Poppy art

Art - Stephen Smith on how drugs and booze are the engine fuel of art

Admirers of the late Ian Dury may take comfort from the thought that he arrived at the Pearly Gates with that familiar leery grin in place. The man who coined the phrase "sex and drugs and rock'n'roll" went to meet his Maker on the day when ministers greeted a liberal report on drugs as though they had been offered a tab of acid over the urinals at a pub gig. Musicologists will confirm that Dury came up with his slogan too late for Tony Blair's undergraduate beat combo, the Ugly Rumours.

In any case, it's hard to imagine the future PM, in some Spinal Tap-style backstage warm-up, taking up such a chant. Blair's government rejected Police Foundation proposals for amending the Drugs Act. These entailed reclassifying Ecstasy, LSD and cannabis to position them nearer the "soft" extreme of the substance spectrum. Politicians are loath to be seen condoning recreational stimulants. When an MP hears the words "soft" and "drugs" in the same sentence, he takes it personally, and quakes for his majority.

But the coincidence of Dury's passing at the same time as No 10 said "No" to drug reform provokes thoughts of how much the arts owe to the chemicals so disapproved of by our leaders. Dury was a jazz fan and a former arts lecturer. He knew that barely a note got blown without something first disappearing up the musician's nostrils, that a painter had to be primed as surely as his canvas.

In Reading Jazz (Bloomsbury), editor Robert Gottlieb makes a case for dividing the entire history of jazz between a distant, Pleistocene era of soft-drug abuse, and a later period when only heroin and cocaine would do. The first-person narratives, says Gottlieb, "progress from the prewar world of boozing and reefers to the postwar world of hard drugs".

Reading Jazz recounts the story of the saxophonist Art Pepper. Pepper's name might no longer be on every self-respecting jazzman's embouchered lips. But in the 1950s, he was ranked alongside the great Charlie Parker, whom he also matched blow for blow in the pharmacological sense. Pepper describes being shaken awake on the morning of a recording session which he had overlooked. He was out of practice, and had neglected his instrument so badly that the cork lining of the mouthpiece came away in his hands ("And I was going to have to play with Miles Davis's rhythm section"). Pepper did what any jazzer would have done in the circumstances: "I went into the bathroom and fixed a huge amount." He turned up at the session unable to recall a single number, but one of Davis's sidemen suggested "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To". Pepper writes: "It came out beautiful. My sound was great . . . and I remember in the reviews, they said, 'The way Art plays the melody is wonderful. He makes it sound even better than the actual tune'."

Gottlieb takes a dim view of such narcotic-propelled jamming, arguing that drugs ruined "the lives and careers" of stars such as Billie Holiday. George Orwell had the answer to this, in an essay defending Salvador Dali against his critics. "Such people", Orwell wrote, "are unable to admit that what is morally degraded can be aesthetically right." To put it another way, the excesses of creative types may have dire implications for their lives - even their morals - but are often great for business.

Artists have long taken refuge in substances during barren spells, or indulged in them as part of macho rituals. This was true of certain abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, who fatally crashed his car when drunk. In his habits at least, Pollock can be described as school of Modigliani, a "spectacularly alcoholic painter", in John Updike's awed appraisal. Modigliani's intoxicant of choice is legal, of course, although it is conceded on both sides of the drugs debate that drink does at least as much damage as several outlawed pleasures. Modigliani anticipated these misgivings when he declared: "Alcohol is, for the middle class, evil. It is a vice. It is the Devil's beckon. But for us artists, it is necessary."

For all the excesses of jazz musicians and artists, they can't hold a crack-pipe to writers. Ever since Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater, authors have practised what Rimbaud called the "disordering of all the senses". There are wired writers (Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson, M Ageyev); and there are writers who have at least one thing in common with the other sort of people who generally fill public libraries: a weakness for the bottle. In an introduction to the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition of Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton's wringing beer-mat of a novel, we read J B Priestley's brutal autopsy of the author: "An unhappy man who needed whisky like a car needs petrol." You could be forgiven for thinking that the collective noun for writers was a "priory".

The ultimate junkie author was William Burroughs, the author of Junky. It has been claimed that Burroughs's stuff is so strung-out that it doesn't make sense until the reader reconciles himself to the massive drug abuse involved - which is bad news if the reader doesn't happen to know a good dealer. So much for the Burroughs reputation. But when Will Self read Burroughs's letters, he found evidence of what he called a "mythology", cultivated by the author himself, that his best-known work had been chemically fuelled. "When he was finally clean from junk," Self argued, "Burroughs was, in Hemingway's coinage, 'juiced'; and like Georges Simenon, another great high-speed typist, Burroughs felt the work 'coming through like dictation'."

Now we begin to approach the shocking truth about drugs and art. Martin Amis went to see J G Ballard, ("the glazed SF stylist, the counter-cultural adventurer") and was met by a man who followed Flaubert's dictum: "orderly and regular in his life, savage and original in his art". And a surprisingly large number of literary figures heed Cyril Connolly's injunction against "the Poppies" in Enemies of Promise, where Connolly warned: "It is not drink which is the temptation, since it is but a symptom of the desire for self- forgetfulness, as is also the case with drugs, which play small part in the literary life in England."

Yes, a great many writers, and other artists, would toast the liberalisation of illegal highs. But to cause a real commotion, politicians would have to criminalise the innocuous pick-me-ups and blameless crutches that are their true inspiration and solace. Imagine Proust without his madeleine, or a sweat-beaded Alan Bennett scoring some "good shit" and melting into the backstreets of Harrogate with an ounce of breakfast-strength Yorkshire Tea.

Stephen Smith is a reporter for Channel 4 News. His travels in Colombia appear in Cocaine Train (Little, Brown, £17.99)