Big? Try Huge!
"That's just one little facet of what I do, so that's a bit of a problem," says Canadian-born guitar god Pat Travers, whose modest place in rock history is welded by his 1980 hit "Snortin' Whiskey," possibly the most bombastic hard-rock anthem of all time.
Too bad for him, but what a great deal for the rest of us. After all, there's big rock, and then there's big rock!
Once, I was ignorant of the distinction, before I learned of Travers' contribution to sonic debauchery. This was back when I was a college freshman, soon after humans first crossed the Bering land bridge. Unlike mellower guys whose masculinity was not threatened by hippie music, my roommate and I were virgins. Naturally, our dorm room was a 24-hour tribute to sexual frustration, with the playlist ranging from Metallica to Gorilla Biscuits. But one evening, my notions of loud vs. soft were overturned. "Snortin' Whiskey" stormed into my life.
I switched on the local classic rock station and heard what we'll call, however improperly, a song. It was a song that Gene Simmons could never budge, that gives Sammy Hagar an identity crisis. It makes "Cat Scratch Fever" sound like a Smithsonian Folkways recording. It gives Dee Snider eczema and incontinence. It detonates Meat Loaf's balls.
"Snortin' Whiskey," a three-and-a-half-minute cataclysm, is little known among today's callow headbangers, but it still is a prime contender in the bombast sweepstakes. If you've never heard it, imagine a good James Bond movie where each scene is more ludicrous than the last. It starts with the metallic boogie of the opening riffs, compressed and overdriven to within an inch of life. The vocals kick in like the feverish voice in a Guitar Center ad: "Been snortin' whiskey and drinkin' cocaine/Got this feelin' I'm gonna drive that girl insane."I don't really need to point this out, but there's a comic elegance to the fact the guy thinks he'll drive the girl "insane" with desire, when in fact he's so wasted on chemicals he can't even get the intake methods right in the verse.
The song builds like the ego of the protagonist as he convinces himself he is the most virile man on Earth. He's "got so much cocaine, I ain't never comin' down" and she's "like a mad river, baby, runnin' all over town." The bridge is preceded by its own exultant herald, "In-s-s-s-anity!," in which Travers graduates from Mr. Guitar Center to the double-tracked, echo-laden "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" guy from monster-truck commercials.
And what a bridge it is: fully instrumental, led by Travers' barbaric guitar work, which starts with squalling bluesy notes, before a fret-tapping crescendo of guitar harmony comes flaring so high you'd swear the Canadian government was involved in a space race with Eddie Van Halen. A precipitous drop into a different key then knocks you silly with a few measures of heavy white funk. Oh, but it's not over -- a second guitar solo builds into a final chorus and an extended outro featuring thudding false stops and an acrobatic drum solo.
Pant, pant, pant . . . now that's big rock. It is 100 percent id, uncomplicated by politics, self-pity or even anger. Released in 1980, a moderate hit on FM rock stations, "Snortin' Whiskey" propelled its album Crash and Burn into the Billboard Top 20. Recall that this was at a time when feminine washes of New Wave synths were seeping into pop consciousness and blues rock was growing about as viable as Gregg Allman's liver. After the release of This Is Spinal Tap four years later, no one would again dare to record such an excessive song without at least a touch of irony. And in the past few years, the ironists have escaped the novelty ghetto and proliferated, from the well-developed shtick of Andrew W.K. and Tenacious D. to campy one-offs like Sum 41's "Pain for Pleasure."
For a decade, however, big rock's most masterly, and funniest, practitioners have been the band Upper Crust, who supercharge their act with an 18th-century twist and wear powdered wigs, ascots and velvet knickers. Who better, then, to broaden our appreciation of "Snortin' Whiskey" than Upper Crust front man Lord Bendover. While his anthems "Let Them Eat Rock" and "Rock 'n' Roll Butler" extol the virtues of the blue-blood lifestyle, it was the subtext in "Snortin' Whiskey" that was on Bendover's mind.
"To my mind its ribald, turbulent veneer conceals an icy, glacial intelligence," says Bendover of Travers' masterpiece -- hey, bombastic rock deserves bombastic analysis. "The subtle irony of the titular inversion -- for do we not drink whiskey and snort cocaine? -- reveals the several levels of Travers' searching intellect, and the metaphor of the river, to which he likens his female companion, is redolent of a deep poetic sensibility. Surely Travers' frivolity, like that of so many great clowns, from Jerry Lewis to Marcel Marceau, is a mask for a fine and sensitive soul in an ecstasy of near-religious torment."
Over the phone from his home in suburban Orlando, Travers, still a full-time musician who continues to tour (take a visit to www.pattravers.com), reveals a sober take on "Snortin' Whiskey" that sounds too ingrained to be a front. Hell, if he endures any near-religious torment these days, it probably draws from his 6-year-old son's shenanigans, which can be heard at full volume in the background.
"Snortin' Whiskey'? I can tell you exactly how that happened," says Travers, parts of whose back catalogue is soon to be rereleased by One Way Records. The song, he explains, isn't autobiographical. Rather, it details the exploits of his old auxiliary guitarist, Pat Thrall, during the rehearsal sessions for Crash and Burn, Travers' third album. "We would normally start to rehearse around 2 every day. And Pat wasn't there at 2, wasn't there at 3, and he wasn't there at 4." Travers laughs: "And at 4:30 in the afternoon, the big studio door got kicked open and he came in with his girlfriend, and they looked, you know. Needless to say, they were looking a little worse for wear. I said, What've you been doing?' He said, Snortin' whiskey and drinkin' cocaine (sniff!).' Well, that sounded like a song title to me, and I already had the main guitar riff, so I just put it with that and it took me about five minutes to write that song."
According to the notes in the 1991 CD edition of The Best of Pat Travers, "Snortin' Whiskey" and Travers' other hit, a cover of the blues classic "Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)," became a "twin albatross around the neck" of Travers. Says Travers now, "I've gotten over it . . . unfortunately, they were the only tunes that really got a lot of airplay."
No, Travers doesn't realize the magnitude of his accomplishment. The print media have ignored it, too, slapping Travers with mundane tags like "blues-rock" and "AOR." (Perhaps it's the haircut; a straight, black mop, it makes him look like an even gawkier version of Neil Young.) And you'd be lucky to catch a rare airing of "Snortin' Whiskey" and avoid far paler gluttony such as "Livin' After Midnight" and "Rock and Roll All Nite," sung by guys in leather chaps and eight-inch heels.
The value of "Snortin' Whiskey" is not lost on Lord Bendover. "For myself," he intones, "the notion of so unfettered a debauch exercises an attraction of uncommon strength, such that I cannot restrain myself from cranking up the eight-track and burying my face in an eightball right now, thus bringing this analysis to a conclusion the abruptness of which I sincerely hope will be forgiven by your readers, whom I take the liberty of believing to be half in the bag themselves."
You know who you are. In 2003, may you inhale what you will and imbibe what you wish. And not least, don't forget to "drive that girl insane."
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