The Junkie in literature: A review of ‘The Lotus Crew’ by Stewart Meyer

lotus crew cover

Cover of the original novel The Lotus Crew

Of all the junkie authors I have read and reviewed on this blog – Burroughs, Welsh, De Quincey, Garner etc – for my mini-project “The Junkie in Literature” Stewart Meyer would undoubtedly be the least well-known.

Meyer, a protegé, friend and chauffeur of William S. Burroughs and a regular at Burrough’s Bowery apartment writer hangout known as ‘The Bunker’  published The Lotus Crew in 1984.

Lauded to a degree at the time of its publication – no doubt helped by Meyer’s association with Burroughs and his Beat Generation entourage – The Lotus Crew has been largely forgotten by the literary establishment, but has been given a fresh audience with its recent re-publication in e-book format by Open Road Media.

The Lotus Crew is a gritty, moment-in-time novel about the hectic drug scene in Alphabet City on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early years of the Reagan era.

Meyer throws you into the junkie cesspool – at street level – amidst the “blanco” junkies full of sickness and the Hispanic drug lords and their “crew” who peddle dope bags from abandoned tenement flats and underground parking lots and where the threat of a police bust is ever-present.

A misleading calm prevailed as they descended on Alphabet City. The biggest smack emporium on the East Coast stretched before them as they drove through narrow bombed-out streets. Blacks, Latins, blancos, shadows in somber colors; lips tight and drawn down, eyes dead but active with the scuffle. Waiting, watching, copping, splitting.

You only have to look at photos taken of Alphabet City and other parts of the Lower East side around the time the novel is set – 1982 – to see the appalling, run-down state of the streets and the desperate characters that walked them looking for a soothing fix to cure junk sickness.

A photo of the Lower East Side of NY in 1980s

A photo of the Lower East Side of NY in the 1980s

There’s a lyrical street poetry to Stewart Meyer’s prose reinforced by him assembling a collection of half a dozen quintessential “junkie” characters who tell the story of what it was like back then to be immersed in that type of desperate society of the powerful, cruel, sick and tortured.

There’s thoughtful, introspective and loyal Alvira, who tried to get clean in LA but who returns to New York having relapsed and who “felt like the proverbial incongruity when not opiated”.

There’s Tommy (or T) who dreams of becoming the emperor of Alphabet City selling the best heroin in town. We meet 16-year-old heroin scholar and drug pusher John Jacob (JJ), eager for a slice of the action and his weak-minded, doomed sidekick Furman.

And there’s the ‘blancos’, the white guys with big heroin habits who are easy pickings for knife-wielding gangs, like Jewish taxi driver Eric Shomberg who cannot “resist the sweet ambiguity of opium, the way it softened the real world without negating it altogether like booze did” or Bronx bartender Dave Skully “a few hours away from severe withdrawal”.

Like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (read my review here) which is written in the Glaswegian Scottish dialect, much of the dialogue in The Lotus Crew is written in the broken down, sing-song Hispanic English and street slang of the time.

This street authenticity combined with Meyer’s snappy writing style and short, punchy, action-filled chapters that describe episodes in the lives of junkie players gives it a vivid, documentary quality and a engrossing depiction of the heroin game.

And while perhaps not as powerful a text about heroin addiction  as his great mentor’s “Junkie” (perhaps because Meyer was an observer, not – it seems – a user) he knows his subject well and has the narrative skills and poetry to give it life:

Desperation was part of the game, and no matter how long you did bizz with someone, if you caught them at the wrong time you’d be chumped and scumbagged for every cent you had. Just a rule of the road, a piece of the code.

Stewart Meyer cooking a meal for Burroughs (from his Facebook page)

Stewart Meyer cooking a meal for Burroughs (from his Facebook page)

Drugs, sex and boredom: A review of “Scar Tissue” by Anthony Keidis

ScartissuebookAbout the most interesting revelation in the 460 odd pages of “Scar Tissue”, the autobiography of Red Hot Chilli Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis,  occurs about 330 pages into this tedious, self-centered tale.

It’s when Keidis talks about the Chilli Peppers playing as the opening act for the Rolling Stones in the late 1990s.

