The Hold Steady and Music’s Booziest Bands and Artists

Music and alcohol go together, of course, like cigarettes and alcohol. But there have been only a select few bands that, like the Hold Steady — whose live album A Positive Rage came out this week — have the sauce, whether in the form of lyrical content, real-life behavior, or (usually) a lot of both, truly ingrained in their artistic DNA. Herewith, the booziest musical acts of all time. (One big stipulation: This is a booze-only categorization. The many, many artists that had legendary appetites for both alcohol and drugs were not qualified for the list. Sorry, Janis Joplin, Mötley Crüe, Ryan Adams … )

They’re probably better known now for front man Fat Mike’s virulent anti-Bush stand, but they’ve written a bunch of good-spirited, if sophomoric, drinking songs, including “You Drink You Drive You Spill,” “Totally Fucked,” “Seeing Double at the Triple Rock,” “I Wanna Be an Alcoholic,” and “Theme From a NOFX Album.” Boozy lyrics: “We are at liquor church, genuflecting on barstools / We’re praying that the taps will keep the holy water flowing.” (“Seeing Double at the Triple Rock”)
Both glorified the booze and condemned its dangers. The band’s most famous cautionary tale is “That Smell,” inspired by the Labor Day weekend in 1976 when both of the band’s guitarists, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, crashed their cars while inebriated; Collins knocked a Volkswagen across a parking lot, while Rossington split an oak tree with his brand-new Ford Torino. Boozy lyrics: “Well, I’m a whiskey rock-a-roller, that’s what I am / Women, whiskey and miles of travelin’ is all I understand.” (“Whiskey Rock-a-Roller”)
The characters in their songs are miscreants and ne’er-do-wells who drink under bridges and out of purses, but “fun drunks” fits the band itself better. Onstage, front man Craig Finn is known to smash cans of domestic beer, while pianist Franz Nicolay usually polishes off a bottle of red by the end of the night. Hi-Fi in the East Village, which at one point employed bassist Galen Polivka, is their unofficial headquarters. The joyful bridge from “Party Pit” – “gonna walk around and drink some more” – is sort of a motto. Boozy lyrics: “She said ‘it’s good to see you back in a bar band, baby’ / I said ‘it’s great to see you’re still in the bars.’” (“Barfruit Blues”)
As is only appropriate for a band obsessed with Lynyrd Skynyrd and that has toured with the Hold Steady, the Drive-By Truckers have a healthy relationship with the bottle. The struggling Southerners that live in their songs (“Dead, Drunk, and Naked,” “Daddy Needs a Drink”) are never judged for escaping with a stiff one. Onstage, the Truckers tastefully share slugs from a communal fifth of Jack Daniel’s. Boozy lyrics: “Whiskey is harder to keep than a woman and it’s half as sweet but / Women without whiskey, Women without whiskey / Whiskey is hard to beat.” (“Women Without Whiskey”)
Buffett started out as a country act in the sixties before developing his beach-bum shtick – all easy living and tropical drinks – now beloved by a fervent legion of so-called “parrotheads.” His signature song, “Margaritaville,” has been parlayed into a line of premade cocktail mixers and international chain of casual-dining restaurants. Boozy lyrics: “There’s booze in the blender / And soon it will render / That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.” (“Margaritaville”)
A fan-made T-shirt birthed the “Alcoholica” nickname adopted by the band in their boozy eighties peak. According to guitarist Kirk Hammett: “Our rider resembled a stock order from a liquor store. When we auditioned bass players, half the time I was so drunk I could barely stand up.” With their declining reputation came their declining rate of alcohol consumption. And, starting with front man James Hetfield in 2001, the whole band has been through rehab. (Photo: L to R, Guns-n’-Roses’ Duff McKagan, Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, Lars Ulrich, Hammett) Boozy lyrics: N/A. Even during its Alcoholica days, Metallica was always too caught up in epic darkness to write good, clean drinking songs.
The archetypal hard-living bluesman. At one point, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter supported himself by distilling bootleg liquor – and he drank it as well, along with whiskey and gin (he claimed the latter helped clear his voice for singing). He escaped a chain gang in 1915 and was arrested for murder in Texas in 1917, where he eventually shaved a few months off his sentence by singing for the governor. In 1930 he was arrested in Louisiana for assault, an incident fueled, according to the newspaper account from the time, by the half bottle of rubbing alcohol he had consumed. Later on in life he would explain that the incident had to do with a fight over a can of whiskey. Boozy lyrics: “Oh don’t you be like me / Drink your good sweet cherry wine / And let that whiskey be.” (“Alabama Bound”)
The Hold Steady and Music’s Booziest Bands and Artists