High spirits

Welcome to the Modern Drunkard Convention, where the only point is to get plastered. Oh, and there's a political message, too, the organisers tell Andrew Gumbel. If only they could remember it. Photographs by Kevin Moloney
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The Independent US

Josh and Cindy have flown out to Colorado from their home in Circleville, Ohio, with two distinct goals in mind. The first is to get plastered - not a difficult task, as it turns out, because they have been drinking ever since they arrived at Columbus airport at 4am, and it's now pushing seven in the evening. And the second is to get married in front of a whole theatre full of fellow drinkers at a shindig known as the second annual Modern Drunkard Convention.

Josh and Cindy have flown out to Colorado from their home in Circleville, Ohio, with two distinct goals in mind. The first is to get plastered - not a difficult task, as it turns out, because they have been drinking ever since they arrived at Columbus airport at 4am, and it's now pushing seven in the evening. And the second is to get married in front of a whole theatre full of fellow drinkers at a shindig known as the second annual Modern Drunkard Convention.

Here they stand - or, in Joshua's case, wobble unsteadily - on stage at the Ogden Theatre in Denver before an Elvis impersonator most notable for his outsize codpiece that several young women have rushed up to photograph with their digital-camera mobile phones. "Dearly beloved cool cats and classy kittens," Elvis begins, sounding just a touch over-scripted. "Don't do it!" yells some hardened bachelor from the crowd.

But Josh and Cindy are not so easily deterred. They duly promise never to step on each other's blue suede shoes and to love each other until death do them part. Josh - looking oddly blissful in his thick silver earrings and fluffy brown goatee beard - starts dancing with a svelte young model dressed in a grey kangaroo suit. Then he almost falls f down the stairs as he descends from the stage.

Cindy, radiant in her plastic children's party tiara, doesn't look remotely bothered by her new hubby's uncertain step into matrimony, although she does beg this reporter not to print "anything bad". Josh's best man, who is also his favourite bartender back in Circleville, does the groom-propping honours. "Gin is his nemesis - he's a little fruity," he says apologetically as Josh makes another stumble. "Yep, he's fucked up."

Josh, though, is still coherent enough to speak for himself. Asked how the idea came to get married here, he looks almost bashful. "It's just one of those things," he mumbles. "You get drunk and then you get the idea." Cindy flashes him a disapproving look and retorts: "You can't trust a man to plan a wedding."

The convention is barely two hours old, and already it has proved action-packed. Right at the start time of 5pm, two women were caught trying to smuggle in hip flasks. Defiantly, they stepped back outside and downed the contents in full view of the security guards on the other side of the Ogden's plate glass windows. When they tried to return, they were ejected on the grounds of drunkenness.

Such are the tribulations of America's only known convention for drunks, an occasion dedicated to the proposition that there's nothing a puritanical, religiously conservative country needs more urgently than a weekend-long festival of wanton alcoholic abandon. The security people don't seem to have a problem with anyone getting drunk on the premises - how, realistically, could they? - but they do seem strangely insistent that everyone should at least make an effort to be sober when they show up.

It is a losing battle. On day two, the master of ceremonies - a limelight-loving comic who gives herself several good chortles with the self-inflicted stage name of Titsa Galore - introduces the rogues' gallery that passes for the convention organisers' assembly of nominees for drunk of the month. With shot glasses of Fernet Branca and ginger ale arrayed on a portable bar on the stage to keep them interested, they come forward: a woman by the name of Andie Ayers who "enjoys long walks on the beach and getting wasted"; a man with a shaggy black beard called Chuck Roy who declares himself "drunk and happy about it", especially now his spring bender is almost over and his summer bender is about to begin in earnest; an eccentric called Ryan who says he likes to get drunk and take his trousers off; a glassy-eyed overgrown schoolboy with a ginger beard called Shorts McGraw; and a woman calling herself Mama who demonstrates with several deft manoeuvres of her stilettoed right foot that she is, indeed, "drunk enough to kick her own ass".

It won't be long before Shorts, dressed in shorts, is dancing around by himself and cadging hugs off any woman drunk enough to offer him one. He doesn't look in good enough shape to demand much more; the organisers are promising to hand out an Errol Flynn award for the most drunken attempts to hit on a member of the opposite sex, but Shorts isn't hitting on anyone so much as bumping into them at random. True to his reputation on the Denver bar scene, he is eventually "eighty-sixed" - thrown off the premises and told not to come back.

