Prohibition culture

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It still blows my mind that this happened.

As I’ve mentioned already, I spent two weeks in Los Angeles towards the end of last year, doing research at the Getty Research Institute. This was the longest I’ve stayed in California since I lived there between 2003 and 2005, when I was working at Stanford on a postdoc. In the meantime, I’ve mostly lived in Indiana. This trip was the first time I’ve been in one of the states where cannabis has been to some degree decriminalized. So when I went back, even though I knew that things have changed a bit, I was still amazed to find people just straight-up smoking weed. I mean, right out in the open. Walking around, you are more likely to smell cannabis than cigarette smoke. On an endless drive from Brentwood to Pasadena, stuck in traffic on Sunset, I saw the folks in the car next to me pass the time by lighting up a joint. And it was smooth, machined, mass-produced joint, more like a Marlboro than an amateur’s wrinkly twist.* A tiny change in material culture — the hand-rolled jay becomes like a hand-rolled cigarette or a label-less bottle of homebrew, an artisanal affectation, a conspicuous sign of its maker’s commitment to authenticity. (Why don’t you just go to the store?) It’s tiny change in material culture that signals a vast, deep change in law and mores.

This fascinated me. In the 1990s, I was of an age where cultural expectations get formed, and in the 1990s cannabis was really illegal. A lot of people smoked it, but the activity and culture surrounding it was predicated on its illegality and the possibility of serious legal repercussions if you got caught. The word here is clandestine. Paranoia around surveillance and detection made every pot smoker a secret agent in his own private East Berlin. Head-shop paraphernalia (pipes that look like cigarettes, stash boxes that look like anything but stash boxes) evolved out of the same evolutionary pressures as stick insects. If you were at a party and caught a whiff of pot, you’d scan the room to find the telltale furtive knot of smokers, given away by their body language: slightly hunched, head on a swivel, making the fuck-yeah-we’re-smoking-weed face, or else ramrod straight and wearing a fake-innocent expression like your Mom just walked in.

With the de facto and increasingly de jure legalization of cannabis, this entire culture of secrecy, with all its expressive dimensions, will necessarily pass away. It’s already passing away in California. Prohibition isn’t just a system of laws and penalties; it’s also a culture. What struck me is that in 2016, where we seem to have reached a tipping point in our attitudes and actions regarding marijuana legalization, we are at a point analogous to 1933, when alcohol prohibition ended in the United States. What Kathleen Drowne calls “prohibition culture” is emerging into a post-Prohibition legal landscape. We don’t know it yet, maybe, but we’re living in a world that will soon have vanished into a half-life of cultural representations. That’s a weird thought to me. I want to consider what this means.

Compare our situation to Prohibition. People drank, but they had to go to a lot of trouble to drank iffy booze in sketchy places. And when they didn’t have to anymore, they became nostalgic for it. The barroom poetry of Frank Sinatra’s 1950s recordings is suffused with that nostalgia — for example in “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” a Harold Arlen tune from 1943.

It’s worth remembering that this song was written only 10 years after the end of prohibition. Imagine if alcohol were illegal until the middle of the second George W. Bush administration: a song written now about a man drinking down his sorrows would be written from within that recent cultural memory. Sinatra’s performance of “One for My Baby,” recorded in the decade after the song’s composition, is sensitive above all to the glamour of drinking, a glamour made possible by the conditions of prohibition. As Gary Giddins writes, Sinatra was

that rare figure in American cultural life … who mirrored an entire generation, a performer who so perfectly embodied the experiences and outlook of a time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and predictor of the future. In Sinatra’s case, it was the generation that fought the war and listened to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore fedoras, wide ties, and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like crests; smoked feverishly and without guilt; drank holdover concoctions from the days of Prohibition (usually made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope; ogled Betty Grable’s sculpted legs; thought movie musicals would be produced forever; gambled in Vegas because of the mob; put their kids through colleges they never dreamed of attending; and placed more trust in God than cholesterol. [Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 221.]

