The Needle And The Damage Done

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January 24, 2011 by David Gillaspie

By Neil Young


Rock and roll keeps laying down drug casualties.  The music lives on, but they don’t. 

What lives on for the junkie who can’t sing or play guitar?


Does a drug OD show up at the morgue with a special toe tag that makes their death different than natural causes?

Or do they show up with an aura of a life lived not so well?

One thing is certain, the drug OD leaves fallout on everyone who knew them, from parents to siblings to neighbors and classmates.

Maybe not so much fallout for the group at the drug house on the nod when their pal stopped breathing.  No one expects to find a smacked out EMT ready to pound out CPR in a dope den.

What sort of fallout burns the worst? 

Is ‘I didn’t know’ better than ‘I didn’t know what to do?’  Is ‘they have to hit bottom and crawl back up on their own’ different than ‘you can’t help someone who doesn’t think they need help.’

Choose any excuse or cliché that fits, but know this:  The drug OD isn’t jumping up to absolve anyone.

It takes a survivor to write what Neil Young sings:   

I caught you knockin’at my cellar door
I love you baby can I have some more
Ooh, ooh, the damage done
I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done

If it feels like Neil is waving goodbye, maybe he is. 

When heroin is on the menu, that’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Ask a heroin addict what they do for a living and they might say, “You don’t understand, heroin is what you do if that’s what you’re doing.  You can’t do anything else.  You don’t want to.”

Can you undo the damage done?  Only if you can find the dopers’ body shop.  When you see someone you know walking around like they’re held together with Bondo, it means they’ve been in the shop.

I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don’t understand
Milk-blood …. to keep from … running out
I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.

A man at a high school reunion once said hello.  He didn’t look like anyone I remembered, but I figured it would come to me.  He spoke in Bob Dylan-like phrases.  He didn’t say “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding,” but he was leaking somewhere.

Then I recognized him.  He’d been a guy who had a chance, then flushed it away.  He went from our small town high school to a death spiral where I saw him leaning on a wall in the Eugene bus station.  He looked real bad.   

The damage done sounded right.

Ten years later he’s a clean machine with a master’s degree and some pretty deep pock marks in the crook of his elbows, souvenirs of the needle trying to take another man.  It didn’t get him.

Then it did.  Life without the structure of college and appointments left too much time and he filled it with an old habit.  He took another ride down the death spiral and didn’t come out of it.

This was a man who didn’t leave wives and kids, but he left people who knew him before he didn’t know himself.  We were all scheming and laying plans to leave town the first chance we got.  For some it was college, others military.  Some signed up at the sawmills and disappeared.

Eventually you stop looking for someone who isn’t there, even when they’re standing right beside you.  Heroin does that.  It’s is the life of the party, and the death. 

That Jerry Garcia died in a residential drug treatment center is more than an apocryphal message, more than ironic.  Of all the long, strange trips credited to The Grateful Dead, you couldn’t make that last one up.

It’s not one you want to a ticket for ether.

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