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Sex, Drugs, and… overdose: Jay Reatard Is Dead, And For What?

Written by Nick Leitzke

I hate drugs. Trading clarity and cohesion for a few moments of hallucinatory gratification – and risking life and limb in the process – is a deal I’d rather not make. I don’t particularly want to get hooked on something that in all likelihood will kill me, be it in the literal sense of my heart stopping while I’m passed out in the gutter or in the figurative sense of “I wasted all my money on heroin and now I need a loan, Mom.” I enjoy a good time as much as anyone else, but I don’t need to stick a needle in my foot veins or inhale a line of white powder to make it a good time. Why anyone would want to do so is beyond me, but I guess ‘Trainspotting’ is right. You do it because it feels good. And then a baby swallows a needle. Way to go.

The reason I’m getting so after-school-special is because Jay Reatard was found dead last month in his Memphis home. When I read about his death I was unfamiliar with his work. I knew of him, but I didn’t know him. I was angry. I was angry because now the only reason I would look into his work was because he was dead. I was also angry because, not knowing anything about the circumstances other than Jay was found dead in his Memphis home, I was quick to assume drugs were involved.

How many times throughout history have we seen artists die before reaching their prime because of an addiction or a horrible accident? Why shouldn’t Jay’s death have been any different? It’s almost expected these days that when an artist dies the coroner will return with a verdict of overdose. Brittany Murphy’s death has been officially blamed on pneumonia, but of course the press are quick to point out the presence of multiple over-the-counter medications in her system. What a shocker. Girl is sick and she’s taking Theraflu and Nyquil. This isn’t exactly Jimi Hendrix taking sleeping pills too soon after shooting up.

Jay Reatard didn’t die of pneumonia. A February 3 article from Entertainment Weekly reveals the findings of Shelby County Medical Examiner Dr. Karen E. Chancellor. Jay Reatard died of “cocaine toxicity, and…alcohol was a contributing factor in his death.” I am angry again, because I didn’t want to be right. I am not angry with a man, a man just like me who has his own faults and his own vices. Or maybe I am just saying that. What I want to be angry with is an idea. People have a notion that true inspiration and creativity come from drug abuse. They point to the 60’s and the explosion of Rock and Roll coinciding with a great LSD revelation. They say Pink Floyd, the Flaming Lips, everything electronica, and everything that grabs us by the lapels and shakes us to the dance floor owes its success to narcotics.

Even I have a story from my college days, watching Syracuse beat Kansas in the NCAA finals at a local bar and then wandering still drunk to the 24-hour computer lab on campus to rewrite a section of my senior thesis. I tell this story for a laugh, and I elicit a laugh, but I always smack myself afterward. That was the only section of any essay I wrote in college that I can say was written under the influence. It wasn’t even my best writing. I wrote countless other superior papers while I was sober. The only reason I wrote that section in that condition is because I had stupidly waited until the last minute, and I had a deadline meeting with my advisor the next day. I got an A- on the project. I probably wouldn’t have received a full A if I had been sober. Alcohol wasn’t necessary to complete the project. It was just present when I did so.

Stephen King puts it best in ‘On Writing,’ in a chapter where he deals with his cocaine addiction. He doesn’t remember writing ‘Cujo.’ There were times while writing ‘The Tommyknockers’ where he wrote until midnight with cotton swabs up his nose to stem the bleeding. His family and friends intervened and saved his life, and he learned to write again without the assistance of cocaine. That was all it took – learning to do what came naturally without the involvement of drugs.

“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time,” King says. “The four twentieth century writers whose work is most responsible for (the myth) are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Dylan Thomas…Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”

Or when we’re dead. When no one hears from us for a few days and they stop by our house, breaking down the door, and finding us slightly decomposed in a chair with caked blood draining out of our nose. Yeah. Everyone looks the same then.

Good writing is good writing. Good music is good music. Outstanding art is outstanding art. I am angry because Jay Reatard could have recorded great music without cocaine. I am angry because I did not know Jay personally and I am making accusations about the man without firsthand observation. Maybe he was not an addict and only dabbled now and then. Dabbling doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. One of the most prolific underground artists of our time is dead because he took cocaine. Chalk him up as another statistic and please, for the love of God, think about what you do before you do it. The people who matter most won’t think any less of you.

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Feb 23, 2010
1:51 pm
#1 Erin :

Well said Nick.
Druggies are cowards. Not that sober people aren’t too, but at least they face themselves and their life without taking some uppers, or downers. I used to think the “cool kids” who would go out & “experiment” with drugs were so adventurous and open minded. They were altering reality and going where other people feard to tread…. Only they weren’t going anywhere! And they weren’t altering reality, they were altering their perception. Instead of going out and having a valid life experience they sit in houses, huddled together with other addicts and life a half-life.
How is that adventurous or open minded? How unimaginative can you be that the only way you can get any kicks out of life is to snort it, shoot it, smoke it or drink it. Drugs do not make artists more creative, they help a person hide from the truth of what they’re actually feeling. And isn’t good art about truth? Drugs are for tools. It’s a shame so many people sign over their lives and let their souls die out all for a buzz. Read a f*cking book or learn to hang glide or go have really good sex. There are other ways to remind yourself that you’re alive without killing yourself.

Mar 31, 2010
2:49 pm
#2 Duy :

Maybe because his last name was Reatard. He was made fun of growing up, so he turned to drugs to cope with the abuse.
I can say a lot of things on the issue of drug use and the drug trade. It depends on your environment. Not everyone asks to be born into a bad neighborhood or traumatic circumstances. I think for some people, they don’t want to live with the truth of their reality. It’s their way of protecting themselves from dealing with the abuse, trauma, grief, anguish, etc. Let them know how good the sex was when they were raped.

I don’t think that you should over simplify or generalize all drug users.

Mar 31, 2010
11:21 pm
#3 Duy :

There are other people though who use drugs that are despicable to me. I don’t pity those people at all.

Apr 20, 2010
2:47 am
#4 duy :

But you know what is worse?

Pharmaceutical drugs. LEGAL drugs. ENCOURAGED. They’re advertised one TV, you don’t even have to be sick to take them. “Ask your doctor to see if you qualify…”
They just want you to be addicted and take your money. They cause more problems than they cure, if they cure at all. Temporary relief equates to innumerable side effects and long term damage to your mind and body.

“Risks may include major depression or increasing thoughts of suicide…”

I lost someone very close to me because they were misdiagnosed, overdosed, and they suffered. I suffered from their suffering. A whole year we suffered. Imagine the person you know and love, become a monster. You recognize them on the outside, but they are no longer there on the inside. They manipulate you with little fragments of what use to be them. I mourned for that person before they past. It was very tragic. I’ll never forget it. I was like being in hell.

That person ended up committing suicide. And I saw everything.

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