People still get drunk and cry about lost love, but nowadays if they end up in a bar like the one in Sinatra’s TV sketch it’ll be some theme-park simulacrum like Pulp Fiction‘s Jackrabbit Slim’s — a weird choice for where to nurse a broken heart — and they’ll still have to go outside to smoke. Sinatra’s performance here has a poetry of sadness under lockdown, sadness in the deeps, the barroom a bathyscaphe a mile below the surface of daylit workaday society. It is sadness colored and intensified by the outlaw aura that, in the late 1950s, still clings to drinking: sadness consecrated by moving outside and going within, hunkering down in a place that keeps its distance from the big Out There, a place from which you straggle back somewhat the worse for wear, trailing excuses and a headache.

I’d like to think that the song itself bears the trace of that experience. Arlen called it a “typical Arlen tapeworm” — a song that unspools long past its expected 32 measures. “One for My Baby” is 58 measures, in fact. The expected form of the classic American popular song is in four phrases, each eight measures long (4 x 8 = 32). Hearing such a form start to play out, we’ll expect the first two phrases to be nearly identical to one another, the third to offer something new, and the fourth to bring us back to the familiar tune we heard at the beginning. If we wanted to schematize it, we’d say that song follows an AABA form, or “lyric binary form.”

“One for My Baby” has an AABA form, but with a twist: each of the A phrases is itself a little nested lyric binary form. Actually, each nested phrase is a variant of lyric binary — aabc, where the c phrase is the song refrain, “make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.” So a roadmap of the song, tracked to timings from Sinatra’s performance, looks like this:

0:00 – 0:54: 16 measures of A (aabc = 4+4+4+4)

0:55 – 1:49: 16 measures of A (aabc = 4+4+4+4)

1:50 – 2:19: 8 measures of B (dd = 4+4)

2:20 – end: 18 measures of A (aabc = 4+4+4+6)

Notice that the last nested c phrase is six measures, not four: this is what is called a “cadential extension,” which is another way of saying that we draw out the ending a little bit by adding that last “long, long road” — a drinker’s last brooding thought as he gets ready to head back Out There.

So it’s an expanded version of the expected form — a tapeworm, as Arlen puts it — and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics are perfectly suited to its garrulous length. Again and again the singer tells barkeeper Joe that he’s gonna tell him a tale, a grand sad tale . . . and again and again he loses the thread, or loses his nerve, or just can’t find his way back to the Out There where all this heartbreak (whatever it is) took place, and ends up helplessly toasting the memory of his lost love. It’s a musical form that bends its elbow, belting back drink after drink, the melody’s woozy half-step alternations between the major and minor third of the scale serving both as composed-out blue notes and a kind of musical onomatopoeia. It’s a song that says, we’re drinking. Oh yeah, buddy, we’re drinking. You can’t quite find that place if drinking isn’t a little desperate and a little lonely, imbued with the romanticism of brave and doomed retreat. It’s the romanticism of Prohibition culture.

It’s not that these meanings are gone, but only that they’ve migrated from lived experience to a shared cultural vocabulary, the way cockney chimney-sweeps have. An item of cultural vocabulary is not exactly the same as an item of memory; it’s what everyone now calls a “trope” (a cultural-studies term gone mainstream), a representational convention that can also serve as a convention of the self. After all, if you get dumped, isn’t it more dramatically satisfying to drown your sorrows à la Sinatra than to sit around playing Call of Duty or something? That speakeasy romanticism is still available to us as a historical costume we can put on or take off.

But decades ago it wasn’t just a trope; it was lived experience. And in the 1930s and 1940s, that lived experience of Prohibition collided with a post-Prohibition set of judicial and social structures, which have developed into the forms we take for granted now. And my point is that we live at just such a point right now. Which is what blew my mind when I was sitting in my rental car, staring at the young people in the car next to me lighting up a joint and living in a world fundamentally different from the one I grew up in — or for that matter from the world to which I returned a few days later. That was strange in itself, traveling from one place to another in the same country and inhabiting a fundamentally different cultural reality.

I find that I have used the words “strange” and “weird” again and again in this post, and yet I don’t think I’ve really managed to convey what strikes me as so strange and weird about all this. I think something larger is at stake, something to do with what a relatively new activist movement is calling “cognitive liberty.” I’ll write more about that soon, I think.

*Yes, I stared a little, doubtless looking like a Hoosier who just rolled into town on a turnip truck.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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