by Duane Swierczynski, Marty Beckerman, Tribe, Brian Lewandowski, and Jody McNarland
by Duane Swierczynski
A week before I got married, my fiancee Meredith and I went camping with my father-in-law-to-be and his wife. I knew Dad-in-law was a scotch man, so in an effort to impress him, I purchased a bottle of Laphroaig, one of the finer single-malts. After the womenfolk went to bed, I proudly displayed the bottle. Dad-in-law’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, let’s have a quick one.” A quick five or six later, we were both pretty much schnookered. And that’s when my Dad-in-law decided to let me in on a little family secret. That secret promptly burned a hole through even the deep fog of a good scotch drunk, and frightened me down to my very soul.
We had one last one in a strange sort of muted silence, then decided to call it a night. But I couldn’t sleep. The next morning, I grabbed Meredith’s arm.
“Sweetheart,” I said as calmly as possible. “Did you know that your Dad used to break legs for the Mafia?”
Meredith’s laughter could be heard echoing throughout the campsite. Truth was, my Dad-in-law hadn’t so much as broken chicken legs at a Mafia banquet.
That single of bottle of Laphroaig set the tone not only for my marriage, but also my relationship with my father-in-law, for years to come.
Duane Swierczynski is the author of The Wheelman, a crime novel, as well as two books on booze: The Perfect Drink For Every Occasion and The Big Book O’ Beer.
Booze and Banjos
Bill C. Malone, in his seminal history Country Music, U.S.A., notes the “moral dichotomy” present in country music: “[t]he rural South’s reputation as the home of both corn whiskey and Prohibition, and the land of hell-raising good old boys and God-fearing fundamentalists….” Of course, “corn whiskey” and “hell-raising” are just variations on the theme.
And I’ll drink to that.
After all, country music reached its stylistic zenith with its influential Honky Tonk branch, and its accompanying ethos of whiskey and women, and lots of it. Aside from the Hank Williams death-wish mythos, Honky Tonk generally called for its adherents to exalt in the race to reach the bottom of the glass.
Just listen to Ernest Tubb “drivin’ nails in [his] coffin everytime [he] drink[s] a bottle of booze.” He doesn’t sing that with even a hint of sadness or regret. He sings it matter of fact, because he’s accepted his fate. So he invites us to stomp along with him to the bitter end.
But still, sometimes the booze just isn’t enough, as Merle Haggard reminds us in “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” Haggard is beyond the joyous fatalism of Tubb’s “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin.” The whiskey is usually a reliable tool to drown the senses and get her away from Old Hag’s mind. Tonight though “the bottle let [him] down and let [her] memory come around….”
Yet, Haggard is drunker than he lets on, because instead of the booze making him forget, it just intensifies the memories. It’s not depressing though, as anyone who has ever lived through a drunken sing-a-long to this tune blaring on the jukebox can attest.
Nevertheless, it’s not a party for everybody all the time. Johnny Cash shows that in “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” All we can feel is pity for Johnny when he wakes up Sunday morning, has his beer breakfast and “fumble[s] through [his] closet and [finds his] cleanest dirty shirt.” The pathos expressed here is the most emotionally devastating that can be encountered in popular music.
Women aren’t immune to the perils of liquor. If anything, the consequences are more dire. Loretta Lynn realizes that the worst thing for a woman is to be a honky tonk girl. As Lynn sees it “[a]ll he ever gave [her] was a reason to go bad” and she’s ashamed at where her heartbreak has led her. She ends “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” with what are probably the saddest lines in all country music: “So turn that jukebox way up high, and fill my glass up while I cry, I’ve lost everything in this world, and now I’m a honky tonk girl.”
Alcohol and country is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. The links between country music and the desire for mind-altering substances run deeper still, and reach back to America’s birth.
One of the oldest, if not the most popular, of the old fiddle tunes that came over from Britain and took root in Appalachia is “Soldier’s Joy.” While the lyrics don’t make a whole lot of sense, there’s no mistaking the sensibility behind the phrase “it’s twenty-five cents for the morphine, fifteen cents for the beer, twenty-five cents for the morphine, to take me away from here.” It’s debatable whether “Soldier’s Joy” is a reference to army payday or the opiate, but to listen to the Skillet Lickers’ raucous 1929 recording, with war whoops and the crazed fiddlin’ of Gid Tanner and Clayton McMichen, is to wonder if the extra ten cents for the strong stuff is indeed the cause for jubilation.
