There’s no such thing as a free drink.

whiskey-shot

Some minor history was made last night. I did something I’ve never done in 31 years.

But, before I get to that, I should inform you that I’m (mostly) Sicilian. You’ve met Central Casting Dagos like me before. Sexy. Loquacious. Pretty big into artichoke. If you’re ever at an epic bash at a Sicilian’s household, you know damn sure to do three things:

1. Do not, under penalty of death, eat before arriving. Not even a light snack. Juice is risky. Trust me.

2. Interrupt, often. If you’re concerned about appearing ‘polite’ and ‘waiting your turn to speak’, by the time you get a word in edgewise, we’ll have switched topics four times.

3. Schedule your exit. Sicilian goodbyes can take up to an hour depending on the size of the gathering. First, there’s the show-stopping announcement, “I gotta take off,” then, there’s this clunky labyrinth:

“It was amazing to see you tonight.”

– “You, too!”

“We should definitely (hang out / get lit / jam / get together / golf / meet for coffee / do lunch / awkwardly stare at each other) sometime (soon / next week / this month / this weekend / before you leave for the Peace Corps / when you get out of prison).”

– “Absolutely! Hit me up when you’re free!”

“Will do.”

[emphatic handshake / bro hug / cheek-peck / fist bump]

“Alriiiiiiiight I’ll catch you later.”

– “See ya.”

“(Hasta luego / Mahalo / Aloha / Peace.)”

And thus you’ve launched yourself on a leisurely lap counter-clockwise around the room where you repeat this process in its entirety with absolutely every single person with whom you shared words with that evening. From the jilted ex to the DJ to the security detail to the best friend and that dude whose drink you spilled all down the front of him and so like the guilty sonuvabitch you are you scour for napkins and buy him a new one just to smooth things over.

Parting is sweet sorrow and it’s drawn out like a bad respiratory infection. Yeah, Sicilians.

So yeah, last night, I left without saying goodbye.

I left a bar. A corner bar that’s become my second home in a city that’s become my second hometown. The bartenders know my name and my usual (and we’re Facebook friends so, like, hey! you’re reading this!) and if you catch it on the right night, you can travel back through time and rejoice in the company of everyone you’ve ever met there. A lot of them are musicians. I am also one.

For about the past 12 years, ever since I was 19 (legal in Canada!) and spiking coffeeshop coffee with Bailey’s (times were tough), music and alcohol have gone together like chicken wings and blue cheese (go home, Texans, with your goddamned “Ranch,” that is the impostor white dipping sauce).

At its core, the ritualistic shot-and-a-beer 30 minutes before showtime was birthed from a fiery furnace of inadequacy, a shot across the bow at stage fright and wilting under the harsh moonglow of the house lights.

In olden times, I also would get so nervous that I would somehow make myself yak. I’ve sprayed more recycled dinner and drank outside of more bars than most village drunks. But I haven’t done that in several years. I guess I’m just not that nervous anymore.

I’ve plugged in to play music literally thousands of times in the past decade. And I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve done it without the aid of liquid courage.

Drinking during a show is remarkably easy. Often times, the liquor’s free or heavily discounted. Being the “talent” has its perks. Just fill up your pint glass before hitting the stage, refill during the set break, and then savor a celebratory pint after the last chord’s been strummed and nurse it while you’re taking that hour to say that Sicilian Goodbye to everyone who was kind enough to come.

Some quick math: That’s five drinks in three hours. Sip a pitcher of water, close out (and tip well), go home, wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to conquer the another devilish day in the office jungle.

Oh, but I am leaving something out. It’s sneaky, slippery, smooth and always welcome. It’s sly and a sign of a job well done … and almost always prefaced with …

well …

“What are ya drinking?”

If you’re a musician — even if you’re not a very good one — you know these words. The bartender parades around the bar and makes a slow processional toward the stage like she’s carrying a birthday cake, flanked by the offending parties and a small army of well-wishers and rabble-rousers.

And they hoot and holler in the middle of that damn song you’re playing that took you, like, four whole months to write and it’s about something really deep, man, and you couldn’t possibly understand the art and meaning beh–

The free shot. 

Damn.

I have to take this now.

And then after you’re done playing the last note, you raise your glass, unleash a gracious thank you, give a nod to the gods above and throw it down the hatch. And then you halfheartedly slug your way through an Aerosmith cover, or something.

The “free shot” doesn’t count, you say. It’s like a “bonus spin” or an extra credit assignment. They can only help. There’s probably a special backup liver that sweeps 74 of the 80 proof under the rug to preserve the integrity of your sobriety.

Oh no. Those free drinks will catch up with you. They’ll cause you to lose your fingering during the complex polyrhythms of artistically challenging work. They’ll cause you to get a little looser with the lips. They’ll cause you to forget how extra-hard you’re battering your voice, or how you’re beating a song to death or treating the barstaff like hecklers and hecklers like sub-human scum, or attempting ad-libbed covers of “Layla” when they’re least desired.

