Just before New Year’s Eve, we ran a rather lighthearted list of great anthems to getting wasted. It should probably go without saying that we’re not in any way given to endorsing the perniciously self-destructive nature of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. Still, in the interests of balance (and also, to be honest, because your correspondent is still nursing a pretty epic hangover), here’s a selection of songs that discuss the opposite side of the equation — generally with quite a bit more subtlety and insight than your average newspaper columnist: anthems to sobriety, and cautionary tales about what happens when your fondness for getting on the booze and/or drugs tips over into something destructive. Stay safe out there.
The Modern Lovers — “I’m Straight”
“I’m proud to say I’m straight!” It’s something of an indictment on rock ‘n’ roll culture that making a declaration like this feels like a radical step, to be honest, but here we are.
Iggy Pop — “Lust for Life”
Its association with Trainspotting has rather overshadowed the fact that this song finds Iggy cataloging his attempts to get himself straight: “No more beating my brain/ With the liquor and drugs.” The fact that he’s still with us is testament to the fact that he managed to work it out, but it was a close-run thing at times.
Kendrick Lamar — “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
We discussed this recently in the context of songs about alcohol in general, so without wanting to go over old ground too much, there’s something rather admirable about Lamar both being honest enough to throw off the sort of hedonistic mythology that dominates so much of hip hop culture, and to discuss his own problems with both lucidity and honesty.
The Kinks — “Alcohol”
A pretty straight-up cautionary tale of a gentleman fallen on hard times because of his fondness for the demon drink. (Of course, this being the 1960s, there was a woman to blame everything on, too.)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — “I Am Drinking Again”
On a similar note, this isn’t so much an anthem to sobriety as it is an anthem to self-destructive boozing, and the allure of sinking into a pool of self-pity and disgust. It’s a pretty maudlin piece of work, to be honest, although given this is Will Oldham we’re talking about, one’s never entirely sure what’s going on beneath the surface. Still, lyrics like this seem pretty unambiguous: “I am drinking again/ I’m on my seventh cold glass of gin/ Life is a tribute to you, and so is dying/ And drinking in this way/ To die is what I’m trying.”
Cat Power — “Ice Water”
Chan Marshall’s travails with alcohol have also been reasonably well documented, and while it’s not 100 percent clear that this song discusses her battles with booze, it’s difficult to escape this reading (particularly given the presence of lines like “I feel just like some great big disease/ I think you need ice water/ But the only thing that you really hate/ Is all its emptiness/ Ah, you’ll swim/ And I will drink myself to death”).
Spiritualized — “The Straight and the Narrow”
Given Jason Pierce’s reputation for enthusiastic consumption of everything in sight, it probably comes as no surprise that he regards attempts at sobriety with skepticism. Much of Let It Come Down is devoted to the good and the bad of substance abuse, and while tracks like “The Twelve Steps” approach the subject with a measure of bravado — “If you’ve got the money for a miracle cure/ You ain’t got a problem you can’t afford” — it’s this track that provides the most nuanced and realistic perspective. The chorus, in particular, sums up the drinker’s dilemma about how to deal with the tedium of a sober life: “The trouble with the straight and the narrow/ Is it’s so thin/ I keep sliding off to the side.”
The Drones — “Cold and Sober”
On a similar note, there’s a certain resigned mournfulness to this understated ballad about sobriety. It captures the sense of a life diminished for the sake of continued survival, and the confrontation of the reality of an alcoholic relationship now that the booze is gone.
John Lennon — “Cold Turkey”
True fact: John Lennon wasn’t an especially nice dude, “Imagine” or no “Imagine.” His fondness for booze wasn’t entirely unrelated to this fact, and this song is a pretty harrowing and effective portrait of just how fucking awful it is to go through alcohol withdrawal. Just don’t do it, kids.
Minor Threat — “Straight Edge”
The classic. It’s kinda preachy and not a whole lot of fun, to be honest, but it inspired an entire culture.