He writes that opening for the Rolling Stones is a “shite job” despite the opportunity to play with the second greatest band after The Beatles:

“I can’t recommend it to anybody…the fact is the Rolling Stones audience today is lawyers and doctors and CPAs and contractors and real estate development people. This is a conservative wealthy group. No one is rocking out.”

He goes on to describe it as “like going to the Rolling Stones mall”, a “horrible” experience where you play as “85,000 wealthy, bored-out-of-their-minds fans are slowly finding their seats”.

Keidis talks in the same candid, straight-forward style to describe his journey from reckless teenager to petty thief, confirmed junkie and lead singer of one of the biggest rock-funk bands in the world.

It’s an honest, seemingly truthful recollection (as truthful as possible given the amount of drugs consumed along the way) but the problem is its repetitious nature, built on a cycle of drug binges, failed attempts to get clean, and more drug-taking, interspersed with accounts of chaotic relationships, typical rock ‘n roll sexual encounters and tour bus stories.

It’s the complete cliché: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Sadly, there is very little revealed of the creative process – this mainly involves Keidis disappearing into a room by himself to write songs about his drug-fuelled personal experiences.

As a book about drug use and addiction it offers very little in the way of insight into the problem – apart from the obvious of it being very hard to give up. Many of the observations glamorize drug use, while others sound like the speech bubbles of a true stoner-idiot:

After fifty days of being sober, I thought, ‘That’s a nice number. I think I should honor that number’. I decided it was a good time to do drugs.

On a visit to New Zealand, he bemoans the fact that the country is too small to satifsy his drug requirements. Countless times he smuggles drugs onto planes undetected.

The only things to truly marvel is that Keidis somehow emerges out of his heroin/cocaine/crack/speed addiction and reckless to the point of almost suicidal lifestyle, not only alive, but rich and famous too (and still with that famous six-pack stomach).

Keidis, it seems, is the classic narcissistic celebrity who believes that if you throw in anecdotes about meeting the Dalai Lama, some syrupy thoughts about spirituality and the occasional bouts of healthy living and yoga exercise that you’re actually a decent guy.

Instead, he appears to lack basic humility even after surviving countless week-long drug binges in seedy motels, crossing paths with drug lords and avoiding arrest by police officers.

It got so bad that half-way through the book, I had to stop reading and put on a couple of Red Hot Chilli Peppers CDs to remind myself that they really are – as musicians – an incredibly original blend of funk, rap, rock and have produced countless great songs over the past  almost 30 years.

(For worthwhile, insightful accounts of heroin addiction read: Junkie by William S. Burroughs, Monkey Wrench by Helen Garner, In My Skin by Kate Holden or Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – you can find reviews of all of these books here.)




Nice people take heroin too: An interview with Kate Holden, author of “In My Skin”

In-My-Skin-Kate-Holden-196x300“In My Skin” by Melbourne author Kate Holden is the fifth-book I have read as part of a blog project on “the junkie in literature”.

I’ve read and reviewed Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Monkey Grip by Helen Gardner, Junky by William S. Burroughs and Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey.

In My Skin is Kate Holden’s memoir of her journey from a middle-class suburban family upbringing into heroin addiction and prostitution and later, successfully beating her addiction.

The book charts how she came to become a heroin addict (curiosity, boredom, wanting to be included) and how she was forced to become a prostitute – first walking the streets of St. Kilda and later working in a number of brothels – to pay for her and her boyfriend Robbie’s habits.

It is an incredibly honest account, and quite shocking in its frank description of the life of a prostitute and quite a compassionate one in terms of her views on the men whom frequent brothels and whom she serviced.

It provides the reader with access to a world behind closed doors: brothel bedrooms, the camaraderie of prostitutes, the nervousness of men of women’s bodies and the ferocious nature of some sexual encounters.

I was lucky enough to chat to Kate Holden about the experience of writing “In My Skin”:

Did you read or take inspirations from any other memoirs (about heroin users or anyone else who has struggled against an illness or personal challenge) before or as you wrote “In my skin”?