The free shot was the culprit during The Great DWI Caper of 2005 when, on St. Patrick’s Day, you stopped a clearly s-canned friend from using all three lanes of Niagara Falls Boulevard as an obstacle course at 4 a.m. then got nailed at a sobriety checkpoint because you forgot the words to the A-B-C’s … and when you blew into the breathalyzer and checked in at a mere .07 the cops laughed and said “Welp, we already did the paperwork, looks like you’re gonna have to plead this one down.”

The (14) free shot(s) was the quiet devil behind The 25th Birthday Blowout Bonanza of 2007, where you were fed Jack Daniel’s until you were too drunk to strum a chord, dropped N-bombs all over god’s creation, fist-faught a 60 year-old, threw a potted tree over a fence and got kicked out of the bar you were playing at. Oh, and those “free” shots? They were charged to your tab, anyway.

Last night, the free shot made its triumphant return.

“What are ya drinking?”

I mulled it over for a bit. “Whiskey.”

And here I am. Breaking that paleo diet. Racing to the bottom of a bottle.

The shot was placed lovingly and gingerly into my hands. And then it was placed lovingly and gingerly into my liver. And I tapped out.

See, I get four levels of drunk:

Level 1: Zany, flirtatious goofball. (2-3 drinks)

Level 2: Awkward, creepy canoodler. (5-6 drinks)

Level 3: Sad, pathetic crapshoot.(8-9 drinks)

Level 4: Sleepy, irritable pity-case. (????? drinks)

Last night, for whatever reason, a wall of sad hit me right after that last freebie, and I reached Level 3 looooooooooooooong before I should have. I walked outside and pondered life, my own inadequacies, delusions, confusion and emotions. I thought about therapy. I thought about love. I thought about relationships I’d been sabotaging. I thought about AA. I thought about the candle I’ve been burning at both ends for far too long. I thought about sleep. I thought about rock-and-roll and sex and drugs and throwing up and growing up and getting older and my god I’m 31 and this should not be a Monday and should I get P. Terry’s on the way home and no, you know what? That’s a slippery slope. And then I thought about friends and their wives and kids and

I walked out. And I never said goodbye.

I trudged to my car all flaming ball of anger and despair and I realized I couldn’t undo the damage I’d done to my liver and bank account and lungs and life and friends and family and I shut the door and I started the car and I just cried.

I stepped outside myself for a moment, and I saw an unmarried 31 year-old manchild who just ripped through a kazoo solo on a stage and made casual conversation with a litany of folks I’ve talked to hundreds of times but don’t know particularly well beyond what songs they play and what they like to drink. On a Monday.

I saw a musician who stopped writing songs. I saw a man totally unfit to own a home, raise a family or change a light bulb. Maybe I’d sleep it off and feel differently. Maybe I actually want to play more kazoo. I’m not sure.

I don’t want to sit here and feed you some righteous doctrine of B.S. like “And that’s when I decided to quit drinking” or talk to you about the evils of booze or make some bold proclamation about how my next show will be my last. That’s too damn tidy and convenient and pious and I’m more of a messy, complex being who believes people are 12,000% more likely to talk about sweeping change than actually make it.

But I am going to say that I am no longer comfortable with living the “rockstar” life, if you can call an aborted LP and three singles that have a combined 1,000 hits on YouTube “rockstardom.” That idea of being the consummate showman, giving a superfluously tipsy performance in front of legions of adoring enablers while your health and sanity and relationships suffer? That’s getting harder and harder for me to reconcile.

I still love music. I still love people. I still love the people I’ve met through music. I still love the writing process and the dogmatic challenge of playing every song a little bit better each time. And I still love a hand-crafted caipirinha or a luxurious pint of Ommegang or a bold glass of grenache.

But those free shots?

I would greatly appreciate if y’all would kindly keep ’em to yourselves. I’d be just as grateful if you simply tipped me the price of a drink. Perhaps if I saved those dollars properly, I could someday invest in Tesla Motors or pay for a lavish wedding in the Channel Islands.

I initially wanted to call this piece “Goodbye to All That,” but I realized that would be heavy-handed and preachy and not at all indicative of the nuance and depth of thought writing a piece on “Temperance: Is it right for you? An adagio in B-minor” requires. And, like I said, although it’s infinitely easier (and more effective, because Shares and Likes and Pageviews) to write about sweeping change than it is to actually make it, living with myself after I’ve painted me into a corner like that would be infinitely harder.

And, besides, when I do one day leave it all behind, when I am finally ready to move onto the next life, I’m just going to put down my glass and walk out.

And, Sicilian heritage be damned, I’m not going to say goodbye.

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