Sunday Morning Coming Down

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Feb 19 2008, 18:09

A while back, ACKtheHack posted a drinking songs mix (here: http://www.last.fm/user/ACKthehack/journal/2008/01/18/625201/) and that reminded me of this essay that I've been meaning to put up here.

Upon rereading this, I am still wondering what drove the SoCal punk scene's disdain for alcohol. Distancing themselves from hippies?

Previously posted elsewhere, but this belongs on last.fm too.

One of the most durable traditions in American popular music is the drinking song. Our national anthem’s melody and structure is based on “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an 18th-century drinking song, a fact that tells me 18th-century drinkers were far more ambitious than we are today, the melody being much more challenging to sing than “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” I guess that’s why we sing the anthem at the beginning of sporting events, anyway: by the 7th inning stretch, everybody would sound like Harry Caray. There are examples of drinking songs, or songs about alcohol and alcoholism, in just about any subgenre of music you could name, but they are easiest to find in the blue-collar genres of country and blues. (I’ll primarily be dealing with country in this post, but my conclusions are probably applicable to blues as well).

A couple of years ago CMT (Country Music Television) did a Top 40 countdown of the best country drinking songs. Outside of blues, is there another subgenre of popular music for which we would even consider making a top 40 drinking songs list? David Allen Coe’s self-described “perfect country song” contained within his barroom hit You Never Even Called Me By My Name begins “I was drunk/The night my mom got out of prison” before continuing on to other country cliches like the train and the dog. In the list of those cliches, “I was drunk” comes first.

Even songwriters not primarily associated with country often adopt that style when dealing with the topic of alcohol (Elvis Costello, The Big Light, They Might Be Giants, Alienation's For The Rich). Of course there are plenty of non-country drinking songs, but something about the everyday concerns and plainspoken realism of the country genre seems to encourage an honest view of drinking. The “Saturday night” side celebrates getting drunk (Toby Keith, I Love This Bar, Jimmy Buffett, Margaritaville), but there are a lot more examples of the “Sunday morning” misery side, songs that share a striking similarity in that they admit the attraction of alcohol while honestly acknowledging the damage it does (Merle Haggard, The Bottle Let Me Down, Willie Nelson, Whiskey River Jerry Lee Lewis, What's Made Milwaukee Famous).

Contrasted with the standard white-boy rock party anthem (every song by Andrew W. K., Van Halen, Bottoms Up!) that valorizes drunkenness, or more interestingly, soCal punk rock, in which drinking alcohol is most often characterized as simply stupid (a dozen or so Black Flag songs, including Drinking and Driving and TV Party, Dead Kennedys Too Drunk to Fuck), country music’s characterization of alcohol appears to be more honest. The really interesting case is X, a band that straddled country and punk, but much like another kind of hybrid, Lynyrd Skynyrd, X falls much more within country than punk, based on their treatment of alcohol in their lyrics.

One of the best examples of the “Sunday morning” drinking song, and one of the finest lyrics in any genre, is Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down, recorded most famously by Johnny Cash. I loved this song when I was drinking full-time, but in sobriety I have gained an even greater appreciation for it.

Sunday Morning Coming Down deftly establishes the alcoholic character in its first memorable quatrain, a desolate but funny plainspoken truth of the kind often found in good country lyrics:

Well I woke up Sunday morning,
With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad,
So I had one more for dessert.


However, the humor fades as the song relentlessly presents an accumulation of grim details that in another context could be considered idyllic: a kid kicking a can, the smells of cooking, a father and daughter on a swingset, and the sound of hymns being sung from a church. The details are harsh in this context because they represent varieties of happiness that the active alcoholic can never achieve. In this moment of clarity, the disparity between the lies the singer tells himself (that “smoking his mind,” i.e. the constant Saturday night lifestyle, is fun, productive, and leads to happiness) and his bleak reality becomes apparent. The cost and consequences of his addiction are sinking in, but the worst heartbreak is that the “lonely bell” (symbolizing the church and community from which he feels excluded) rings across a barrier (the canyons) that he cannot imagine it is possible to cross. Instead, he can only wish that he was stoned to smother the loneliness that he feels when he observes the satisfaction that “normal” people take in everyday life.

In an existence like this, the addict can only look forward to the next high, the next drunk. Beyond that is only the unspoken but deep awareness that “SMCD” hints at in the chorus, that there is “nothin’ short of dyin’” that can be compared to the living death of his Sunday morning isolation. Sometimes, that’s not just an unspoken awareness, it’s an unspoken hope.

While I will cheerfully admit that there’s no accounting for taste—if you don’t like the way country music sounds, there is nothing wrong with that—those who see country music as backward or reactionary or simplistic are themselves ignorant of the depth and richness of the genre. That said, country music itself is to some degree complicit in its “yee-haw/aw shucks” image. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Hee-Haw” you’ll understand what I mean. Then again, people who think “Hee-Haw” is a genuine, non-satirical representation of the lives of Southern white folks probably also need to have knock-knock jokes explained to them.
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  • jcjohnson63

    this was a nice read.i am a friend of ack's.my grandmother raised me on classic country.ironically,my grandfather was an alcoholic.so i can relate to sunday morning.and what you wrote.god,i miss real country music.

    Feb 19 2008, 21:34
  • rockrobster23

    Relative to my general area (and much of my family) I was a city boy, so I looked upon Hee-Haw with disdain. It was for old people, as far as I was concerned, inhabiting a neighboring universe to the intolerably boring Lawrence Welk. I need to look up some Hee-Haw on YouTube. I bet there's a few golden moments on there. JC, my grandfather was an alcoholic too, but I didn't know it until well after he died (and well into my adulthood). That knowledge was forbidden to the kids. Understandable, but weird.

    Feb 20 2008, 9:00
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