Codeine Country

On Sunday, April 17, the centerpiece story in the Arts and Entertainment section of The New York Times was a story about how, via the Slim Thug/Mike Jones/Paul Wall hit single "Still Tippin'," Houston's homegrown screw music was poised to take over the hip-hop nation. Screw -- the slowed-down hip-hop invented by DJ Screw as music for people to enjoy while high on codeine cough syrup -- was presented as something new, weird and uniquely Houstonian.

All of which it indubitably is -- at least for hip-hop. But it's mostly forgotten today that Screw was really the second Houston codeine aficionado to revolutionize a local scene. Back in the late '60s and early '70s, Townes Van Zandt turned Houston's folk and country/Americana music on its head, thanks in no small part to his appreciation for the drug that is today called lean.

I told former Houstonian and Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark about screw music -- which he had never heard of -- and here is what he had to say: "Some things never change. You can always count on Houston's codeine heads."

In the Times article, UGK's Bun B. was quoted as saying that he could never impress New Yorkers with the originality of Houston rap until DJ Screw came along. Like DJ Screw, Van Zandt forever altered a local scene and brought it to national attention.

Likewise, before Van Zandt, our local folksingers were like those everywhere else: Kingston Trio knock-offs or rote copiers of hoary old tunes from the British, Irish, Scottish and Appalachian songbooks. After Van Zandt, local folksingers wrote original tunes about their own lives and the lives of others around them, or hell, whatever else took their fancy. What's more, Van Zandt raised the bar exponentially for original songwriters, and his tough love for his contemporaries separated the wheat -- people like Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle -- from the forgotten chaff.

And for a time, anyway, he wrote about codeine almost as much as any member of the Screwed Up Click. Take these lines from "Waitin' Around to Die," the first serious song Van Zandt ever wrote: "Now I'm out of prison / I got me a friend at last / He don't steal or cheat or lie / His name's codeine, he's the nicest thing I've seen / An' together we're gonna wait around and die."

Van Zandt penned that tune when he was about 24 years old, and you could write those lines off as youthful bravado. You could, but then you would be wrong, for Van Zandt pretty much meant everything he said.

A persistent legend floats around that Van Zandt once lived above a pharmacy. He is said to have knocked a hole in the floor over the back room and used a fishing rod to angle for codeine. Son J.T. Van Zandt remembers that in the mid-'70s, his dad was knocking back about a quarter-pint bottle a day of the stuff. "If they weren't drinking it, they were looking for it," he says. (And this writer can personally attest to that: My late mother was a good friend of Van Zandt's, and I spent many hours in the back of Mama's VW van as we drove from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of a druggist with a corrupt, or generous, heart, whereupon often as not we would head out to Van Zandt's ramshackle cabin in the hills outside Nashville.)

Van Zandt's codeine use also showed up elsewhere in his music. His cover of Merle Travis's "Nine Pound Hammer" presaged DJ Screw's slow-it-down credo by two decades: Travis's original is a greased-lightning-fast bluegrass tune; in Van Zandt's hands the tempo is slowed down to a codeine-drenched crawl. The same could be said (to a lesser extent) of his cover of Hank Williams's "Honky Tonkin'."

Then there are Van Zandt's originals. Before he wrote "Waitin' Around to Die," Van Zandt was in a band called the Delta Mama Boys, and their theme song was a humorous little ditty called "Delta Mama Blues," which years later Van Zandt would record as the title track to one of his albums. The chorus of that tune -- which was one of Van Zandt's rare co-writes -- goes like this: "Ah, come away with me / my little delta boy / I wanna be your delta mama for a while / And if you stay you'll see / that I'll bring you lots of joy / I'll turn those little teardrops to a smile."

Confused? Who is this "Delta Mama"? The answer sounds like an urban legend on the order of the "'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is a reference to LSD" variety, but it's documented fact: "Delta Mama" was Van Zandt's nickname for Robitussin DM cough syrup.

More fatefully, Van Zandt wrote "If I Needed You," his second-biggest hit, while under the influence. Van Zandt was staying at Guy and Susanna Clark's house near Nashville, and all three of them had the flu. A bottle of codeine was produced, which they drank, and then all three of them went to bed. In an excerpt from Rain on a Conga Drum, his upcoming biography of Van Zandt, author John Kruth picks up the tale:

"Stumbling down the sidewalk of his subconscious, Van Zandt had a remarkable dream that night, 'in blazing Technicolor' as he later recalled it. He was a folksinger on stage, singing a strange and beautiful new song. The dream was so vivid that he sat right up in bed and wrote the lyrics down just as they had come to him only moments before. The melody rang in his head so clearly he knew he'd have no trouble remembering it the following morning. So he pulled the blankets over his head and fell back to sleep.

"The next morning Susanna and Guy sat around the kitchen table in a fog, sipping coffee. Eventually Townes sauntered in, disheveled, with his guitar. 'Hey, y'all, listen to this,' he said as the song just rolled off his tongue and fingers as if he'd been playing it for years. Of course they loved it. 'When did you write that?' they asked. 'Last night,' Townes replied. The bemused couple looked at him doubtfully and explained it wasn't possible as he'd gone to bed before them and in their tiny house they surely would've heard him working away in the middle of the night." (As an aside, Loop, one of Townes's two parakeets mentioned in the song, was named after the North Loop drugstore in Austin where Townes would score codeine.)

This was a rare foray into codeine use for Clark. "Downers never were my thing," he says. "I'd go to sleep anyway -- I never had to have that stuff. I never enjoyed it."

Not so for other Houston musicians. "As far back as Lightnin', everybody in Houston had a codeine song," Clark says. "It's such a down drug, and Houston always seemed to have that down, kinda heroin vibe anyway." (Clark rattles off a list of Houston musicians he knew to be heroin users, a list that neither Clark nor our lawyers would let us print.) "I was always around heroin and codeine -- it was kind of pervading. Codeine kinda matches the weather down there."

Which brings us to the crux of a few different theories. I believe that any act's music is shaped three ways: by the music they listen to, by the physical environment they live in, and by what substances they ingest. All three of these can be mixed and matched -- Calexico, for example, is from Tucson, and they make music that sounds like their arid Mexican border environs and also goes well with the drugs you can find there, such as mushrooms and peyote, and it's also obvious that they have absorbed the music of spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, who was shooting for that same vibe.

But you can make a case for the drugs being the most important factor of all. To me, the popularity of merengue in Colombia and the Caribbean is explained at least in part by the prevalence of cocaine in those regions -- that music seems too manic to dance to without a spoonful of the old booger sugar. Jamaica is hot and there's a lot of weed there -- ergo, reggae -- and when coke came to Jamaica, the faster and more aggressive dancehall music was the result. In Germany and some of the Slavic countries, they drink a lot of beer, and that's why they came up with polka.

And Houston is too hot and humid for us to want to move fast, so we sip on syrup and chill the hell out. Then people like Townes and DJ Screw utterly transform their respective scenes. And then, of course, they die too young.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax