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Drinkin and Thinkin’ – By Alyson Camus

A significant number of singers or songwriters have referenced alcohol brands in their works, this includes Lady Gaga, Leonard Cohen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Jones, Jimmy Buffett, Ben Folds, Van Morrison, Placebo, ZZ Top…
The list is long, so many bands have mentioned some kind of alcoholic beverage in a song, KISS has ‘Cold Gin’, Thin Lizzy ‘Whiskey In The Jar,’ Neil Diamond ‘Red red wine’ (as well as UB40 and Bob Marley), Oasis ‘Cigarettes and alcohol,’ the Champs ‘Tequila,’ Squeeze ‘When the hangover strikes,’ Paisley Brad ‘Alcohol,’ Third Eye Blind ‘God of Wine,’ Ringo Starr ‘No no song’…
Some bands have even gone to the lengths of naming themselves after a liquor (Everclear or Gin Blossoms). According to a recent study about songs and alcohol, 23.7 percent of the most popular songs in 2005 depicted alcohol use, with very significant differences according to the genre of music.

So I haven’t exactly looked at the lyrics of all these songs, but it’s not a wild guess to say that alcohol is either regarded as a bad addiction, or a consolation, or a source of pleasure, straight simple, like in real life.

But no one has ever used alcohol names the way Elliott Smith has. In his songs, they are personified, they are mystic images, transcendental characters or even holy figures. In ‘Miss Misery,’ you don’t necessarily think about the alcohol when he sings that line ‘with some help from Johnny Walker red,’ Johnny is then truly flesh and bones and you have to think the name of this label was, of course, not randomly chosen among many others.

But most of time, he doesn’t use the obvious ones, who knows about obscure brands like St. Ides or Kiwi maddog 20/20 anyway? In ‘St. Ides Heaven’ you don’t think at all at the alcohol when you hear the song, it becomes a hidden location, a mysterious and imaginary neighborhood: ‘Everything is exactly right/When I walk around here drunk every night/With an open container from 7-11/In St. ides heaven.’ And the juxtaposition of the cleverly chosen label with heaven is all about the profane and the sacred.

And there is always this multiple meanings when he picks a name. A white lady is a cocktail made of Cointreau and gin, but who would think about that when listening to ‘The white lady loves you more’? The white lady evokes much more a ghost, a holy or even godlike figure. According to wikipedia, she is a type of female ghost purported to appear in rural areas, who is supposed to have died or suffered trauma in life, and who indicates that someone in the family is going to die. What else could make the atmosphere of the song more cryptic and unsettling?

Probably because I’m not a drinker, I did not know that ‘Christian Brothers’ was a brandy, but again it’s also a religious congregation of the same name whose reputation was demolished by a series of scandals about sexual and physical abuse of children. So now when you are aware of Elliott’s childhood, these lines take a whole new frightening meaning: ‘No bad dream fucker’s gonna boss me around/Christian brothers gonna take him down.’ Is he really talking about the alcohol? But did you think he was talking about about the alcohol in the first place?

And if you want to look even further, and this one is very hidden because nothing in the song makes you think about alcohol, the song XO (waltz#2) falls into this category too. XO has to be a reference, among many others, to the expensive cognac of the same name. At the same time, it means extra old when added on a cognac bottle, but the first meaning that comes to mind (because the song is about his mother) is the sign of affection people write at the end of a letter. The confusion is even deeper when you know that Elliott wanted to name his album XO, Grand Mal, a type a seizure that affects the entire brain. Aaaahhhh, a refined liquor that is also a strong attachment that is also a painful affliction,… alcohol can sure go a long way in Elliott’s world

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