surprise them.

It would still be public service, still trading on its (and our) heritage. It could become a commercially sustainable version of itself without ever having to be dependent on advertising.

As for threats to its very existence on the basis of its political bias, that’s a whole other story. Almost every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill has sailed in that ship. On behalf of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell bullied the BBC daily, publicly and shamelessly for 10 years. But it’s still here.

If it can stop being a preening, bullying monolith, it will still be here when we’re long gone.

Yewtree, DLT, Gambaccini and me

Paul Gambaccini sits at home, his diligently structured 40-year broadcasting career in tatters – a career built on hard work, intelligence, deep knowledge, a carefully cultivated public persona, and a courteous manner in private that never seems to flag.

Eleven months on bail, and no charge brought.

Did we even know that was possible? Are we not shocked that it’s legal?

This is Operation Yewtree at work, in which police and prosecution services seem to have dispensed with some of the hardest-won and longest established tenets of British justice.

I launched this blog at the beginning of 2014, just as BBC4 started running repeats of Top Of The Pops from 1979, including my own appearances.

Since then, many editions of the repeats have been cancelled because they were hosted by presenters who have come under Yewtree’s magnifying glass. More will be cancelled in the coming years – or else they’ll be edited to remove the guilty (or even the arrested-but-not-charged).

I’m not here to talk about the hateful crimes of Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris. Good riddance to them, and God bless and help their victims.

What I am saying is: surely our police and prosecution services might have foreseen that the public would discern a difference between heinous paedophiles and rapists, and groping pillocks like Dave Lee Travis?

More to the point, they might have realised that the public would be seriously perturbed at the effect on the lives of those the police haven’t even charged. When do you think we will next hear from Cliff Richard?

But neither the police or the media seem to pay much attention to public feeling. To this extent, they appear to be acting more akin to Cotton Mather (the Salem Witches) than William Blackstone (Fundamental Laws of England).

The Facebook group Popscene has over 350 members. A significant portion, maybe half of them, are female. Throughout Yewtree, I haven’t seen a contribution from anyone, let alone a female, that says, regarding sexist gropers being prosecuted, “About time too”.

The thing that binds Popscene, apart from a love of pop music, is that many members are of a certain age. So a lot of these women have been through the era when, we are told, female employees were routinely assaulted and too afraid to do anything about it.

And yet Popscene women appear furious at Yewtree’s tactics in publicly outing those they are ‘investigating’, whether they charge them or not.

Jimmy Tarbuck, Jim Davidson and Freddie Starr are just three of those arrested, given maximum publicity, and released without charge. Others – no use to the police for publicity, so not named – have also been arrested and released without charge.

But they did manage to charge Travis with 12 offences. Unfortunately for them, after two trials, only one of the charges stuck, and then only for a short suspended sentence. Which tells you something about how the rules of evidence are being degraded.

I’m not saying what Travis did was excusable.

Also, just so you know, I never liked the man. That’s just me. Doesn’t matter why. It’s personal.

But still, imagine yourself in court, and the Crown’s QC is telling the jury: “It’s not for you to judge degrees of guilty.

“Don’t ask why we are trying something that could have been dealt with by a slap in the face.”

Really? We’re not allowed to ask that?

It doesn’t matter, she said, that the allegations “are not the most serious that courts have to deal with. ‘Is it serious enough?’ is not a question you have to worry about.”

Wow. I would have thought that was partly what juries were for – to tell the Courts at the very least when they are overstepping the bounds of common sense.

All of this has resulted in a spate of reminiscences and newspaper stories of ‘inappropriate’ (God, I hate that word) behaviour. Some of these stories are of events that happened less than 20 years ago. In the 1990s, The Spice Girls led us to believe that girl power had taken over, and that women knew how to deal with sexists like Travis.

But it seems not. Janet Street Porter recently told the story of a female editor of a 1990s television programme. The editor’s star presenter routinely presented himself ‘stark naked in the bath’ for daily meetings in his dressing room.

Complaining that you allowed yourself to be subjected to this indignity every day, day after day – isn’t that just whingeing?

