Everybody likes a drink. Everybody loves a drinker. There’s nothing like booze to make life a little more colourful, fun and generally worth living.
Well, maybe not exactly. Most of us know that, like any other highs, alcohol has its lows. For some, it has the nasty habit of destroying lives.
Yet it is a weird fact that, in our confused culture, booze gets some great PR. A public figure who drinks too much will tend to be affectionately and sympathetically portrayed in the press. Think of the journalist Jeffrey Bernard, or Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, or Oliver Reed: their work and lives may have suffered but, in terms of image, becoming an alcoholic was a sound career move. It gave them that whiff of outrageousness, that hint of tragedy, that we like to see in people whose lives provide entertainment for the rest of us.
The booze PR machine has done a great job in the area of songs, too. It is celebrated in every genre, from Mario Lanza and The Drinking Song, to John Lee Hooker an ‘One Whisky, One Bourbon, One Beer’, From ‘Whisky in the Jar’ to any number of recent mainstream pop tunes – a quick trawl on YouTube finds Rihanna’s ‘Cheers, I’ll Drink To That’.
Country music leads the field when it comes to maudlin drink songs, like ‘There Stands the Glass’ (brilliantly revived by Van Morrison in 2006), ‘Feeling Single, Seeing Double’, ‘Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down’ and Willie Nelson’s great early hit I Gotta Get Drunk‘.
‘Well I gotta get drunk
And I sure do dread it
‘Cause I know just what I’m gonna do
I’ll start to spend my money
Calling everybody honey
And wind up singing the blues.’
Re-issuing a later version, Willie Nelson would talk about the damage drink did to him but, as is almost always the case when a songwriter tackles booze, the song that emerged from him was more a celebration than a warning.
‘There’s more old drunks
Than there are old doctors
So I guess we’d better have another round.’
In fact, very few tears-in-my-beer, set-’em-up-Joe songs reflect the other side of the glass. That may sound prim, but I find it interesting that lovers of folk and country music claim that it is their honesty about everyday life that distinguishes their genre – ‘three chords and the truth’ and all that – and yet, in this particular area, the truth almost always takes second place to the fantasy.
That makes ‘I Drink’ by Mary Gauthier unusual and powerful. From its defiantly stark title to its bleary vocal delivery, here is a country song that is not playing the game. It’s neither roistering nor self-pitying. There’s no trace of laughter and good company here: the lyrics are about loneliness , about drinking to kill the pain of daily life, about a desolate gift passed from one generation to the next:
‘He’d get home at 5:30
Fix his drink, sit down in his chair
Pick a fight with mama
Complain about us kids getting in his hair.
At night he’d sit alone and smoke
I’d see his frown behind his lighter’s flame
Now that same frown’s in my mirror
I got my daddy’s blood inside my veins.’
The best story-songs imply a hinterland without spelling it out. Mary Gauthier not only captures dreariness and poverty (‘Chicken TV dinner, six minutes on defrost, three on high’) but cleverly includes stinging lyrics just where you least expect it – in the opening of the chorus:
‘Fish swim, birds fly
Daddies yell, mamas cry…’
It feels authentic, because it is. Mary Gauthier, who was adopted, ran away from her foster-home when she was 15 and spent her sixteenth birthday in a teenage rehab centre. Over the years that followed, she was, she has written, ‘a mess. It got very, very dark, and I am simply lucky to be alive’.
I first heard the song on a CD for Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Bob’s theme was ‘Drinking’ – you can hear the whole show here – and, among the treasures that he dug up was another ‘I Drink’, an English version of ‘Je Bois by Charles Aznavour. I like Aznavour’s songs but this one, a wild and riotous rant against the cruelties of life, doesn’t work for me.
‘I drink to drive away all the years I have hated
The ambitions frustrated that no longer survive
I drink day after day to the chaos behind me
Yes, I drink to remind me that still I’m alive.’
It’s too sweeping, too universal. The best songs and stories, for me, are specific and local. I’m not entirely convinced by Aznavour’s narrator; I can see Gauthier’s. (She says that, in her mind, it was a man who sang the song – and indeed the country singer Bobby Bare has covered it – but I think this is a woman’s song ).
Mary Gauthier has written some other great songs – ‘Mercy Now’ and a new CD around the plight of war veterans ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ – but for me none of them quite has the dark, primal force of ‘I Drink’.