LAS VEGAS. FRIDAY. JUNE 23, 2006, EARLY AFTERNOON:
Fremont Street, one of the older sections in Las Vegas, isn’t much to look at in the daylight. It is a 6-block, closed-to-traffic thoroughfare that has gambling, bars, pizza joints, “gentlemen’s clubs,” and numerous trinket shops. It’s all faded and run down, more Tom Waits than Tom Jones.
But at night the storefronts light up in a brilliant blaze while the street throbs with life as people drink, gamble, laugh, and gawk at the sights, including that big neon cowboy you see in all the movies about Vegas, right there above the tourist trap selling leather moccasins and other western knick-knacks.
It is here that Modern Drunkard magazine is holding its third annual convention, a three-day festival billed as a weekend of punk rock, burlesque shows, and inebriation: “The best time you’ll never remember.”
“So, you’re going to this drinking convention?” inquired the bartender at Micky Finn’s, a seafood restaurant where I was taking shelter from the 105 degree heat. Answer: Well, yeah, as a reporter. Next question. “What is Modern Drunkard anyway?”
The simple answer is that it is a bimonthly humor magazine: a 60-page glossy with a circulation of about 35,000. More to the point, Modern Drunkard is perhaps the only print publication openly catering to the hard-core barroom warrior. It is a magazine by the drunkards for the drunkards.
The tone is raucous, funny, and unapologetic. The June issue contains the essay “FDR: Portrait of a Drinking President,” a report on the renewed popularity of dive bars, a feature on finding drinks in Iran (easier than you might think), and a guide to being an expert “wingman,” which entails helping your buddy pick up a girl by engaging and distracting the less attractive friends she’s bar-hopping with. The wingman, says the article, is “arguably the noblest creature to ever step into a barroom.” That’s along with the regular sections like “Booze News,” “Drunkard of the Month,” “Wino Wisdom,” the poetry column “Postcards from Skid Row,” and the advice column, “The Concerned Cad.”
Frank Kelly Rich founded the magazine ten years ago in Denver, Colorado. It was only the latest in a series of picaresque adventures. A former Army Ranger, Rich saw five days of combat in Grenada in 1983.
“It was fun. We parachuted in at 500 feet with no reserve chute. It was the lowest jump since World War II,” he said in an earlier interview with this reporter, adding, “We tried to find booze down there. We couldn’t find any. They took it all with them.”
Following his discharge, he decided to go on a “Hemingway kick” and literally bum around Europe. He slept in youth hostels and when those weren’t available, public parks.
For most people being homeless in a foreign city would be a sign that somewhere along the line you made a big mistake, but Rich found it to be a romantic experience. He hung out with starving artists, learned how to scrounge food, and soaked up Europe’s relatively liberal drinking culture.
“For months at a time I would not work one lick towards getting a paycheck,” he said. He didn’t see the need. After all, he was getting by okay.
In England, he learned how to turn abandoned government buildings into apartments. At the time it usually took the courts months to throw squatters out. For Rich and others like him it was as if they were given six months free rent.
“You turn the electricity and the water on and you are totally set man,” he said. “It’s like a pension system for artists.”
Rich eventually returned to the United States, living in a car for a time. He settled in Denver, largely because he found it to be a great bar town. His favorite is a place called the Lion’s Lair.
“The epitome of what a great American dive was,” he said. He wrote science fiction for a while, producing what he calls “Blade Runner-esque futuristic private eye” novels. He also tried to launch a magazine that would mix serious philosophy in the vein of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer with punk music. Modern Nihilist didn’t work out, so Rich tried something else he had studied in Europe: drinking.
Modern Drunkard was a “crude, crappy magazine’” at first, Rich says. 16 black and white pages straight from the photocopier.
“In our first issue every ad was made up because nobody would advertise with us. Not even the dive bars would touch us,” he said. “In the second issue we got one advertiser. In the third issue I think we got three. It’s been growing ever since then.”
Today the magazine is filled with ads. They mostly come from bars. With a few exceptions — absinthe-makers for one — liquor companies avoid it. Few want their product in a magazine that has attacked Mothers Against Drunk Driving (“They twist [the truth] at will with no one willing to call them on it”).
