Mar 032009

I was having dinner at a friend’s house last night, and while playing a friendly game of Mille Bornes (word’s greatest card game!), Nick Cave‘s new LP was cued up. To my surprise, I really liked it. The last time I’d seen or heard Nick was back in the late ’80s, when I caught his band playing some local hipster radio showcase. I thought he sucked. My friends explained: that was because he had a nasty drug habit — but, now that he’s clean, his music is a whole lot better. Then one of my friends paused, and said “come to think of it, Nick Cave may be the only rock and roller whose music got better after they got clean.”

We gabbed about this for a while, and I have to admit I had a hard time thinking of a counter-argument. Can you? Can you name a rock and roll artist whose work got better after they kicked a nasty drug habit?

I look forward to your responses,



  76 Responses to “RTH Challenge: Name a Rock Artist Other Than Nick Cave Who Got Better After Kicking a Nasty Drug Habit”

  1. First time posting, so I hope I’m doing this correctly.

    My vote would absolutely go to Steve Earle. Thought he was a great artist prior to his incarceration (though the wear and tear was showing by The Hard Way), but his post jail/rehab run was (and pretty much continues to be) one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

    Bring the Family and Slow Turning from John Hiatt is pretty impressive as well.


  2. hrrundivbakshi

    Hey, patrickq!

    Welcome, and thanks for your insightful post. I’m not familiar enough with Earle’s work to comment, but you’re right about Hiatt’s material getting better after he dumped the coke and booze.

  3. patrickq, I also bid you welcome to The Hallowed Hall. Totally agree w/you on both guys. Good call. Personally, I’m having a hard time with this one. Get back to y’all later.

  4. I don’t know how much of his boozing in the 70’s was just an act but Tom Waits got much better once he settled down.

  5. BigSteve

    David Bowie.

  6. Dammit, How could I have not thought of Waits? Good on ya, cdm.

    Alright, along the same lines, Warren Zevon was pretty much on the brink of dying from his alcoholism, but he cleaned up, & I think those last few records he put out on Artemis had some of his best material since his 1st 3 albums.

  7. Clapton?

  8. Mr. Moderator

    Patrickq, welcome aboard and excellent initial answers!

    Some artists go up and down with their nasty drug habits, so it may be hard to tell exactly when they were on or off, better or worse.

  9. hrrundivbakshi

    Andyr, that Clapton answer is suspect. To my ears, he had a few peaks: the “Beano” Mayall LP, “Goodbye Cream” (ducking), and, I gotta admit, big chunks of the otherwise bloated “Layla.” Everything since then has seemed pretty boring in comparison.

    Actually, my fave post-heroin Clapton moment is the solo in “Farther On Up the Road” from his Tokyo live album. The solo is played by Albert Lee. But (all snarkiness aside) it *is* amazing!

  10. Mr. Moderator

    Does it matter, Hrrundi, if an artist’s work was first better before the drug habit than it would be after either the habit or the kicking thereof? There are MANY instances of this.

    The other thing that makes answering this question tough is that, typically, by the time an artist has acquired and then kicked a habit, he or she is past his or her rocking prime. The question could almost be, Name a rock artist other than Nick Cave who got better after turning 35.

  11. saturnismine

    good god….bobby joined less than a week ago and he’s welcoming new people aboard? hey, everybody, look at the old seasoned pro.

    this thread is pointless. NOBODY makes better music after they’ve beaten back a debilitating drug habit.

    when will you people LEARN?

  12. I can’t tell if Saturn is being facetious, but assuming he’s not, wouldn’t John Coltrane prove the assertion wrong?

  13. saturnismine

    oats, were you the one who made the ‘irony free zone’ comment in the derringer thread?

  14. saturn,
    Just trying to be polite. Also, it’d be more accurate if you said I joined less than a month ago.

    Moddy, You’ve got a point, there.

  15. saturnismine

    also, why aren’t “Healful” or “Shamebering” poll options?

  16. oats, were you the one who made the ‘irony free zone’ comment in the derringer thread?

    That wasn’t me. I’m all for RTH performance art, but often the looking-glass qualities of the site can leave me a bit flummoxed.

  17. saturn, What exactly is “Shamebering”? It’s not in Merriam-Webster’s.

