A group of us were sitting at our regular table at the bar the other night when one of our number reported that he had to fly to Denver the next day. LOM never hears the word "Denver" that we don't think of Hank Williams Jr.'s "OD'd in Denver." We wonder if Sarah Palin, whom Bocephus schlepped for on the campaign trail last year, has ever heard that one.
Anyway, this set off a long discussion about drug references in Americana music. Before long, we were making a list. It kept growing.
1. Hank Williams Jr., "OD'd In Denver" (Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, 1979): Yeah, Bocephus was off the reservation back in those days, trying hard to measure up to the whole Outlaw vogue that Willie and Waylon had set in motion. Nowdays this big doofus is hanging out with idiots like Palin and the hardcore right, and is rumored to be plotting a possible run for the Senate in 2012. Perhaps his little ditty "In the Arms of Cocaine" would make a good campaign theme.
2. John Prine, "Sam Stone" (John Prine, 1972): Certainly "there's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes" ranks with the most tragic Americana lines ever written, especially if you lived through the Vietnam War. If you grew up in the Vietnam era, you probably know someone who went down Sam Stone's postwar path. Writer John Pruett describes "Sam Stone" as being like the movie The Deer Hunter put to song: "Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios."
3. John Prine, "Illegal Smile" (John Prine, 1972): Prine was never better than when he used irony and sarcasm to point out the idiocy of reactionaries and the laws they hide behind. There were lots of marijuana songs that emerged during the Hippie era, but perhaps none with as memorable a lyric as "If you see me tonight with an illegal smile, it don't cost very much and it lasts a long while/ So won't you please tell the man I didn't kill anyone, I was just tryin' to have me some fun."
4. Arlo Guthrie, "Coming In to Los Angeles" (Running Down The Road, 1969): "Coming in to Los Angeles, bringin' in a couple of keys." It doesn't get any straighter than that, Mr. Customs Man. There was a time when this song was on every turntable in the counterculture, a kind of coming-out song for pot smokers and rabble rousers.
5. Warren Zevon, "Carmelita" (Warren Zevon, 1976): Lots of heroin and addiction songs have been written, but no one captured the desperation of heroin like Zevon did in this carefully drawn portrait. "Carmelita, hold me tighter, I believe I'm sinking down, and I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town."