Too Drunk to Rock?

By Maggie Serota 04/23/13

One day you're drunk, the next you're sober. But the songs remain the same: Here are 10 I love to listen to with new ears.

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My life’s discography is comprised of the kind of punk rock screeds, sad bastard ballads and debauched hip-hop tracks that celebrate the rampant booze consumption I mistook for “social drinking.” Now that I have over a year of sobriety, I’ve turned into the type who drinks club soda at rock shows, does yoga before going to bed and has leftover money in my checking account. With this new lifestyle comes a fresh perspective on the drinking songs that were the soundtrack to my formative years and beyond.

Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before - The Smiths

Morrissey didn’t need an entire song to sum up what was problematic about my drinking, he just needed a few lines in a moody song about lost love and regret: “So I drank one/ It became four/ And when I fell on the floor/I drank more.” I can’t count the nights where the space between the first and fourth drink was lost in some time warp. Plus, I appreciate his choice of the word “became”—once he knocks back the first cocktail, all reason and agency go out the window. The next drinks aren’t chosen, they just happen. And they keep happening until he can’t stand up. And then they happen some more. If I could ever pin down when drinks two and three happened, I wouldn’t have had to hang out in church basements. Now when I listen to this song, I can admit that I like to engage in the kind of rampant wallowing Morrissey famously glorifies. However, now I stay vertical while doing so.

Six Pack - Black Flag

In just over one minute, Dez Cadena lays out the isolation and joylessness in hitting bottom, and the delusion it takes for a drunk to still think he’s having a good time. Cadena hits all the alcoholic notes. There's unmanageability: “Thirty-five dollars and a six pack to my name /Six pack! /Spent the rest on beer so who's to blame?/Six pack!” There's isolation: “My girlfriend asks me which one I like better/ Six pack!/ I hope the answer won't upset her.“ This is written by someone who has woken up among the detritus of tall-boy cans after nights spent alone. After Cadena moved from singing to guitar, vocals were taken over by Henry Rollins, a guy who maybe got drunk once. Still, he’s pretty convincing when he spits out the opening line: “I’ve got a six pack/And nothing to do/I’ve got a six pack/And I don’t need you.” The further I get into sobriety, the more I start to identify with the Rollins version; while he didn’t write the lyrics, he certainly knows how to communicate the pronounced disdain.

Whiskey and Water - Tindersticks

Whiskey was always unpleasant to the taste and downright painful going down my throat. Still, no cranky country singers or gravelly voiced troubadours are dropping references to cake-flavored vodka when penning their working-class anthems to heartbreak. For me, whiskey was a means to an end—to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. I never savored the taste, and it certainly didn’t lead to any sexy brooding and cool posturing, as displayed by Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples. Instead, I just barfed a lot. In fact, whiskey caused me to barf my way right into the ER and into sobriety. So, in a sense, I guess I owe whiskey a debt of gratitude. Now that I’ve cleaned up, I’m no closer to understanding whiskey’s place as the songwriter’s muse. That might have something to do with the fact that the smell alone reminds me of waking up in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm, spending the following few days throwing up. I know the Leonard Cohen-types love to romanticize pain, but there’s nothing alluring about not being able to take a sip of water without violently spewing. Thankfully, songwriters like Stuart Staples have been willing to acquire that taste for me.


Brass Monkey - The Beastie Boys

At one point drinking was actually fun, otherwise I doubt I’d have spent years enduring hangovers, beer bloat and the occasional bout of alcohol poisoning. The titular drink is half of a 40 mixed with orange juice. When I was 20, Mountain Dew seemed like a perfectly acceptable mixer. The revolting combination of Dr. Pepper and Jack Daniels was the drink of choice when spending a Friday night in a wood-paneled basement in South Jersey, watching The Simpsons with a bunch of stoners. Never mind the fact that in a few hours, the combination would make me feel like my insides were melting. About two weeks after ending my drinking career, I went to a wedding. Back in the day, going to a wedding was like winning the drunk lottery. Instead, I awkwardly shuffled around the edge of the dance floor until the DJ dropped “Brass Monkey. At that point, I lost all inhibitions and danced poorly, but unselfconsciously, and with great enthusiasm. It was the first inkling I had that not drinking might actually work out. In fact, it might even be fun.


Drinker’s Peace - Guided By Voices

About 10 years ago, I saw Guided By Voices live in Philadelphia. It was the first time I had ever seen the singer of a band bring his beer cooler on stage with him and position it within arm’s reach. Every time Bob Pollard pulled a bottle out of the cooler, he made a grand gesture of flinging it towards the venue’s ceiling and catching it, as if he was twirling batons in a beauty pageant. He had no problem siphoning down at least six or seven within an hour. Despite the fact that Bob Pollard is a brilliant and prolific songwriter and Guided By Voices were known for playing two and a half hour sets, I left about halfway through because Pollard became sloppy to the point of embarrassment. Never mind that I spent more time at the bar than watching the show. Being in the presence for an unapologetic binge drinker served as a yardstick—my drinking didn’t seem so bad. Hey, I never downed seven beers in an hour. Ten years later, Bob Pollard isn’t my drunk yardstick; he’s a talented song-writer whose work I can enjoy. Also, I’m usually listening to his work on vinyl, so I’m spared the visual of him stumbling around the edge of a stage tossing foamy beers in the air.


