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Vermont's father of the blues talks about drugs.
Drugs and alcohol are things that people are going to do, whether or not it's good for them. Some people have problems with them and once they start, they can't stop. Nobody had to tell me to quit. One day I just realized I didn't like it and I stopped.
I used to smoke a pipe, you know, tobacco. I loved the smell. It was kind of like a pacifier, I guess you could say.
As for cigarettes, I hate it when people who smoke let it sit in the ash tray and burn. If I have to sit and tolerate that, I don't like it. I don't want anyone having to "tolerate" me either. If I think you're just "tolerating" me, I'll ice you...you know, cut you off. So, it is the same the other way around. I don't want to have to be "tolerating" someone else when they are smoking or drinking to excess and being annoying.
To be honest, I have always disapproved of drugs, you know the hard stuff...hard drugs.
I also have a rule for guys I play with: don't ever come to work drunk. When you're on the job and you're drinking, I can tell you "Okay, you've had enough." But if you come to the gig and you've already been drinking, I have no way of knowing when you should stop. Then, if your playing gets sloppy, or your attitude turns stupid, and you mess up, it messes things up for the whole band. We're there to do a job, and do it right. The music always comes first.
As for marijuana, I tried it in the '30's, but it never did anything for me. If the older guys saw us with it, they'd take it away, saying we didn't need it. Then they'd use it! But, even so, they were right to take it away.
Heavy stuff, cocaine, acid, all that - I never did it. It was not my thing. In Atlantic City, I had a problem with a couple of guys in the group who were into the hard stuff and I had to get rid of them.
The only other thing was before the war. It was nutmeg. That nutmeg kept me high for about three days. I was embarrassed to go home. It was awful. Whew! What a mess!
There was this Chicago bass player, Wilbur Ware, who played with Thelonius Monk. He gave it to me. I can see him now, with this guitar player Emmett Spicer, you know, snickering to each other "We got him now!" That stuff turned me off completely. I was sick for three days
Another thing that turned me off was when I gave a buddy some nutmeg. Later that day when my friend and I came out of the theater, we were walking by the Red Shingles in the red light district and we saw a big crowd gathered around someone on the ground. It was the piano player we'd given the nutmeg to. The doctor was standing over him with a big needle, swearing, saying "who gave him this shit? Whoever did this is going to have to walk him around." After that, someone was always with him till he got better. That was my adventure with dope.
I don't advise any young musician to mess with that stuff or any of it. It doesn't make them play any better. It doesn't make the music sweeter. They may think they're doing better. But they're not doing what they think they're doing!
I could play drunk, but not up to par. I use to like drinking whiskey. I liked a little at a time. I would sip it. Then one day, I said, "This doesn't taste good any more." And I stopped. That was it!
Musicians do a lot of drinking, I think because it gives them a lift - makes them feel like they could play on and on, especially when they've been on the road for 500 miles. They don't have time to get a restful sleep. Instead, they have to get their instruments set up, do a sound check and start playing. After the show, they're back on the bus-not staying in the hotels, just going to the next town-constantly on the road. So, for some guys, if they sip the alcohol, I guess it kind of gets them up for a little while, so they can play.
It's better, of course, just to get the rest you need. Because too much drinking of the hard stuff is terrible. You drink. You get sick to your stomach. You swear you'll never do it again. But many do go back out and get sick doing it again and again. But in truth: drinking ain't worth a quarter to anyone!
Once you're an alcoholic - one drink won't do it anymore. I would get one small amount of whiskey and sip a little at a time throughout the night. But with an alcoholic, they can't just sip. And they can't stop.
As for reefer, musicians have been smoking it for years. It didn't really do any harm, to speak of. But then, college kids got a hold of it. College kids generally over do it with drugs and alcohol! Then, when the college kids started making a scene with it, the police got involved.
Around the same time the police got involved, the law also started saying parents couldn't spank their kids. Then things got all messed up. Parents need to be able to control their kids. This way, they can prepare them for what the world is about. When you've got the police taking over where the parents should be in charge, things really get out of control. Then freedom is really gone.
When I joined B.B. King's band a bass player named Leo from Chicago also joined. Of course, we were out on the road most of the time.
One time, the bus pulled up in Florida. We got off to go get a room and before we reached the lobby, there were these guys outside with reefer to sell. Leo saw them and whispered to me "I'll show you how to fix these guys!" They got right up to us and Leo says, real loudly so everyone could hear him "I don't smoke reefer, or buy reefer!" And did they go away. He looked at me and smiled. "That's how you do it. When you make a scene like that, they always go away and leave you alone!"
Drugs are a crutch!
Duke used to say "Music is my mistress!"
I like to say "Music is my companion day and night!" Practically every minute music crops up in my mind.
My rule for drugs, alcohol included, is leave it alone, period. You don't need it!
Back when I came along, it was a thing where wise guys off the street, the old music hustlers, sitting around a pot belly stove, would tell us kids the right thing to do. But the way they would say it, they weren't preaching or trying to be authorities. We knew they were street wise, so we'd listen to them.
Joe Prior was one of my favorites. He was very protective of us kids. This guy never took a drink in his life. And he was one of the most lovable men, too. These guys were our mentors. They'd been around the night life. We respected them. Most of us would follow their advise. They wanted to help us get along. They knew what the dangers of the street were. They'd seen it all. We enjoyed listening to them.
There was just this one kid who wouldn't listen well. One time, he was there when Joe and the guys were explaining something and he kept saying, "I know, I know." So, Joe and the guys cured him by this certain way they would ignore him. They wouldn't tell him to go away. But they were teaching him a lesson by talking around him. If he would say something, one of them would turn to him and say "We're not talking to you. You already know everything." Eventually, he got the message.
As for the drugs, remember, the important thing is whether the band and your music sounds good or not. Nobody wants to hear music played by a junkie. Nobody wants to deal with a junkie, period. That's how you lose gigs and friends and ultimately your music gets lost as well.
So, keep life simple. Stay away from the drugs. Keep your focus on the music. The music will lift you up. ~GC~
Big Joe Burrell is Vermont's most famous blues musician and leads the Unknown Blues Band. His most recent CD is called Every Time I Hear that Mellow Saxophone.
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