Last Sunday, Kajsa and I had come back from a nice afternoon at the Yale Art Gallery and were killing time before she had to get her train back to NYC. As one will, I got on facebook and there saw in my feed reactions to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Shocked to find out he was dead, I was even more shocked to find out it was a death related to heroin. As a “glamor drug,” I’ve always associated it with the lifestyle of musicians, not actors. Of course, one could come up with someone from back in the day, like John Belushi, but he was someone who lived the rock star lifestyle, getting drugs from a woman who used to get them for Keith Richards and Ron Wood. But Hoffman?
The blow of his death was doubled by the fact that friends of mine who live in the Village send their son to the school some of Hoffman’s kids attend. My friends would get a bit buzzed by seeing Hoffman walking his kids to school like any other parent. It was dismaying to think he was carrying on that “normal” lifestyle while also shooting up heroin. It seemed so incongruous. My first reaction was that it was wildly irresponsible.
In reading some of the many treatments of Hoffman that have appeared in the press since his death, I was struck by the idea of how hard it would be to resist acquiring such drugs if you had once used them. The bigger you get, the easier it is to get whatever you want. I tend to think that professional and personal obligations would make such things harder, but apparently not. The use of hard drugs tends to make one the center of the world anyway, and if one is a celebrity, that tendency is already present. I’m still of the opinion that, when you have three kids, using hard drugs is indulgent and selfish to the extreme, but in Hoffman’s case, the first use predates his family life. So, the double life, then death.
Today’s song is a response to all that from way back in 1972, Neil Young's hugely popular album Harvest (you reap what you sow?). The rock star lifestyle had famously claimed the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison by then. Neil Young’s song is a response to deaths from heroin in his circle—bandmates and, eventually, a roadie named Bruce Berry whose death inspired the song “Tonight’s the Night,” recorded in 1973. We can say that in the early Seventies was already established the baleful tale of the junkie death.
“The Needle and the Damage Done” is fairly simple. I first heard it as the B side of “Old Man” and both songs show Neil Young to be a serious young man trying to cope with his sudden fortune and fame and well aware that fortune and fame often lead to drug abuse, as he watches “the needle take another man.” Words which immediately come to mind in Hoffman’s death. The video shows Young performing the song on The Johnny Cash Show, and catches the intensity of Neil Young in performance as well as the bitterness behind this song. The high life of stardom, Young has realized, can be a lethal trap.
|Hoffman in The Savages|
About Hoffman, I’ll just say I’ve always admired his work, since first seeing him, probably, as an over-eager cop hassling Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool (1994) then particularly captivated by his roles in Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Happiness (1998), Capote (2005), The Savages (2007), and The Master (2012). He was a very talented actor, full of an average-person soulfulness as well as the ability to be very subtle in his use of humor and pathos. He made emotional suffering fascinating. And it was possible until last Sunday to believe that his best work might be still to come (even if his current projects were The Hunger Games).
Young’s song is definite in its position: “I sing the song because I love the man”—a line which steps away from the kind of moral censure and judgments that weigh the drug user and find him wanting (much as I did in the first few seconds after learning the cause of Hoffman’s death). Even more than an accident or an illness, no matter how behaviorally based death by either might be, substance abuse deaths seem to be somehow “alterable.” All of which illustrates well-enough Young’s statement: “I sing the needle and the damage done / A little part of it in everyone / But every junkie’s like a setting sun.” The latter line may seem a bit sentimental, the image of the setting sun perhaps bathing the junkie’s death in a certain warm glow. But I don’t think Young intends that. He means the setting sun in a somewhat more literal way: as the status of a life dedicated to junk can only be in decline, setting—“going down.” And “a little part of it in everyone” serves to remind that we all, mostly, have one kind of addiction or another, some habit or tendency that can be seen as running our life, making some of our decisions for us, and endangering us in some way—if not putting our health at risk, then risking in some way our relationships with others or to our work, or even to our environment. I could go on about “the reality principle” vs. “the pleasure principle,” but I’ll stop here.
R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gone, gone, the damage done.