FRIDAY, JUNE 23, 2006, LATE AFTERNOON:
“We have got to start fighting back!” shouts Rich, in his opening remarks at the Celebrity Ballroom, a venue just off Fremont.
For him this event is much more than just a three-day “love affair with alcohol.” It is a call to arms. The tide has been turning against the heavy drinker, he says.
Prohibition is slowly returning, and the boozeheads had better recognize this or pretty soon they’ll have to go home sober.
“Sweet mother of Jesus, these are difficult times for drunks,” wails Rich in a recent magazine column. “The way things are going, in ten years our bars will resemble sterile waiting hospital waiting rooms, where they’ll serve you one 3.2 ounce beer in a Dixie cup then call the cops.”
Of course, liquor is legal and widely available in the United States. Americans certainly like it. We consume 8.5 liters of alcohol per person annually, according to the World Health Organization. That hardly sounds like a nation that’s about to go dry.
Yet Rich makes a good case that the right to drink alcohol is slowly being eroded, drop by drop, by “nanny state groups.” He points to drunk-driving laws. A decade ago, most states required your blood alcohol level be under .10. Now the national standard is .08 BAC and dropping, with some states like Maine lowering it further if you have a prior. Last year a woman in Washington, D.C., was arrested and spent the night in jail for having a .03 BAC level (about one glass of wine).
Efforts to legislate away happy hours are being pushed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a powerful force in state and local legislatures. According to MADD, 22 states already regulate the afternoon drinking time in some manner. State officials in Texas recently engaged in “Operation Last Call” in which undercover agents arrested people for being drunk inside bars. According to the Houston Chronicle, 1,740 people were nabbed before public outrage caused the suspension of the program in April.
Rich’s response to this state of affairs is to publicly affirm the right to drink in public and the right to, in fact, get totally hammered and even create a spectacle while doing so.
As the days were counting down to the event, the tension for some readers was palpable. “This year’s passes are vomit proof!” excitedly announced one poster on the magazine’s message board.
The event finally got underway around 6 p.m. Some had clearly started partying before they got there. Or to use the magazine’s lexicon, they were “pre-tarded.”
Rich kicked it off with — what else? — a toast.
“Welcome to the third annual Modern Drunkard convention! (Whoops, hollers, cheers) Everybody got a drink? (More cheers; Rich raises his drink) Here’s to a good time we can’t remember, which is still better than a bad time we can,” he said.
The crowd roars with approval.
Some 300 people eventually show up, mostly a younger crowd, 20s and 30s, many extensively tattooed. Some grizzled barroom vets also make the trip. Many are wearing the official Modern Drunkard headgear, a red fez adorned with crossed swords and a martini glass.
Everyone is in a warm, fuzzy, hey-let-me-buy-you-a-shot mood. “I am here because I can,” says one convention goer, who identifies himself as “Noah Countability.” An Arizona lawyer specializing in family law, Noah just had to get away from those damn people.
“I was sorely tempted to leave a message on my answering machine saying, ‘I’m so sick of your whining that I’ve gone off to Las Vegas for a three-day bender. Leave message at the beep.’” He of course didn’t.
“Some of them still have faith in my abilities.”
FRIDAY, JUNE 23, 2006, EVENING:
“Tisa Galore” takes the microphone. The emcee for the weekend’s event, she’s one of the magazine’s regional distributors as well as a cabaret artist who previous productions include “Beach Babes in Tiki Trouble.” (Tisa actually pronounces her name with a second T after the I, playing off a term of affection for women’s breasts.) “Are you ready for some girls in pasties?” Tisa shouts to the audience.
After the pasties and, of course, much imbibing, I catch up with Editor Rich, while a punk band called Unband performs its set. Due to local conditions, what turned up on the recorder was this:
Doublethink: To somebody who’s never picked the magazine up, what is this weekend trying to prove?
FKR: It’s a love song to alcohol. It has been demonized lately in every media. We are the one voice saying it is still cool to drink. Not just drink, but get loaded. Alcohol is always being demonized. (inaudible) what you do (inaudible). Now instead of having a beer or two or three when you get off of work they want you to have a (unprintable) pill. There is no socialization with pills. You finish work, you’re all stressed out you go to a happy hour, you socialize. But instead the government bribes you to go home and take a (unprintable) pharmaceutical and watch TV (inaudible).