Luckily there is more, much more to savour: stand-up comedy, nightly burlesque shows, and plenty of live music. Being a drunkards' festival, not everything goes exactly according to plan. A series of "soused seminars", covering subjects as diverse as drinking cults and the evils of Prohibition, is cancelled after the audience is deemed to be unreceptive. A nightly drinking contest alluringly called The Clash of the Tightest keeps being postponed for lack of participants - they are either too drunk already or else don't relish the damage to both their livers and their wallets (house rules insist they buy their own poison).

I am told repeatedly I should meet last year's Clash of the Tightest winner, a great hairy giant of a man with a vast belly and one arm shorter than the other, who has flown in from Minnesota. But this semi-mythical leviathan, whose name is Brian, proves maddeningly elusive. One of the convention organisers, a politically inclined pisshead called Rich English, tells me that Brian has decided, controversially, not to defend his title because he had such a miserable time the previous year. "It messed up his whole weekend," English explained. "First, he couldn't drink all day in anticipation of the contest. Then he got so shitfaced he had to go back to his hotel. Afterwards, he couldn't remember a thing."

Another organiser, the sweet-mannered Christa Rich, takes it upon herself to negotiate her way around the hitches and no-shows, not to mention the repeated anxious interventions of the Ogden's management. She talks on a phone attached directly to her ear lobe and does her best not to look flustered, even as she sips nervously at a vodka on the rocks. "I didn't drink at all last year," she explains, "and it just made me bored and stressed." Hence the adjustment this time around.

I understand how she feels: it's not until I've had a couple of beers myself that the strange parade of humanity before me - boozeheads, half-naked go-go dancers with tattoos stretching all the way across their shoulders, obscenity-spewing body-pierced punk rockers, and oddly distressed stragglers looking for their digital cameras, or their friends, or some all-important piece of scrap paper - begin to look like they might plausibly be enjoying themselves.

From my vantage point 30 feet back from the stage, anguish and torment still seems to threaten to overwhelm it all at any moment. Right in front of me, two women explore an unanticipated lesbian passion that blooms during a satanic-themed burlesque number. One of the women, though, is having distinct trouble deciding whether she should be attaching her bottom to the upper or the lower side of her seat. When she opens her mouth, I detect a moment's indecision whether she is going to use it to kiss her new best friend again, or to disgorge the contents of her overloaded stomach.

The master of this rambunctious ceremony,f and the man who really makes the whole event worthwhile, is Christa Rich's husband, Frank. He is just the person to induce you to spend a long night drinking. He is garrulous, charming, funny and razor-sharp, even after the first five or six whiskeys. For the past two years, his most prominent role has been as editor-in-chief of Modern Drunkard magazine, a runaway success in Denver and a handful of other American cities where it is distributed. (Circulation: 50,000 and rising.) But he has been many other things in his life: an élite member of the US armed forces, a writer of action-adventure novels that have enjoyed a certain succes d'estime in continental Europe, a film-maker and a punk rocker.

He is at once bar-room philosopher, man of action and booze-sozzled artist in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald. Alcohol, for him, is an inspiration and also a clarion call to guilt-free living. It gives him all his most brilliant ideas, even if he has to sober up before he can get them down on paper and give them structure. "Every great writer has been an alcoholic," he asserts. "If that weren't true there would be any number of great teetotal writers, but there aren't. Emily Dickinson came close, but even she drank wine. Stephen King wrote his best books when he worked with a case of whiskey beneath his desk. As soon as he went on the wagon, his books weren't worth reading any more."

For Rich, the last golden age in America was the 1960s, when Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack ruled the pop-cultural roost, boozers like John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office, and the ecstatic possibilities of alcohol had not been compromised by the rise of the alternative drug culture (too unstable and destructive, in his view), the growing influence of Christian conservatives (too kill-joy) and the rise of the political correctness movement (too repressive).

For him, Modern Drunkard magazine, and the popularity it enjoys, is a harbinger of a new golden age, and the prospect makes him very happy. "We're finally starting to rediscover the drug of our grandfathers, which is booze," he said. "After all, the time in your life that you have adventures is when you are drunk. That's why pirates were always so adventuresome, because they drank all the time."