I’ve spent a week trying to frame this blog in the least controversial manner. But it’s an almost impossible task. You’re reading my 53rd draft, and still I know it will offend. Because – all special pleading aside: we are a victim if we say we’re a victim – this is not how we conduct justice.

So let’s make it personal for a second. At the age of fourteen I told a fully mature 6′ 4” man – father of two toddlers I had just babysat – that, no, I didn’t want him masturbating me while I took a bath. Surely by the 1990s a grown woman could take personal responsibility for telling a grown man they should meet in an office, rather than in his bath?

In the Sunday Times this week, Camilla Long recounts her 2012 interview with Dave Lee Travis.

In 2012 she reported “I don’t think there was a part of my body he didn’t grope”.

In 2014 she reports that she “left the interview feeling like a non-person, odd and dirty and used”.

Is it just because I’m male that I find it difficult to understand why she didn’t say that first time around?

After all, Camilla Long is no shrinking violet. She is caustic and controversial. Last year she won the Hatchet Job Of The Year award for her review of the book Aftermath. She described author Rachel Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish”, who “describes her grief in expert, whinnying detail”.

So this is where we’ve got to, 45 years after Germaine Greer’s watershed work. A tough, professional woman, willing in print to attack a ‘sister’, but afraid to slap an ageing dj or knee him in the balls, or even just tell him to fuck off, despite the fact his wife and a photographer were in the vicinity. She put up with Travis’s behaviour for 90 minutes, she says. Why?

My mother and my grandmother, feminists before the word gained currency, would have wanted a word with Camilla. They’d have also wanted ‘a word’ with DLT. He would have regretted it.

No music this week. It seems, erm…..inappropriate.

Instead, here’s a clip of Morgan Freeman, around the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, suggesting we stop talking about racism. I’m wondering if there is a woman out there, in the 45th anniversary year of The Female Eunuch, brave enough to address the discussion of sexism with a similar breath of fresh air.

Meanwhile, I’d like my 1970s back, please. But maybe that’s too much to ask. Or too trivial……

Muhammad Ali and the power of charisma

I’ve met a lot of famous people. As a journalist in the music industry, a&r man, pop singer and producer, and editor and publisher of film and tv magazines, it’s always been part of the day job.

I wouldn’t say I was blasé, but I have to admit that, from day one, I’ve rarely been overwhelmed.

The day I started at Music Week, for instance, in August 1967, I was sent to London Airport. The Mamas & The Papas were coming into town and there would be a press conference.

An 18-year-old boy, barely a year out of Wolverhampton, hob-nobbing with the world’s press and one of the best-selling acts around – I should have been excited. But, honestly? No.

Every now and then, there’d be a frisson, like the time I got the phone call from George Martin which I told you about last week.

But there’s only been one brain-jolting, stomach-turns to-jelly, honest to goodness melting moment, and that was when Muhammad Ali came into the room.

It was a big room, a community centre on a north London council estate. There were maybe 200 people already there. At the very moment Ali came through the door I was on the opposite side, a good 40 feet away, with my back to the door, deep in conversation.

And yet, my stomach did turn to jelly, and I knew he was there. Maybe it was a change in atmosphere caused by those who saw him immediately.

But I have never, ever in my life felt someone change the energy in a room so utterly.

I turned around, and there he was: the Parkinson’s-stricken hero of my boyhood, still picking out the closest child, mock-boxing him, making him feel the centre of the universe.

Undeniably in his prime the most beautiful man in the world, he was now a shuffling relic of himself, and yet still possessed of the charisma that had made him the most famous man on the planet, a charisma that could literally be felt.

I watched in awe as he made his way through the room, confronted by, surrounded by and followed by love.

At the same time, the journalist in me picked up on the reactions of two other quite well-known guys also present: former (and soon to be again) world heavyweight champion George Foreman; and former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.

Foreman regarded the only man who had ever knocked him out with clear affection. Frazier, on the other hand, just looked irritated. Frazier’s relationship with Ali was very complex, with some serious – and, to be fair, quite justified – bitterness thrown in.

Watching George Foreman with Muhammad Ali was touching in the extreme. He looked after Muhammad like an attentive brother. I talked to George and he encouraged me to talk to ‘The Champ’. “He’s still all there, inside,” he told me.

