Why musicians battle alcoholism behind closed doors

ROCK LEGEND: Keith Richards
ROCK LEGEND: Keith Richards

The legendary appetites of the likes of Keith Richards and Jimmy Barnes for drink and drugs would horrify any doctor and yet they are recounted with awe. It's as if the constitution of an oak barrel is a key ingredient in the recipe for musical greatness.

Some believe widespread substance abuse in the music industry is a thing of the past. Rock, the genre most associated with it is in retreat, overtaken by cardigan-wearing folk-pop acts who just wouldn't look right swigging bottles of Jack Daniels. Economic conditions have curtailed the boozy excesses of the '90s like long record company lunches and bloated riders.

Last week Max MacKinnon, MC in chart-topping Australian hip-hip duo Bliss n Eso, admitted to a drinking problem so serious he was hospitalised four times in a week when he tried to quit. But the same industry that rallied around him was at least partly to blame.

"When we got a record deal and started travelling to do a lot of live shows ... we were given free alcohol and it wasn't a six pack of beer, it was four to six cases of beer and as many bottles of vodka," he says.

McKinnon, who has been dry since last September, acknowledges nobody made him drink. But after his mother died and a close friend committed suicide his drinking spiralled out of control.

"For the last five years I'd wake up, have some brekky then open a can and it was on; I'd always have a can next to me. I began to get very aggressive and instead of saying 'Let's calm down and go to bed', it was 'No, let's have an argument or a fight'."

Bliss N Eso's manager, Adam Jankie, believes the problem is much wider: "Most artists", he says, have to confront problem drinking at "some point in their career". "A lot of alcohol and other substances are still consumed behind closed doors and it's something people won't readily talk about.

"The music industry creates an environment where it not only glorifies drinking; it provides a structure for [it]."

Gregg Donovan, manager to bands such as Boy & Bear, Airbourne and Grinspoon believes music's drinking culture has improved since the mid 1990s. "It's so much more competitive to create a career ... [Managers] don't want people who are difficult to work with."

Not everyone agrees substance abuse is under control.

Angry Anderson, the once famously wild lead singer of Rose Tattoo and a father of four at 66, believes hard drugs such as heroin aren't a problem any more.

But he says emerging musicians are pressured by a youth culture that has grown used to seeing outrageous, excessive behaviour. "We have allowed a world to be created that says excess is success.

"There is an unhealthy acceptance of non-responsible drinking. I don't think it's any worse than it was [in the 1970s], but it's certainly no better."

Anderson is a reformed drinker, who made a pact to curb his own wild ways in 1983 when his daughter was born.

Examples of young bands living up to the historic excesses of the music industry aren't hard to find. DZ Deathrays is an acclaimed young Brisbane-based hard rock duo with a heavy-drinking image who have already won an ARIA award. The three minute clip for their track The Mess Up consists of the pair skolling a bottle of Jagerweister, shot for shot, until finished.

Paddy Cornwall, bass player with Triple J favourite, Sticky Fingers, says the band cut spirits from its rider after alcohol-fuelled "internal and external conflicts". Last September its singer, Dylan Frost, was arrested after scuffling with security on Rottnest Island after jumping into a festival crowd from a stage roof.

"At one point we were talking about trying to go cold turkey on alcohol," Cornwall says. "But once we hit the road I don't think we lasted one night sober."

He admits the band still gets "shitfaced" regularly.

Dance music seems even worse. A 26-year-old DJ who plays twice each weekend, Ash*, says rumours about substance abuse in dance music are "100 per cent" true. Drugs (often GHB and ice) are easily available and some clubs even pay musicians with them.

"Wherever I [DJ] I see people with drugs."

Ash says DJs that can draw a crowd get free drinks at a pair of popular Melbourne CBD clubs, whether they are working or not. Shots of "agwa" (derived from Bolivian coca leaves) are de rigeur.

Ash recently returned to a daytime job because "I was drinking every day [when DJing full-time]. I wanted my life back."

Chris Tanti, CEO of Headspace, the youth mental health foundation, says research has proven "significant connections" between alcohol abuse and mental health problems.

"Alcohol is a depressant and while people feel initially uninhibited as they consume more the likelihood is they end up feeling aggressive and depressed.

"There can be serious long-term consequences on the person but also on the family and friends around them."

Anderson is convinced he did himself permanent damage from years of drink and drugs. "How could I not have? You don't get away with what I did year after year."

Photos from the band's performance at the Reading Festival show him covered in blood after snapping the bridge of his nose from head-butting an amp. But Anderson's party trick was placing a plastic bag over his head during performances of Suicide City until he passed out.

"My advice [to young musicians] is ask yourself what's more important - your art or your image?"

Several music industry customs mark it as a chronic offender. Drinking on stage or in the DJ booth is accepted, even encouraged.

Troubled winner of The Voice Karise Eden openly drank throughout her festival debut at Bluesfest at Byron Bay last April. Young acts do the same night after night around the country.

During this month's tour by Welsh rock band Future of the Left, guitarist Jimmy Watkins gaffer-taped a beer bottle to the head of a volunteer, lifted him upside down and poured its contents over fans. It was a brilliantly original stunt, but it placed beer at the centre of proceedings.

"I can't think of another industry where [drinking while you work] is accepted," says Donovan, while Tanti called the practice "appalling".

Then there's the pressure over accepting free drinks from hangers on. Paddy Cornwall said so many people insisted on shouting drinks on tour he "felt like a c--t for refusing" and was "shitfaced for weeks". "I realised saying 'no' and upsetting someone was better. If they are really a mate it shouldn't matter."

Terry Noone, secretary of the Australian Musician's Union believes alcohol abuse in the music industry "should be viewed as an occupational health and safety issue".

But a lack of statistics makes it difficult to know the scale of the problem. "And how do you legislate for commonsense ... when musicians see themselves as outsiders [that] restrictions don't apply to?"

For all the problems musicians have, Gregg Donovan believes alcohol abuse in the audience is much worse.  ''There does seem to be a big binge drinking culture.

"I sometimes walk out into a festival or a large show and it's chaos out there," he says. "then I go backstage and find people are on Skype talking to their partners and sending emails and having a cuppa tea. It's quite a bizarre contrast.''

Headspace believes music fans are its ''target audience''. A stage at each Big Day Out concert will be sponsored by the group as they try to raise awareness about mental health issues.

So could the music industry ever exist without alcohol?

Angry Anderson says it wouldn't affect the quality of music composition or performance but young bands would lose their lifeblood - venues. "I don't think you can [remove alcohol] and I don't think you should. Having a drink makes people dance, it breaks down inhibitions. I encourage people to embrace life. Alcohol is not a bad thing, abuse of it is."

Ultimately, Anderson says people - whether they are musicians, or fans (or anyone outside the music industry) must take control of their drinking:

''Once [alcohol] starts to work against you it has no conscience, it owes you nothing, shows no loyalty, it's like cancer - it's indifferent to you and it will control you. 

''You are the one who has to be in control because it has no mercy.''

*Not his real name.