In alcohol there is good, bad and plain ugly. That’s why we at The Oracle have dedicated a page a week in our Features section this semester to examine the various aspects, beliefs and taboos associated with it.
Over the years, many authors and musicians have commented about alcohol and its effects.
A not-so-random sampling of my bookshelf and CD collection turned up these four guys, and it turns out what they have to say about alcohol, in the context of their culture and timeframe, is rather insightful.
Edgar Allan Poe
Many suggest that Poe, who lived and died enigmatically, was an alcoholic. Whether that is true is irrelevant, but he, like William Shakespeare, often commented on alcohol, though his stories are far more disturbing than those of his English predecessor.
Fortunato is a fish and alcohol is his bait in “The Cask of Amontillado,” arguably Poe’s most popular short story.
The vengeful narrator who bore the “thousand injuries” of Fortunato, leads the unassuming clown into the gloomy catacombs, with his fish believing the whole time he has simply been cordially invited for taste-test of the Amontillado.
Silly Fortunato. No matter how sweet the wine, getting walled up and burning to death is probably too steep a price.
But if you think Fortunato got it bad, just read another one of Poe’s twisted classics, “The Black Cat.”
Here, the narrator, whose many animals begin to ignore him because of his drinking problems, in a drunken rage turns violent on his cat, Pluto, for allegedly avoiding him.
First, he cuts his eye out, and later he hangs Pluto from a tree. But unlike Fortunato, Pluto the cat has the ultimate revenge in this story, haunting the narrator long after the fiery feline is supposedly dead.
Poe obviously highlighted the truly horrifying effects of alcohol, while a few hundred years before him, William Shakespeare poked fun at its intoxicating effects.
Shakespeare’s writing often uses alcohol-related dialogues in his comic sub-plots. He writes in MacBeth that alcohol produces three effects: a red nose, sleep and urine. It “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” How true.
Alcohol is how the manipulative, disdainful Iago managed to trick Cassio in the tragedy Othello.
But it isn’t the use of alcohol that’s surprising from the 400-year-old play. It’s what bleeds through Shakespeare’s pen and comes out of his characters’ mouths that is as poignant as it is fascinating. It represents a sentiment toward alcohol which is most likely a representation of Elizabethan beliefs.
As funny as it may have been to watch poor Cassio get duped, what Shakespeare writes is true. After a full draft of wine and mindlessly falling right into the hands of Iago, Cassio later quips of alcohol: “O thou invisible spirit, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!”
Even back then, it seems, some took the “live now, pay for it later” approach to drinking.
With Buffett you have a totally different vantage point on alcohol, from the man whose music is more laid back than Randy Moss on a running play.
Buffett with his parrothead, cult following takes alcohol in a lighter, far more existential direction in his cult classic “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?”
But even Buffett, who became famous singing about life’s overlooked treasures, such as cheeseburgers, sunsets and casual footwear, has some of his music plagued by the ills of alcohol.
In his most famous song, he sings about “Wasting away again in Margaritaville,” which if analyzed is a fairly depressing song about searching for meaning in life and realizing the consequences of one’s own faults. His shoes are ruined, his foot is cut, he’s got a tattoo and knows not whence it came, but the margarita in the blender will render “that frozen concoction that helps (him) hang on.” Sad stuff, really.
While Joel reportedly completed a recent stint in rehabilitation for alcohol abuse, one of his most famous lines solidifies his most famous song as a bar room staple for its vivid, microcosmic depiction of social drinking in America.
“And the piano, it sounds like a carnival, and the microphone smells like a beer …”
Prying deeper into “Piano Man,” an interesting question is raised. How many drunk piano men sang before the piano man to make the microphone give off such a strong scent?
Joel also makes a brilliant literary comparison to young love and old love in the epic “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” In the beginning of the song he solicits his wife, “Bottle of red, bottle of white. Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight …” Later on, reflecting on his adolescence, he sings proudly: “Cold beer, hot lights, my sweet romantic, teen-age nights.”
As Joel sings in “Only the Good Die Young,” he’d “rather laugh with the sinners than die with the saints … the sinners are much more fun.” I saw Joel in concert last spring. He’s still laughing.
And so are we. Especially in country music.
“You Ain’t Much Fun Since I Quit Drinking,” Toby Keith’s tongue and cheek song about a man who loses interest in his wife after sobering up, was a ’90s country hit.
In Kenny Chesney’s, “Back Where I Come From,” he sings poetically, “We learned in Sunday school/who made the sun shine through/I know who made the moonshine, too…”
And we need not leave out arguably the most popular pop-country hit of the ’90s, Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” where the “whiskey drowns and the beer chases,” his blues away.
Alcohol holds a firm grip on cultures worldwide.
Artists will continue to write and sing about it until societies worldwide develop a tolerance for it.
But I have a feeling we’re just now feeling the buzz.