Politics & Media
Jul 03, 2023, 06:28AM

Top Ten Songs About Drinking

From Johnny Cash to Cat Power.

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"Lost Horizons," written by Doug Hopkins performed by Gin Blossoms (1989): How could a band named after the reddish discoloration of the nose that heavy drinking can cause not find a place on this list? This is the best song ever about alcoholics. Writers are told to write about what they know, and that's what Doug Hopkins did on this song. This line, which occurs throughout the song—"Drink enough of anything to make this world look new again"—says it all, although at the song's end, there's a slight variation—"Drink enough of anything to make myself look new again."

The songwriter's alcoholism didn't interfere with his exceptional songwriting, at least until it contributed to ending his life. His lyrics were pathos-ridden, and depressive, but Gin Blossoms' brilliant vocalist, Robin Wilson, had the ability to make melancholia sound like so much fun that the Tempe, Arizona-based band had a string of hits, including "Lost Horizons." Hopkins, who wrote in this song about being "drunk drunk drunk in the gardens and the graves," died of suicide, after he was kicked out of the band, at age 32 in Tempe.

"Sunday Morning Coming Down," written by Kris Kristofferson, performed by Johnny Cash (1970): This song conveys the pain that can descend on a man with a checkered past after a heavy night of boozing. The hungover narrator has a headache on Sunday morning, so he has a couple of beers. There’s a sense of loss: "Then I crossed the empty street/And caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken/And it took me back to somethin' that I'd lost somehow/Somewhere along the way."

Johnny Cash's version of this song is astounding in the depth and nuance of despair it conveys—despair that the former drug addict felt that once was so severe that he crawled three hours into Tennessee's Nickajack Cave in 1967 in an attempted suicide, but changed his mind on after, as he said, God came to him.

Cash's drug addiction pushed his family away from him at one point, so he probably had many sad Sunday mornings like this: "On the Sunday morning sidewalk/Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned/ 'Cause there's something in a Sunday/Makes a body feel alone."

"Early Morning Rain," written and performed by Gordon Lightfoot (1966): This mournful song by the Canadian troubadour sounds like a companion piece to "Sunday Morning Coming Down." It packs an emotional wallop. This is Canadian national hero Gordon Lightfoot—the poet with the plaintive baritone that worked so well at conveying feelings of solitude and disconnection. Instead of some lonely streets that recall poignant, painful memories, this story takes place just outside of an airport. The narrator longs to reunite with his family, but he's broke, and laments, "You can't jump a jet plane like you can a freight train." He's in a cold and rainy place, and knows that plane could take him where "the morning rain don't fall, and the sun always shines." But that's not going to happen because, as Lightfoot sings it, "I'm stuck here on the ground/Cold and drunk as I can be."

"Here Comes A Regular," written by Paul Westerberg, performed by The Replacements (1985): This mournful "ode" to the corner bar starts off: "Well a person can work up a mean mean thirst/After a hard day of nothin' much at all/Summer's passed, it's too late to cut the grass/There ain't much to rake anyway in the fall." So why not hit the bar and check out all the regulars? Except that this dirge-like song doesn't make that seem like much fun. However bleak and depressing, it's still a triumph of songwriting about a man who's sick of wasting away on a barstool in one of those places where the bartender has your drink poured before you sit down, and you're surrounded by all the same boozers—the regulars—who're drinking for reasons that aren't exactly social. Paul Westerberg is singing about a man who needs to break out of this trap: "Here comes a regular. Am I the only one who feels ashamed?"

"Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," written and recorded by Merle Haggard (1966): The narrator's lovelorn and has self-medicated with booze, but on one particular evening, her memory's so painful that all of his arm-bending at the bar was for naught. This is a straightforward song built on a simple metaphor: the bottle has become the narrator's best buddy after he got dumped, but tonight it didn't come through. The chorus: "Tonight the bottle let me down/And let your memory come around/The one true friend I thought I'd found/Tonight the bottle let me down."

Merle Haggard has a soulful voice and his words come from the heart. He's a master of creating tragic beauty from pain. Millions of people can relate to this song because they've been there too. There's just one oddity in this song. The narrator drinks wine to anesthetize himself—"But the wine don't take effect the way it used to." Since when do country singers get drunk on wine?

"Cracklin' Rosie," written and performed by Neil Diamond (1970): With instrumental backing by Los Angeles session musicians from the Wrecking Crew, this song of "romance" and mystery (his first number one hit), takes some time to figure out, as it uses a more complex metaphor than "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." It starts out: "Oh, Cracklin' Rosie, get on board/We're gonna ride 'til there ain't no more to go/Taking it slow/And Lord, don't you know/Have me a time with a poor man's lady."

So it's about a man trying to get a woman to take a train trip with him? It's about a seductive "woman," but she's a bottle of sparkling wine—a "store-bought woman." While this song's about a man who's lonely because he doesn't have a woman, it's not mournful. More like euphoric, as these lyrics build to a crescendo: "Cracklin' Rose you're a store-bought woman/But you make me sing like a guitar hummin'/So hang on to me, girl our song keeps runnin' on." The more the narrator drinks, the more exhilarated he gets. It's almost as if, unlike Merle Haggard, he doesn't need a woman at all.

"Streams of Whiskey," written by Shane MacGowan, recorded by The Pogues (1984): This was the first song Shane MacGowan wrote for The Pogues, which forged a new sound that infused a punk-rock edge into Irish traditional music. And what better fellow to write about a fantasyland where whiskey flows like wine than MacGowan, who's hardly spent a sober waking moment since his teens? Few acts have celebrated drinking with the enthusiasm of The Pogues. "Streams of Whiskey" is a song purporting to be about a dream that MacGowan had in which he met up with Brendan Behan, the Irish poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright. Behan collapsed in Dublin a bar in 1964 and died at 41, a victim of his own excesses.

The sound is simple: drum, tin whistle, and MacGowan's voice. In this song, the singer has no regrets about the boozy life he's led; he celebrates it. McGowan sings about Behan discussing his "life's philosophies," and the writer responds (this is the chorus): "I am going, I am going/Any which way the wind may be blowing/I am going, I am going/Where streams of whiskey are flowing."

"Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)," written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, performed by the Doors (1967): There's considerable misinformation about this song, including that it was inspired by an incident at L.A.'s Whisky A Go Go, or that it's an old Russian song. Originally it was written for the 1930 German opera, "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," in which it was sung by a chorus of prostitutes. The Doors’ version had a carnivalesque sound—cabaret rock at its finest. The lyrics sound like a typical day in the life of Jim Morrison: "For if we don't find/The next whisky bar/I tell you we must die/I tell you we must die."

"There’s a Tear in My Beer," written and performed by Hank Williams (1950): There has to be a Hank Williams tune—the most important of all country musicians—on this list. The Alabama-born legend knew about liquor. This song is the progenitor of that sub-genre of country music devoted to drinking away lost love. Williams, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, puts it this way in his twangy, hillbilly whine: "There's a tear in my beer/'Cause I'm cryin' for you, dear/You are on my lonely mind." For a tough guy, Williams sure did a lot of crying in his songs.

The singer/songwriter makes a vow: "I'm gonna keep drinking until I'm petrified." His death, after years of alcohol and drug abuse, came in the backseat of a car littered with beer cans and lyric sheets, at the age of 29, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year's Day 1953.

"Lived in Bars," written and performed by Cat Power (2006): Cat Power, known for her emotionally unflinching songs, starts off with some mournful piano chords in this surreal song: "Swords and arches, bones and cement/The light and the dark of the innocence of men," but it gets happier as it progresses. The Atlanta-born singer-songwriter's been frank about her past troubles with alcohol, which informs this ambiguous song with lyrics like this: “There's nothing like living in a bottle/And nothing like ending it all for the world." "Life in Bars" is a mystery, but Cat Power's dreamy, raspy voice makes trying to unravel the puzzle so enjoyable.


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