Playing music and drinking have been productive bedfellows for centuries. Combined, they can make for an excellent celebration, but booze isn't always kind to artists. We asked a couple of musicians to share their war stories, and the two you see here represent the best — one each about when it goes right and when it doesn't.
Our band was scheduled to play at a bar in Amarillo. It's a great bar. We always have a blast and we were really looking forward to being back there. It was a burning hot day in the van on the road. Being a proper band van, it had no air-conditioning, but it had shitloads of stickers and spray paint. Our spirits were high! We were blaring Tom Petty and singing along, and were all shirtless, having already sweated through them.
We had whiskey and et cetera to keep the party rolling through six hours of deserted highway and that beating, glaring sun. Three hours into our trip, at almost exactly the middle of nowhere, our poor van couldn't take anymore and gave his last confession through the death-rattle of his transmission. He rolled off to the side of the road and collapsed. Sadly, it was then at his end that we realized how we had taken him for granted. We'd never even christened him. So at his own death, Jeremy Hilary Boob, the Nowhere Van, was born.
There was no way we would make our appointed show that evening. We did manage to call someone who would pick us up from the side of the road, but it would be hours before they arrived. There was not a single bar nor restaurant for miles and miles. Not even a gas station. Not even a Starbucks.
But our band uses mostly acoustic instruments and we began to while away the time playing songs to each other or all together. We also still had most of our handle of whiskey. I'm betting it was Old Crow. Or, if our banjo player bought it, it was that damned Evan Williams. I don't recall. We were disappointed about missing out on fantastic, drunken shenanigans in Amarillo, we were upset at the death of our van, our newest comrade, Jeremy, and we were still hot as shit sitting on the side of a West Texas highway where the trees don't grow.
Regardless, our spirits were up. We were a band. We had whiskey. We had music. We had each other and just enough of a "fuck it" attitude to roll with fate's punches.
That's when the sheriff showed up. I've got a guilty conscience and enough self-awareness to know that I'm probably doing something wrong at any given moment. I'm fairly covered in tattoos and was half-drunk and half-naked, crushing those revered Texas bluebonnets with my sweaty ass, worrying about some of the less-than-legal items that Jeremy's holding and fumbling through a Dylan tune. It wasn't an ideal moment to meet the sheriff.
But here he was. We stood to meet him, expecting the worst kind of country sheriff horror story. He was big. He looked mean. He had a cop uniform and a cowboy hat. That's a double-whammy and I was paranoid. He asked, "You boys in a band?"
"Yes, sir," was the sheepish reply.
"What kinda music y'all play?"
I said, "Uh, sorta like country music."
He asked what that meant, but I couldn't explain. I flanked that confusion by stating that we like Hank and Johnny Cash. He said, "Well, all right then."
The sheriff got a friend of his to tow poor Jeremy to a barn nearby so he wouldn't have to go live at the impound lot. A couple families with a whole bunch of barefooted rugrats showed up and we started playing them some of our tunes. The sheriff disappeared, but returned a while later carrying two cases of Keystone. We managed not to bitch about his selection and the sheriff tossed 'stones all around. We kept on playin' tunes. The kiddos were dancing around in the dirt and thinking that we were famous people. The adults were enjoying the tunes too. Our singer played a few songs by himself while the rest of us chatted up the locals. The barn got darker as the night rolled in, but it was OK there in the dark. It was comfortable. It was a shared humanity.
What started as separate groups of punk city kids, country yokels and a scary sheriff had become simply one single group of people enjoying some whiskey and beers, some music and each other's company. It could have been a dark, lonely West Texas night. But it wasn't.
24 Hours of Music And Ethanol
Many artists are afflicted/blessed with some form of mood/personality disorder.
What do people with mood/personality disorders need to stay level? Medication, and many people choose alcohol. That's a tricky answer, because it tends to enhance both happiness and stress.
Being a touring musician involves a lot of both, and moving from one to the other quickly. Things can devolve quickly for a self-medicating musician. Here's how:
11 a.m.: I wake up on a living room floor, a cot in a motel room (for the fourth week running) or a clean motel bed if I'm lucky. My bandmates are all nearly 10 years older than me, so I always take the cot. I wear it as a badge of sacrificial merit.
Despite my habits, I am the first one up. I relieve myself stealthily and stare at the mirror to gauge physical and mental anguish. I drink some coffee, get some motel breakfast, maybe a little hair of the dog if the previous night was a slobberknocker.
