Talking Smack, the first book from Brisbane-based music journalist Andrew McMillen, is subtitled ‘Honest Conversations About Drugs’. A series of chapter-long interviews with Australian musicians, revolving around the topic of prescriptive and recreational pharmacology, Smack is indeed an honest book. But the cumulative effect of all its transparency is to force the reader to question the value of honesty altogether.
McMillen positions the book as a corrective to wide social misperceptions of drug use. As a “straight-and-narrow” teen, he writes, “I could not entertain the possibility that illegal drugs had the potential to be fun, safe, life-affirming, non-habit-forming… These sorts of stories are rarely told in our society.” Talking Smack is designed to help demystify the topic of drug use, and the highs and lows thereof.
In this pursuit, the book is moderately successful. McMillen gets some thoughtful perspectives on the vagaries of long-term heroin use from Steve Kilby, of The Church, Spencer P. Jones, of Beasts of Bourbon, and Paul Kelly. Phil Jamieson, of Grinspoon, gives an excruciating account of the embarrassment of having a crystal methamphetamine addiction made public. Mick Harvey, of The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds, gives some sense of the difficulties of working with habitual users, while Lindy Morrison, of The Go-Betweens, highlights some of the long-term health issues that can affect musicians.
The stories that McMillen collects are similar in their generalities—since they all hinge on the music industry—but varied enough in their particulars to make it plain that drug users oughtn’t be socially or psychologically pigeonholed. Overall, a broad spectrum of experiences are reflected: drug use has made his subjects energized, anxious, productive, creative, relaxed, debilitated, sick, and so on.
But it becomes clear very quickly that the lofty goal McMillen has set for his book is more like a low hurdle. It is possible to demystify drug use in one conversation. A handful is more than sufficient. McMillen stretches the book to fourteen. His thesis is a thin one, but McMillen seems to have no clear sense of where to guide his book—and each interview—once the core question has been asked and answered. So when Talking Smack isn’t re-treading the same material, it’s veering down dead ends, or wallowing in filler.
PULL QUOTE: It becomes clear very quickly that the lofty goal McMillen has set for his book is more like a low hurdle.
Sometimes it’s not clear why McMillen has bothered to include entire chapters altogether. In his interview with Wally de Backer (a.k.a. Gotye), the musician demonstrates nothing but utter disinterest in the notion of drug use – up to and including prescribed substances. McMillen tries to draw him out by revealing that he has taken modafinil, a stimulant, prior to their interview (“a potent drug that I use sparingly”) in order to avoid falling asleep on the drive to de Backer’s house on the Mornington Penninsula. de Backer, in response, delivers an anecdote about how he once took a power nap.
McMillen scatters these sorts of redundant exchanges throughout the book, but they peak in his excruciating interview with Tina Arena, who proves to be an extremely forthright, opinionated person with seemingly little comprehension of the terms McMillen has set for the conversation. Arena, who is now based in Paris, offers a blanket assessment of Australian drug and alcohol culture (“I’m deeply saddened about what’s happening to the generation today”) and quickly moves on to chiding McMillen about the focus of his book, telling him he should be focusing on corporate drug use (“the musician is always the one to be able to be picked on. It’s rather boring”).
McMillen’s response—“Well maybe that’s my next book, Tina, I say, while she laughs. I’ll let you know”—is both discomfortingly passive aggressive and truly lame. McMillen again tries to draw his subject out by revealing his own drug habits—here, he tells Arena about Silk Road, which he started frequenting after writing a feature on the site for Penthouse Australia. Arena is briefly intrigued, but this dialogue proves unengaging and McMillen soon allows Arena to delve into a rambling speech about nutrition, advertising, and healthy eating.
By this point even the author seems aware that the chapter has lost the thread. McMillen writes, “all I can manage is a non-committal hmm. I certainly agree with what Arena is saying, but, given the purpose of our interview, I’m a little thrown.” Given McMillen himself is perturbed by Arena’s waffling, it’s unclear how he expect his readers to feel about the book’s equal tendency to become unfocused.
PULL QUOTE: It is possible to demystify drug use in one conversation.
These personal asides, of which there are many, are baffling. They are revealing of McMillen’s process—and therefore in keeping with the book’s overall honesty—but mostly what they reveal is an author with a weak grip on his project. There’s a head-scratching moment midway into the Paul Kelly chapter, when McMillen pauses to excuse the poor quality of Kelly’s responses:
As we talk, and Kelly stumbles over ums and ahs and long pauses, working out how best to articulate his thoughts, I come to realize that we share a writer’s sensibility in our inability to adequately explain ourselves in speech.
This line bears some examination. There’s an immediate issue that crops up—why McMillen supposed he ought to attempt a book of interviews if verbal communication is not his forte—but it goes unanswered, and presumably unnoticed, by the author. It’s an inelegantly back-handed criticism of Kelly, who has donated his time and patience to McMillen’s project, but unnecessary, since McMillen offer no such comment on his other subjects, some of whom have even less to say. It is not particularly germane to the text, since McMillen has done his job and removed Kelly’s ums and ahs, and it generally undermines the author’s credibility. What is it doing there?
