I know that all drugs are not the same and that to conflate mushrooms with heroin under the heading of "dangerous drugs" is tantamount to placing "failure to signal" in the same category as "driving on the wrong side of the highway." Sure both can get you in trouble, but the latter is almost guaranteed to. Nonetheless, a couple of news items hinging on the use of these drugs have hit home with me lately and I want to take a moment to explore the reasons why.
The first item is the recent death of Celso Chavez (pictured above), guitarist for the '90s new wave pop band Possum Dixon. He died of pneumonia resulting from a staph infection. Drugs weren't the direct cause of death, but the band's members did have a history with hard drugs including crack and heroin. At the time of death, drugs were apparently still a part of Chavez's life.
"He had been doing a lot of harm to his body for a really long time," the band's lead singer Rob Zabrecky told the L.A. Times. "It finally took its unfortunate toll."
No band has influenced me as much as Possum Dixon. It was at my first club show ever that I saw Chavez, Zabrecky and their band play a chaotic, blistering set of music. At the end of the performance, Zabrecky shoved the microphone into his mouth, put a pair of pantyhose over his head and then sang Madonna's "Like a Virgin," writhing on the ground as Chavez banged on his guitar. I had never seen anything like it. Right there I realized that there were no rules.
This brings me to the second news item, the recent attention gained by former Seattleite Josh Tillman following the release of Fear Fun, the first album from his new band/identity Father John Misty. On Monday Tillman played a show at Neumos in Seattle. It, like that Possum Dixon show, was a personal revelation. I am still trying to put into words what happened that night in front of a near-packed house. I will say that Tillman pushed the boundaries of performance in the same way that Chavez and his bandmates did. As Tillman smoked a cigarette on stage, twirling to the ground, screaming incoherently into the microphone as his band buried him in deep, dark distortion, I again realized that, when it comes to creative expression, all rules are self-imposed.
I have been reading every interview with Tillman I can get my hands on. His recent creative rebirth from a sad-sack folkie with a lyrical gift into a boogie-woogie balladeer with a searing intellect is a point of fascination for me, especially as I think about how to transform myself into a more honest, lucid writer. Tillman is eloquent, thoughtful and provoking in his answers. There is so much to be gleaned from his ongoing experience. Central to that experience is drug culture.
"Altered perspectives are very useful for a writer," Tillman recently told an interviewer. "If you’re interested in excavating the human experience, the best subject you have at your disposal is yourself, because you have total access, if you’re willing. Mushrooms are very useful in that respect."
So, this is where I'm at. The artists that inspire me the most are driven, to some degree, by mind-altering substances. Logic dictates that I should follow their lead. But what if I have no interest in exploring my creative mind in an altered state? Is it possible to dig deep into my own experience, obliterate my ego and discover truth without injesting mushrooms? Can I go over the edge, and peer into the darkness without the temporary net of opiates? Is it possible to embrace the idea that there are no rules while following my own rules of self-preservation?
I can only hope so.