I attempt to rustle up the rest of the band, fail at that, and take a shower thinking about the bartender from last night.
Noon: For the first half of the van ride, we crack a lot of jokes, jive about the previous night's show or antics, argue about where to get lunch (Furr's? Perkin's?). I ask for my per diem in advance in order to pay for lunch. I like to drive, so I drive. Most people don't. Another honor point.
For the second half of the van ride, we sit silently, try to read or sleep, stare at a phone or laptop, or wonder what a woman is doing.
I think about the bartender from last night. I wonder how well I am dealing with being the only drinking member of a five-piece band. I wonder how these quiet hours, when the musicians silently turn inward and dark, drive the extremely neurotic aspects of the performance.
6 p.m.: We arrive at the venue. Considering the show and post-show will last until 2 or 3 in the morning, time is ample. I get out of the van in the God-chosen seasonal elements, open the trailer and help unload all of the heavy equipment while sweating like a fat kid in a North Korean labor camp. Going from the glaring sunset to the dank and cavernous atmosphere of a club is a disorienting feeling. The first thing I see is the liquor. Just seeing the bottle is enough to set the synapses ablaze.
One nice thing about alcohol is that it creates familiarity. No matter if you're in a ballroom in New York, a converted bunker in Moscow or a shithole in Toledo, a shot of whiskey can conjure that warm, fuzzy, familiar feeling. For a brief moment, I'm back in Dixie. Anxiety dips. Endorphins shoot up. But it's just medicine.
Let me digress: Depending on your level of alcohol tolerance, you may be able to drink up until the show and play normally or even excel. Good on you. For the rest of the population (myself included), spending all day getting fucked up before you play only serves to make us think we are playing better. In reality, we're just sweating more, playing more sloppily, and probably disappointing our bandmates. No matter what, be aware. People will know. Unless your liver is made of the same leather as your boots, you will stick out like a sore thumb.
Is there a happy middle ground? Can someone have just a few beers before the show? Probably.
Can I, an alcohol-dependent musician mind-fucked by two weeks of sleeping on a cot, constant travel, late nights, and psychosocial stressors? Um, no.
8 p.m.: It's our second night playing support for a headlining band. A friendly bartender is pouring me free shots of Maker's Mark. Any person with half a brain would take one or two graciously. I decide it's a better idea to continue drinking until performance time, as if the Maker's Mark distillery had gone ablaze and I am drinking the last batch.
At one point before the show, I'm flicking some costume diamond rings at the headliner while yelling, "Diamonds, bitch!" Some people laugh. Most do not. I alienate about half of the headlining band.
I steadily stumble on-stage, put on my best professional wrestler face, and play half-decently. I return to the bar to watch the headliner's set. They completely annihilate the crowd with their precision, performance and creativity. None of them are drunk.
Midnight: Show's over. I scan the crowd for any sense of familiarity, friend or foe. Nothing. Applause stops. I go backstage, head for the Jack, and begin to drink myself into oblivion. I end the night in a heap on the sidewalk outside, refusing to help load out the gear. Some kind of baby fit or emotional breakdown, brought to you by the sweet fires of ethanol.
3 a.m.: I wake up in the sleeping quarters of the van, a hollowed out section lined in memory foam behind the back seat. My head is throbbing. Someone else decided to drive the remaining four hours of the overnight trip. I immediately spout some foul jargon and slothfully attempt to roll into the back seat. Another member of the band physically picks me up and throws me back into the sleeping area. I curse my poor decision-making skills and impulse control.
11 a.m.: I wake up, relieve myself not so stealthily. I avoid staring in the mirror. Take a quick shower. Drink some coffee. Get a stern talking-to from the singer, explaining these unacceptable behaviors. Promise it won't happen again.
Is there a happy middle ground?
Does it take a ton of time, maturation, understanding and control of one's mind and body?
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Today, I still practice performance under the influence. Medicating yourself is not just to kill pain, but also to unleash underlying aspects of your subconscious. The difficult part is finding a balance.
Have this and other poor decisions ruined potentially life-changing opportunities? Yes. Do I regret it? Not at all. Decisions are decisions and regretting them is foolish. What matters is moving forward, not using regrets as an excuse to continue self-medicating.
But there's a healthy balance. So if you are at one of my shows, stop me and let's have a drink.