Smooth Drugs for Smooth People
The three pillars of American debauchery are sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Yacht Rock, too, is held aloft by these indispensable ingredients: sex is a constant presence, even when it’s expressed with some degree of bittersweet poetry from the mouth of a fool. And you wouldn’t be reading these words if you didn’t know about Yacht Rock’s relationship to the greater world of rock ‘n’ roll; one of the greatest podcasts of all time is about what Yacht Rock is and what it isn’t.
But what about drugs? It cannot be denied that Yacht Rock was suffused from its very beginning with illicit substances that fueled many a late-night recording. Southern California session musicians from the 1970s have plenty of tales to tell about wild times in the studio, addled with narcotics; one of the nicknames of the legendary Section of Danny Kortchmar, Craig Doerge, Leland Sklar, and Russ Kunkel was “the Mighty Jitters” because of their prodigious cocaine consumption. “That band was really, really, really high all the time,” Kortchmar recalled to Rolling Stone in 2013.
And it wasn’t just the Mellow Mafia. Practically every Yacht Rock icon who’s ever written a memoir, done a late-in-life interview, or sat in front of a microphone has had a story to tell about drugs. Yacht Rock even has its own famous drug controversy in the person of no less than legendary Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, who died at the age of 38 from what the L.A. County Coroner ruled a cocaine-related myocardial infarction, but what his bandmates still insist was an adverse reaction to insecticide. In the memorable words of Steve Lukather, Porcaro – who had a family history of heart disease – had a flirtation with coke, but was never “the bad drug guy”.
So the question isn’t whether or not our heroes took drugs; it’s what drugs they took. What, in other words, was the Yacht Rock drug of choice? To be clear, I am neither judging these performers for their habits or attempting to pin them down to a particular pattern of drug use; almost all of them probably sampled every drug under the sun at some point or another. From what we can tell from primary sources, most musicians of the genre were more likely to be dabblers than brand loyalists. But even if Yacht Rock paragons used more of one substance than another, what was the drug that most embodied the essence of the genre?
First of all, we have to rule out such run-of-the-mill candidates as cigarettes and alcohol. Smoking and yachting don’t mix, as having the cherry fall off your Tareyton and set the captain’s chair ablaze, thus causing you to die in a fire while surrounded by water, is too ironic even to contemplate. Many Yacht Rockers were drinkers, but it doesn’t quite fit the music. Booze has fueled many a great band, but drunk rock tends to be loose, sloppy, and frenzied. Yacht rock is too tight and polished, too controlled and precise, too professional for liquor to be its official intoxicant. Booze is for sailors, not yachters.
Heroin is too dark, too gloomy, and too debilitating to allow for the sunny bounce of Yacht Rock; PCP is too aggressive, and painkillers are low-rent and too strongly associated with the heartland. Quaaludes seem like an interesting candidate just given the time and place, but it’s too personal for the wide-open spaces and unending vistas of the high seas. Psychedelics, on the other hand, are too open, beckoning towards the vast emptiness of outer (and inner) space rather than the blue waters of weekend sailors; psychedelic rock, too, is an entirely different beast, and the kind of intense, surreal jamming that psychoactive drugs inspire almost never shows up in Yacht Rock. Speed kills, and while it does lend its users a laser-like focus that might aid the endurance and concentration of a dedicated studio pro, it’s also more aggressive and angry than mellow or groovy.
That brings us to what might seem like the most logical choice, given the time and place and what we know about the history of many a session man. Certainly there was an enormous amount of Sweet Lady Cocaine floating around southern California at the time; the late ‘70s was when coke was really starting to make inroads into American drug culture, courtesy of the enterprising Pablo Escobar and his hard-working amigos. We know plenty of Yacht Rockers did coke, and we know why: coke is a status drug, associated with success and achievement; it’s a stimulant that can keep you awake and focused without the nasty edge of amphetamines; and it was basically everywhere. But just doesn’t feel like the official drug of Yacht Rock. It’s too corporate, too glossy, too slick. It’s intense and addictive. And no matter when it really arrived on our shores in quantity, it’s still a drug that we tend to associate with the 1980s – and with the New Wave, synth-pop, and big beat mega-hits of that era’s music – than we do the late-‘70s heyday of Yacht. (Interesting side note: Giorgio Moroder, the most ‘80s of ‘80s musical architects, claims to have never even once tried cocaine, which is like learning that Santa Claus doesn’t really like milk and cookies.) And if there’s two things we’re certain of, one is that cocaine was the drug of choice for Fleetwood Mac the Eagles, and the other is that Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles are not Yacht Rock.
So it’s really no surprise that, in the end, marijuana is the official drug of Yacht Rock. It’s practically predictable – I mean, come on, Michael McDonald was in the goddamn Doobie Brothers! But it’s more than just nomenclature that makes weed the genre drug of choice. Everything about Yacht Rock, from the mildly nautical but passably business-casual dress style to the stretched-out, jazzy movement of the bass lines, from the competent but relaxed demeanor of all those session pros to the reflective but not psychic self-analysis of the lyrics, tells us that these were people regularly partaking of some really sticky grass. Even when we go back to the origins of the genre, to the ur-yacht of Steely Dan, we learn that once Fagen and Becker (R.I.P.) jettisoned Chevy Chase (a coke guy if ever there was one) from the band, they holed up at Bard in a dorm room reeking of pot, staying up all night and laying the groundwork for the music that still hypnotizes us today. Weed was there in the beginning, and will be there at the end.
So remember, when you start to set sail: that rich snob in the navy blazer pretending to steer might be sipping Moët. The greasy mechanic tending to the engine might be on cut-rate crank, and the guy who paid for the boat might be out of his mind on coke. But the man in the captain’s chair, looking relaxed and confident and completely at ease in his dock shoes and slightly wild haircut as he prepares to send you out to sea on a wave of smooth grooves, is high on Mother Nature’s finest.