I can't tell if it's important or not to note first off that I am a very big fan of this song. I don’t know if that makes the following “funnier” or not, or if this is supposed to even be funny. A quick construXstyle story: Paul and I went to an Oakland dive bar (Denny's) one night before Thanksgiving with Jill and her then boyfriend (now husband). We maintained a leering dominance over the jukebox for the majority of the night, and this was one of my selections. As the solo kicked in, Paul asserted calmly that it was not to his taste and that while the first 5:30 were amusing, it had gone on too long. Below is my defense of this song's compelling story structure. Try to argue...--Ian
I wanna tell you a story about the houseman blues
I come home one Friday, I had to tell the landlady I done lost my job
She said "That don't confuhn me, as long as I get my money next Friday."
Now next Friday come I didn't get the rent, and out the door I went
Okay, it took me a while to decide if he was saying "I wanna" or "I'm gonna." Either way, it doesn't sound like there's much of a choice. It seems to me like this is the kinda guy who is sittin on the next barstool and allofasutten threw his arm around you and just launched into it all. Now, I like that he isn't making any excuses for himself. He jumps right into it--no backstory about how times are hard or the events that led up to his unemployment. It just is and he is a man of action with a strong sense of duty. I mean, he is doing the responsible thing. He coulda just ducked her for a while. Likewise, herself isn't confuhnt (concerned? confounded? both? Doesn’t matter, she’s unfazed). She doesn't care where he gets the money, as long as it ends up in her hand. Evidently, though, security's tight around there, or this landlady is toff iz nails because that last line sounds like it wasn't really too amicable a parting, but then again, as we've established just now, the speaker of this tale is in fact quite the gentleman...
So I goes to the landlady, I said, "You let me slide? I'll have the rent for you tomorrow the next day, I don't know."
So she let me slide it on, you know, people.
I notice when I come home in the evening, she ain't got nothin nice to say to me.
But for five years, she was so nice. Lord, she was lovey-dovey.
I come home one particular evenin, the landlady says, "You got the rent money yet?"
I said, "No. Can't find no job. Therefore, I got no money to pay the rent."
She said, "I don't believe you're tryin to find no job." Said "I seen you today, you were standin on the corner, leanin up against a post."
I said, "But I'm tired! I been walkin all day--"
She said, "That don't confuhn me, long as I get my money next Friday."
Now next Friday come I didn't have the rent, and out the door I went
I guess I'll start with the most frustrating aspect of this passage which is the looser chronology, it having been so rigidly set in the previous passage. I understand his offering to pay in a timely manner, dependent on new employment, but when he comes home, it's enough to establish a pattern of his landlady's callousness. Conversely, he could be referring to one night, the next night as a stark exception in her conditioned behavior. I do wonder what she said to him at this point if nothing nice... nothing at all? I don't envision her as mannerly as our hero. When I imagine this landlady, this is what I see.
Again, we establish that the speaker is a class act, for if we take the phrase "lovey-dovey" literally, and I choose to, then he could have perhaps propositioned her. This doesn't even cross his mind. Then again, we aren't privy to his inner workings here, just the expository facts. But it makes sense why she would let him stay. I've never lived anywhere for five years yet, much less been an ideal tenant that would prove my worth enough to allow to slide. Still, I feel if she was understanding enough to give him a roof over his head that her demeanor might connote that compassion a little more palpably.
Now if she had been asking him nightly if he had the money, he would have said so, so we must assume that it's here she breaks her silence, or at least doesn't speak under her breath. And when is this one particular evening? I submit that it must be the day after tomorrow, being the last day that he promised, albeit casually, to have his rent money (we can assume safely now that he owes her for two weeks' rent.)
