Our Last Cigarette

Our Last Cigarette

Our Last Cigarette

July 17 1997 3:30 AM

Our Last Cigarette

The fading glories of the smoking song.

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The earliest smoking song I've ever come across is "Tobacco's But an Indian Weed"--from the late 1600s, which seems a bit slow off the mark: Sir Walter Raleigh had brought the first tobacco leaves back from the colonies to Queen Elizabeth almost a century earlier. On the other hand, he also brought back the potato, and how many great potato songs had anybody written by then? But sooner or later everything winds up in the ashtray of history and, 300 years after that first entry, it seems almost certain that the Cigarette Songbook has no new leaves to turn over. For that reason alone, kd lang's Drag will prove a useful anthropological document, rounding up as it does some of the smokiest songs of the century, from "Smoke Rings," the old theme of Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra from the 1930s, to Steve Miller's '70s rocker "The Joker" ("I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight toker").

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The first thing to be said is that Miss lang--or maybe it's miss lang--lives up to her title: Drag is a deep, languorous inhalation. Its orchestrations, especially David Tom's guitar loops, are as near as anyone's ever come to the sensation of smoking, even if by the time she gets halfway through the Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" (click here to hear it)--"Peace came upon me/ And it lee-ee-ee-eaves me weak"--she seems to be unwinding from a heavy night at the opium den rather than down to her last Marlboro Light.

The second thing to be said is that Drag is a pun: On the cover, lang is wearing pinstripes and a ruby cravat, like Oscar Wilde heading out clubbing. It's as much about sexual role play, and smoking as a metaphor for love, every popular singer's real addiction. (If any male vocalist is looking for an equally adroit album title encompassing both cigarettes and sexuality, may I suggest, at least for those versed in the divergences of British and American slang, Fag.) Incidentally, Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, writes, "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?" This would seem to be kd's view of love: an addiction that must inevitably disappoint.

I n a way, it's the album she's been working up to for years. She's covered "I'm Down to My Last Cigarette" and "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" and, best of all, "Black Coffee" (click here to hear it), a smoldering Peggy Lee favorite that climaxes:

Now man was born to go a-lovin';
But was woman born to weep and fret?
And stay at home and tend her oven
And drown her past regrets
In coffee and cigarettes?

I'm moanin' all the mornin'
Moanin' all the night
And in between
It's nicotine. ...

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You get the idea. (That, by the way, is the first use of "nicotine" in a Tin Pan Alley lyric.) lang's best-known original song, "Constant Craving," speaks for itself. Her best-written song, "Miss Chatelaine" from the CD Ingenue, is about love as an exhilarating high, and the next track on that album begins, "You swim through my veins ..." Artistically speaking, kd lang is addicted to addiction.

She's not the first, of course. Harry Warren and Al Dubin covered most of the bases in a song for 42nd Street in 1933 (italics mine):

Ev'ry kiss, ev'ry hug
Seems to act just like a drug
You're getting to be a habit with me
Let me stay in your arms
I'm addicted to your charms
You're getting to be a habit with me
I used to think your love was something that I
Could take or leave alone
But now I couldn't live without my supply. ...

Only in the final eight bars do the writers pull any punches:

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I must have you ev'ry day
As regularly as coffee or tea. ...

Tea? You mean, after all that, we're talking about hot beverages here? Well, probably. Coffee's addictive; so are reefer (Cab Calloway, Fats Waller) and coke (Cole Porter--"I get no kick from cocaine"). But, in most pop songs, cigarettes are merely a stylish accessory.

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T he best example of stylish smoke comes at the opening of one of the most recorded songs ever. Eric Maschwitz, a BBC radio producer moonlighting under the name Holt Marvell, wrote the lyric as an attempt to come up with his own "You're the Top"-like laundry list. As it happens, I think he improved on the original. His is one of the most quoted lines in all popular music:

A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things
Remind me of you. ...

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In the cold light of day, it's an image that's as likely to make you feel icky as nostalgic--a half-smoked fag with some cheesy lip gloss on it. But, set to those notes, it's a fine example of the transformational properties of music--the perfect opening for Maschwitz's rueful accumulation of sophisticated memory-joggers--"wild strawberries only seven francs a kilo," "the waiters whistling as the last bar closes," and so on.

S ince then, the singing cigarette has dwindled away to isolated outposts of adolescent rock, like "Smokin' in the Boys' Room." One of the consequences, for an album like Drag, is that the most innocuous songs now, paradoxically, pack more of a punch than ostensibly more searing stuff like "My Old Addiction." kd lang is never more brazen than when dusting off "Smoke Rings" (click here to hear it), from 1932:

Puff! Puff! Puff!
Puff your cares away
Puff! Puff! Puff!
Night and day ...

lang's great quality is that she can pull off even the most anachronistic trifle without patronizing it. The songs emerge as charming and dated yet somehow contemporary. Her approach, which she's used consistently since recording Cole Porter's "So in Love" seven years ago, is to honor the broad parameters of the original layout--tempo, arrangement--while using pared-down, guitar-based rock orchestrations. The only surprise is that more singers haven't picked up on it.

I'd be interested to see if you could apply that technique (and the arrangements) to older material such as Victor Herbert's 1905 nod to Kipling, "(A Woman Is Only a Woman) But a Good Cigar Is a Smoke"--though that's probably an unlikely sentiment for kd lang. Still, it's these older songs that seem the correct assessment: Smoking is a consolation for the vicissitudes of life, a prop for losers. That's how Sinatra's been using cigarettes for 60 years, dimming the lights and getting them out for "Angel Eyes" or "One for My Baby," sad songs for guys with nothing to do but drown their sorrows. It's a persona that found its apotheosis in 1981 on the cover of She Shot Me Down, his darkest album: Sinatra, hunched in a leather jacket, wreathed in smoke. It's not an image the tobacco companies care for. When a British company, back in the '60s, tried the saloon-singer approach in a TV ad--with a moody, reflective loner and the tag line "You're never alone with a Strand"--it wound up putting itself out of business. The Joe Camel approach is unlikely to produce any decent songs, but it undoubtedly sells more cigarettes.

Whatever happens to tobacco sales under the new settlement between the states and the tobacco companies--or, more accurately, between the tobacco lobbyists and some enterprising tort lawyers--it's bound to result in the further withdrawal of cigarettes from the mainstream of popular culture, including songs. That being the case, maybe, like the fatalistic protagonist of the 1908 operetta Algeria, we should light up one last time:

Fragrant clouds then from us veil
Ev'ry sorrow, ev'ry doubt
Till we wake at last to find
That our cigarette is out.