Book review: Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs

Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About DrugsTalking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Drugs and musicians go together. At least, that’s the popular wisdom. A couple of the interviewees in this collection of face-to-face interviews question why this is, given the prevalence of drug use in the rest of society, but I guess the conventional view is that it’s expected.

What’s exceptional about this book is that it doesn’t seek the sort of salaciousness which marks other writings about drug habits, controlled or otherwise. There’s no exploration of the joy of getting maggoted, of being off chops. Sure, some of the interviewees speak fondly of their habits – but the book doesn’t exist to glorify the procedure or marginalise the user. It exists to spark discussion about use.

Musicians are lightning rods for drug coverage, and I believe that with this book, the author is attempting to encourage some kind of discussion beyond the basic narrative of useless junkies and redeemed-former-users into something with a bit of nuance. And let’s face it, reading about Steve Kilbey’s heroin use (and love of yoga) is more interesting than hearing it from a regular Joe.

McMillen’s writing throughout is sound. He’s been a regular contributor in a bunch of different places, and seems to always turn in solid, engaging copy. Though it’s not about drugs or musicians, I recommend you read his take on the struggles behind Team Bondi’s game LA Noire to get a sense of his style. It’s masterful, and something he’s talked about a little more at his website.

Through this book, McMillen occasionally mentions his own casual drug use but it seems fitting rather than vicarious. I want to say it normalises the musos’ experiences, but that’s not really right. I guess it creates a sense of normalcy which is often missing from drug writing: the everyday nature of some aspects of the practise.

While I can think of other Australian musicians I would rather have heard from than some here, I can imagine the difficulty faced in obtaining candid interviews about drugs, particularly from musicians of stature. McMillen notes that there were a lot of rejections to his requests for interviews. The roster that’s on display here are plenty intriguing though, and offer surprising insights. Though I’m not a fan of some of the musos covered, the ease with which the conversations flow (at least, in reconstruction) provides enough of a hook to bypass any disappointment.

Mick Harvey’s interview is a big plus, as is its mention of Rowland S. Howard. I must’ve missed the uproar about Paul Kelly’s heroin use, but I well remember Phil Jamieson’s drug-specific Enough Rope interview, as well as the various travails of Spencer P. Jones over the past decades. Hearing each of these three speak with such candour (and, often, regret) is a treat.

The rest of the work’s interviews contain nuggets, too – I didn’t think I could think Tina Arena was cool as shit, but here we are. I don’t think his music’s much chop, but Urthboy’s interview was illuminating, as it presented him in a way I’d never seen. Ditto the slice of Gotye’s life, given that he’s not an imbiber. Actually, that’s what makes the book interesting – the author gives as much credence to those who skirt around the sides of the issue (or who don’t partake) as to the experiences of those who’ve explored drugs fully. It’s more like a roundtable-in-pieces than a dissertation, and it prompts thought.

McMillen closes the book with a survey of how he conducted the interviews, as well as a comic by his brother, Stuart McMillen, on prohibition. The comic neatly conveys the call for communication, suggesting

If we are brave, there are intelligent debates to be had

Level-headed writing such as this – free from either wowser horror or fanboy obsession – is a great start. It’s not as grim reading as Jack Marx’s Sorry – The Wretched Tale Of Little Stevie Wright but it’s just as important.

View all my reviews

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