So I did, and I told Ali that, as a child, I had been allowed to get up at 3am in the morning to listen to the live BBC broadcasts of Floyd Patterson’s three fights against Ingemar Johansson. The thrill of being awake in the early hours of the morning, and the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the commentary turned me into a lifelong boxing fan.

Then, one Saturday lunchtime, I caught Fight Of The Week on BBC television’s Grandstand, and there was this boy-man, just seven years older than me, and utterly mesmerising. I was hooked. Apart from his first fight with Sonny Liston, when I – along with every boxing expert in the world – thought he was going to be killed, I never lost faith.

I told him I was 15 when he beat Liston. He said something I could barely hear, so I put my ear close to his mouth, and he repeated, in his whisper: “I know. I can’t believe Muhammad Ali is 50.”

Even Muhammad Ali talks about ‘Muhammad Ali’.

Growing up in the era of Ali, The Beatles, American Civil Rights, John F. Kennedy and Bob Dylan, gave millions of us belief that the future was bright and golden; just……better.

My song this week is about my own disappointment that that faith proved to be false.

Two episodes sparked the song. One was watching a programme where Louis Theroux was in an American prison talking to lifers and Death Row inmates about what it takes to survive in such a place.

One of the prisoners was describing the mind games played in the constant search for a place at the top of the heap. Then he said something that I didn’t understand at first. He said it in a chilling voice, with a throwaway smile. “Gabos.” Louis looked as puzzled as me. So the inmate explained: “Game ain’t based on sympathy, man.”

Whoah! What he was saying was, there was no value placed on higher feelings. It was dog eat dog, and if you didn’t look after number one you were dead.

Which set me thinking about the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda and their merciless treatment of each other. And of the child soldiers in Sierra Leone who would overrun villages, round up the men and boys and ask them to choose, “Short sleeve, or long sleeve?” Which meant they had a choice for their hand to be cut off at the wrist, or their arm above the elbow.

I’m not a pessimist by any means. Generally I find the world an exciting and fascinating place. But by the same token, I’m not blind to the wickedness evident all around me.

Maybe I should have written a song about the need for more heroes. Where is the new Muhammad Ali? Where are The Beatles for our children? Is there a JFK or a Bob Dylan on the horizon?

But I didn’t. I wrote this song, called Time Rushes By. The recording is a work in progress, so I hope you can see through the faults.

 

Anne-Marie is right. We need to legalise drugs

I’m going ‘off brand’ a little bit this week, although not too far off, given the music industry’s record when it comes to illegal drug use.

I’m supporting Anne-Marie Cockburn, whose daughter died because she took a dose of ecstasy that was so well made, a fraction of the usual dose would have been enough.

Because illegal drugs are so badly manufactured as a rule, there’s frequently very little of what you think you’re buying in there. So you end up taking more than you would if it was pure.

The tragic consequence of that is that when the drug is properly put together, and you take your usual quota, you’re actually overdosing. Which is what happened to 15-year-old Martha Fernback.

How is a 15-year-old supposed to know? And that’s why her mother, while acknowledging that no-one wants to think of their child dabbling in drugs, has called for legalisation.

Last year I posted a blog on this very subject in another guise (thewritestuff.uk.com, my journalism website). Here’s an edited version of it.

I had planned before Christmas 2012 that my first Blog of 2013 would be to try to state a case for the legalisation of drugs.

Talk about catching the zeitgeist! In quick succession, with 2013 barely under way, Mary Wakefield in The Spectator and Eugene Jareck in a BBC4 documentary (The House I Live In – try to find it online) put the case for legalisation.

In the Sunday Times of January 13, Margarette Driscoll reported that economists and conservatives are coming round to the idea that there is a business case to be made for decriminalising all drug use.

Why the sudden change of heart?

Mexico provides some clues, situated as it is on the other side of a porous border with the United States.

It is scarcely believable that civilisation has broken down so badly in Mexico that people are being beheaded and their bodies (and heads) left in the street as a warning to others. This is a frequent horror that does not spare children.