We can go in one of two directions here, by either applauding the speaker's work ethic in his persistence to find a job in spite of the potential cushion that unemployment checks on a job held for at least five years (he may have lived elsewhere while working at the same place) or we can sharply criticize the system that has failed to provide him with this option. Either way, it isn't even broached here, so let's move on. He offers a very simple, ipso facto explanation for his lack of funds, very much in the same manner he is relating this story to us, you know people, so I'm inclined to take him at his word. She immediately refutes this, though, which makes me question several elements of their relationship. Does she not trust him? What was she doing in the middle of the day, walking, driving around? Couldn't she stop and ask him at the moment she saw him? I can give her the benefit of doubt and assume she was in between errands, and not out for leisure. But who, in their leisure time, leans against a post?! He comes right back with a sensible argument that it's exhausting. A job search is a full time job, but landlady has no time for the Houseman Blues and cuts him off when he explains. We then go full circle to the focus of the conversation. The rent. Maybe I am too hasty to judge her, maybe she relies on it to pay house bills. Anyway, they part ways again.
So I go down the street, down to my good friend's house.
I said, "Look man. I'm outdoors, you know. Can I stay with ya maybe a couple days?"
He said, "Uh, lemme go an ask my wife."
He come outta the house, I could see in his face, I knowed it was No.
He said, "Uh I dunno man, she kinda funny and uh--"
I said, "I know. Everybody's funny. Now you funny too."
Let me make the point here that we are dealing with a Good Friend, not just someone you see every once in a while and say Hi to. I have no reason not to believe that the speaker intends to stay any longer than a couple days. Now, if this were a Good Friend of mine, that is to say, if I were to ever have a friend, my answer would be yes, come in and let's talk to my wife (as if). But we got this sad sac who lets others just boss him around. He is funny! And with the observational skills he displays in this passage, we can quickly see why the narrator has no time for internalizing. All I have learned so far is that womenfolk are very possessive of their living space... unless money's involved. And I'm assuming control of the money in this household is unilateral as well and to have asked to borrow any to pay the rent would have been out of the question. Or perhaps that's not an issue (or a non-issue) because the speaker here is too proud to accept money has hasn't worked for. Please let me point out that nowhere in the text so far has he made one disparaging misogynistic remark, whereas his Good Friend, mind you, makes no attempt to take responsibility or control of the situation, but puts the blame solely on his domestic partner. Moving on...
So I go back home. I tell the landlady I got a job, I'm gonna pay the rent.
She said, "Yeah?" I said, "Aw, yeah." And then she was so nice. Lord, she was lovey-dovey.
So I go in my room, pack up my things and I go. I slip on out the back door and down the streets I go.
She a-hollerin about the front rent, she'll be lucky to get any back rent.
She ain't gonna get none of it.
And in this one passage, we see that we are dealing with a rather conniving, Dickensian rascal. And we can dismiss him as a common lowlife but look at the facts here: Yes he lies, but he couldn't have been gone for more than an hour or two to walk to his friend's down the street and back. Would she truly believe that he had found a job in one hour, when he had not been able to for two days? I guess if she actually thought he was loitering previously, and is so out of touch to think finding a job (off business hours nonetheless) is that simple, that it's easy to believe. And then we learn that the two previous exits must have been forced since he had no time to collect his scant belongings. I honestly believe he must have been looking for a job, because any sneaktheif would have had his belongings packed and ready each Thursday knowing full well he wouldn't have a job because he wasn't looking. So it's become a matter of survival, and she screams loud enough for him to here her down the streets. For one moment he muses that she should feel so fortunate to even get a cent, being as inhuman and disloyal as she is, but then almost as if he reconsiders, or just to make it clear for us, he tells us he has no intention whatsoever of giving this greedy boozh any money.
So I stop in the local bar, you know people. I go to the bar. I rent/wring (?) my coat. I call the bartender.
I said, "Look man, come down here." He got down there. He said, "What you want?"
"One bourbon, one scotch and one beer..."
A couple points: He is obviously not addressing fellow bargoers it becomes clear, or there would be no need to mention he's at the local bar. I can't tell what we does with his coat, but from the description that follows, it makes it unlikely there is a coat check girl present. It's much easier to believe that his coat is sweat soaked from his daily trials. Please notice that he addresses the bartender in the same exact manner he does his Good Friend. This must be a greeting reserved for those close to him, obviously a longtime relationship since the bartender knows what kind of beer without clarification. Of course, it's equally likely this is the kind of establishment where only one kind of beer is available.