Only When I’m Drunk - Tha Alkoholiks

This under-appreciated '90s hip-hop gem celebrates the loose inhibitions that come with a dose of liquid courage. Tha Alkaholik’s litany of drunken behavior includes waving a gun around, drunk dialing and beer goggling. If I had written this song, my Only When I’m Drunk behavior would include trying to climb a traffic light, passing out in the hallway of my apartment building, and screaming at a girl till she cried at a fourth of July barbeque. Needless to say, the things that "only happened when I was drunk" pretty much sucked. Listening to this song now, I remember that perverse pride I had in engaging in completely ridiculous behavior. However, I also remember the fact that in the long run, I didn’t really like the person I became when I drank. In my new life, I’m not the last person drinking at the party. A lot of times I even leave events early, but there’s a certain freedom in knowing that when I wake up in the morning, it’s without the mystery bruises and the nagging dread that I owe someone an apology.


Citrus - The Hold Steady

It’s hard to single out just one song about drinking from the group NPR once dubbed “America’s Bar Band.” In this gem, singer Craig Finn borrows a lot of New Testament imagery to romanticize the insincerity and empty debauchery that takes place at your standard dive bar. Hearing this song in sobriety makes me glad that I no longer hang out in these kinds of filthy dives. These days, the last place I’d rather be is a makeshift speakeasy, sitting at a high school cafeteria, listening to a guy who may or may not be a coke dealer explain how his gunshot wounds narrowly missed his kidney, as charming as that may sound.


Drink Away The Pain (Situations) - Mobb Deep featuring Q-Tip

Mobb Deep’s mid-90s collaboration with Q-Tip offers one of the most straightforward and unapologetic reasons for drinking. The fact that people drink to forget heartbreak isn’t hidden in metaphor. Sometimes life sucks. We drink to forget about it. Case closed. Right before bottoming out, I was facing a housing emergency where I had to find a new place to live in an impossible deadline on almost no money. That night, the guy I was dating handed me a bottle of Jim Beam saying, “this is for you because you’ve had a bad day.” I must have considered the gift romantic, because I jokingly referred to the whiskey as “flowers that make the pain go away.” Months later, when that guy quietly left without explanation, I went out and bought myself some more “flowers.” So yeah, you could say I have some experience with drinking the pain away. After quitting, the need to drink away the pain lessened as the actual pain lessened. Once I sobered up, life became stable. I found that I didn’t encounter things like “housing emergencies,” or guys whose idea of emotional support entailed dropping off liquor before vanishing into the ether. Funny how those things work out.


Kiss The Bottle - Jawbreaker

This ode to a drunk and destitute couple illustrates the worst kind of cautionary skid-row tale, that point where an alcoholic stops living and starts simply existing. In this case, existing includes living off of spare change inside a squat. When I initially pried the bottle out of my mouth, I was under the impression that I endured what is known as a "high bottom." Sure, I’m an alcoholic, but I’m not that bad of an alcoholic, right? When I finally bottomed out, I still had an apartment, a job, my teeth and people in my life who would speak to me. However, the more distance I get from my drinking, the darker that period seems. There’s nothing “high” or enviable about blacking out to the point where I had to be told about an ambulance ride I couldn’t remember. In my drinking days, I could listen to the squalor of the lice infested floors and the panhandling mentioned in this song and think it was a world far removed from anything I knew. Now that I’m operating with clarity, I see it as the most common possible ending had I continued drinking.

Too Drunk To Fuck - The Dead Kennedys

Bay Area punk icon Jello Biafra spent a lot of time writing songs lambasting Ronald Reagan and US foreign policy. He stepped off his soapbox to pen this ode to one of drinking’s greatest Catch-22s: drinking in the hopes of getting laid, only to get too drunk to complete the act. I’ve been on the receiving end of these anti-climactic transactions more times than I care to admit. Usually, it ended up with the guy saying, “let’s pick this up in the morning,” before rolling over and passing out. Nothing killed the mood more than waking up hung-over with a guy who looked markedly less attractive in the morning’s light. Now that I’m sober, I’m probably supposed to hear this song and compare it to the fulfilling—conscious, even—sex life I’m allegedly enjoying now. That would be great, if I was actually having any sex. Historically, booze has played some role in getting almost every hook-up, dating situation or relationship off the ground. Dating in sobriety is a Brave New World, and one I’ve yet to explore. Still, sleeping alone is more fulfilling than a forgettable drunken tryst with a far less memorable partner.

Maggie Serota is a music writer in New York and the co-host of the Low Times podcast.

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