It’s no wonder the fiddle was always considered the Devil’s instrument by the Evangelists.
But the point of the floating lyrics of “Soldier’s Joy” isn’t so much the availability of morphine as the fact that a cheaper alternative is always available. Judging from the fine time the Skillet Lickers sound like they’re having on “Soldier’s Joy,” not to mention the reputation they cultivated as whiskey-makers and drinkers, it would be no surprise that Gid and the boys were properly stoked by the time they arrived at the studio.
Side by side with the old mountain fiddle tunes an array of banjo tunes developed from the old British-Scot ballads and African-American blues. While the original fiddle tunes are by their nature played fast for dancers and generally intended for revelry, much of the solo banjo music was darker in tone and theme.
There’s no better, or more grim example, than Dock Boggs’ 1927 recording of “Country Blues.” Boggs, described by Greil Marcus as sounding “as if his bones were coming out of his skin every time he opened his mouth,” did his own share of moonshining.
“Country Blues” is extraordinary, not only because of the sheer incandescence of Boggs’ performance, but for the sordidness of its story. We don’t find out until half-way through the tune that the singer is in jail, and a haunted one at that. Before that we hear the story of a weekend of drinking and loose women told in disjointed scenes.
After the singer’s revelation of his situation, the remainder of the tune is familiar to any Twelve-Stepper. Dock Boggs nearly incomprehensible mountain ramblings recognize that the only out is death, which he anticipates when he asks the good people to “go dig a hole in the meadow…go dig a hole in the ground.”
Even though life might be shit in the here and now, Boggs’ knows that things will be better once its all over: “Give me corn bread when I’m hungry, good people, corn whiskey when I’m dry, pretty women a-standing around me, sweet heaven when I die.”
A jihadist couldn’t wish for better.
I don’t know if Homer Simpson is a country music fan. But when he reflects to note that alcohol is “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems,” believers in the music know exactly where he’s coming from.
Tribe’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Plots With Guns, Thrilling Detective, Plots With Guns: A Noir Anthology, Crimespree Magazine and the Fuck Noir anthology. Tribe maintains the flash fiction site at Flashing In the Gutters.
Ode to the Love of My Life
by Brian Lewandowski
Okay. I have no idea what I am writing here. I wanted to extol the virtues of alcohol so that years from now when I am dead and ironically infamous, you can point out what a drunk I was.
But then my computer died. So I drank. Then I got around to getting it fixed. Now I have no time to write this piece. So I thought I would fool you with a grandiose title. Of course since that isn’t working for me, I am going to try Tact Numero Two. I will replace words in famous poems with the word “bourbon.” What a freaking hack I am.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as bourbon.
Bourbon whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
Bourbon that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
Bourbon that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make bourbon.
What a gal that Joyce Kilmer was. She loved her bourbon and even let bourbon trickle and tickle her breasts! What’s that? Joyce was a man? Oh shit. That is so Brokeback! (By the way, I am having an awful time watching rodeo these days.)
Okay, let’s try another:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the bourbon, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the bourbon, and shun
The frumious bourbon!”
See now there ya go. That Lewis Carroll had it right. Start drinking as you write the poem. Start slurring your words right off the bat. What’s that? Lewis Carroll had a thing for pre-pubescent boys? Christ. These poets led such deceitful lives. No wonder they all drank.
O Bourbon my Bourbon! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Bourbon lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Good old Walt Whitman. Sloppy drunk but a wordsmith of the highest no, you’re kidding me. Him too? Are you telling me that all poetry is less than manly? No! I won’t have it. I can write poetry. I can show you that a straight fellow can knock out poems with the best of them. I can! I can. Just watch:
Roses are red.
Violets are blue.
Drank too much bourbon.
And threw up on my shoe.
Brian Lewandowski offers his apologies to Joyce “Knock’Em Back” Kilmer, Lewis “I’ll Have Another” Carroll and Walt “Line ‘Em Up Barkeep” Whitman. Brian, not politically correct or particularly trendy, would still like to be known as more of a “Midnight Cowboy” sort of guy. His wife has always thought his hands were effeminate and he recently wrangled up some grub. So who knows. Brian Lewandowski writes utter crap like this quite often at brianlewandowski.com.
