’Til You Puke
it was with casual inter est that I read last week that a
couple hundred college presidents are calling on the states
to roll the drinking age back down to 18. Apparently, the
big idea is that drinking in a controlled and legal environment
will be safer than today’s clandestine, look-over-your-shoulder
binge-for-alls. There’s supposedly an epidemic of kids getting
so faced that they hurl themselves off of balconies, drive
their cars fast into oncoming traffic, or simply croak from
alcohol poisoning. Lowering the drinking age, the reasoning
goes, will save lives.
I’ve always considered the “saves lives” argument incredibly
disingenuous. I even made the argument myself to legislators
during a mercifully short stint as a lobbyist for the liquor
industry (don’t laugh—well, OK, go ahead) in the mid ’90s.
I felt like a whore. But people bought into it, because it
was politically efficacious. Who’s gonna be against saving
But really, c’mon. Raising the drinking age to 30 would save
lives. Prohibition would save lives. Outlawing cars, sports,
making people stay in their houses all day, not allowing people
to get out of bed—hey now, we’re talkin’ saving lives!
In any event, I thought, eh, it’s probably a good idea to
lower the drinking age. I have some concern that, due perhaps
to media overload, overbearing boomer/yuppie parents, and
school curricula dictated by mind-numbing political correctness,
today’s 18-year-old is generally the emotional equivalent
of a 1980s 14-year-old. But given that most 1980s 14-year-olds
drank a ton of booze and most are none the worse for wear,
I’ll say, so what?
I’ll lean on the old standby argument, which is unassailable:
if you’re old enough to go into the military, to get assigned
to Gitmo and to spend your time torturing fellow human beings
in violation of international law and all tenets of basic
human decency, well, Sport, I say you’re old enough to sit
back and enjoy a frosty Cosmo with your boyfriend at some
dump on North Pearl Street. Am I right or am I right?
Then a thought struck, and I realized that these college presidents
are unwittingly pushing for the single greatest boon to working
musicians, since, oh, I dunno, penicillin?
OK, let’s get almost-serious for a minute. For a couple of
years the mantra among the technorati has been that musicians
have to give their music away, because free music is an inevitable
consequence of the Internet. Musicians can make up the slack
by courting fans, gigging, selling merch, etc. Not a bad plan,
really, but then gas hit $4 a gallon. Oops. Touring, which
for most bands is an iffy proposition at best, just got a
whole lot harder. Things have gotten pretty bleak pretty fast.
If the drinking age goes to 18, you’ll see hundreds of new
bars and clubs opening overnight. And many of these clubs,
in the mad rush to get bodies inside drinking, will take the
revolutionary step of offering live music to their patrons.
Suddenly, there will be places to play again, all over the
place, and some of these places might even pay the musicians
decently. Imagine what it’ll be like in big college towns.
I’m painfully aware of the significance of this, because my
band was a victim when the pendulum swung the other way 25
years ago. From 1980 to 1983, we toured nonstop, and there
were always gigs—good paying gigs, gigs on weekdays, gigs
in some pretty nice clubs and at a lot of colleges. Things
ebbed and flowed depending on how current our releases were
and where in the country we were, but it was generally pretty
consistently fertile out there. The drinking age was 18, and
to be sure, kids under 20 made up a good percentage of the
lunatic partiers who would come out on a Monday night to see
us play a show that started at 11 PM.
Then, in 1984 Congress passed a law that required all states
to raise the drinking age to 21 or else forfeit millions of
dollars in federal highway funds. State legislatures across
the country fell over each other to raise the drinking age
to 21. And the bottom fell out of our ability to tour. Clubs
closed in droves, and those that stayed open did the tighten-up.
Gig guarantees shrunk or disappeared. Clubs had fewer nights
with live music, and were more selective about who got booked
on the shrinking schedule. Like a lot of bands and a lot of
clubs, we struggled along for a few months, then just gave
These days, bands crisscross the country on a wing and a prayer,
playing on five-act bills in crappy clubs for a share of a
tiny gate, hoping to sell a few T-shirts and CDs to pay for
gas to get to the next town, sleeping on floors, eating noodles
and fast food, etc. When you’re young, it’s exciting maybe
for the first tour, but it gets tired real fast. It’s not
making a living; in fact, it’s barely living at all. All this
could change dramatically.
There’s a lot of talk about high-tech “solutions” for working
musicians, many of which are untested, theoretical, or have
more to do with marketing than making music. Here, we’re talking
about gigs. Music gigs. It doesn’t get more fundamental than
Lower the drinking age to 18. Now.