Down and Out on Murder Mile

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Etter endt skolegang bestemte briten Tony O’Neill seg for å bli rockestjerne. Heller det enn universitetet i første omgang, og heller fancy London enn kalde, våte og bleke Nord-England. Som en ambisiøs og dyktig gitarist, gjorde han etter hvert karriere og var blant annet innom Marc Almond Band, Kenickie og the Brian Jonestown Massacre. En uendelig og eksessiv fest av groupies og drugs før det hele gikk – pent og pyntelig – rett til helvete ved hjelp av heroin og crack i en ettroms på Londons notoriske Murder Mile. Rart hvordan slike historier snur kjapt. Narkolangere, horer, halliker og mordere ble plutselig den verdenen som omslynget nygifte Tony, mens han gradvis så sin partner in crime, kona Susan, gi opp håpet mens hun døde i en sørgelig krok av opiater og kakerlakker.

Heldigvis kavet Tony seg etter hvert ut av den endeløse narkogjørma som ung og lovende forfatter. I dag bor han i NYC og skriver fantastiske bøker om drugs og livet som junky, selvsagt autobiografiske om alt han opplevde, men aldri selvmedlidende og sentimentale. Det er heller funny og oppløftende. I sammenheng med den siste boken hans, prisbelønte Down and Out on Murder Mile, sendte jeg den meget sympatiske Tony noen spørsmål. Mye narkosnakk, litt musikk og igjen disse godteriene som narkissene alltid skal dytte i seg. Jeg mener, det er helt forstålig at menneskekroppen fysisk håndterer heroin, det er tross alt en del folk som forblir heroinister i lang tid# men jeg fatter ikke hvorfor kroppen ikke totalkollapser etter bare et par uker med utelukkende kanelgifler, Go’morgen Yoghurt og smågodt. Hva skjedde med 5 om dagen? Det er da fundamentalt naturstridig å fore menneskeaper sure føtter og krokodiller år ut og år inn?

Uansett, dere får beklage mindre elegante engelskformuleringer i spørsmålene.

N&D: Hi Tony, first off, tell me a little about your novel Down and Out on Murder Mile. How did you end up writing the book?

TO’N: Oh man, that’s a long story. I think the initial reason behind writing anything for me is fear – fear of dying without having left anything of consequence behind. I guess when you spend a few years as a dope fiend, death becomes a constant worry. When I cleaned up the last time, I looked around and realized that I hadn’t left myself with very much – no career, no money, no friends, no home. If I got killed by a stray bullet right there and then, people could have rightly looked at me and said that my life had amounted to a big fat zero. So I started writing. I wanted other people to know where I had been. I felt that I had a pretty interesting story to tell.

N&D: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s a very compelling story and at the same time your prose doesn’t “mess around”. A lot of other drug memoirs end up being this vehicle for the person’s self-pity with a total condemnation of drugs. You seem to have a much more complex understanding of a particular person’s relation to drugs. Could you take us through you own experience with narcotics?

TO’N: Well, thank you. I have done drugs all of my life, in one form or another. The first time I injected heroin, I finally understood what people meant when they called about religious awakenings. For me heroin was the first great love affair of my life. Heroin and music. I loved the feeling heroin gave me, I loved the lifestyle, I gave up everything for it, willingly. My entire existence was centered on the idea of being the best dope fiend I could possibly be. Eventually, I ran out of luck, I ran out of money, I ran out of veins and I ran out of options. Getting off of heroin was very tough for me, because it meant that I literally had to lose my entire identity. So when I cleaned up I had to try to replace one existence with another. I suppose what makes me different from the other writers out there who have tried to turn their experiences with drugs into books is that really I don’t regret my experiences with drugs, and I haven’t sworn off of them. I really see the life of an addict as one that is just as valid and just as worthwhile as the life of a non-addict. The two states co-exist – to say that one is “better” than the other is to miss the point entirely. I decided to come off of heroin because I wanted to discover new kicks, new experiences. But there is always ambivalence towards drugs, towards being clean. Life is just as difficult off of drugs as on them: the war carries on, it’s just the frontline that moves.

N&D: I read in an interview that you where against the notion of calling heroin addiction a “disease”, could you elaborate on that?