    BTW, my 1st post was 2/11, about Lux Interior’s death.

  18. Mr. Moderator

    I was going to mention Coltrane and Miles Davis, but they don’t qualify as “rock artists.”

    Hrrundi, no disrespect meant, but is there anything more behind this topic than one of those legendary Arsenio Hall “Things That Make You Go ‘Mmmmm'” moments, when he put his finger to his chin, look askance, and said Mmmmm? I’m sure you’ve grown beyond the “live fast, die young” glorification of the rock star that is fed to us when we’re teens, especially considering how offended you were by The Beatles’ White Album-era hair care:)

    As a guy who I’m pretty sure shares with me the belief that Nick Lowe’s music has gotten more consistent, if not “better” or more exciting, since he got a handle on whatever was going on during his Cowboy Outfit years, surely you understand the difficulties that artists we love have doing anything “better” past some youth- and renegade-oriented peak years. I’m not trying to be preachy, only to hold out hope that in the long term of rock, if we’re so lucky, this notion of the rock artist who couldn’t regain his or her magic after kicking a nasty drug habit will go the way of Arsenio.

  19. hrrundivbakshi

    Mod, my question is simple. Please suspend this journey to the center of your inner Marshall McLuhan and answer it. Thanks.

  20. saturnismine

    okay, bobby, feb. 11 was just a little over two weeks ago. so sue me. i’m just havin fun. your presence has revitalized rth! seriously.

    i don’t know about you, but i’m always somewhere between shamebering and healful after a good beatle bash. perhaps this is one of the ways in which you and i are two very different people.

    but seriously folks, i do think it was proven in a lab in austria some time during the early part of this decade: nobody, but nobody really makes better rock after they’ve kicked. and these pathetic answers prove it.

    steve earle? tom waits?

    if theirs is the best post-druggie work we can find, then we all need to start mainlining right now.

  21. saturnismine

    and by the way, patrickq, please don’t take my steve earle comment personally.

    it’s a pretty impressive debut…actually better than most of the mooks around here could’ve come up with. we’d’ve been waiting for DAYS for an answer that intelligent.

    between you and bobby, RTH’s future is looking pretty bright!!

  22. Mr. Moderator

    I’ll work on a direct answer to your question, Hrrundi. The bullshit you have called on me is deserved.

  23. “and these pathetic answers prove it.
    steve earle? tom waits? “

    I’m not following you Sat. Earle was the first name that popped into my head and then Hiatt then Waits. Are you seriously saying their earlier work is better?

    Hillbilly Highway vs Tanytown or the Mercenary Song?

    Anything Hiatt wrote pre-rehab vs Lipstick Sunset?

    Wait’s hipster-beatnik shtick vs Raindogs and Franks Wild Years?

  24. saturnismine

    “I’m not following you Sat. Earle was the first name that popped into my head and then Hiatt then Waits. Are you seriously saying their earlier work is better?”

    Look…I’ll come clean with you. It’s ‘spring break’ here at the college where i teach (or, as the more jaded students i teach prefer to call it, ‘winter work week’), and the dean has been crashing on my couch and eating all my food…so forgive me my black mood.

    i would take nighthawks at the diner over wait’s self-caricature era work any day of the week, despite what that world café guy thinks.

    know any good dealers?

  25. saturnismine

    btw, hvb…i’m just getting around to checking out some of this thrift store stuff you posted recently…

    dude…’thigh spy’!!! holy fucking shit…what a stone cold groove! that should be blaring out of every radio on the planet, not gathering dust in thrift stores.

  26. A matter of taste, I suppose because I find the Nighthawks stuff to be be self-caricature.

    And do NOT suggest that I’m following Mr. Dye’s musical leads. He’s shorthand in our house for everything that is wrong with the blown opportunity that is the triple A format (overly sincere, precious, flat-out dull, etc).

  27. Mr. Moderator

    I’m trying hard to come up with another example, but I’m having no luck. Hrrundi, your friend was onto something. Hmmmm.

  28. alexmagic

    Clapton? Clapton should be in the pilot program to safely reintroduce musicians to drugs.

    We’ll never know now for sure, but I was very confident that Robert Palmer would have been able to put out some solid music again had he managed to kick his crippling love addiction before he passed.

