10/10/10: Ten great songs about drinking (and five others about sobering up)
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It’s a fool’s game, trying to pick 10 songs about one of popular music’s most reliable topics: alcohol, and the joy and pain it begets. It’s a topic that could fill volumes -– song and the drink -– so to limit a list to a mere 10 immediately removes entire genres of music. Both country music and the blues have been obsessed with alcohol and the easing of the pain, and one of the first rock and roll songs, Stick McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” from 1947, was about getting drunk and rowdy.
Qualifications out of the way, what follows are 10 great songs about drinking -- on the occasion of the date being 10/10/10. And, because it’s Sunday morning, after that are five others about the guilt and regret that often accompanies too much consumption.
1. N.W.A, ‘8 Ball’ (1988)
Attention, kids: Don’t follow Eazy E’s lead. In ‘8 Ball,’ from N.W.A’s 1988 album ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ the late rapper spends an evening with a Dr. Dre-provided beat and simultaneously breaks a number of different laws both legal and common sensical: He’s drinking malt liquor while driving through South L.A. with a gun in his hand. Basically, he’s looking for trouble, doesn’t care about the police, is headed toward Crenshaw Avenue while getting drunker and drunker on Olde English 800 (a.k.a. “8-Ball”). Those looking for trouble usually find it, especially when booze is involved. Bottle empty, he stops by the liquor store, sees someone he doesn’t like, goes into the trunk and gets his silver gat, and starts firing. Again, kids: Stay away from the liquor and the submachine guns.
2. Black Flag, ‘Six Pack’ (1981)
A love letter to the simple things in life -– a half dozen of them, packaged together and tailor made for a night on the couch, at the kitchen table or on the sidewalk. Or, as Dez Cadena declares at the beginning of the classic L.A. punk band’s most popular song: “I’ve got a six pack and nothing to do! I’ve got a six pack and I don’t need you!’ In fact, he doesn’t need his girlfriend, or much of anything else except six beers and a place to relax. A punk ode to mindfulness -- kind of.
3. Titus Andronicus, ‘Theme From Cheers’ (2010)
Take the rootsy expansiveness of Bruce Springsteen & and the E Street Band, and then shatter a bottle of whiskey on top of it and throw down a match. These punk rock Jersey howlers own plenty of home state pride, and while this shambling coming-of-age rant may reference a bar with sitcom charm, its characters resolutely hang at a dive loaded with tattered dreams, swelling guts and last-call shouts of desperation. Think of it as an answer to Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days,’ except here the nostalgia is served on the rocks.
4. Howlin’ Wolf, “Wang Dang Doodle”
The guest list for this particular all-night drinkfest is as follows: Automatic Slim, Razor Totin’ Jim, Butcher Knife Toting Annie, Fast Talking Fanny, Abyssinian Ned, Pistol Pete, Shaky and Caroline Dye, among others. Sounds like a party. The goal? To wang dang doodle all night long (all night long, all night long), of course. The lyrics to this classic blues cut, written by Willie Dixon but made his own by Howlin’ Wolf, outline the agenda: “Break out all the windows … kick down all the doors … pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.’ Sounds like a plan.
5. Handsome Family, ‘Drunk by Noon’ (1996)
The harsh honesty at the center of the Handsome Family’s classic ode to pain relief has a refrain that looks straight in the mirror and arrives at a conclusion: “If my life was as long as the moon’s/I’d still be jealous of the sun/If my life lasted only one day/I’d still be drunk by noon.” Written by the husband-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks, the song is an acerbic, witty ode to lethargy and despair: “Sometimes, I can’t wait to come down with cancer,” sings Brett, “At least then I’ll get to watch TV all day.” For anyone who’s ever endured heart-crushing despair, the song’s honest glimpse into the heart of depression is itself a kind of relief.
6. Lucinda Williams, ‘Drunken Angel’ (1998)
Lucinda Williams has written dozens of songs about down-and-outers looking for solace, but “Drunken Angel,” a crushingly sad song about a drink-infused songwriter, is the writer’s best. She sings to her unnamed angel, “a derelict in your duct tape shoes,” who was so charismatic that followers would “hang around just to meet you/Some threw roses at your feet/And watch you pass out on the street.” The last verse features a gunshot, and blood pouring out of a heart, which flows over the guitar and into the wood grain. Sings Williams: “Sun came up it was another day/And the sun went down you were blown away.”
7. Mekons, “Chivalry” (1985)
A great song about one particular bender and the shame that accompanies it, the Mekons’ 1985 gem “Chivalry,” offers a fading-memory portrait of drunken debauchery. “I was out late the other night,” sings Tom Greenhalgh. “Fear and whiskey kept me going/I swore somebody held me tight/But now there’s just no way of knowing.” The singer is drinking to forget someone, looking for her everywhere, hoping and dreading -– and quenching a hearty thirst. The entirety of the album on which “Chivalry” appears, in fact, is one long drunken escapade. “Fear and Whiskey” is the Leeds band’s classic, filled with “darkness and doubt,” rooms with flashing lights, people speaking in tongues, and lots and lots of pints and bars.
8. Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘Gin & Juice’ (1994)
Seagrams gin, to be specific, and Snoop’s got a whole bottle of it. His friends, however, just have empty cups, and the Dogg puts it bluntly in the G-Funk classic “Gin & Juice”: “You got to get yours but fool I gotta get mine.” Snoop, see, has some drinking and driving to do, which he does throughout the song. The Seagrams can’t last forever, though, Luckily for Snoop, he rolls with Dre, who comes through in a pinch not only with a beat but also with “a gang of Tanqueray.” Here’s to good friends, to the laidback life, to rolling down the street, mind on the money, money on the mind.
9. Loretta Lynn, ‘Wine, Women and Song’ (1964)
The recipe referenced in the lyrics long predates 1964, the year Loretta Lynn sang it to the tune of a country hit. Yet attitude wise, Lynn leans more to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, as she sees right through her misbehaving man and blasts a reckless lifestyle as little more than a waste of money. There’s never a doubt as to who’s going to win in the end, as Lynn keeps her cool while singing over a downright devilish piano. There’s the underlying sense that by the time the boy starts to ‘thinking and a-giving-up,’ the hangover will be the least of his worries.
10. Paul Westerberg, ‘Here Comes a Regular’ (1985)
“Well, a person can work up a mean, mean thirst/After a hard day of nothin’ much at all,” begins Paul Westerberg in this classic song about the life of the bar and the procrastination that often accompanies it. Besides, “Summer’s passed/It’s too late to cut the grass/There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall.” Thus rationalized, we follow Westerberg into his favorite bar, where he sits on a stool alone and waits for something to happen. And wait. And wait. Nothing happens except the eventual arrival of closing time, and he’s drunk:
First the lights, then the collar goes up, and the wind begins to blow
Turn your back on a pay-you-back, last call
First the glass, then the leaves that pass, then comes the snow
Ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall
Five Songs about Not Drinking, or the Consequences of Drinking.
1. The Louvin Bros. “The Christian Life” (1959)
Those country singers who don’t sing about alcohol oftentimes sing about abstinence. In the Louvin Brothers’ pious “The Christian Life,” made popular when sung ironically by the Byrds in 1968, singers Ira and Charlie acknowledge at the start that peer pressure among their friends is tough: “My buddies tell me that I should have waited/They say I’m missing a whole lot of fun.” But, lo, though the brothers can remain friends with the malingerers, they will not bow to the pressure. The Louvins can’t help but heap a little too much judgment on their partying brethren, though. “Others find pleasures in things I despise/I like the Christian life.” (Keep it to yourself, Louvins.)
2. The Kinks, ‘Alcohol’ (1971)
The first line is the perfect synopsis: “Here is a story about a sinner/He used to be a winner/Who enjoyed a life of prominence and position.” The tale, written by Ray Davies, goes downhill from there. A selfish wife. A floozy. Lies. Drink. The dole. Skid Row. “It’s such a shame,” bemoans Davies with barrelhouse brass band accompaniment, a tuba leading the charge. Eventually, he lists the many varietals that did him in: Barley wine, pink gin, “port, Pernod or tequila, rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks.’ Then he curses his nemesis: “Oh! demon alcohol!/Sad memories I can’t recall!/Who thought I would fall? A slave to demon alchohol!”
3. Wilco, ‘Passenger Side’ (1995)
Poets and musicians have long romanticized nights spent in bars, but far fewer have crafted plaintive waltzes about post-DUI fallout. Don’t look for any lessons here, as Wilco, in its initial country-spiked rock incarnation, turned a potential life-wrecking tragedy into loving ode to the buddy system. ‘You’re gonna make me spill my beer if you don’t learn how to steer,’ Jeff Tweedy sings with near-disarming serenity. Throughout, the guitars possess a matter-of-fact calmness, and the resulting mood is lazy, relaxed and resigned -- almost comfortingly so.
4. Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ (1969)
A razor sharp glimpse into the morning after, this brilliant portrayal of post-Saturday night reality works so well because it rings so true. The night before, drunk, the next morning, headache, grogginess, loneliness, regret. But inside all of that, the world, which, though barely endurable with a headache and a lonely heart, presents itself on a Sunday morning: “In the park I saw a daddy/With a laughin’ little girl who he was swinging.” Further down, a Sunday school is letting out. But in the protaganist’s world, only one thing is true:
On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
‘Cos there’s something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
5. The Fugs, “Coming Down” (1966)
Yes, this song is about a night of debauchery, and booze was probably involved at some point, but mostly, the Fugs’ night in question begins with a morning reality: “I awakened in a pit of ashes,” sings Ed Sanders of the proto-punk folkies the Fugs in 1965, before getting to the point. “Cocaine, cocaine, I’m coming down, I’m coming down.” From there, Sanders travels into an abyss of ashes and screams, ashes and shreiks, ashes and moaning. Ashes. Pits of ashes.
Perhaps the Fugs should have stuck to the drink instead.
But one question still looms: What did we miss? Provide your suggestions in the comments.
-- Randall Roberts & Todd Martens