TO’N: Cancer is a disease. Drug addiction is simply a matter of exposure. Try telling some poor bastard who just found out he is dying of colon cancer that the junkie in the hospital bed next to him also has a disease. The guy with colon cancer didn’t do anything to bring the cancer on – he went to the doctor one day, and the doctor told him “sorry man, you have cancer”. A junkie on the other hand brought addiction on himself. He put the needle in his arm. He did it repeatedly. He became addicted. This is not a judgmental position that I am taking – it’s just a fact. Nobody is born an addict. Addicts are made. I did the same thing myself, not because I have a disease, but because injecting heroin is an incredible sensation. I kept using it, knowing full well I would eventually be addicted to it, because it felt so good. Once I had an armful of good dope, I couldn’t give a shit whether I eventually became addicted or not.

If you do enough heroin you will become addicted to it. If you drink enough alcohol, you will become addicted to it. Addiction doesn’t just fall from the sky and hit you on the head one day.

The notion of addiction as a disease is something that is not based in science, but in the pseudo-science of “therapy”. I think that therapy is just the modern equivalent of putting leeches on someone, or phrenology (the once fashionable study of the contours of the human skull, which could supposedly predict whether the subject had criminal tendencies). Therapy is a con, pure and simple. If anybody spends time long enough in the company of a psychiatrist they will be diagnosed with some kind of mental illness, because any behaviour can be construed as ‘abnormal’ to them. I’m not talking about people with psychosis, or delusions – I’m talking about the millions of ordinary people who think they need therapy because they drink too much, they do too many drugs, they feel depressed, they feel sad… Basically because they experiencing normal human emotions. And what is the miracle cure the therapists offer? More therapy. More drugs – not even fun drugs, but drugs designed to make you compliant and complacent. In my years as an addict I hung around with prostitutes, drug dealers, gang members, people who would slit your throat for a bag of dope. But the people who creeped me out the most were the shrinks. Those guys are pure evil.

N&D: Norway is one off the richest countries in the world, but at the same time Oslo is world-famous for its huge heroin problem. More people are dying of heroin in Oslo per capita than in super-liberal Amsterdam. Just outside our office in the centre of Oslo there are junkies walking around like zombies, shooting up the worst and most expensive heroin in the world. Given our protestant moralistic ethics, the government just doesn’t do anything about it, other than telling the police to shove them around the city to new locations. Just sweep the mess under a new rug. What’s your whole take on drug legislation, rehab etc?

TO’N: My life up until this point has convinced me that the only way to fix the drug problem is through legalization. Drug prohibition doesn’t work. You can see that by looking out of your office window. This is the result of 100 years of prohibition. No government will ever stop people from getting high. In Russia they are literally drilling holes into the skulls of addicts in some kind of crazy effort to get them to stop. In Thailand, they just execute addicts and dealers, no trial, nothing. Does it stop anyone from getting high? No. If the fear of forcible lobotomy or death is not enough to get an addict to quit, then how exactly are we supposed to enforce this grand folly of “drug prohibition”?

Addiction is not a moral issue – it’s a medical issue. Unfortunately convincing people of this is an uphill struggle. We have an example like Amsterdam, were a lenient approach towards drugs has led to fewer junkies, less young people using hard drugs, and yet instead of learning from this, these self evident facts are ignored and instead the governments of Europe, America and the rest… instead they insist on more of the same. Personally I feel that all drugs should be decriminalized – relatively harmless drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, etc should be sold in the same controlled manner that alcohol is. Addictive drugs should be prescribed to addicts like any other kind of essential medication. The idea that a harmful, toxic drug like alcohol is considered fine, yet marijuana can land you in jail is utterly senseless. The only people who benefit from drug prohibition are the criminal empires that are founded on drug money, and those other criminals – the politicians, the police, and the drug enforcement agencies.

N&D: You seem to have a lot of druggies and former addicts as your favourite authors# Clarence Cooper Jr, William Burroughs, Dan Fante and Bukowski among others. Off course you have first-hand experience with being an addict yourself, but are there other aspects that make you prefer their life tales? Why does cutesy stuff suck?

TO’N: I just like writers that speak to me. Those guys talk to me because their worldview makes sense to me. I’m not sure why so many of my favourite writers were drunks, dope fiends, or addicts. There are plenty of addicts whose writing doesn’t talk to me. There are plenty of non-addicts whose work really speaks to me. I guess if you like a certain kind of writing then the chances of an author you like being a junkie are pretty high. It’s like being a fan of bebop. For whatever reason, most of those guys were junkies too. I am not stupid enough to think that drugs or alcohol are some kind of pathway to enlightenment. I did enough of them to realize that no, they’re not. But… they sure as hell help to pass the time.

N&D: Was there a point in your life when you thought, “I want to be a writer” or did it just happen?