  29. Mr. Moderator

    Hey, I think I’ve got one: whatever members of Red Hot Chili Peppers kicked their nasty drug habits to make that breakthrough album with “Give it Away” and the running through the bad streets of LA song. I couldn’t stand their earlier records. I can tolerate, admire, and even tap my toe to aspects of everything that came since the original guitarist “kicked” his nasty habit the hard way.

  30. saturnismine

    cdm, we are of one mind on dye! but remember, whether you heard it at a party, or read about it and went out and bought it a DECADE before XPN had the stones to play it, you STILL heard it first on XPN. Admit it.

    i just remember hearing ‘nighthawks’ and thinking my GOD that guy must have had a line on some good stuff.

    i kid, i kid. seriously, now: i heard raindogs and frank’s before nighthawks. and when i heard nighthawks i didn’t feel like turning it off (or..umm…lifting the needle as it were). it seemed much more fluid, more natural, much less affected, and therefore, much more engaging to me.

    i had no knowledge, at the time, of which albums were the drug albums. but i assumed the later ones were.

  31. Some Girls came right after Keith quit heroin, right? That at least suggests a rocker can come up with something good post-drugs, if not a whole lot. Or does RTH cast aspersions on Keith “quitting” junk?

  32. saturnismine

    Some Girls is a nice album.

    But “better” (as the thread starter headlines says) than “Beggars” thru “Sticky”?

    did he “get better” after that?

    and did he actually stop?

    it seems like these dramas play themselves out in the press *once* in a simple, almost teleological arc – keith becomes a rock star, does drugs, falls into the abyss and then kicks and lives happily ever after – but meanwhile, the reality is probably much more complex. i’d be shocked if keith never did heroin after ’77. i’d be shocked if he never had any problems.

    there were rumors in the late 90s that until VERY recently, dylan was carrying around a HEAVY drug problem that went all the way back to the 70s…so bad that song doctors were called in on almost every album.

    the same things were said of tom petty…BIG doper from late 80s til Wild flowers. white lines…song doctors..strung out skinny chicks…room service drug dealers…nights on life support…weeks on end spent punching in the words “my my” for the phrase “oh my my…oh hell yes” because he was just so wasted…the whole bit. But neither of things found their way into mainstream discourse.

    of course, it would be naive to assume that their absence from mainstream media outlets simply means their either true or not true….but it makes me wonder.

  33. Okay, Some Girls is not as good as prime-era Stones.

    Still, I believe saturn’s statement below is way too open-shut.

    this thread is pointless. NOBODY makes better music after they’ve beaten back a debilitating drug habit.

    Again, I point to Coltrane. Also, I pretty much agree with hrrundi about Nick Cave, but is anyone here knowledgeable enough about him to corroborate. (I have about six of his albums, which is only scratching the surface, and most of them are post-heroin.)

    To turn this around, did anyone stay on drugs without it having some kind of negative effect on their talent? Look at what heroin did to Jerry Garcia. Look at what pot’s done to McCartney.

  34. Thanks all for the welcome.

    I thought about the Red Hot Chili Peppers as well, but I think they only released one solid album post rehab (Mother’s Milk). Not that thier pre-rehab music was very exciting…

    Re: Waits, I think he’s been a great artist from the beginning (though I’m probably a bigger fan of his more recent material). The one album of his I can’t listen to is, of course, Nighthawks…That’s the only one that sounds to my ears like he’s playing a part. All affectation and no heart. Polarizing artist, huh?

  35. saturnismine

    oats, you’re taking that opening salvo way too seriously.

    of course, i know better than to rule out the possibility that someone could make better music without drugs. i’m just spouting a simplistic, lowest common denominator view of things. but you’ve gotta admit, as the mod said, it’s hard to come up with good answers, isn’t it?

    of course, the fact that these people are making quality music duriing their drug years doesn’t necessarily mean that the former one is an effect and the latter is a cause. it might be because people are generally in their primes when they’re taking all these drugs…they’re young, adventurous and strong. the world seems full of possibilities. they’re old enough to know their instruments and have experience with music making, but young enough to process the short term positive effects that drugs can have for creative processes, and strong enough to withstand the negative effects for a little while.

    when you’re older, it’s hard to keep up. especially in a youth oriented forum like rock and roll.

    once youv’e done a bunch of drugs, AND you were making what others considered to be great stuff on them, it’s hard to think your way past being able to do WITHOUT them. plus, it’s simply harder to get up in the morning. you’re not as pretty when you look in the mirror either. it’s GOTTA be a mindfuck of major proportions. is it any wonder these guys don’t do as well after they’ve kicked?

    if anything, it’s not that drugs caused their great music, but the absence of drugs most assuredly contributed to the crappy music most of these guys made later.

    what a horrible catch 22.

    patricq…i’m gonna have to take a dep breath and dive back in to nighthawks (and the later stuff) and see if my ears have changed any….maybe they have.