Live skinnings are also reported. What level of barbarity have we reached where the very idea of removing someone’s skin while they’re still alive even enters the mind?

Police and politicians are powerless – the police, in fact, barely function. When they do, they are mercilessly executed, their bodies hung from freeway overpasses.

Little wonder that many of them now work for the drug cartels. A country which cannot even police its own streets is a country with no hope whatsoever.

The truth about the War On Drugs is that it has been lost, and that there is no hope, ever, of winning it.

If it is a war on drug users, it was lost before it began. People want what people want.

If it is a war on drug dealers, the ever-rising prison population in America tells you that even the prospect of life imprisonment is no impediment to succeeding generations of ambitious wannabees.

If it is a war on the drug cartels the past 40 years has demonstrated its futility. The incredible amount of money swilling around the globe from the proceeds of illegal drug manufacture has financed private armies bigger than those of their host countries. The cartel bosses live in ultra-luxurious fortresses that can repel anything short of a drone attack.

These people are more powerful than the democratically elected governments of the countries in which they operate. They have more money and set absolutely no limits on what they will do to protect their interests – an intimidating cocktail of torture, murder and political assassination.

When Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs 40 years ago the budget was around $80m. In 2010 it was officially £15bn, but – when state and local government expenditure is added in, not to mention the cost of the imprisoned population – the cost was closer to $40bn.

In the UK, we spend an estimated £14bn policing drugs.

Putting all moral arguments to one side, at today’s prices, Nixon’s original $80m would now be $440m. That means that the real cost to the American taxpayer, at $40bn, has increased 100 times in real terms.

And for what? America, with 5% of the world’s population has 25% of the world’s prison population. Half of these 6m prisoners are convicted of drug-related crimes.

In the meantime, drug consumption has increased and the drug cartels have become richer and more powerful. At the same time, the drugs themselves have become either more powerful and, consequently, more dangerous or are adulterated with disgusting and sometimes fatal additives.

Spending one trillion dollars (the cumulative cost over 40 years) on a losing battle is utterly indefensible. There is now no moral or economic argument against legalisation.

At a stroke, by owning the manufacture and sales, society can control quality and distribution, benefit from tax revenues, dramatically decrease the criminal element within and decimate and hasten the decline of the drug cartels.

A side benefit would be that we could start spending the ‘war on drugs’ budget on what Nixon originally intended it for, which was (surprisingly) mostly about treating addicts and rehabilitating them.

If you keep your eyes and ears – and your mind – open, you will see in the coming months and years that this is, finally, an idea whose time is coming.

If you want to fight against it, start marshalling your arguments now. They had better be good: the moral and economic facts are stacking up overwhelmingly against you.

http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8813601/stop-the-drugs-war/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jul/24/war-on-drugs-40-years

No song this week, because this is not about me.

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.

Surely he won’t shoot us if we just listen to his problems?

Backstage, Bob Dylan, Earls Court, 1978. My friend Heather and I are chatting with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash. “So, what do you think?” asks Heather. Muttering and shrugs from the Clash boys. “No, come on, be honest. What do you think?”

They’re looking at the floor, avoiding our eyes.”Well, it’s ok, s’ppose, bit old hat”.

Heather’s tougher than me. She’s dealt with Art Garfunkel demanding a sofa, a private shower and top of the line hi fi on a British Rail train. (Seriously; when the rest of us were grateful simply that the train was there at the station, Art believed you should be able to custom design your own carriage).

So she looks at them like one of those stern school marms from 1950s black and white films and says: “Come on guys, it’s Bob Dylan!” And rather sheepishly, the rebellious boys of London Calling go: “Yeah, fuck it. It is, it’s Bob fucking Dylan.” And they smile, their cool gone, schoolboys caught eating sweets in the classroom.

Bob fucking Dylan wrote Blowing In The Wind when he was 21. Around the same time he also wrote Masters Of War.

“For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed, You ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins”.

Is there a 21-year-old around today so indignant; so well read; so articulate; so politically and poetically literate; and so minded to put it out there without worrying about “the market”?

If there are such beings, I’ve yet to be pointed in their direction.