This line is typical of Talking Smack’s prose in general: banal, unfocused, and unproductive. Each chapter has the shape and form of a good, serious literary interview, but little of the content. The reader comes to suspect that the interviews have not furnished McMillen with enough substance to give the book an adequate spine, but that the author is also unwilling to engage in the kind of labor of prose composition that would sufficiently prop them up.
PULL QUOTE: Each chapter has the shape and form of a good, serious literary interview, but little of the content.
In the introduction, McMillen outlines his intention that each chapter be “just monologues”, with little authorial interference (an approach that also handily absolves him of a lot of journalistic responsibility). He apparently had a single interview with each subject, ranging in length from forty-five minutes to four hours, with little preparation (he writes that he wanted to “tease out their responses organically”), and no follow-up talk.
These conversations, at face value, are not robust enough to be monologues. But McMillen refuses to adapt them into a fuller, written text, and so he is unable to shape his material to good effect. His chosen solution to the Paul Kelly problem is extreme, but representative of the book’s overall laziness. Having evidently failed to elicit the quality of responses he felt he required, McMillen decides to shovel italicized excerpts from Kelly’s 2010 memoir How to Make Gravy straight into his text: a direct lapse of his own formal conceit.
This degree of mild self-contradiction is present throughout the text, leading the reader to conclude that McMillen has utterly misconceived his project. The book as a whole is ineffectual, bordering on intellectually incoherent, and it is the rubric of ‘honesty’ that lies at the heart of its problems.
Examining the insights offered by Talking Smack, the reader is forced to the conclusion that making a book a series of ‘honest’ conversations about drugs is ultimately a bogus conceit. Judging from the results, honest conversations produce a series of mundane observations that are not fit to bear the weight of a book-length publication. After all, being honest is not the same as being credible, or authoritative, or compelling.
PULL QUOTE: The book as a whole is ineffectual, bordering on intellectually incoherent, and it is the rubric of ‘honesty’ that lies at the heart of its problems.
McMillen’s honesty about his own drug use is a recurring distraction. He tells Paul Kelly he wants to try heroin (“Good luck”, Kelly replies). He tells Bertie Blackman that he took acid for the first time two days prior to their interview (“Awesome”, she says). He instructs Tine Arena on techniques for purchasing cocaine, MDMA, and LSD on the internet. This sort of experimentation is completely reasonable for a young person of McMillen’s generation (he is in his mid-twenties), but one starts to feel—uncharitably, to be sure—that the book is secretly compelled by McMillen’s desire to have his drug phase validated by an external authority.
His honesty about the process of creating Talking Smack is equally jejune. “In late 2012, after five years of freelance journalism,” McMillen writes, “I was invited to submit a book proposal on a topic of my choice. Before too long, I was struck by the thought of combining two of my interests, music and drug use, by investigating the thread that linked them.” Inspiring stuff.
Whether the combination of music and drug use is sufficiently combustible to ignite a full-length text is an issue that seems to have gone mostly unexamined by McMillen. Sex, drugs and rock and roll might a “cliché”, he concedes, or even a “myth”, but apparently he nonetheless feels that the phrase “perfectly encapsulates what our society tends to expect” from musicians. He also claims that drug use is a “natural fit” with the ideal of the on-the-edge muso lifestyle (a romantic image belied by many of McMillen’s interviews).
There’s a frustrating tenuousness to these ideas, as there is with the juvenile assertion that media narratives around drugs require demystification. McMillen builds the entire edifice of his book on these shaky perceptions, but he completely refuses to examine them for structural integrity, or produce a book that embraces their contradictions.
PULL QUOTE: Talking Smack’s overarching flaw is that it confuses honesty with the absence of selectivity.
Ultimately, Talking Smack’s overarching flaw is that it confuses honesty with the absence of selectivity. McMillen has jumped upon a naïve premise and willfully extended it to book length without regard for whether it is truly sustainable. He has finagled a random assortment of subjects out of a long list of rejections, conducted a single interview with each, transcribed the conversation with minimal craft and invention, and published them all, regardless of worthiness. He has filled his pages with a litany of inanities and breathtakingly anodyne prose; the book’s thesis is summed up as “Drugs exist.”: wise words, indeed. The critical authorial work of judgment: of shaping, crafting, and cutting material in the hopes of illuminating something about a subject, feels almost entirely absent.
Like the most tiresome sort of drug user, Talking Smack is single-minded, overly credulous, completely un-self-critical, and agonizingly boring company. McMillen concludes the book with an ambition so modest it qualifies as negligible: “As far as I’m concerned, the more honest conversations about drugs that take place, the better.” The rest of us might hope for interesting ones.
James Robert Douglas is a freelance cultural critic and Interviews Editor at The Lifted Brow.