Kate: I was an interested reader of heroin-related stories I guess, starting with loving ‘Monkey Grip’ (although much more for its Melbourne atmosphere and writing style than anything to do with Javo) and then, just as I was beginning to use, I sought out various books like a novel called ‘Nature Strip’ (by Leonie Stevens set in Melbourne during the 1980s) and another memoir about an American user (name totally forgotten). It was the age of ‘grunge-lit’ so I didn’t have to look far; in the absence of any adult guidance in the ways and destinies of heroin use I had to look for help from literature. I didn’t read anything before I started work on ‘In My Skin’. I can’t stand reading junkie books now.

Who are your favourite writers?

Kate: Hilary Mantel, Anne Michaels, Pablo Neruda, Judith Wright, T. S. Eliot, Geoff Dyer, Michael Chabon.

Was it challenging being so honest about this period in your life or was it mostly cathartic?

Kate: It was refreshing, like jumping in a cold pool.

How did writing the book change how you viewed your journey through heroin addiction? What were the major revelations and insights?

Kate: Mostly I had to figure out a kind of pattern – the arc of addiction, how it made sense within the arc of my life – and to resist the normative ideologies around heroin and the many boring and reductive ways in which people like to either portray it, or pretend to understand it. Generally I came to see that there were some deep, real reasons why I personally came to heroin, and scattered, random, happenstance circumstances that meant I came to heroin. Life is not given to nice moral pat lessons, thank god.

In the books I’ve read about heroin use, I get the sense that something is experienced in the beginning stages of drug use that is of a sublime nature which then makes the ‘ordinary’ world seem dull by comparison? Was this true in your experience?

Kate: The first time I used I lay on a couch feeling slightly sleepy and watched ‘The X Files.’ There was no ecstatic revelation, no swooning back through the carpet (as happens to Renton in Trainspotting), no orgasmic rush. That’s the movies. There are lots of reasons why people like heroin, or don’t; one is that it’s meant to be interesting, and to make you more interesting by dint of being so wild as to dare take it. This is unfortunately very attractive to a shallow naïve person, or a sensitive naïve person like I was.

Do you think there is a certain type of artistic/creative personality (I think of William S. Burroughs, Thomas De Quincey and the character ‘Javo’ in Monkey Grip) that is vulnerable or drawn towards heroin? What is the initial attraction?

Kate: Funny how all the characters or authors you cite are men. I am not a man. So I think automatically it’s unlikely that you have to be William S. Burroughs to be the type to be a heroin user. I will say that most of the users I met were like me, rather nice people when they weren’t desperately savage and haggard.

In “Junky” by William S. Burroughs there is a moment in the book where he looks in the mirror and realises his face has changed and that he has become a junky. Did you experience that sort of thing or was it just that you found yourself suddenly disappearing into this different kind of existence?

Kate: I won’t pretend that there weren’t times when I looked and didn’t know quite who I’d see in the mirror. But actually I was fairly healthy-looking when I was using. Mostly just tired and a bit yellow. There were times I looked and rather enjoyed seeing the changed version of myself. Other times I was just too fucking tired and miserable to care.

In the book, you never seem to lose your pride or purpose while working in the brothel. What was keeping you going? Did you always see a positive end to the story?

Kate: What kept me going was the uncompromising need to make around $500  a day. The positive end was the slice of home delivery lemon meringue pie that I ordered every night on shift as my reward, without which I was utterly desolate. The other reward was heroin. When I gave up heroin the reward was fistfuls of cash and the promise to myself that finally I was going to stop feeling humiliated, since I now had more savings than anyone I knew.

How important was the support of your family in kicking the drug? Do you think you could have become clean without them?

Kate: Words can’t measure it. But to be honest, I had to do it all myself. My family helped by not hating me.

In the book, you have almost a benevolent/healing view of the sex worker? Do you still feel that way about the industry now that you’re no longer part of it?

Kate: I love and admire sex workers more and more as I go. I do work now with Scarlet Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association) and Vixen (Victorian Sex Industry Network), and fucking adore the company of people who know that world. It’s such a relief not to have to mince words. And they are total spunks.

What happened to your ex-boyfriend “Robbie”? Did he manage to get off heroin and are you still friends?

Kate: He’s around.

Last question, I think of the title “In My Skin” as having two meanings – you learning to be comfortable in your own skin – and also the physical act of injecting heroin in to your skin? Am I reading too much into that?

Kate: No.

A quick word of thanks to Jane Novak from Text Publishing for facilitating this interview. Text published ‘In My Skin by Kate Holden.