"...I ain't seen my baby since I don't know when.
I been drinking bourbon, whiskey, scotch and gin.
I'm gonna get high, man I'm gonna get loose.
Need me a triple shot of that juice.
I'm gonna get drunk, don't you have no fear.
I want one bourbon, one scotch and one beer.
One bourbon, one scotch and one beer."
Again, a safe bet is that he is still addressing the bartender, a longtime confidant with a sympathetic ear who perhaps even personally knows the speaker's lost love (a town small enough to require only one local bar would probably foster that kind of community intimacy). But, herein lies the mystery. Where was he getting the gin (and of course the other assorted liquors he mentions, and even here, is he referring to bourbon as bourbon whiskey like I hope, or distinguishing that he has been enjoying both a fine single malt bourbon as well as some manner of Canadian blended affair--he doesn't call the scotch "scotch whisky")? If he has no job, he has no money to pay the rent. Does he have enough for a spare pint or two, but nowhere near enough to cover a week's boarding? Was he actually leaning up against a post on the corner not from fatigue but because he was going to hurl?? We know that he didn't show up at the bar drunk as he announces intentions to imbibe heavily. And orders three shots of juice to accompany his gin.
This passage actually contains the most intriguing line of the entire piece, and the entire reason I undertook this article (lucky you!): Whose fear is the narrator assuaging?? Since he repeats his order at the end of the passage, I assume it's still the bartender. Why is the bartender afraid the speaker won't get drunk?? Is the speaker a fun drunk, a great tipper when tipsy or is the bartender an enabler who stands behind his wares and believes that the best way to forget a woman is through the bottle?
Then I'm sittin there, at the bar. I'm gettin drunk. I'm feelin mellow.
I'm drinkin bourbon, I'm drinkin scotch, I'm drinkin beer.
Look down the bar, here come the bartender.
He said, "Look man. Come down here." Said, "What you want?"
"One bourbon, one scotch, one beer..."
Feel free to dispute this, but I am certain that the speaker flips the script on us here. In the previous passage, the bartender responded to a beckon, but here he approaches of his own volition. Being unsolicited, I do believe he is the one invoking the usual prelude to any favor. The obvious question is, why is he telling the speaker what he has a taste for?
"...No, I ain't seen my baby since the night before last.
Gotta get a drink man. I'm gonna get gassed.
I'm gonna get high, I ain't had enough.
Need me a triple shot of that stuff
I'm gonna get drunk, won't ya listen right here--
I want one bourbon, one scotch and one beer."
And here is the answer. He wanted some empathy reciprocated. There are several indicators that confirm this is indeed from the bartender's point of view. First, allow me to point out that the speaker has had not one qualm speaking for every character he encounters. Also, in the first half of this passage, the narrator clearly states he's getting drunk, a state the bartender must envy, even opening his entire rant with a mournful moan. At this point, I am inclined to believe they are the only two in the bar. And he confides in his regular patron and good friend that he is going to drink to drown his woes. Clearly, the usual drinks he pours for what I can assume must be a town full of broken hearts looked particularly appealing as he himself has just suffered a heartache. Perhaps he thinks someone like our protagonist who may be an old hand at love can impart some wisdom not found in a bottle. Or maybe he just wants him to listen, right here. This is probably a big deal, because this dutiful bartender stays sober while on the job. He probably isn't too worried about losing his job, because in a town small enough to necessitate only one local bar, it is likely that the owner is also the barkeep. Now the only question left is if they are pouring both the bourbon and the scotch as shots or if one is a long drink...
Now by this time, I’m plenty high. You know when your mouth is getting dry, your plenty high.
I look down the bar, I see there my bartender. I said, “Look man. Come down here.”
He got down there, said, “What you want this time?”
I said, “Look man. Uh, what time is it?”
He said, “The clock on the wall says three o clock. A last call for alcohol.” Said, “What you need?”
