I like to rationalize all the time and money I spend in bars. These days I find myself in a pathetic meta-loop, going to bars to understand why I go to bars.
What have I come up with? I go to bars to talk, I go to bars to think, and I go to bars to gain control of my time. I’d need a physicist to explain what happens to time in bars. Because it seems impossible: time expands in bars at the same time it disappears.
You can go to a bar with someone, or you can go to be alone, in that fabulous way you can be alone and not alone in a bar. When I go alone, I always sit at the bar. I never go to bars to talk to new people, but I have to talk to the bartender. There are some pretty good songs about talking to bartenders.
The best is “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer: “And when I’m gloomy, you simply got to listen to me/Until it’s all talked away.” As much as I love Sinatra, I favor the Fred Astaire version from the 1943 movie, The Sky’s the Limit. Sinatra is way too ring-a-ding-ding for this song, sung by a character with a thin-enough shell to be bruised by a “brief episode” with a woman. Sinatra? Sorry, his sleaziness intrudes. When he sings about his code, I scoff.
Liz Phair’s “Polyester Bride” is about a pretty girl taking free drinks from the bartender while complaining about the men in her life: Henry, her “bartending friend,” listens to her whiny nonsense for a while and then sets her straight:
“Do you want to be a Polyester Bride?
Or do you want to hang your head and die?
Do you want to find alligator cowboy boots they just put on sale?
Do you want to flap your wings and fly away from here?”
If you don’t fly away, you may get interested in the person next to you. No one nails it like Neil Young in “Barstool Blues”:
“I have seen you in the movies
And those magazines at night
I saw you on the barstool when
You held that glass so tight.
And I saw you in my nightmares
But I’ll see you in my dreams
And I might live a thousand years
Before I know what that means.”
Well, I know what that means. If you don’t, it simply cannot be explained to you.
Unsurprisingly, the evil genius Leonard Cohen couldn’t leave the topic of bars alone. My advice: don’t listen to “Closing Time” or you may never walk into a bar again. Yeah, it’s a metaphor, but there isn’t much that’s bleaker than closing time, when guys say sad-making things along the lines of: “I like watching you dance.”
Leonard Cohen is not alone in detailing the darkness we all know. I’m quite partial to My Morning Jacket’s “Golden,” by Jim James: “People always told me that bars are dark and lonely/And talk is often cheap and filled with air/Sure sometimes they thrill me/But nothin’ could ever chill me/Like the way they make the time just disappear.”
I have it on good authority that lost time is not found again, but let’s be honest: sometimes that is exactly what we are looking for at a bar. I like two songs that explore the idea of the bar as a place we go for a living death. It took me a while to embrace the first, Bright Eyes’ “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” by Conor Oberst. I thought it was too adolescent, but then I gave in, because it’s a motherload of great lyrics: “I’ve got no plans and too much time/I feel too restless to unwind/I’m always lost in thought as I walk a block /To my favorite neon sign.” It’s a smart exploration of the idea of being present, of “being here now.” Its poignancy is a little too Holden Caulfield for my taste, but there are worse things.
Darker is Andrew Bird’s “Effigy.” His choice of the word “affable” is excruciating, a reminder that caring too much about being liked is the gateway drug to soul death:
“If you come to find me affable
Build a replica for me
Would the idea to you be laughable
Of a pale facsimile?
So will you come to burn an effigy?
It should keep the flies away
And when you long to burn this effigy
It should be of the hours that slip away, slip away
It could be you, it could be me
Working the door, drinking for free
Carrying on with your conspiracies
Filling the room with a sense of unease
Fake conversations on a nonexistent telephone
Like the words of a man who’s spent a little too much time alone
When one has spent too much time alone”
When you go to a bar, you bring your personal weather system along with you, and it’s anybody’s guess what’ll happen when it collides with everything else that’s brewing there. That’s why there’s always some action in a bar; there are stories being lived and stories being told by people trying to connect or impress or entertain. The uber bar song, “Angel Eyes,” by Earl Brent/Matt Dennis, has a guy bleeding out the story of his lost love. Sinatra owns this one: it’s all heartache, except where it’s heartbreak, and it has one of the best closing lines ever: “Excuse me while I disappear.”
Next installments: Drinking Songs and Jukebox Songs.
Photo by Rama (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.