Doublethink: So, in other words what is going on is (inaudible) interaction with your fellow human beings that’s what you are saying.
FKR: Yes (inaudible) taking pharmaceuticals, watching TV. Other than that, (inaudible). There was a time when everybody went to the pub or the tavern or the bar and actually socialized (inaudible) (unprintable) government and pharmaceutical companies (inaudible) take away alcohol and replace it with Zoloft or some other awful drug. And there are side effects. It’s much more healthy going to a bar and meeting your neighbor.
Doublethink: You also considered having this event in New Orleans?
FKR: (inaudible) Top shelf wines (long inaudible stretch) moderation, but you gotta get outta your head sometimes. You gotta get really drunk. Pick up a case sometime (inaudible). If you don’t (inaudible) I think you fall out of the game.
Doublethink: (inaudible) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Doublethink: Fear and Loathing (inaudible) Do you think it still speaks to people today?
FKR: Oh, absolutely. It’s my favorite movie. (long inaudible stretch).
Doublethink: Terry Gilliam.
FKR: I am so glad he did it rather than Alex Cox. (inaudible) Alex Cox would have totally [screwed] that up. He would have. Terry Gilliam was perfect for it.
Doublethink: I have the Criterion edition DVD. It is so [darn] (inaudible).
FKR: Oh, yeah. Awesome. Hunter is dead, man. All of our heroes are dying (inaudible).
Doublethink: Are there any new drunkard heroes emerging?
FKR: Wow. There’s like Colin Farrell. (inaudible) he enjoys drinking. Everyone else is such a [really wimpy person] about it. They only talk about it if they’re coming out of rehab. “Oh, I made some mistakes.” Humphrey Bogart and Jackie Gleason, they said, “Yeah, drinking is an important part of my life.” It’s a sad [F-word again] generation right now.
The evening ends with a mosh pit forming while the band Upper Crust plays its set. Bodies fly left and right with Rich himself in the center, sweating right through his clothes.
SATURDAY, JUNE 24, EARLY AFTERNOON:
Antoinette Cattani, West Coast promoter for Fernet-Branca, a licorice-flavored spirit, looks at the photos I took last night, including some shots of her dancing on stage behind the band.
“I have no memory of that at all,” she said. “When I was setting up this morning, one of the guys said, ‘Hey, I liked the way you were shaking your booty on stage last night.’ I was like, ‘I wasn’t on stage.’ But I was, obviously.” (Laughs)
Not that this revelation bothers her much. She believes in drinking without guilt because guilt is a “useless emotion.”
“That’s what this whole convention is about,” Cattani says. “I’m a very happy drunk.”
“No matter what anybody says [spirits] is a $160 billion industry. Over the last eight years it has grown 8 percent annually. So no matter what some right-wing person says, booze is on the rise. It always will be. In any time of doubt people still keep on drinking. I think it is a great industry,” she says.
The drunkard-in-chief is quite pleased with how the opening night went. “I actually remember some of the bands, which is rare,” says Rich. He partied until 5:30 this morning but appears to be not only okay, but also his usual gregarious self. Perhaps this is because Rich doesn’t mind hangovers. He says they are an integral part of the drinking experience. They weed out the amateurs.
Or perhaps it is because he has learned how to beat them. Asked what he thinks the best hangover solution is, without hesitation Rich refers back to his days in the U.S. Army. “I’d go the medics in the battalion and they’d give you an IV saline solution and that’d fix you right up. You’d automatically hydrate and you’d be back like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “I learned how to do it to myself.”
Day two of the convention, however, is marred by technical difficulties. A planned lecture on the evils of prohibition is scrapped, as are showings of a pair of documentaries, one about one of last night’s bands and the other about last year’s convention.
In its place the magazine staffers hold a Q and A session. Someone asks, “I have a tremor that gets worse when I drink. How should I deal with that in social situations?”
