Drug Use Led Lennon to Write ‘Help!’
It’s been 50 years since The Beatles released their No.1 hit single “Help!,” but it’s never too late to learn about the story behind the song that launched their careers in America. Recently one of the two remaining members of the band, Sir Paul McCartney, sat down with Billboard magazine and spoke about how John Lennon’s drug addiction inspired him to write the rock and roll classic.
It’s no secret that Lennon partook in his fair share of the recreational drug use of heroin and LSD as he was opened about it in songs like “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” However, few knew that he was slipping into drug use early into the Fab Four’s success in the mid ’60’s while feeling trapped in a marriage to his first wife. Even Lennon’s band mates didn’t quite realize just how much he was struggling at the time, but hindsight is 20/20 as they say and with the years has come a sense of understanding for McCartney at least.
“Lennon later said, ‘I was fat and depressed, and I was crying for help.’ He didn’t say, I’m now fat and I’m feeling miserable,'” McCartney said. “He said, ‘When I was younger, so much younger than today.’ In other words, he blustered his way through. We all felt the same way. But looking back on it, John was always looking for help. He had [a paranoia] that people died when he was around: His father left home when John was 3, the uncle he lived with died later, then his mother died….I think John’s whole life was a cry for help.”
From Recreational Drug User to Full Blown Addict
His drug use escalated in the years following the release of “Help!” as he embarked on a new relationship with Yoko Ono. Lennon credited the way she was treated as a catalyst that sent them both into a tailspin of increased heroin use. He recounted their experiences to Jann S Wenner shorty after getting clean in 1970, saying:
“Heroin. It just was not too much fun. I never injected it or anything. We sniffed a little when we were in real pain. I mean we just couldn’t – people were giving us such a hard time. And I’ve had so much shit thrown at me and especially at Yoko. People like Peter Brown in our office, he comes down and shakes my hand and doesn’t even say ‘hello’ to her. Now that’s going on all the time. And we get in so much pain that we have to do something about it. And that’s what happened to us. We took H because of what The Beatles and their pals were doing to us. And we got out of it. They didn’t set down to do it, but things came of that period. And I don’t forget.”
It’s no secret that their relationship had an impact on the band and is often sited as one of the main reasons they stopped making music together after recording the”Let It Be.” John, Paul, George and Ringo went their separate ways in officially on April 10, 1970 after Lennon informed the group he was leaving in September of 1969.
Going “Cold Turkey”
It was during Lennon’s early days as a solo artist that he decided it was time to address his addiction and make a change for himself, his wife, his children and his music. His and Ono’s transition towards sobriety was aided by the drug dealer they used, who was looking to maximize his profits by way of cutting the heroin he sold them with baby powder, according to Ono. Luckily, their dealers desire to fatten his wallet proved to be of benefit to them as it prevented them from being completely caught in the undertow of the drug.
After years of use, Lennon and Ono were able to kick their heroin habit for good in late 1969, which was no easy feat by any stretch of the imagination, especially since they did it “cold turkey.” The experience of detoxing off of heroin and the subsequent withdrawals that racked their bodies, led Lennon to write his second solo single “Cold Turkey.” In a 1980 interview with David Sheff, Lennon spoke a bit about the song, saying:
“‘Cold Turkey’ is self-explanatory. It was banned again all over the American radio, so it never got off the ground. They were thinking I was promoting heroin, but instead…They’re so stupid about drugs! They’re always arresting smugglers or kids with a few joints in their pocket. They never face the reality. They’re not looking at the cause of the drug problem. Why is everybody taking drugs? To escape from what? Is life so terrible? Do we live in such a terrible situation that we can’t do anything about it without reinforcement from alcohol or tobacco or sleeping pills? I’m not preaching about ’em. I’m just saying a drug is a drug, you know. Why take them is important, not who’s selling it to whom on the corner.”
Lennon’s words from 35 years ago really touch on the rampant addiction that is plaguing many around the nation as 24.6 million people are struggling with substance abuse right now. That’s a whopping 9.4% of the country’s population. We have to wonder how we’ve failed to make much progress in terms of our views of drug use, addiction and the causes of both since Lennon shared his thoughts on the matter. It certainly couldn’t hurt to take his sage advice if only for the “Instant Karma.”