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. ...

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:

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

TODAY IN SLATE

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