My mother used to say that if women ran the world there would be no wars. (Stick with me here. There’s a thread). Her female friends all agreed. So imagine my surprise when first Indira Ghandi, then Golda Meir, and then Margaret Thatcher all went to war.

There was another prevailing orthodoxy at the time which took a lot longer to shake off. This was the notion that if you could just sit people round a table, all problems could be solved, all conflict avoided. People, the argument ran, were fundamentally good and decent. All any of us need is a fair shake and we’ll put our weapons down.

You would have thought, given Neville Chamberlain’s experience with Hitler, and the horrors of Stalin’s Russia, that by the mid 60s we might have ditched this shibboleth.

But in fact, the hippy movement – which elevated Dylan to God-like status while ignoring the underlying philosophy of much of his writing – drip-fed this idea into the liberal mainstream until it became accepted wisdom.

Consequently, we’re only just now getting used to the idea that there are people in this world who cannot be negotiated with. They have an agenda which they largely keep to themselves. Talking doesn’t help. They’ll just lie to you, tell you what you want to hear. And then they’ll go and do as they damn well please. Hitler was the classic case. But more recently Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gadaffi, Charles Taylor – the list goes on – have all proved the point in blood and murder. Now Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his murderous Islamic State are coming for us.

Thinking about this recently, a line from Blowing In The Wind popped into my head.

‘How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?’

But in my head it was:

‘How many roads must a man walk down before we call him bad?’

For decades we’ve made excuses for bad people, even blamed ourselves (our colonial past) for corruption and violence in Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

We’ve also blamed ourselves for trouble in the Middle East (partition after WW1).

But the veneer of civilisation that has held together despite the Sadam Husseins and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads, is about to be stripped away. For competing versions of Islam – Shia vs Sunni – there is no reconciliation, no negotiation.

And then I thought of the Berlin Wall and the more recent West Bank wall and I thought: “What have we learned?” And there I had the beginnings of a song I couldn’t have written 30 years ago.

‘We’ve seen iron, we’ve seen fire, mothers waving across barbed wire; walls go up and walls come down and what have we learned?’

I couldn’t have written this song 30 years ago for the simple reason I didn’t think then like I do now. Back then I still had a vestige of faith in the basic goodness of humanity. No more. So this new song Iron & Fire is essentially pessimistic.

Another reason I can write this song now is that I’ve long since stopped worrying about the charts. It is wonderfully liberating to be able to write about any subject, not worrying whether there’s a hook, or even a chorus.

Bob Dylan knew this 50-odd years ago. He was a seriously old soul in new skin.

There’s no point me crying over spilt milk. I didn’t have Dylan’s sensibilities, awareness or talent when I was younger. (Neither do I now, just to be clear!).

But what I have developed is a sort of fearlessness about subject matter and form and production.

I hope there are proto-Dylans out there, developing their art in a similarly fearless way.

Competition in the pop world is more intense than ever, and getting more so. It’s never been more important to develop your own voice, and use social media to build your audience. The internet is your friend. The record industry will find you if you’re worth finding. There’s a pop star lives in my house and, honestly, she’s being found by someone new almost every week.

So don’t think you have to play the industry’s game. The record industry doesn’t have a game. It never really did. Sixty years ago it looked as if EMI and Decca had it all sewn up, and then their world fractured around them. The Beatles, then the Stones, the Who and countless others shook up the men in suits, and within five years indie labels started to proliferate – Island, Immediate, Apple, Polydor, Stax, Stiff, A&M, Elektra, Rak, Sire – and it didn’t really stop until the mid-90s when the current big three (Universal, Sony and Warner) began ingesting the plankton.

Two years ago it was four; but EMI got swallowed by Universal. Now, keen students of these things can see that it’s all fracturing again. Who knows whether the majors can hang on? I couldn’t give a fuck. Whatever bad happens to them, they deserve.

Meantime, the likes of me will do what we do in the full knowledge that the business model we once knew is over. Iron & Fire is a candle in the wind. It will never outsell Car 67, but I’m proud of it, and I think I’ll be happy to listen to it in 35 years, when I’m 100 years old. Think on that, you young whippersnappers.