  36. i believe that artists can make more commercial work after kicking nasty habits.
    chilli peppers
    nick cave
    flaming lips
    tom petty
    but here are the “heroin” albums of a number of artists, and in most cases, they are also the “peak” albums in that, afterwards, it all falls to shit:
    urge overkill-saturation
    van halen-women and children first
    steely dan-the royal scam
    led zeppelin-physical graffitti
    james taylor-sweet baby james
    guns and roses-appetite for destruction
    john lennon-walls and bridges

  37. saturn,
    try heart of a saturday night, blue valentines, and small change. these are all from that early waits period, but they are not quite as gimmicky as nighthawks.

  38. BigSteve

    I hope this discussion of Waits doesn’t turn into a natural=good and affectation=bad cop out. Those formulations aren’t especially helpful in thinking about any artist, and the concept of self-caricature is especially unhelpful when listening to Waits.

  39. he’s far too abundant for that, i agree.

  40. dbuskirk

    I was always under the impression Tom Waits’ drunk act was always an act.

    I had a friend who used to tell a story about opening for him in the 70’s and it was my friend and Wait’s road manager who got drunk and it was Waits who made sure everyone got home safe.

  41. Sat said: “but remember, whether you heard it at a party, or read about it and went out and bought it a DECADE before XPN had the stones to play it, you STILL heard it first on XPN.”

    I say: For me, XPN is still coasting on good will from 15 years ago when they played a Replacements song followed by a Hank Williams song,then a Hoodoo Guru’s song. But that is also what I’m talking about when I referred to the blown opportunity.

  42. saturnismine

    shawnkilroy, thanks for the recommendations. i WILL check them out in this lifetime, and i’m not being facetious.

    Bigsteve, i was JUST ABOUT to say the same thing, re. affectation. i personally like ‘natural’ better. but if waits on nighthawks is an affectation, i didn’t know it, and i think that even if i did, it wouldn’t make me like it less.

    and dbus, i always thought his drunk guy act was an act to SOME degree, too.

    it’s just the difference between good acting and bad acting, i suppose. listening to nighthawks, i didn’t have to think about that level of the performance. listening to the later stuff, i did.

  43. Re Waits’ affectations: I think he’s always sung his songs in character, with the possible exception of his first album. So I don’t think there a phase of his career that is more or less an act than any other phase.

    It just seems like he realized early on that he had an odd voice, and was writing classic pop songs that were slightly off kilter and just decided to capitalize on it.

    But I think that it works for him, maybe because the songs lend themselves to that kind of delivery.

  44. Mr. Moderator

    Next thread: Name a Rock Artist Other Than Tom Waits Who Got Better After Kicking an Affected Nasty Drug Habit

  45. GUYS! I just heard. Oh man, Fleagle from The B. Splits was found dead in a Santa Monica motel room. He was doin’ eightballs w/a couple of hookers,he went out to get more, came back, shot up between his pads, & just keeled over. It said on the news that one of the hookers saw him makin’ a buy in the parking lot from some kid dressed completely in purple. Bummer.

  46. saturnismine

    any song doctors around?

  47. No, but coincidentally, The Spin Doctors were all busted in the same motel complex that night, when their meth-lab started a fire. At least something good came of the whole, sordid, ugly night on the mean streets of Santa Monica.

  48. It’s funny after all this, but Even though Dig Lazerus Dig is really awesome, I think it’s Nick Cave’s first awesome album in a long time. The Grinderman was really great too, but i think these are his first 2 non VH1(or XPN) style records in a long time. Too much mellow Lenard Cohen influence for too long in my opinion. My faves are:
    Your Funeral, My Tial
    Tender Prey, and
    Henry’s Dream, which is unique because it was one of the last records produced by long time Crazy Horse producer David Briggs. It has a really wicked sound to it.