TO’N: I knew I wanted to be something. When I was younger, maybe 15 or 16, I wanted to be a writer. I read Naked Lunch at 16 years old and didn’t understand a word of it, but something in the way those words went together excited me greatly. Sections of the book disturbed me. I realized that books have a great power to disturb, and I tried to write, but of course at 16 I could do nothing else but ape my heroes and everything came out wrong. I wrote a novel that was so bad I had to destroy it, and that put me off writing for about 10 years. In the meantime I discovered rock and roll, and writing fell by the wayside. It wasn’t until I found myself back in London, older and physically beaten down by a sustained heroin habit that I came back to writing. But no, writing the first novel was not a planned out thing. It was a form of self-therapy more than anything. I was sick, detoxing from heroin and methadone, and I needed to do something to stop myself either relapsing or killing myself. So I started writing memories and recollections from my dope days in Los Angeles. That became the first draft of Digging the Vein. After that I became obsessed, and writing in many ways replaced shooting dope as my 24-hours a day obsession.

N&D: Have you read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger? What does the regular junkydiet consist off?

TO’N: Oh yes. It’s an amazing book. I guess along with Celine’s Journey To The End of the Night it’s a kind of blueprint for all of those dark confessional novels that came later. But Hamsun’s book is funny – that’s the thing – you gotta do it with humour. I mean, if you’re just trying to shove darkness down the readers throat they’re gonna rebel. People have enough humourless darkness in their day-to-day life. They don’t need to read about it, too. Hmm, the junkie diet? A lot of candy. When I was using heroin I had a terrible sweet tooth. Donuts, chocolate bars, coca cola. I lived on that shit. Food was way down there on my list of priorities. I ate whatever I could steal out of a convenience store, basically.

N&D: You had a great musical career before becoming an addict and later a successful author. Personally I think your prose really displays your musical background. How do you relate music to writing? What kind off music nurtured your state on heroin?

TO’N: Well for me, as in music, I appreciate a really stripped down and direct form of writing. Some of my favourite songs are the short, sharp ones – stuff like “Beat on the Brat” by the Ramones, or “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by the 13th Floor Elevators. Stuff that gets right to the point. So yes, I suppose there is a cross over there. I am always someone who appreciates a good lyric, too. Guys like Scott Walker, Morrissey, Lou Reed, Howling Wolf or Jarvis Cocker – people who put real thought and effort into their lyrics. What kind of music nurtured my state on heroin? Well, stuff like Chet Baker, or Lou Reed certainly cemented this romantic idea of heroin in my head long before I ever tried it.

N&D: A particular track list for a perfect heroin jam?

TO’N: Ha, well, always go with the mellow stuff. Maybe Chet Baker singing “Almost Blue”. Mercury Rev’s “Holes”. My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes”. Maybe some Johnny Thunders, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” or “Chinese Rocks”. That’s really a Dee Dee Ramone song, but I like Johnny Thunders’ version better. I love that chorus – “I’m living on a Chinese rock – All my best things are in hock – I’m living on a Chinese rock – everything is in the pawn shop”. I really relate to that. When you’re a junkie, you spend half your life in pawnshops.

N&D: Where does your drive to write come from? What kept you writing during periods of serious addiction?

TO’N: Well, during the heaviest period of my addiction, I didn’t write much. It’s hard to expend your energies on anything other than scoring and fixing dope. You know, I’m not the clean living type still, but I have found a kind of balance now and it works for me. The drive now is different from in the beginning. In the beginning it was all about trying to do something that would provide a way out from the wreckage of my life. Now my life is a lot more stable, I have a wife, a child, and I am writing full time. Now the drive comes from wanting to write better books. Because, as crappy as my life was when I was an addict, coming out through the other side of that has given me a very precious gift when it comes to writing – it has given me a voice and a point of view. And that’s something that no MFA program in the world can give you.

N&D: Are there any current authors who you like?

TO’N: Oh sure. Right now I like Dan Fante, Billy Childish and Patrick De Witt, who just did a great novel called Ablutions. I like what Jerry Stahl does a whole lot, plus Dennis Cooper and Irvine Welsh. I’ve been so wrapped up in writing my new novel that I haven’t read as much as I’d like to this year, and my bookshelf is straining under the weight of unread novels right now.

N&D: Finally, what’s next for you? What are you working on right now?