“One bourbon, one scotch, one beer…”
So they let the time pass in silence, it would seem, and let the band play on. The speaker acknowledges this lapse, wherein he presumably consumed more various and sundry libations, perhaps including the aforementioned oddity of gin. This is made obvious by the bartender’s uncertainty as to the speaker’s drink selection for the final round. Note the similarities between this and the first “Second Half” passage wherein he specifically mentions calling the bartender, his bartender. I was torn, or thrown, for a moment and wondering whether he said he saw there his bartender or he saw to him. Both are equally plausible, given the nature of their relationship as established in the previous passage, but in the end, owing to context, I am fairly certain he simply identifies his bartender. I stand thoroughly impressed, as always, by the speaker’s observational skills. He has enough wherewithal after a night with drinking to know he’s high. I am nowhere near that responsible of a drinker. Normally I know I’m drunk when I wake up the next morning with the front door wide open, ripped pants, one shoe on and a missing wallet. Equally impressive is the display of manners. True Southern manners. It’s addressed so casually in the story, but to me who never experiences this kind of human bonding, this is striking, at least once we get past the inebriated sass of the barkeep, which seems to be all in good fun anyhow. 1) To start with, even when plenty high, they don’t do anything as crass as shout across a room at each other.2)Before even placing his order, knowing with his keen awareness that it must be getting late, asks what time it is. Does he have a place he needs to be? A curfew? Clearly not, as he has nowhere to go. There’s no curfew when you’re outdoors, you know people. No, he wants to make sure he actually has time to place an order without inconveniencing his buddy. 3) The bartender changes his question, when it’s last call, he knows his regular is in need. He has this pain he needs to shirk. He does not ask to settle up, or remind him of the tab. He’s been a regular for at least five years. You know he gonna let him slide it on. But no one argues with the clock on the wall. The firmness with which the time is stated assures you that if you even try to correct him, you’re out the door. Again, no one argues with the clock on the wall.
“…No, I ain’t seen my baby since nigh on a week.
Gotta get drunk man so I can’t even speak.
Gonna get high man, listen to me.
One drink ain’t enough, Jack, you better make it three
I’m gonna get drunk, I’m gonna make it real clear.
I want one bourbon, one scotch and one beer.
One bourbon, one scotch and one beer.”
Yes, our speaker is again the one who needs consolation. For a long time I was puzzled by the voice of this final passage, and thought it could be a different patron chiming in, but the structure leaves no room for this interpretation. It must still be the protagonist, as he bookends his lament with a typical order (The Broken Heart Special) and echoes his bartender’s guttural utterance of despair. But the time for discussing our problems is finished. Yeah, he’s plenty high, but now it’s time to get far gone. Before or while the drinks are being prepared, though, he does want just a little more opportunity to vent his various and sundry obstacles. Now, I am fully aware that Jack can be a casual reference for any guy, but considering they consistently refer to each other as “man” throughout the entirety of their exchange, I choose to accept that he is on a first name basis with his bartender, an enviable position. Finally, when all the useless words are out of the way and extremes of emotions cease to cloud our view, we hit that sublime point of drunkenness, where we achieve a moment of clarity. I understand there is a double meaning, that he is repeating his order to make it clear, aware he may be slurring a lil, but also and moreso, he has a clear and defined intention, a purpose behind his drinking. He knows he’s plenty high, but tonight, well, that’s just not enough. No, he himself, is going to get to a point of revelatory understanding. We have no other course of reckoning to take aside from believing this last round accomplished that, just beating the clock on the wall, by Jack’s good graces, to arrive at an oasis of solitary solace, at least temporarily.
To conclude, I don’t want flack about the frivolity of the subject or the presupposition that a line was thrown in just because it rhymed. I don’t care to be educated on the prior versions of this song with different lyrics. This is the version I grew up on and particularly enjoy. This does not mean, however, that I am not open to various interpretations of the description of events as presented above, or even a dispute concerning misheard lyrics. I do want to hear all genuine insights. Any and all construXtive remarks in pursuit of a productive conversation (most fall under this category) will be embraced and acknowledged, so I strongly encourage you to respond to the vague mysteries swirling in the empty glass that is this recording.