William Burroughs had for years been addicted to heroin, an experience he had written about in his semi-autobiographical first novel, Junky (1953).
David Bowie, meanwhile, had been using cocaine since the tail end of the Ziggy Stardust tour, and by the end of 1973 was cultivating an increasingly severe habit which was contributing to a rapid physical and mental decline.
My drug addiction really started, I suppose you could pin it down to the very last months of the Ziggy Stardust period. Not in a particularly heavy way, but enough to have probably worried some of the people around me. And after that, when we got into Diamond Dogs, that’s when it was out of control. From that period onwards I was a real casualty. I’ve not met many people that… I was in a very serious state. You just have to look at some of the photographs of me, I cannot believe I actually survived it.
Mojo, July 2002
Cocaine had a marked effect on Bowie’s personality, making him colder and impersonal, even to friends, lovers and former bandmates. Trevor Bolder, formerly of the Spiders From Mars, received an unexpected telephone call from Bowie late one night.
Bolder had been working on Mick Ronson’s debut solo album Slaughter On 10th Avenue and live shows. Bowie invited the bass guitarist to join him, Mike Garson and Tony Newman at Olympic Studios, to work on a slow acoustic song.
It was, according to Bolder, an awkward encounter, and was his final studio session with Bowie. The song itself was clearly not happening – “It was,” Bolder recalled, “a nothing song, and it obviously got dumped later.”
When the session ended, Bolder put away his bass guitar and made to leave, but not without attempting to say goodbye to Bowie.
‘I’m off now Dave, I’ll see you later on,’ said Bolder. Bowie didn’t say a word. Bolder repeated himself. ‘I’m going, then. See you! Bye.’ Again, Bowie ignored him. The ex-Spider walked out of the studio, in silence, taking a last look at Bowie’s back, silhouetted against the control room window. It was the last time they would share a session.
Cocaine also inveigled itself into Bowie’s lyrics. Diamond Dogs is awash with drug references, a running theme throughout the tales of prostitution, poverty and opportunism.
In the song ‘Candidate’, “the poisonous people” can be seen as allegories for drugs, some of whom “make you sing and some make you scream/One makes you wish that you’d never been seen”. It ends with the lines: “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands.”
In the next song, ‘Sweet Thing (Reprise)’, Bowie asks “Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?” Whereas ‘Candidate’ had ended defiantly and triumphantly, here he hints at a struggles with addiction: “It’s a street with a deal, and a taste/It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you…”
Even ‘Rebel Rebel’, the album’s most commercial and radio-friendly song, wasn’t immune. “You got your cue line and a handful of ‘ludes”, Bowie sings, referring to cocaine and Quaaludes, the latter previously referenced in Aladdin Sane‘s ‘Time’.
The drug references continued in the second half of Diamond Dogs, from “You’ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow’s never there” in ‘1984’ to the instruction “Don’t talk of dust and roses/Or should we powder our noses?” in ‘Big Brother’, and the final confessional “Lord, I’d take an overdose, if you knew what’s going down.”