Behind The Song: I Drink

Mary Gauthier

(by Mary Gauthier and Crit Harmon) He’d get home at 5:30, fix his drink And sit down in his chair Pick a fight with mama Complain about us kids getting in his hair At night he’d sit alone and smoke I’d see his frown behind his lighter’s flame Now that same frown’s in my mirror I got my daddy’s blood inside my veins

Fish swim birds fly Daddies yell mamas cry Old men sit and think I drink

Chicken TV dinner 6 minutes on defrost, 3 on high A beer to wash it down with Then another, a little whiskey on the side It’s not so bad alone here It don’t bother me that every night’s the same I don’t need another lover Hanging round, trying to make me change

Fish swim birds fly Lovers leave by and by Old men sit and think I drink

I know what I am But I don’t give a damn Fish swim birds fly Daddies yell mamas cry Old men sit and think I drink

I am often asked how I came to write this song. People wonder how in the word I came up with it. Well, as is so much of my work, this song is semi autobiographical. Not totally, in my mind the character in the song is male, but my experiences appear in there, for sure. Here’s a bit of my backstory, to set the context for the creation of this one.

I became an addict early on, and full on. I tend to think I was born this way. I have no memory of ever taking a "social" drink. I went to my first drug and alcohol treatment center when I was 15 years old, and spent my 16th birthday locked inside a place with an onerous name: The Baton Rouge Adolescent Chemical Dependency Unit. Yikes! What a way to spend my Sweet 16. I completed the program and was shipped off to a halfway house in Kansas. I relapsed in the halfway house after about a year, and spent my 18th birthday in jail. (I was caught stealing a bottle of pills and some 8-track tapes out of a car that I drove through the carwash I working at in Salina, Kansas. It was 1977, remember 8 track?) Well, I was sent back to Louisiana, I tried to go back to High School (that didn’t work), and ended up back in the treatment center and back to the halfway house. I couldn’t stay with the program and I ran away when I found a running buddy willing to take off with me. Her name was Kelly, she was a dancer, and I write a song about her called Evangeline. But I digress....

I tried to put it all behind me, the treatment stays, the halfway houses, all those meeting and big blue books....but I was a mess, and I got way worse as I went deeper into relapse. It got very, very dark, and I am simply lucky to have survived those years. In all fairness, I should be dead.

I eventually got sober when I was 27 years old, when I found myself back in jail again, this time for drunk driving. I started writing songs in earnest at around 32 years of age.

Funny thing, this songwriting journey. Looking back through my song catalogue, my songs sing like an autobiography, or a memoir. My guess is that many songwriters could say that, that their songs are their story; no real need for an actual memoir.

For me my songs and stories stories started after I got sober. I looked back- in song- on my crazy years. I found my voice in recovery; I didn’t find much at all when I was out there swirling further and further down. I never wrote a single song under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I couldn’t do it, even though I tried. I simply couldn’t finish anything. My brain was out of focus in the truest, deepest sense. My eyes could see, but I had no vision.

But here’s the beautiful part … I could not have written “I Drink” if I was never addicted. Writing “I Drink” required a perspective that an active alcoholic is not capable of, and a non-alcoholic cannot fully comprehend. I needed to go through what I went thorough to write it, and today I would not change a thing even if I could because for me, inside the curse--- lives the blessing. The wisdom, vision and compassion that comes from taking a stroll to hell and back cannot be obtained any other way. I was lucky enough to find my way through to the other side of addiction and into recovery, and I continue to receive many, many blessings from all that has transpired in my life. Songwriting is one of the greatest blessings of all, and writing “I Drink” stems from recovery. Ain't life interesting?

I wrote this song when I was almost five years clean and sober. There’s no way I could have seen this character’s plight if I had not lived it, I would not have the perspective to understand the dire situation this character is in until I stepped out of my own downward spiral. Just like it was for me, the character in this song is in full-blown denial, can’t see the real problem, and doesn’t know the cause of the tormenting loneliness and isolation that’s driving the compulsion to self-medicate. The character is classic alcoholic, a garden variety drunk, believing that drinking is the solution and not the cause of the suffering. The character has become resigned to living this way, resigned to drinking, mostly alone, till the bitter end.

As I wrote this song, I tried to imagine myself still active in my own addiction, slowly growing old and sinking in an illness that was killing me. I imagined staying blind, asleep, unaware of the nature of the illness, and unable to see my own hand in creating the problem. Essentially, the song is about who I would have been had I not gotten sober. As I wrote, I turned myself into a guy alone in a room in a cheap apartment in Central Square, in Cambridge, MA. (I knew a guy like that, a wonderful country singer and songwriter, who died of alcoholism in just this horrifying, predictable, boring and sad way). I let myself become him, and the song came out of my imagination and experience.

Fast forward 7 years.

“I Drink” became a very big song for me, a door opener. People began to sing along with me to it everywhere I went. Ireland, England, Norway, Holland, Sweden, Italy-you name it, people came to the shows knowing the words to this song. Sometimes I pull back and just let the audience sing the chorus. It's been amazing to stand on stage and watch people sing these words. once again...ain't life something?

I Drink became what they call a career song.  It’s the song that got me a record deal on Universal/Lost Highway, a publishing deal at Harlan Howard Songs, and a spin on Bob Dylan’s radio show, with Bob reading my lyrics on the air  and telling his audience a little bit of my life story. (Episode #3, Drinking)  It’s a song that keeps on giving. As they say in the business, this song’s got legs.

So no, I don’t drink, but I drank. And then I didn't any more. And from that came so much, so very much.

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