A Biologist's St. Patrick's Day Song, alcohol, Beyond Belief, Broad Majestic Shannon, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, drunkalog, Elvis Costello, Hi and Lo, Irish Whiskey, Jim Morrison, Joey, Johnny Cash, Margaritaville, Rancid, Semi-charmed Life, Shane MacGowan, Sunday Morning Comin' Down, The Pogues, Tubthumping
This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel.
There are a handful of songs that, to me, really capture the essence of being an alcoholic. I mean this in a good way, but use the term to differentiate from songs about going out and having some drinks.
Number 10. Wastin’ Away Again
For many, this might be the song about drunkenness. It rates so low on my list because familiarity breeds contempt. Growing up, I’d heard it so many times on the radio that I never really bothered to listen to it. “Lost shaker of salt?” I guess I knew that salt makes Margaritas, blah blah blah, but so what.
Once I actually listened, really listened, to the whole thing, though, I realized it has many features of the songs further down on this list – all rolled into one. The epiphany came too late in life to earn this any better than #10.
Number 9. If You’re Hurtin’, So Am I
It’s a song about co-dependence, not dependence. That has to drop it a few notches.
This song forms a vivid image of the destruction that spreads outward from a destructive habit. It is the sorrowful expression of someone who has cared too much and has finally decided to draw a line.
By the way, I finally saw the official video a year or so ago, and it really ruins it for me. My image of Joey was a 20-something in a leather jacket, not a guy in a suit. At the same time, stay away from the YouTube videos that don’t use the studio recording of the song. Johnette needs a little post-processing to help out on this one.
Number 8: No Long Term Potentiation
Somehow, I’ve got this one all the way up to number eight, despite not even being a real song.
The pseudo-Irish folk, semi-scientific description of drinking is profound for a number of reasons. First, a good buzz always enhances humor in something that you just know would be funny if you actually understood it. Who cares, just laugh and have another beer. The rhymes are amazingly descriptive “Diuretic activation, urination, urination, urination, dehydration, give me a beer.” It also helps that, at least for those of the right ethnic background, nothing goes together like drunkenness and Irish folk songs.
Finally, it’s his expressions. The slight slur of speech, the redness of face, and the goofily earnest expressions (especially as he reaches for the beer at the end) all emit a genuine aura of liquid-induced courage. I can’t say whether it’s good acting or he’s had a few to help with the filming, but he’s got so much of it just right.
I’ve linked to the “original” version of the song, where he falsely describes fermentation as a form of anaerobic oxidation because it rhymed so well. He’s corrected his mistake, but a) the added vocals detract from, not add to, the charm and b) the original rhyme really did work.
Number 7: Oh Danny Boy, Danny Boy, Danny Boy
Speaking of the songs that go with drinking, Tubthumping managed to take the ridiculous singing that accompanies a drunken night and combine those lyrics with no more than a dozen other words, creating an almost four minute hit song.
The catchy tunes and rhythms, along with an actual prescription for getting ripped (Whiskey + Vodka + Lager +Cider) made this, itself, a good song to actually accompany a night of drinking. It’s not what I was going for, at all, in this list. But combined with the fact that it does, if in a bit too much of try-hard manner, capture the chaos of a drunken night, that puts this at number seven.
Number 6: Turn the Lights Up Over Every Boy and Every Girl
Semisonic’s Closing Time makes the list because of, perhaps, when it came out and my own fuzzy memories of the lights coming in the bar. At 11:30 PM, 4AM seems a lifetime away. As the night goes on and the BAC rises, the potential of the night seems like it must, eventually, fulfill itself. All of that hope comes crashing down 3:50 or so when the lights come up, and you realize you’ve wasted yet another Saturday night.
The song is said to be written about birth and fatherhood. I’ve never heard it that way. To me, it was a musical framing of those godawful words when the liquor laws of the State of New York have once again shined a light upon what a loser you are.
Number 5: I’m a Drunk and a Sentimental Man
The high-functional drunk is always workin’ for the weekend, at which point a week’s worth of every emotion imaginable is released in a cloud of “mustard gas and roses (Vonnegut)”.
Irish Whiskey juxtaposes the souless existence that surely drives a man to drink along with the relief (or perhaps focused anger) that might accompany some over-indulgence with one’s fellow travelers.
The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies made their name by capitalizing on the Big Band craze of the late 90s, but it is their ska-core works that really stand out.
