Of all the drugs, heroin has had the biggest impact on the musical world. Miles Davis helped shape the sound of jazz while hooked on the stuff, James Taylor’s mellow gold was spun despite an addiction which stretched decades, while Seattle’s Space Needle now stands as an iconic, ironic reminder of the damage the drug did to the city in the late ’80s and early ’90s. John Lennon dabbled during the dying days of The Beatles, Slash recorded classic albums with a needle never far from his arm, while Kurt Cobain self-medicated, first as an escape from debilitating stomach pains (which is like trying to heal a paper cut by chopping off the chunk of skin around it), then as an escape from everything else.
The drug’s track marks can be seen throughout numerous genres; its effects both celebrated and mourned. Lou Reed felt like Jesus’ son while on the stuff, while Lennon sweated and screamed his way free of its grip in ‘Cold Turkey’. ‘There She Goes’ is a sun-soaked, coded ode to heroin, equating it to the rush of early love – a beautiful young mitress who elicits pure bliss. John Prine sings of the “hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”, and Trent Reznor zooms in on “the old familiar sting” of the needle piercing his skin. ‘Beetlebum’ makes it seem ethereal and drowsy; ‘Golden Brown’ makes it sound dainty and antiquated. Alice in Chains makes it sound hollow and creepy; Elliott Smith makes it sound beautiful and lonely. “Every junkie’s like a setting sun”, Neil Young warned in 1971 after seeing two of his close friends succumb to the drug, while in ‘Under The Bridge’ – the only RHCP song not about either California or having sex in California – Kiedis threw his life away on the drug (under said bridge). It was written as an ode to Hillel Slovak, who was the band’s guitarist until he OD’d and was replaced by John Frusciante – another addict.
Keith Richards, Evan Dando, Brian Wilson, and Courtney Love have outlived addictions; Sid Vicious, Kristen Pfaff, Layne Staley, and countless others did not. Art Alexisis from Everclear falls into the former list, his girlfriend Esther into the latter. It’s an arbitrary list, because it’s arbitrary who ODs and who doesn’t. Heroin doesn’t care about your plans to kick for good after this shot, or about how much your body can usually tolerate, or whether or not you are a talented guitarist. You can be nice to people and overdose. You can be terrible to people and live. Your entire essence means nothing at all, and as “all the dead bodies pile up in mounds”, as Lou Reed bluntly paints it, you can become nothing but a statistic.
Art Alexisis’s girlfriend in ‘Heroin Girl’ was a statistic. During the first half of the song she was a girl: two pierced nipples, black tattoo, lover of Mexican food. She appears to be the most stable out of the pair, both heroin-addled, sure, but she was the one caring for him and his disease. They were the typical young couple cocooned and sheltered from those “talking in the real world” by their love, their drugs and their happy little hell.
Halfway through the song, Esther became a statistic.
“They found her out in the fields
About a mile from home
Her face was warm from the sun
But her body was cold”
This news crashes in from nowhere, like all the worst news tends to. The most brutal lyrics of the song follow: “I heard a policeman say, ‘just another overdose’. Just another overdose”, he repeats angrily, unable to believe his ears. Sadly, this line is based in reality: his mother overheard a policeman make this comment when she was identifying the body of Art’s older brother – her son – who had just died of a heroin overdose. It’s heartless, but it’s also the numb way most would respond in a world where finding dead overdose victims is so commonplace that the words “just” and “another” come into play.
Esther was wild and nurturing; she drank Mexican beer; she was the entire universe to someone. To someone else though, she was just another overdose.