Happy Talk Band frontman Luke Allen is known for his trenchant eye for life in New Orleans' bottom-of-the-bottle bohemia. The band's two albums, Total Death Benefit and There, There are often wrenchingly intimate, beautifully sketched portraits of downtown life. Of course, he's honed his craft: Allen has been playing in town for nearly 11 years, and for most of that time, he's been serving drinks until the wee hours at places like Café Angeli, the Abbey, the Circle Bar and Mimi's in the Marigny.
Several of Allen's songs deal with bars, drinking and the events that unfold around them — inspired by the bartender's eye view. One song in particular, "Time Share," he traces to a memorable exchange between two strippers drinking at the Abbey.
"One girl was wearing Daisy Duke shorts, and she pulled this wad of money out and set it on the bar," he says. "She started crying, and saying, 'He peed in my hair.' And the other one just put her arms around her and said, 'I know, I know.'"
Not all New Orleans musicians patronize such gritty terrain when satisfying their drinking habits. But considering the frequency with which musicians everywhere are proximate to booze, it's no surprise drinking is a popular song topic, coming in close behind love and probably tied with, if not ahead of, cars and money. In the 13th century, a medieval antecedent of Weird Al Yankovic took the melody of the Latin hymn "Laetabundus" ("Full of Joy"), a paean to the Virgin Mary, and rewrote the words in Norman French as "Or Hi Parra" (Let It Be Seen), an ode to beer. (The words were changed in one verse so an original lyric "semper clara," or "always clear," remained, but in its new context referred not to the pure soul of baby Jesus' mom but to the quality of the ale.) Over the past two decades, hip-hop has likely driven sales of 40-oz. malt liquor, Cristal, Courvoisier and Patrón tequila through the roof depending on the charts. And from "White Lightning" to "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" to "I Got Friends In Low Places," where would country music (George Jones, I'm looking at you) be without hooch?
As one would expect, New Orleans musicians are opinionated when it comes to songs about drinking. A mass request for favorite songs about drinking drew dozens of choices from local musicians, from multiple votes for Fats Domino's "Whiskey Heaven" to an annotated, dozen-song list (with subheads) from multi-instrumentalist Casey McAllister, who plays in the New Orleans Bingo! Show and the Myrtles. Some were as specific as a tailored cocktail order, like DJ Soul Sister's choice of jazz artist Reuben Wilson's cover of the Chi-Lites' "Stoned Out Of My Mind."
"The Chi-Lites' version is from the early 1970s and my preferred Wilson version is from '75," she says, as if requesting extra olives, no vermouth. "The Wilson version is sped up about 10 times faster than the original and features mad, frantic keyboards and horns beside the super happy chorus. I love to see people raising their hands, dancing and singing 'Stoned Out of My Mind,' though I heavily advocate for not driving drunk."
Guitarist Mitch Palmer of the Happy Talk Band and the Haunted Hearts (who is also an attorney) parses George Jones' "Out of Control" as thoughtfully as if crafting a brief. The song, he says, is "a detached depiction of the peaks and highly personal study of the valleys brought on by the subject at hand, all served up somehow without contradiction. Like the song's protagonist, the listener can't decide whether to head straight to the next bar or simply put it down for good. Quite an achievement in two and half minutes' time."
Egg Yolk Jubilee's Geoff Douville likes Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," a song which makes no overt reference to liquor at all, for personal reasons: "Who can't do a shot when that sax melody kicks in at the end?"
Suave jazz trumpeter (and new Basin Street Records signee) Jeremy Davenport chose a killer in keeping with his Rat Pack persona — Frank Sinatra's version of Johnny Mercer's mournful monologue "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)."
"Frank always used to say, 'It's a saloon song,'" says Davenport, who lives Eloise-like at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. "It's just one guy singing to the bartender and buying one last drink for the lady who's just left him. I always end the night with it. It's heartbreaking."
Regardless of his lounge-swinging image, Davenport prefers small-batch bourbons to martinis. He also fondly recalls weekly honky-tonkish gigs at Le Bon Temps Roulé.
Other musicians' personal drinking habits can also turn out to be a bit of a surprise considering their musical styles. Bailey Smith of the Morning 40 Federation — a High Life and shot-of-Jameson kind of band if ever there was one — sips a flagon of Darbyste, a seasonal Belgian pale ale in which he recognized notes of grass and herbs. While talking at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, Smith remembers one unfortunate gig at Tipitina's when he stumbled over the line and woke up from a blackout onstage.
"I looked up and Josh [Cohen, vocalist and horn player] was waving at me like 'Hi, welcome back,'" Smith remembers. The band's new booking agent had thrown them a party with an open bar that began five hours before the gig. "Whose brilliant idea was that?" Smith wonders in disbelief. (Had he had Luke Allen as his bartender that night, he might have been saved by this test: "I fill up a pint glass with water, no ice, put it in front of [someone who's in danger of being cut off] and say, 'If you can drink this, then you can have another drink.' Nine times out of 10, they can't drink the water.")
New Orleans musicians are in a comparatively unique position in relation to drink; the alcohol that pumps through the city's cultural and economic veins probably keeps their local audience in a simpatico state. But there are pitfalls to playing music in bars, like pursuing your vocation in the same place that most people — often enthusiastically — are getting their own avocation on. As the porter in Macbeth pointed out, drunkenness "provokes the desire, but takes away the performance." He was referring to a different kind of performance, but the adage holds when it comes to performing onstage. Drummer Bob French remembers drinking a concoction of white port and orange juice in the car with Art and Charles Neville before gigs when they were still too young to buy cocktails at the nightclubs where they played. He believes passionately that drinking impairs performance.
"A drunk musician ain't good to nobody, and I've run through quite a few of them," French says. "They get lit and think they're the playingest son of a bitch in the world, and they're the worst player in the world."
French has been performing in New Orleans clubs for more than 50 years — long enough to remember the days when his old bandmate, the famously debauched pianist James Booker, "didn't drink anything stronger than a Coke or a 7-Up." (Later, heroin precluded cocktails for Booker.) But by French's own accounts, he's never been drunker at a gig than at his own birthday party at Ray's Room last year.
French took the precaution of hiring Shannon Powell to pinch-hit for him on drums. He also brought his own fifth of Courvoisier and asked for ice. Powell had been holding down the bandstand for some time when the bottle ran out. Luckily, a couple French knew showed up in the nick of time with his birthday present: another fifth of Courvoisier. By the time the gig was over, French had drunk a fifth and a half of Courvoisier and was ready to go home.
"I had my keys in my hand," he says. "Never in my life have I had that much alcohol. But the Lord takes care of children and damn fools." Topsy Chapman took French's keys from his hand and drove him home. The next morning, he says, he woke up at 7:30 a.m. with no hangover, ate breakfast, and went off to WWOZ's studios to do his Tuesday morning show. His powerful constitution — honed by a life in New Orleans — has, in the past, been a source of glee for him in the face of disbelievers.
"When I used to play at Donna's on Monday nights, I'd leave there lit. I could blow in the fuel tank and drive home on that," French says. "And people would bet me $5, $10, that I'd never make it to my show in the morning. I take the bet, then at 9 a.m. I turn the switch on at WWOZ and they start calling me. And I say, 'Well, I'm trained.'"