Number 4: The Four Right Chords Can Make Me Cry
Once you pay attention to the lyrics, it is obvious this song is about drug use (specifically Chrystal Meth). However, the intent of the song is to reproduce the seductiveness of the chemically-altered life while, all the while, you know that what you are doing is no good for you. No good at all.
Semi-Charmed Life reflects, darkly, the overwhelming of the senses during the big, outdoor festival concerts of the 1990s. Before Lollapalooza and its ilk became annual summer tours, Southern California had any number of small-time festivals filled with skate-punks, too much sun, illegal margaritas, and those California girls. In the end not much came of it besides the hangovers but, back then, I did believe in the sand beneath my toes.
Number 3: All Drunk and Sad at 4AM
As much as I hate to include a single band twice in this list, the song Hi and Lo is special to me. It captures, in all of about 3 minutes, a lifetime of drinking, falling down, aging, and, perhaps, moving beyond?
This song’s special place in my heart, and on this list, is enhanced by vague memories of a night out in Boston with the CPDs on stage and very, very dry martinis in hand. The darkest hour turned brighter than a rose.
By the way – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies? Can you even say that anymore?
Number 2: The Disappearing Dreams of Yesterday
Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.
Lines like “No way to hold my head that didn’t hurt,” and “The beer I had for breakfast” would put this at the top of a lot of people’s songs-o’-drinking list. But for me, what gets it to the number two position is the description of the “sleeping city sidewalk.”
If the only effect of drinking were the times that we were drunk, it would be all rainbows and happiness (plus a bunch of bar fights). What really characterizes the hardcore drinker is the emptiness of the morning after. The physical effects of a hangover are bad enough. But the emotions; of loss, of loneliness, of time wasted; these can be far more burdening than a headache that you know will pass. Those feelings also respond much quicker to that “hair of the dog,” inviting the risk of true physical damage to help salve the emotional damage.
Johnny Cash’s version is the one that gets it just right (although I’m partial to the Me First version as well.) The Man in Black knew substance abuse.
In any case, a song that has you drinking on a Sunday morning is one that knows the alcoholic. “There ain’t nothin’ short of dyin’…”
Johnny Cash’s problems with drugs and the drink may have been significant, but they didn’t define him. Jim Morrison on the other hand… I really felt this list should have had a Doors song. “Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer…” fits the theme, but the song, overall, doesn’t quite make it. Their cover of Moon of Alabama is another also-ran. Many of us amateurs may also “believe in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.” Or whatever. It sounded better when I was drunk.
Late December, 1933. Prohibition had just ended and the alcohol was flowing again. Seems like just subject for a song. In fact, The Four Season‘s Oh What a Night was originally written about the end of prohibition, but was changed to be “late December 1963” before release. Even still, lines like “didn’t even know her name” can ring true.
This is probably another case of a song coming out at just the right time in my life, but I’ll give Oasis an honorable mention. Of course, if you’ve ever actually had a Sunday-morning Champagne Supernova, the mere title of this one might speak to you.
The Dead Kennedys, I suppose, were a little bit before my time and so Too Drunk to Fuck didn’t really sing to me like it may have to some others. I do know at last one fella whose experience, as documented, caused him to give up the drink.
Speaking of which, I figured Rancid would probably get a number on here, but once again the songs have bits and pieces of the theme without having that one song that does it. In Nihilism, he was “So full of scotch [he] could not stand up” (BTDT), and the line “I started thinkin’ you know I started drinkin’. You know I don’t remember too much of that day” describes many a start and “the music execution and the talk of revolution” many of finish, back in the day (Roots Radicals). Somehow, I couldn’t find a place for Rancid on my list.
Anyhow, can we have a drum roll please?
Number 1: There was Whiskey on Sunday and Tears on Our Cheeks
The Pogues were going to make this list one way or another. They may have even had a shot at multiple entries, but I certainly don’t want to do that multiple times.
There is one Pogues song that captures some of the best features of the other nine songs on list. Drunk on a Sunday afternoon. Drinking with the old group of friends. Drunk as the sun comes up. Getting all weepy about a rusty tin can. Besides all that, it is a beautiful song.
When Shane MacGowan wrote The Broad Majestic Shannon, he envisioned it for the Clancy Brothers. He said he hoped that they would hear it and record their own version. Many years later, Liam Clancy joked that he would have recorded it, but he couldn’t understand what Shane was saying. Or maybe he wasn’t joking.
Take my hand and dry your tears, babe.
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe.
There’s no pain. There’s no more sorrow.
They’re all gone. Gone in the years, babe.