"Daddy and the Wine" and "I Drink" were both featured back-to-back in a first-season episode of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour in May 2006. When I hear the songs now, bars, not people, come to mind: dusty, thin-carpeted rooms that are dark in the afternoon, a shaft of sunlight entering through one window, tipping its hat, and walking right back out through the front door. Larry's was our grad school haunt, the site where my misbegotten late twenties only got more misbegot. In Twinsburg, where I was raised, there was Babka's, a hovel on the square that we joked about as teenagers, too young and dumb to understand why a guy who got done with his shift at the Chrysler plant would head to the bar at four o'clock. Then I do think of people, old men in the Susquehanna River valley introduced to me by my father, who'd done some drinking himself. The risk of sentimentality seeps through all of these memories, the cola mixed with the bourbon of hard facts, or is it the other way around?
What surprises me every time I hear "Daddy and the Wine" is the bright and sizable voice of Porter Wagoner. Despite his rich tone, the low notes he scoops up from the ground, Wagoner sounds like a big ol' happy ball of joy singing this tale of woe in 1968 with his Wagonmasters behind him. Maybe it's just the reverb that makes him sound ten feet tall. There's a weird mixture of sentimentality and glee here; the music swings you along while the lyrics jab you under the heart, the soft spot, with just two verses and a chorus. An eight year-old boy comes into a candy shop where the singer works and puts a nickel on the counter, saying he's gonna spend it all, that he needs candy "like Daddy needs his wine." So young, the kid remembers "the old days" before his mother up and left—with a man, the narrator and the store clerk guess, but you never know for sure. "Momma disappeared one day," Wagoner sings as the boy, "and so did Daddy's mind." Jab, jab.
This is storytelling at its most concise, including the turn at the end, when the narrator and the clerk slip some money into the kid's bag of candy. "The clerk was broke and so was I," sings Wagoner, "we gave him our last dime. A stranger stole his mommy, now his daddy's on the wine." The song doesn't have the dramatics of Wagoner's 1968 #2 hit, "The Cold Hard Fact of Life," none of the bloodshed or blistering irony, but like that song it relies on a deep sense of betrayal.
In Gauthier's "I Drink," no one betrays the drinker but herself. First she recalls how her father would come home from work, get a drink, "sit down in his chair, pick a fight with mama, complain about us kids getting in his hair," and at night, brood alone at the table. Gauthier is a master of the right detail; here it's this stunning image as it comes out of her creaking voice: "I'd see his frown behind his lighter's flame." Take a minute to picture that.
Some might pawn this off as an excuse for their drinking and beg for pity, but Gauthier captures the defiance and responsibility an alcoholic can possess, absurdly proud of his of her self-destruction because that's all there is left to be proud of. Gauthier cuts loose the devastating chorus: "Fish swim…Birds fly…Lovers leave…By and by..."—the interminable pauses between each phrase born out of reticence, disregard, or both—"Old men…sit and think…………I drink."
Later in the song, Gauthier sings the perfect couplet, "I know what I am, but I don't give a damn," but as she points out in an essay on her website about writing the song, "Writing 'I Drink' required a perspective that an active alcoholic is not capable of, and a non-alcoholic cannot fully comprehend." Gauthier is honest about her past addictions, enough so that Dylan mentioned a few of her biographical details on the show. But it's all there in "I Drink," whether you've been an alcoholic or known and loved one. She goes on to say:
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.
Both "I Drink" and "Daddy and the Wine" are songs are about fathers, their children, and the family tree with booze in its roots, but most powerfully, I think, each is about drinking alone, about isolation. "Daddy and the Wine," written by Gene Crysler, toys with sentimentality; Gauthier puts her foot down on its neck. Maybe this is only possible because, as she says, she's gone through it and come out the other end.
I try to remember that when I think of those late-afternoon barrooms, the tables that were already tacky with spilled beer, the smack of a cue ball against the racked triangle. I try to remember what it was like, in my early twenties, opening that door to Babka's, the little bar on the square we used to make fun of—how sweet the cigarette smoke smelled, and how dark it was inside.