A staffer who says he has a slight tremor himself replies, “Tell them, ‘I’m dying, you [F-word for really obnoxious person]!’ Make your discomfort theirs instead.”
Another person asks if there is any liquor the staffers won’t drink. One of the writers points out that the magazine is boycotting Jack Daniels because the company has quietly lowered the whiskey’s alcohol content.
“It used to be such a manly drink. Now it’s for [people who are not so manly],” Rich says. “Jack Daniels must be turning over in his grave.”
Some conventioners have traveled quite a long ways to participate. Justin English may have come the furthest. He was in western Bagdad just a few days ago and is currently on leave.
For the 15-year-Army veteran, the event is exactly like an oasis in a parched desert. Because Iraq is an Islamic country, soldiers there are not allowed to have alcohol. It’s an extremely sore point for the troops given how stressful, uncomfortable, and dangerous the duty can be. Most of the morale problems there could be licked easily if only the policy could be reversed, Justin opines. For that matter most of problems in the whole Middle East could be solved if only the liquor flowed more freely, he says. For now, though, he’s just happy to enjoy a scotch and watch the show.
If there is a Modern Drunkard philosophy it is this: All of mankind would be better off with everyone getting their drunk on.
I ask English if he is ever able to get liquor in Iraq.
“It is totally (wink) against U.S. Army policy (wink, wink) to have alcoholic beverages of any kind (wink) and we abide (wink) by those rules (wink, wink, wink),” English explains.
SUNDAY, JUNE 25, 2006, EARLY AFTERNOON:
Drinking, of course, may lead to other things, hijinks and sudden matrimony, for example. Greg, a representative from Brewligerant, a T-shirt company (motto: “Alcoholic Wear for Everyone”), gives me a bear hug when I see him and calls me “my brother.”
It turns out that at some point last evening I nodded off on a couch near the Brewligerant guys. This was a mistake. They have a policy that anybody who falls asleep with his shoes still on is fair game. Greg mooned me while his buddy took a photo to remember the moment. Now they’re saying I got off light. They usually devise more extreme pranks but “we didn’t know you that well.”
“The funny thing was,” Gregg added, “you popped right back up a few minutes later and started interviewing people again like you were doing before. You had no idea what happened.”
Rich Walker, a carpenter from Denver, decided the Modern Drunkard Convention was the perfect time to marry his girlfriend, Shelly Humphrey, a bartender, so he brought her along and then arranged to make it official before the trip was over.
“We’ve been engaged for about a year now,” he said. “We’re going to the little white chapel after this.” For Frank Bell, one of the writers at the magazine, a wedding chapel was what he had just avoided. The previous day he had run into a childhood sweetheart — they first met in summer camp 21 years ago — whom he hadn’t seen since they were both teenagers. She just happened to be in town in vacation. Sparks flew again. The two considered getting hitched that very night, but then reconsidered.
“She’s a lovely gal . . . . We decided we should take it a little slower,” Bell explains, using breath so strong that a lit cigarette probably would have caused the air around him to combust.
“But she’s coming to see me in Denver,” he adds. “So we’ll see.”
For yet another couple, the convention was an opportunity to untie the knot. They announced on the magazine’s message board that they planned to get a divorce during the convention. They were listed as “Tipsy McStagger and August West.”
“What better way to end it, than where we began it? In Las Vegas! Better yet, the date (June 23) is our actual wedding date,” read the post. Alas, DOUBLETHINK could not find the couple to confirm their story.
Sunday afternoon sees the convention’s first casualty. A man loses his grip on the Celebrity Ballroom bar, falls backwards, and slams his head against the floor. In the process, he bites his tongue, cutting it. Paramedics are called, but the injuries turn out to be relatively minor. He gets up and walks away.
SUNDAY, JUNE 25, 2006, EVENING:
The energy level begins to flag, but spirits remain high. The afternoon kicks off with the Liquor Olympics, an audience participation event. In the contest, men must: (1) order and chug a beer; (2) hit on floozy and get her phone number; (3) buy her the drink of her choice; (4) move four glasses from her table without spilling the contents; (5) order a shot; (6) make a toast; (7) down the shot; and (8) drag a drunk home. Since the drunks they must drag are other contestants, it is an interesting and physically challenging event.