TO’N: I just finished a novel called Sick City which will come out on Harper Perennial in the summer of 2010. I’m really excited about that one. It is set in Los Angeles, and it’s the story of two junkies who concoct a get-rich-quick scheme to sell a stolen 1960s sex tape starring dead Hollywood icon Sharon Tate. That’s the beginning of it. This one has a lot to say about the recovery industry and the media, and if you liked my other books then you wont be disappointed, because this one is very much set within Hollywood’s drug subculture. A departure in a way, because it is my first non-autobiographical novel. But if you’ve read my short stories (a French collection called Notre Dame du Vide was released recently on 13e Note Editions of Paris) you have seen how I like to blend the factual and the fantastic. Writing this kind of book was very important to me, because I didn’t want to have to repeat myself. There’s only so much I can say about myself. Now it’s time to let some other characters have their say.

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DRUGS – SOME DISCONNECTED THOUGHTS

HEROIN

Once you have a serious bout of heroin use, you become something of a drug snob. Yes, heroin is addictive, but most of the serious consequences of heroin use come from the prohibition of it – the high prices, and the artificial scarcity of the drug. In terms of physical effects – aside from the matter of addiction and possible accidental overdose – heroin doesn’t have that many negative health consequences. So long as an addict can retain a steady supply (and practice safe injecting should they wish to take the drug intravenously), they could easily live to a grand old age, unlike, say, a heavy drinker, smoker, or speed freak. Heroin is a physical drug. It is a physical sensation. It is the taste of lost childhood summers, nostalgia and yearning. It is a drug of dreaming.

PROHIBITION

The biggest con job of all time. With the world economy doing down the toilet, the smartest thing to do would be to declare the war on drugs a massive failure, and legalize drug use. What many addicts want and need is not rehabilitation, but the tools to manage their own habits away from government interference.

COCAINE

I don’t get puritanical about drugs, but one drug that I stay away from now is cocaine. Once you get as far into coke use as I did (up to 20 injections a day at the height of it) it’s pretty difficult to get back to normal use. For me, cocaine is an anti-creative drug. And generally, people on cocaine are hard to deal with unless you’re on coke yourself. For most artists, rampant cocaine use is the death of their careers – see Rick James, or Oasis’s Be Here Now for example. That said, David Bowie managed to record some of his greatest albums on coke. Then he cleaned up and did Tin Machine, which just goes to show you…

METHAMPHETAMINE

Any drug that can be synthesized from ingredients bought in a hardware store has to be pretty rough on the body, and meth certainly is. Although not an addictive drug in the physical sense, it is a compulsive one. People – myself included – do some pretty silly stuff when they’re on meth. Typical meth conversation: “What shall we do now?” “I dunno. I wanna do something though.” “You wanna rob a crack dealer?” “Yeah! You got a gun?” “Hell yeah!”

WEED

I think that the government should dole out free marijuana to recovering addicts. Not in the early stages of withdrawal – I’ve tried that, and the end result is horrible – but afterwards. When a recovering heroin addict is depressed and craving heroin, using weed is a wonderful and harmless way to bypass that craving. Only the most rabid anti-drug propagandists believe that there is any harm in smoking weed. I would like to see Amsterdam style coffee shops all over the world.

KRATOM

This is a stimulant that originates in Thailand and Bali. It is illegal in Thailand and Australia, but legal in most other countries. More effective and less jittery than caffeine, it also has an interesting euphoric effect. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that opiate addicts have used Kratom to wean themselves off of opiates. The withdrawal symptoms from Kratom are virtually non-existent, and given the right kind of marketing push it could make the energy drink market obsolete overnight.

ALCOHOL

Alcohol is the perfect argument for an end to drug prohibition. In terms of physical effects and dependence it is one of the harshest drugs on the human body. Yet it is legal, and society has not crumbled. Which reminds me! It’s almost cocktail time…

METHADONE

Not a fun drug. I do believe it has its place in treating addicts, however the hoops that the average addict has to jump thought to get their supply is ridiculous. The doctors handing out the methadone generally have no firsthand experience with addiction themselves, and learned all they know from textbooks written by people with a staunch prejudice against the specter of “the junkie”. For methadone to be effective it should be prescribed in liberal doses, and no addict should be forced to reduce their dose unless they wish to do it. Coerced reduction simply does not work. The reason that most addicts fail on the methadone program is because of the puritan set up at most clinics. They don’t call methadone “liquid handcuffs” for nothing. However, if you really want to keep people from using street drugs, then prescribing pharmaceutical heroin is a much more effective option. It was once the norm in Britain, in the glory days of the “British Method”, when we had a small and aging addict population. Then we decided to adopt the already failed US strategy of condemning, scape-goating and harassing addicts, and look where that got us…