    I’m not a real birthday party freak though.

  49. Johnny Cash? he did those prison concerts shortly after he stopped using drugs.

  50. Three cheers for the Heroin Albums! I think the only artists who did not go to pot (pun intended) are the ones who did not have the habits to begin with.

  51. I must confess, that dig Lazarus video at the top of this link is the first Nick Cave that I’ve heard. I know his song the Mercy Seat from a cover and I don’t really like it but that Dig Lazarus Dig song kicks ass. What else should I hear by him?

  52. Henry’s Dream
    Your Funeral My Trial
    Tender Prey
    The First Born is Dead(excellent cover of In the Ghetto)
    Kicking Against the Pricks
    Let Love In
    Murder Ballads
    all good.

  53. the above are all albums
    here are some individual songs:
    Brother My Cup is Empty
    Red Right Hand
    Watching Alice
    The Moon is in the Gutter
    Papa Won’t Leave You Henry
    Up Jumped the Devil
    The Weeping
    Straight to YouSong
    The Carney
    Stranger Than Kindness

  54. typo above.
    should read:
    The Weeping Song
    Straight to You

    now here’s a list of great Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds covers:
    Let It Be-Beatles
    Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart-Gene Pitney
    Wanted Man-Bob Dylan
    What a Wonderful World(with the flaming lips)-Louis Armstrong
    By The Time I get to Phoenix-Jimmy Webb
    The Singer-Johnny Cash

    sorry for the ad nauseum, but i think that’s what RTH is for.

  55. and finally(we hope)
    The Mercy Seat version that Johnny Cash does is like a big ‘so what’. The Bad Seeds version is a whole different animal. It’s on Tender Prey and it’s fantastic. The other version captures not the essence.

  56. If tequila counts as a drug: Mr Mod.

  57. dbuskirk

    I’d rather hear Nick Cave pretend he’s Ian Curtis than Leonard Cohen, I’d say the trio of Birthday Party records were probably his highpoint for me. I like the early rock sounds mixed with Rowland Howard’s keening guitar. The production has really held up, Tony Cohen worked with Cave through most his career as well as doing those classic Go-Betweens records. Now that we’re through being creeped out by our peers Goth fashions, these records deserve a second listen. Their Best-Of HITS ain’t a bad place to start.

    Cave might be an ultimate example of how going clean leaves a more sedate performer. His vocals in the Birthday Party go places he does not go any more.

  58. Thanks,shawnkilroy and db.

  59. Mr. Moderator

    Considering what the worm used to do to me, it certainly counted as a nasty habit. Thanks, Chick!

  60. Mr. Moderator

    As for Nick Cave, I couldn’t stand all that Birthday Party stuff when I tried it in college. It was like super-sloppy Bauhaus to my ears. The year we spent in Hungary the song and album with “Let Love In” (I think that was the song’s title – it had a funny video of Cave and the Bad Seeds slinking about red light districts, not too unlike the one Hrrundi placed in this thread) was big on EuroMTV. I then read a few good interviews with him in subsequent years and simply liked HIM. Each time I heard his music I started to like it more. I’m down with a lot of his mellow songs, like “God Is in the House” and “Darker With the Day.” I like his lyrics, which seem self-serious and both intentionally and unintentionally funny. That double album from a couple of years back is a good one, almost fulfilling my wishes for a record as beefy as the Joe Cocker albums my uncle bought me when I was a kid. Then I got that Grinderman album, which I think is a really good, concise garage-rock album. I have not yet picked up the latest. He’s one of those guys I need to space out; he seems to have two or three song templates, kind of like Patti Smith, that bore me if I listen to him too often. I’ve yet to revisit the Birthday Party stuff that I hated in 1981-1982.

  61. Dbusirk, have you heard the Grinderman album or other recent (post-2004) Cave? He’s not merely sedate these days. I think he’s found a good balance of his varying impulses, from gothic wildman to chin-scratching literary genius. He never would’ve been able to make a career out o his Birthday Party persona; he’d have died long ago, for one.