Rich says he’s planning on taking a trip to Washington D.C., soon. Why? Because it has a Tiki bar.
“I just love Tiki bars. I’m fascinated by the whole Tiki culture,” he said. “I can’t wait to go that D.C. bar, Politiki. I hear its right on Capitol Hill!”
Rich is crushed, absolutely crushed, when I break the news that Politiki is no more. It has been renamed Top of the Hill, and all of the Tiki decor has been junked.
It’s just as well, he says. Modern Drunkard‘s efforts to interview Washington-based writer Christopher Hitchens have proven fruitless.
This jibes with what Hitchens himself told me when I saw him at Buffalo Billiards in D.C.’s Dupont Circle the previous week. Would you be willing to be interviewed for Modern Drunkard, I asked him. A firm “no” followed.
“I don’t begrudge you asking, but I cannot do it,” Hitchens said. He has “too many enemies right now” to grant an interview to that publication. Besides, while he enjoys his drink, he doesn’t consider himself a drunkard. He holds his hand up and flat to show there is no tremor in it.
“See? Solid as a rock,” Hitchens said.
The convention comes to a close late Sunday evening. Rich takes to the stage to thank everyone for coming and to encourage everyone to sign up for his Drunkard Action League, reminding them as he did at the beginning, “We have got to start fighting back.”
Then, like many a man in his cups, he gets sentimental. He asks his wife Christa to join him on stage. He hugs her and credits her with keeping both him and the magazine going.
“Say it loud, say it plowed!” shouts Tisa Galore.
“Let’s drink [female dogs]!” shouts a reveler.
The celebration continued in a private suite at the Golden Nugget Hotel, which is pretty classy but not so large that the bar isn’t crowded. Also, one does not have to wait long for the obligatory drunken brawl.
Rich gets deep into a debate with Edwin Decker, who writes the magazine’s “Sordid Tales of a Bartender in Heat” column. The subject: What was the best Coen Brothers movie?
Decker votes for Miller’s Crossing. Rich says it’s Barton Fink. They decide to take it out to the hallway. Witnesses say the fight only lasts a few seconds.
“I guess Decker forgot Frank was in the Army Rangers,” one person remarks.
TUESDAY, JUNE 27, 2006, EARLY AFTERNOON:
“So you were at the convention?” asks Toby, the chef at Micky Finn’s. “You should order the grilled Ahi sandwich. That’ll fix you up. It tastes good too.”
In the 105-degree heat the cold beers are practically medicinal. Meanwhile, I am gripped with horror at the thought of writing this piece. I have only days to file my story. And I’ve lost one notepad and many of my audio recordings are little more than white noise. Worse yet, I have to make sense of the convention.
Also, the editor probably wants an article that’s a little more adversarial than the one I’m planning to write. Or at the very least, he’ll want some analysis. Maybe I can write something up about Modern Drunkard being an antidote to the therapeutic nation that Alcoholics Anonymous has done so much to shape with its popular helpless-before-God shtick and all those twelve-step clones. Or maybe I can do some long windup about drunkenness as a form of personal liberation. I’ll tout the Falstaffian leadership of Frank Kelly Rich and muse about all the young cubicle slaves I’ve met who could use a little training at the beer-stained knee of Frank the Drunkard.
The only problem I can see with any of this is that I’ll probably end up turning the convention and the magazine into something they’re not. Oh, sometimes Rich and his merry band make it sound like what they’re doing is about more than going on benders. But most of it is indistinguishable from a bender. In fact, that someone occasionally stands up and gives a speech in which the consumption of large amounts of hard alcohol is made to sound like the solution to real, serious problems makes what they’re doing exactly like a bender.
As I go over my remaining notes, I come across the words of Alf Lamont, a convention-goer from Los Angeles. The event exceeded his expectations, he told me. He felt like he had found a place where he belonged:
“I feel like I’ve been part of this family for years . . . It is subculture at its finest and most intelligent . . . It’s a brotherhood. It’s a community. It’s a lifestyle.”
Damn, I’m missing my flight back to D.C. Check, please.
Sean Higgins is a reporter for Investor’s Business Daily.