Let’s say you get hired as a librarian. You go to your first day eager to please; suddenly they line up a bunch of Jameson shots to begin the shift. Things might just go off the rails. I have a job where that happens. Musicians that play in clubs have an interesting relationship with alcohol; there is not a lot of other work out there where liquor is often included as part of the reimbursement. Per, a favorite bartender at the legendary and departed Rodeo Bar in Manhattan, once proclaimed, “Booze, that is like your[musicians] Gatorade!”
It can be a slow and steady seduction. A young musician begins playing clubs and bars and a party often ensues. It is your first gig; all of your friends come out and there are cute girls and guys ready to drink and revel for hours after the show. Then you have that one big show every month and it can be an epic party each time. Soon you have a couple of gigs per month but you can still manage to celebrate with the band, your fans and friends into the wee hours with drinks and inspired plans for what is to come.
I understand not every musician struggles with alcohol. I am one of the musicians who have, and I have tested the limits of what my body can withstand on booze, on a 9,000-mile tour or playing 25 gigs per month just around New York City, losing count of Guinness and whiskeys while headlining a festival in Ireland, losing my mind on the tour bus, trying to slide off the top of it from the pennant flags at a gas station and landing on my head in California. Sometimes it appeared glamorous, and occasionally it actually was. But I also screwed up significant career opportunities, made an ass of myself and played like total crap at times when fans expected something better.
My band, Jack Grace Band, has released albums with titles like Stayin’ Out All Night and The Martini Cowboy, but it all peaked with Drinking Songs For Lovers. On that cover, I am guzzling a bottle of bleach in a bathrobe in a supermarket. When I first released it, I was doing some shows with Junior Brown. He gazed at the cover and a crease developed on his forehead. He looked me up and down and cautioned, “Careful with this kinda image Jack, cuz yer gonna have to live it,” and he was on point with his warning. The poster with the Drinking Songs cover on it went over quite well at the venues we played. Suddenly I found fans and club owners with bottles of tequila in hand that they wanted to polish off with me. One night I was just drinking seltzer, it had been several nights in a row of drinking on a long tour, and I needed a break. The owner got mad, as if getting drunk with me was part of the contract: “Oh so, the Martini Cowboy is drinking club soder t’night! I guess you’re just a poser.” I did not give in that night. It was easy anyway. He wasn’t any fun.
But before it was my turn to be the headliner, I encountered an advanced level of drinking on the road that would be hard to top. My first band, Steak, was playing some shows in Colorado and California with The Beat Farmers around 1994. We arrived to the first soundcheck and the staff had covered all of the monitors in garbage bags, we were confused as to what was going on. We played our opening set, and the band members told us how they liked our gags on stage. Then it was time for The Beat Farmers set, and frontman Country Dick Montana began flipping and throwing Budweiser bottles all around, having beer fights with the audience and charming the crowd into carrying him to the bar for a martini. I was mesmerized. It was rock-n-roll, performance art and a Dionysian explosion all in one. Country Dick became a bit of a mentor for me and my bandmate. He taught me to always party in my pajamas back at the hotel (it puts the gathering at ease). He also told us, “You guys are funny, but you hide behind too many time signatures.” It was a really special time. But a little over a year later, Country Dick died onstage of a heart attack at 40 years old. He seemed so much older to me than my 27 years at the time.
Five years later, I started the Jack Grace Band, which was decidedly more country (with a little less time signature hiding). I encountered several veterans on the road–some legends, others more obscure – and noticed that many had quit alcohol altogether in part to maintain a better life as the years rolled along as a musician.
For those fortunate enough to be alive, touring and still partaking around 50, it can be a time of reckoning, realizing your body needs a little more care to make it through the next few decades.
Not everyone is lucky enough to make it to this crossroads. We musicians do see a number of our brothers and sisters go down earlier than in many other professions. I wonder if I will eventually decide on taking the number three route but currently, I teeter between choices one and two. Nowadays on the road, I am often more excited to go to bed after the show than to rally through the night, so that’s some evolution.
Several sources (the Washington Post, Forbes, the Atlantic) claim that millennials and post-millennials are drinking less in general. They also appear not to value live music as much as the generations before them that were all but defined by it. I hope that things are evolving to a less destructive path and they can find the adventures and stories without having to jump off the top of the tour bus (turns out those gas stations pennants can’t hold up a two-hundred-pound singer).
Drinking problems are not exclusive to the musician. Actors often struggle with the same pattern, starting with the big party after their first play. But anyone can become a drunk. You can hide that fifth of vodka in the bottom drawer at almost any job. Many people are expected to drink with their clients and coworkers. Bartenders that make a career of it have to address the same four choices. But strangely it is often true that many bands and writers produced their best material in their heavier party days. Drinking was a factor, but the energy from just being younger plays a role in that productivity well.
I was once invited backstage by Pete Townshend at the Garden in 2001. There was a spread of whiskies and Courvoisier. He waved his arm across it and asked me what I’d like. I took a Courvoisier and asked him what he was having. He looked down, shook his head and said, “I want to. I wish I could, but I just can’t anymore.” Pete had made his choice, but I could tell he still missed his days of reckless debauchery.
I tried a new doctor recently. I am always brutally honest with doctors as to how much I drink and what I do (I never understood why anyone should lie to their doctor). When he heard the tales of my lifestyle, he simply replied, “Well, you’re a musician.”