(video of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash duetting on “Busted,” from Cash’s TV show, 1970)
Personally, it was harder for me to give up cigarettes. I know that sounds crazy, but I mean it. At least once I was through with drugs they weren’t always in my face. With cigarettes, someone is blowing smoke at you every minute of the day. You never escape the lure of tobacco.
Ray Charles, Brother Ray
Ray Charles’ 1963 hit, “Busted,” written by Harlan Howard, wasn’t about his well-publicized drug busts of the 1960s (lyrics here), but by the mid-1960s, people would start thinking of it that way; in 1965, he was America’s most famous junkie, having kicked for good that same year. In Brother Ray, Charles stated that his desire to kick had more to do with the desire to stay out of jail than it did with concern for his health (remarkable, considering that other people prepared his works for almost 20 years and he had to trust that one of them wouldn’t screw up and give him an overdose).
Midge Daniels, on the other hand, probably knew all about heroin long before Charles was ever busted; in the circles she ran in, it’s likely everyone read William S. Burroughs and knew how bone-chilling a junkie’s life could be. But there were probably also people in those same circles who thought it was “daring” and “edgy” to try it, that it was just one more tool to expand consciousness. Despite her marijuana use, she didn’t have a gateway drug so much as she did a gateway community; if you know junkies, and like them personally, and even manage to fall in love with one, that increases the likelihood of getting caught up in the life. And Burroughs had managed not to bite it all those years (he would be on and off the drug for the next several decades), so how dangerous could it be?
Plenty, if you didn’t have the kind of money Burroughs or Ray Charles did. In 1968, former child stars Frankie Lymon and Bobby Driscoll both OD’d, and both died penniless, Driscoll so much so that his body was found in an abandoned tenement not far from Midge’s hovel. Meanwhile, all around Midge are, or are soon to be, junkies either rich and famous or well on their way: Lou Reed, Deborah Harry, James Taylor, Jim Carroll. Was it money that kept them alive until they could finally get clean?
Granted, having money didn’t keep Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin from succumbing to their addictions a few years hence, so it was no guarantee; they had to deal with depression and self-loathing on top of everything else. But there’s no doubt that a rich junkie’s chances of survival far outstrip those of a poor one. Not only can it afford you multiple cracks at rehab, with no waiting, but you can also pay to have people follow you around 24/7 with a clipboard making notes on exactly what you’ve ingested, lest you next take something that will do you in. And of course, there’s a much softer landing after detox if you have money and a career you love. There’s something to go back to, not just run away from.
Midge, now “busted” in the sense of Ray Charles’ song, living in her tenement with no money, no identification, and a husband who is similarly dead broke and jonesing, faces a crossroads with Don’s $120 burning a hole in her pocket. If she wants to survive, she needs to get out of there pronto, go somewhere Junkie Hubby can’t find her, and detox. It will be brutal. It will damn near kill her, all the vomiting and twitching and sweating and itching. She won’t be able to do it all alone. But if she can find an NA meeting before she needs her next fix, she can find people who have been there and done it. The odds are against her, but it’s not impossible. (Of interest is that the closing song for this episode is “Trust in Me” by Etta James, who herself managed to break free of a 10-year habit and is still alive today, at age 72.)
The question is, does she really, really want to? Ray Charles didn’t want to go through heroin detox. He HAD to, or there was a good chance his children would grow up with a “jailbird” (his word) dad. Midge hasn’t been busted in the drug sense yet (that we know of). She has no children. Her career is at a standstill. Her husband has nothing to offer her but body warmth. She doesn’t even know where her purse is! She has talent, yes. Will Don tell her that his painting inspired him, got him to understand the nature of addiction like he never did before? Will he tell her that her most desperate hour blasted him out of his own dark hole? Given how private Don is, probably not. But if he did, he might just be able to save both of their lives.