    Like I said, I’m still a relative neophyte about this guy, but here are some songs I like:

    Papa Won’t Leave You Henry
    Red Right Hand (This is as close as he has to an American hit. It was used in the Scream films and X Files)
    God is in the House
    Honey Venus (Let’s Fly to Mars)
    There She Goes My Beautiful World

    And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 12-minute “Babe I’m on Fire.” Make sure you check out the video on (so you can watch the whole thing in one chunk).

  62. It’s weird that way with Waits, you don’t really know, where the truth ends and fiction begins.
    Sometimes it can annoy me to no end.
    I’ve been told the exact opposite stories – one of those where my ex mate witnessed Waits’ wife basically carrying him home, because he was so drunk. But that was the 80’s. On the other hand he wasn’t performing then either.

  63. Mr. Moderator

    Welcome aboard, gartikker! Waits and his persona are always troubling for a lot of folks around here. If you stick around and continue chatting with us you’ll see the same dynamic with Randy Newman and David Bowie, among others. The funny thing with Waits, for me, is that I finally stopped getting hung up on his persona after I saw him actually acting in a couple of films. Then I figured, what’s really the difference? Since then I’ve been free to decide whether I like his music or not without all the other baggage. Seeing Cave in that video in 1994 had a similar effect on me. Maybe there’s more to the ability of film and video performances by rockers to shed some light on their music than some of us like to give to the MTV generation.

  64. dbuskirk

    I’ve kept up with Cave, I even have his most recent disc, but as good as DIG LAZARUS DIG is, I feel like he’s spinning his wheels musically, and in some very NPR-friendly type of rut. Even when he is audacious, it is a very controlled and prescribed type if audaciousness.

    I would have thought RTHers would have a bigger appetite the Birthday Party, how bout RTH’s Australian contingent? I’ve renewed my interest in the 80’s post-punk era, partially because it is fun to mix that stuff in with all the modern groups who are snatching those sounds and rhythms. The sharp production and Cave’s recognizable persona has kept the Birthday Party’s music sounding surprisingly fresh. Among the all-time great Goth song titles is “Release The Bats”.

    I never dressed the part, but I always dug Chrome, The Cure and Bauhaus as well. And Bela Lugosi!

  65. I took the plunge: Yesterday I went out and bought my first Tom Waits record. On the reccomendation of another music nerd, I got Small Change. He told me that it would be a good place ot start.

    So far, so good. I like it. We’ll see where this journey ends…


  66. TB:
    Good start.

    When you’re done listening to that, I encourage you to put on your helmet and get Raindogs.

    This could end up costing you a lot of money.

  67. Let’s go back to Patrick’s first comment: John Hiatt, who was a Elvis-Costello wannabe (or worse, even a John Mellencamp wannabe) when he was high, and has turned out fine album after fine album since he went sober. And his Little Village confederate Nick Lowe has IMO produced the best albums of his career since he hit bottom in the mid-80s and then dried out. The tempo may be slower, but for intelligence and songwriting craft Lowe’s recent work can’t be beat.

  68. CDM, this is the same guy who owns the entire Dylan catalogue, including the hits packages…(I’m a dork.)

    Point is: If I can conquer Bob, I can handle Waits!

    Thanks for the reccomendation…


  69. You bastards! I break the news that Fleagle, Fuckin’ FLEAGLE, maaan, is gone, & all you mopes can talk about is flippin’ Nick Cave, & whether or not Waits was ever a REAL drunk or not. Where’s your humanity, man? I mean, yeah, I know he was a DOG and all, but still… No freakin’ respect, man. Those two dudes stole 1/2 their act from him, anyway.

  70. And by the way, hrrundi, Mille Bournes kick ass! Maybe not quite up there with Euchre or Rummy 500 but damn close.

  71. i’m a mille bournes player too!

  72. Mr. Moderator

    Can we form an indie rock group named Mille Bournes?

  73. I’m on board with that. Our first release should be called “Rock and Roulez!”

  74. hrrundivbakshi

    Dibs on writing the AC/DC copycat number entitled “Gonna Gonna Creve You.”

  75. pudman13

    John Lennon, of course. His absolute least productive period as a member of the Beatles was 1969, but he bounced back with his first two solo albums.

  76. I’ve never heard Mille Bournes. A French chanteuse, I assume, non?

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