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  • Daniel Messé

When I Was Drinking

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Okay, it’s no secret that I like a good "drunk song" (not to be confused with a "drinking song," which is something you sing while getting drunk with other people, or even a "tear-in-your-beer song" which is something you sing while getting drunk alone). No, the drunk song isn’t so much about the act of drinking, as it is about actually being a drunk. Addiction, both in literal terms as well as a metaphor for the pull the past can have, has certainly played a role in my own life as it has in my songwriting (see When I Was Drinking, Pacific Street, The Pills Stopped Working, Tourniquet, et al), and I still love the dark possibilities that the genre presents. Here are some of my all-time favorites:

Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn: The granddaddy of all drunk songs. Boozy double and triple-rhymes stumble about in the verses, but what I really love is the way traditional song-form breaks down as the narrator downs too many “twelve-o’clock tales,” leading up to what is possibly the greatest lyrical understatement in all of American song: “Romance is mush / Stifling those who strive / So I’ll live a lush life in some small dive...”

Something Cool by Billy Barnes: An extended dramatic monologue in song, this is one of my favorite songs ever. Imagine it's the hottest day of summer and you’re drinking away the afternoon in some dive bar, when this washed-out rose sits down next to you and sings, “Something cool / I'd like to order something cool…” It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from what follows, but I’d have to go with this awe-inspiring lyric: “You Like my dress? / Well, I must confess it's very old / But it's simple and neat / And it's just right for this heat / Hey, I will save my furs for the cold.”. Like Lush Life, this song spirals away from traditional song-form as the heat and the booze catch up with our girl. It’s hard to beat Julie London’s vampy delivery, but for my money, Rickie Lee Jones recorded the definitive version of this song. She manages to perfectly capture the crumbling bravado of the character, and evokes both her charm and her insanity in equal measure. Recorded live, it only appeared on an import of her astonishing EP, Girl at Her Volcano. Check it out!

The Last Time I Saw Richard by Joni Mitchell: This lyric scans like a short story; a cascade of closely-observed physical details (the “barmaid in fishnet stockings and a bowtie”) and pitch-perfect dialogue (“’Richard, you haven’t really changed’, I said / ‘It’s just that now you’re romanticizing some pain that’s in your head…’”). The great mystery for me is how the hell this lyric sings so beautifully. Nothing sounds forced or gets in the way of the beautiful melody. If I have any complaint at all, it’s that the lyric is too articulate; I mean, she supposed to be drunk, “hiding behind bottles”, yet she is the most insightful, well-spoken drunk I’ve ever heard.

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