Punk, dance music and drugs

The lures of ecstatic communion are strong, but so are the dangers of addiction

By Cary Tennis
Published May 20, 2013 4:00AM (UTC)
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(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

Today, we talk a little about music subcultures, drugs and the human soul. I thought this letter was very interesting, but in trying to answer the questions it raises, I encountered my own limitations in knowledge and insight. I just don't know in detail how drugs influence crowds and vice versa, but do think social scientists can provide clues. And there is also recent evidence of music's own curative powers. My notes on it are a little dry, and a little hazy, and quite unscientific, but I am just a writer, not a scientist or philosopher. In the days to come, I'd like to write about my first experience of punk music and speculate about why it seemed so powerful and alluring.


Dear Cary,

I appreciate your column immensely and I have drafted many letters to you over the years which I have never sent -- as a sort of self-therapy to verbalize my frustrations. Sometimes the act of just putting it into words has helped me see my problems more clearly and enabled me to advise myself. Well done us!

I'm intrigued by the topic you raised about blending alternative lifestyles with modern society, and I guess my question is this: Do subversive scenes where illegal behavior is the norm foster antisocial behaviors, or are those of us with certain personalities drawn to these subcultures because of our innate rebellious tendencies?


I pose this question not in regard to punk music specifically. My experience is with underground dance music, a scene dominated by illegal "parties" where drug use is so transparent that the artists don't even try to cloak their references to it with poetry and metaphors but just give shout-outs to cocaine, ketamine, and ecstasy by name and the crowd goes wild. However, like the punk scene, serious dance music fans are dedicated to the music and rather than the ennui of indie rock shows where you bob your head and try to look cool, punks and house-heads alike express their appreciation of the music very physically. The ritual of going to a show becomes cathartic, an experience you are involved in and not just watching from the audience. In the underground dance scene the main act might not play until 4 a.m., and people stay and keep going until well after the sun comes up. It is unnatural and extremely difficult for most people to do (if they keep a typical day schedule) without a little "help." Those who live and breathe the scene might adapt and become nocturnal; the rest of us tempt addiction.

I wonder if I wouldn't have become a cocaine addict if I hadn't stumbled into an EDM party skeptically, a rock and roll person by upbringing who believed that dance clubs were overly young, drunk, sloppy meat markets with shitty top 40 music. I had no idea that this vibrant scene existed, and I loved it. People were mature, respectful, and just freaking loved the music so much. Unlike punks, we don't exchange blows at our gatherings, just happy smiles and friendly greetings. The message is not political or divisive. It is quite the opposite -- come one, come all and despite the disparity and turmoil out there we are equals on the dance floor. I made lots of friends, and though I never even liked cocaine I started using it more frequently to get through a night when the less addictive substances I enjoyed had worn off and fatigue started to set in. Now I rarely go to shows but I still use cocaine.

I'm not sure that these havens for those who live outside of society's norms, be it the indulgent professional partyism of a clubber's drug use or perhaps the more noble plight of the punk who breaks the law to rebel and send a political message, actually creates antisocial people, but instead lures them in. In a short time I witnessed many people leave or take an extended break from the culture. People lost their jobs, had to move to start anew, and those who continued became manipulative scumbags who were really decent people before entering the subculture. Can it be done harmoniously? I'm not sure.


My experience was that of a music scene so entwined with a drug scene that it forced me to bottom out and start to try to make peace with the unknowableness of existence. But I feel that perhaps that was just me, that my reckoning was due and if I hadn't found the drugs and the music there, I would have found a way to indulge my inner addict somewhere else, in time.

My friends in the scene were other pre-addicts and we were all just nurturing each other's behaviors without any boundaries to gauge when it had gone too far. I often wonder if the other people I saw so often at shows are still going, the types who can enter that atmosphere and get high and enjoy the night but know when to stop and go back to their lives without romanticizing and longing for the next time. I want to believe these people exist, otherwise how would these subcultures sustain themselves over time? But it seems like the backbone of the scene, those who show up week after week, are all in and so completely immersed in the culture that they don't even pretend to return to normal society on Monday morning. They live it and breath it until ... until the day they don't. I'm not sure it's possible to half-ass punk.



Not Punk

Dear Not Punk,

Detailed studies could probably tell us much more how involvement in music subcultures affects drug use and antisocial behavior. But what interests me are personal stories like yours. And so I go on in my own way:

Popular music provides a vehicle for whatever needs to be expressed culturally, whatever is being repressed or whatever is at risk.


I think today it is the body itself that is repressed. And so modern pop music is about the body -- in response to our deep unconscious fears of the body's disappearance.

As we atomize our identities and become digitized, it is the body and rhythm and dance that come forth as the antidote. In our panic about the body's disappearance we pierce it and decorate it; we make it visible; we create elaborate and muscular dance routines to accompany music.

When I say "repressed" I don't mean that, like, we're living in a sexually repressed era. I mean that the centrality of the body is threatened by digital atomization of identity. So what we see are various ways the soul highlights the body, through piercing and decoration and dance, to keep the body central, to keep it center stage. And what musical performers are doing, primarily, is recreating the body in the form of spirit or song.


What social thirst does this event satisfy? What is this need for closeness, for ecstasy, for shared experience? And how can that need be met in ways that do not harm the body? How can that be done? We are always asking these questions, and a return to nature and use of ancient ecstatic methods such as yoga seem to be arising as answers.

In your case, it's fairly clear that you will have to stop using cocaine soon, because cocaine is definitely not the answer. It is only a marginally effective short-term solution with rather grave long-term consequences for extended use. After you stop you will have to find ways to feel a part of the tribe without using cocaine. You may have to find a new tribe. You may have to mourn the loss of certain dependable routes to feelings of high, of well-being and community, and experience some of the awful aloneness you have been avoiding. But on the other side of that aloneness you will find peace and a right-sized place in the brotherhood of man.

I think you can do that.

You can find support with others who have also had to leave the dance music scene. After you have quit cocaine for a while, your body will return to you and you will find a new balance.


I have a lot of things that I would like to say and just don't seem to be able to find the right logical context. But I will keep working on this, because there is something worrying me at the edges of consciousness, something about punk and darkness and violence and its powers of revelation. It will come.

Meanwhile, look into methods for getting off the coke. It will not let you learn what you need to learn. It will just get in the way.

Cary Tennis

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