Tuesday, December 13, 2016

25 Songs About Addiction and Recovery: CAPTAIN JACK, Billy Joel

I'm sitting here this afternoon trying to process yet another heroin overdose death. I was not going to post about this song today, but Captain Jack was one of the earliest songs explicitly about using heroin, and in view of what is devastating my town like the Black Death, especially among the young, it somehow seemed more fitting to write about it today.
First of all--Billy Joel? It's easy to forget now after a 40-year career as a purveyor of various forms of schmaltz--but before 1977, there was an actual edge to Joel, and this is perhaps the best example of it. It is an absolutely devastating putdown of all the pretentiousness of suburban white boys scoring dope in the early 1970's--the emptiness of their lives, the vapid monotony of getting high, the fact that what they are doing is going to ensure that they remain in, rather than allow them to escape, their self-contained prison of insecurity and inability to find meaning in their lives.
Every verse is full of venom. Every stanza is a challenge, every word a devastating indictment of the unwillingness, not inability, to take responsibility for living life. Billy Joel--Billy Joel!--is calling out the dopers, telling them that they don't have to get messed up, that their traumas are not so bad, that if they would just try a little, they'd be better off--and that the cornucopia of drugs listed in the song--pot, dope, alcohol--may deaden the sense of not fitting in, of not belonging, temporarily, but in the long run make it worse.
And there is no "special island." The "little push" doesn't actually "keep you smilin'". Because you come down--and then what? There are also hints that the traumas so easily dismissed are actually quite significant--who wouldn't want to get fucked up if their dad was "found in the swimming pool?" Who hasn't felt frustrated in "a one-horse town?" Those who have had to deal with overbearing parents know that it isn't so easy to cut the cord.
What this song does, more than make fun of the young addict, is try to goad him to admit that getting high is not an escape, not an answer, not a solution. The twenty-one year old in the song isn't ready to hear it; things like masturbation, girlfriends, smoking pot still have some appeal, still hold out the promise that they will somehow make it all bearable. And there isn't a hint that the Captain will eventually make all those other concerns moot--because it will be the Captain that takes precedence over all others.
That's the Faustian bargain of heroin and other highly addictive drugs. The high is very high, and the benefit is real--but eventually, all you are doing is getting high, and your entire existence becomes about the next one. Because life becomes a mental and physical hell of cravings, obsessions, and withdrawals if it isn't. You can't tell that to someone "escaping" at a young age; there is a vague awareness of addiction and its costs, but it is something that always happens to other people. And now, with the huge rise in deaths from overdoses, a similar mindset has taken hold. Yes, heroin kills--but it won't kill me..
Until it does. And your "little holiday" becomes a permanent checking out.


Saturday night and you're still hangin' around
You're tired of livin' in your one-horse town
You'd like to find a little hole in the ground
For a while

So you go to the village in your tie-dye jeans
And you stare at the junkies and the closet queens
It's like some pornographic magazine
And you smile

Captain Jack will get you high tonight
And take you to your special island
Captain Jack will get you by tonight
Just a little push and you'll be smilin'

Your sister's gone out. She's on a date
And you just sit at home and masturbate
Your phone is gonna ring soon but you just can't wait
For that call

So you stand on the corner in your New English clothes
And you look so polished from your hair down to your toes
Ahh, but still your finger's gonna pick your nose
After all

But Captain Jack will get you high tonight
And take you to your special island
Captain Jack will get you by tonight
Just a little push and you'll be smilin'
Oh yeah...

So you decide to take a holiday
You got your tape deck and your brand new Chevrolet
Ah, there ain't no place to go anyway
What for?

So you got everything, aw but nothing's cool
They just found your father in the swimming pool
And you guess you won't be going back to school
Anymore.

But Captain Jack can get you high tonight
And take you to your special island
Aw Captain Jack will get you by tonight
Just a little push and you'll be smilin'
Ooh yeah...

So you play your albums, and you smoke your pot
And you meet your girlfriend in the parking lot
Oh but still you're aching for the things you haven't got
What went wrong?

And if you can't understand why your world is so dead
Why you've got to keep in style and feed your head
Well you're 21 and still your mother makes your bed
And that's too long

But Captain Jack will get you high tonight
And take you to your special island
Well now Captain Jack will get you by tonight
Just a little push and you'll be smilin'

Oh Captain Jack will get you high tonight
Take you to your special island
Well now Captain Jack will make you high tonight
Just a little push and you'll be smilin'

Yeah Captain Jack will get you high tonight
And take you to your special island
Captain Jack will make you high tonight
Well now Captain Jack will make you high tonight


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