Is sobriety a songwriter’s friend?

Jason Isbell

The question of whether alcoholism or drug abuse fuel creativity is a complicated one.

But not for The New York Times, which assumes that songwriters work best when "loaded."

In an article on the alt-country singer and songwriter Jason Isbell, the Times book critic Dwight Garner and his editor, Adam Sternbergh, want us to believe that Isbell is the fortunate counter-example who can be creative and sober at the same time. The article is entitled, "Unloaded: Sobriety isn't always a songwriter's friend, but it has brought out the best in the former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell." And it begins, "If you want to know how to cure a hangover, ask a musician…"

This would all seem to put the issue of alcoholism and creativity at the center of the story. I was prepared for a tale that showed how brilliant Isbell was when he was a drunk, and how he'd struggled to regain that brilliance while sober. But that's not what we get. Isbell is described before, during, and after his alcoholism as "one of America's thoroughbred songwriters." Alcohol had little to do with his creativity, in Garner's telling.

More important than the miscue at the story's top, however, is Garner's and Sternbergh's perpetuation of the myth that creativity requires drunkenness or drug abuse. Did drug abuse enable Jimi Hendrix to write "Purple Haze?" All we know for certain is that the brilliant songs he might have written in the 1980s, 1990s, and even now, were never written, because his life was cut short. Did heroin addiction enable Charlie Parker to invent bebop? We cannot know, but it cut short another deeply creative life. What would Kurt Cobain be writing if he were alive now? How many young artists, seduced by the myth, will likewise be condemned to a premature end?

We could each make our own list of musicians whose brilliant starts were cut short by alcoholism or drug abuse. As I said, the question of whether alcoholism or drug abuse fuels creativity is a complicated one.

One thing we do know for sure: Dead people are not creative.

Sobriety might not be a songwriter's friend, but neither is an early death.

-Paul Raeburn

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