Rich freely admits that alcohol has been a running theme in his life, not just the spur to higher things. His novels have all had drunkards for protagonists. (Usually, they were hungry much of the time too, as he was, squatting in a house in London for a couple of years and scraping to get by until his first book was sold.) His first film, called Nixon and Twist, was about a hitman who likes to drink a shot in honour of each of his victims. As his commissions pile up, he keeps getting drunker, with unpredictable consequences. Rich's most recent film, called Modern Drunkard, is about a midlife crisis tearing a man between his drinking buddies and his house in the suburbs with a white picket fence.

The magazine, which started out as a black-and-white photocopy job in the mid-1990s but now appears with full colour graphics and iconography borrowed from the socialist-realist tradition of the 1930s, is both heartfelt and hilarious. Modern Drunkard recently mounted a boycott campaign against Jack Daniels, on the grounds that the Tennessee distillery's corporate owners had diluted its strength. "America's best bourbon is now a ghost," the magazine lamented.

The monthly's pages are also graced with such items as the regular "Wino Wisdom", in which snatches of philosophy and unintentional poetry are captured for posterity. Many of them are possessed of a quiet brilliance, such as this observation by a certain Norma M at the Cricket on the Hill pub: "Depression is just anger without enthusiasm. It's an empty beer bottle with no one worth throwing it at." Or this from a drunk pushing away a man claiming his seat: "Bar stools are like prostitutes. And if you think one belongs just to you, you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of heartbreak."

How does this material fly in the United States? Very well, it seems. "America is a very strange country," Rich said. "You've got a weird dichotomy between the puritans and the wild-asses who think they're living in a frontier whiskey nation." To his surprise, most of the attacks on his organisation come not from the religious right, but from the left, especially earnest activist groups like MADD, the ever-more influential Mothers Against Drunk Driving which has evolved from a group dedicated simply to reducing the maximum blood-alcohol level permitted in drivers, to one apparently determined to stamp out alcohol consumption altogether.

Rich regards MADD as an out-of-control organisation, and not just because its members don't enjoy tippling as much as he does. Certain people, he believes, should definitely not be drinking, either because of their own mental or physical health, or because they have a propensity to get behind the wheel of a car when they shouldn't. For everyone else, he is a great believer in bar-room etiquette - treating the bar staff appropriately and making sure they are properly tipped.

Rich's problem, in the end, is that he is a far classier guy than most of his fellow imbibers. He has a code of conduct based vaguely on emulating the great drinkers of the past - Faulkner, Hemingway, the entertainer Jackie Gleason, even Winston Churchill. But most of the attendees at the Modern Drunkard convention were interested only in driving themselves to excess more or less for the sake of it.

Police cars were stationed outside the convention hotel for most of the weekend. At least one person was arrested, another was headbutted in the nose and others came close to starting ugly fights. On the morning I left, no fewer than three patrol cars were arrayed outside the hotel door, along with an ambulance carrying someone with alcohol poisoning to casualty.

One of Rich's classier friends, a Hollywood graphic designer whose forays into the history of drinking have earned him the nickname Dr Cocktail, clearly found the scene as uncomfortable as I did. (He yearned, too, for a drink container made of something other than plastic, and indeed we decamped at one stage to a nearby bar capable of offering what he referred to as "stemware".) "The problem with drinking in this country," Dr Cocktail said over a much more civilised Tanqueray gin and tonic, "is that there is no balance between drinking for the enjoyment, and out-and-out alcoholism."

For him, drinking is "as much about flavour as it is about inebriation". Which is no doubt how it ought to be. Back at the Ogden, though, the convention-goers were chugging back shots and light beer and showing few, if any, signs of tasting their drinks, much less enjoying them.

Frank Rich, by this stage, was too far gone for further coherent conversation. His friends said he was drinking more than he had planned in part because he was really quite shy, especially in large crowds. "People have a habit of drinking at Frank, not with him," said Dr Cocktail, and I could see what he meant.

Then one convention-goer popped a last-minute surprise on everyone. His name was Andrew, he had a lousy haircut and thick bifocals, but he announced that he was teetotal and more than happy to ferry anyone home who needed a ride. He didn't look the part, but he was just what the convention needed: a guardian angel, appearing just in the nick of time.