It Would Have Been Better if He Could Have Died in the Dive Bar
If you miss drinking in bars, come bond with me over some excellent, ethnographic song lyrics
I stopped drinking during the pandemic. I wrote about it. About being a social drunk.
For a while I didn’t miss it. However, as Los Angeles sits with the rest of our great state in a revived stay-at-home order, I’m starting to. I miss the relationships that form in a bar or, for that matter, a coffee shop or some other place where people gather, drink something that changes their constitution, and mingle, still awkward but with fewer inhibitions.
I’m also into ethnography. I have done it, officially, in an academic setting. Though I do it, unofficially and roughly, as much as I can in the day-to-day. It has been more difficult to immerse yourself — even if for a minute — in the lives of others in the settings where they do life. This sucks. Because this is where so much learning — at least for me — takes place.
It’s also where you see the dark side that exists in bars — from dives to seemingly posh craft cocktail bars. You get to know the stories of people for whom the social aspects of drinking in a bar matter, but they need to drink more than they need to be social. In other words, they can drink without being social, but they can’t be social without drinking.
I plan to write more about this. I’m just not exactly sure what I want to say. In the meantime, let’s have an equal amount of “fun” briefly exploring the rhetorical fruits of the ethnography some of the world’s greatest lyricists have certainly conducted in a bar near (or not) you.
“Making love to his tonic and gin”
So iconic. Billy Joel’s famous line from “Piano Man.”
First, you gotta love that Billy Joel called it “tonic and gin” rather than gin and tonic. For better or worse, you must bust a rhyme.
Second, there’s so much more to this line than Joel gets credit for. This happens when a song takes on next-level status in popular culture and becomes a karaoke and jukebox favorite for large swaths of the bar-going population.
Apparently, Billy Joel actually played piano in a bar near Wilshire and Western in Los Angeles (walking distance to where I live). There’s no doubt in my mind that he came up with that line watching the guy, sitting at the bar, who would let nothing come between him and his tonic and gin. He sits there, fixated on the glass. He could be the only person at the bar or among dozens. Either way, he’s alone.
“Take a seat at the bar with the other broken heroes”
From Gaslight Anthem’s, “The Patient Ferris Wheel.”
Here’s the full verse, because it matters:
In this great abyss
Of just what might have been
Where we can take a seat at the bar with the other broken heroes
So good. Certainly the result of ethnographic adventures or, at least, lived experience. It probably stems from the same experience as this next bit of lyrical perfection.
“See the young man sittin’ in the old man’s bar”
The Goo Goo Dolls grew up in a working class section of Buffalo known as “Broadway.” I grew up about 20 minutes away. So I know the neighborhood and neighborhoods like it well, including the dive bars that populate countless corners on these city streets.
Part of the full verse:
See the young man sittin’ in the old man’s bar
Waitin’ for his turn to die
Gaslight Anthem are from New Jersey. They presumably have had experiences similar to the Goo Goo Dolls. So it’s no surprise that Brian Fallon and John Rzeznik, the band’s respective frontmen and songwriters, would illustrate a dive bar scene they have likely seen many times.
This isn’t happy stuff. The bitter person sitting in a small town bar talking “about the world like it’s someplace that you’ve been.” But it’s something most of us, particularly those of us from working class upbringings, can relate to.
For me, these lyrics present a cautionary tale. There was a time in my life when I ran the risk of “taking a seat at the bar with the other broken heroes.” Privilege, luck, and opportunity helped me reverse course before it ever became a significant issue. However, it could have just as easily moved in a different direction.
I have become friends with people, mainly men, who fit these lyrical descriptions. What you learn when you take the time to ask questions, listen, and really hear their stories is that these folks have stories. They have a past. They have (or have had) hopes, dreams, and desires. Something got in the way. Something went wrong. Something took over. In many cases, hope appears lost. In others, optimism for the future still exists. One size does not fit all. You just have to invest the time and you’ll quickly figure this out.
I already know of one dive bar regular (you can actually see him in the image that fronts this article) who has died during quarantine. My understanding is that he was never in good health, but social isolation ultimately killed him.
There’s a fine line between being an irreversible, chronic drunk; a social drunk like I have been from time to time; and a healthy part of the social environment at your neighborhood watering hole. I miss interacting with these characters and being one of the characters myself.