Wow, I Love Booze
by Marty Beckerman
Fuckin’ A. Last night I blew $50 on 2 Amber Ales, 1 Gin & Tonic, 1 Bacardi 151 shot, 1 Muddy Orgasm (Amaretto/Bailey’s/Jäger) and 3 shots of Basil Hayden’s bourbon to make up for the Homosexual Muddy Orgasm. (Naturally I ordered the bourbon straight. Ha! Ha! Get it? No AIDS juice for any of my holes!)
When I arrived home, My Beautiful Girlfriend hardly appreciated my Singing/Staggering/ Smelly Semitic Self.
“If you keep being obnoxious,” she said specifically, “I’m going to punch you in the balls.” She was PMSing. As usual. And she knocked by balls into my intestines.
“Fuck you, bitch,” I squealed, writhing on the bedroom floor. “I’m going to fucking cheat on you for this, and I’ll never tell you when.”
“Nooooooooooooooo,” she whined. “You’re kidding, right? You’d never really cheat on me, would you? Please don’t please don’t please no no no.”
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I love drinking. A few years ago I had such an easier time living up to my reputation as a Complete Asshole. I’ve mellowed; I’ve lost my edge; I’ve learned to keep my mouth closed in exchange for Sweet Tang, but when I’m drunk I feel free and wild and untamed like a Deadly Tiger in the Jungle or a Tau Delta in the Jacuzzi. (Sororiwhoooooooooooooooooooores!)
Strangely, I once hated alcohol. Not only the taste – naturally I gagged when I first sipped beer at a friend’s bar mitzvah – but its social utility: My mind filled with Feminist Propaganda, I thought it was depressing when girls drank away their sadness & fucked anyone who temporarily made them feel temporarily worthwhile.
Now I realize that this is Fucking Awesome. If alcohol makes people feel better & driving more interesting, what’s the problem? If a chemical helps you deal with life & forget all your insecurities, why not? What’s so fucking wrong with fun?
Fuck Love. Booze is My Bride. She lifts my spirits when I’m down and keeps me honest – sometimes too honest – and never punches My Fucking Testicles. So the next time you see me lying facedown in the gutter, hair caked with vomit, various stains on my trousers, lips chapped and eyes bloodshot, drilling my fingers into my temples, used condom still rolled over my exposed penis – which is coated with Crack Whore Vaginal Slime – just remember: I’m Fucking Happy and You’re Dead Inside.
Marty Beckerman is the author of Generation S.L.U.T. and Death To All Cheerleaders. His next book, Retard Nation, will be released later this year.
The Only One For Me
by Jody McNarland
I crossed whisky off of my list when I was fifteen, no need to go into the details. Rye was eliminated after the first sniff. Tequila was out after one unfortunate night that involved a shot glass, a salt shaker, a swimming pool and a scoundrel. Gin is on the list for appearances only, I do enjoy watching it glow under black-light. Actually, drinking it makes me think of taking malarial medicine.
Have you guessed what’s left? I’ll give you a hint: it lives in my freezer.
Vodka. Beautiful, smooth, icy mouth to hot belly Russian water. And while I’ve had a grand old time drinking it straight and warm from a jelly jar while arguing European currency and film noir, nothing beats it in a Woo Woo.
A what? A Woo Woo.
Equal parts vodka and peach schnapps, double that amount in cranberry juice. Shaken and aggressively chilled in a martini glass. Sounds girly I know but there isn’t an umbrella or piece of plastic frippery in sight. No froth. No fruit. Just a cold astringent glass of clean.
I’ve never seen it on a menu or drink list. I’ve never met a bartender that’s heard of it. Aside from the 1922 hosts book in which I discovered it, I’ve never found it listed in any recipe book at all.
It’s my drink of many faces. It fits me when I’m flirty and demure, when my woo woo is whispered and more like a pucker. It fits when I’m crackling with energy and my woo woo sounds like I’m competing with the coyotes. It fits when I’m swimming in Russian gloom, the world is cold and my woo woo calls to the distant trains.
Sorry. I’m waxing rhapsodic. That happens sometimes. Especially when I’ve been drinking vodka; it goes with the territory.
Jody McNarland lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s not quite Moscow, but vodka can warm its cold winters nonetheless.