October 8th, 2007 5:33 pm | by Paige Richmond Music | Posted In: Columns, Columns, Columns

Dear You: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

news95 Oregon, I understand that secondhand smoke (and naturally, smoking cigarettes in general) is unhealthy. I watched that episode of America's Next Top Model a few weeks back, where all the models were made-up and posed to show the negative side effects of smoking. I've seen the commercial where a sullen waitress explains how she has never had a cigarette in her life but is dying of lung cancer from secondhand smoke, due to working in a smoky bar and/or restaurant for 25 years.

I also know that cigarettes smell bad and that irresponsible people litter the gutters and streets outside the Towne Lounge and Dante's with their cigarette butts. For these and countless other reasons, Oregon, I understand why you decreed that I can no longer smoke in your bars come January 2009.

But I think you are wrong, Oregon, and Portland's live music is going to suffer for your mistake.

Before I tell you why, I must confess that I have been less than faithful to you lately. Forgive me, but I attended a live music show in Seattle last week. It wasn't very good, even though a Portland-affiliated musician—one-time violinist for the Decemberists, Petra Hayden—played the show. She performed with Greg Dulli, former singer-guitarist of Afghan Whigs and current singer-songwriter of the Twilight Singers. The show was filled with Dulli's silver-tongued lyrics and tortured guitar, but it lacked one important element: A cigarette dangling from Dulli's lips.

What is Greg Dulli without the gratuitous cigarette breaks that color his live performances? Still a great songwriter, still a troubled soul—but his performance lacked something in that smoke-free, terribly clean Seattle venue, something that I can only describe as a real connection to his audience. But I do blame Dulli for this, Oregon? No, I blame Seattle, Wash., for banning smoking in bars, restaurants and venues.

Oregon, you must learn from Seattle's fate before it becomes your own. Has the no-smoking policy at the Doug Fir, Someday Lounge or even Berbati's taught you nothing? I'm no expert on concert demographics, Oregon, but there's a difference between the show-goers at the Doug Fir and those at the Towne Lounge (and it's not just the tightness of their pants). Non-smokers who brave smoke-filled venues are die-hard music fans are willing to risk life and lung to see a band they love. Once a venue goes smoke-free, non-smokers with no interest in what bands are playing will happily saunter into the venue's clean air for drinks or dates.

The crowd at the Doug Fir—older, cleaner, and better-dressed than the nicotine-addicted twentysomethings at the Towne Lounge—will be the crowd everywhere. Oregon, I am predicting that because of your ban, Portland's music lovers will be unable to enjoy their whiskey and Starfucker without overhearing some good-smelling couple talking about the latest episode of CBS's emmy-winning drama Brothers and Sisters. Now that their clothes, hair and lungs will be smoke-free, nothing will keep these people away from our beloved musical havens.

Oregon, I hate to contend that music and smoking go hand in hand, but some songs just aren't the same without a cigarette. Tell me you don't feel compelled to smoke when Dolorean's Al James sings anything off their latest album You Can't Win. Would beloved Portland bands like The Shaky Hands, Modernstate, or Dead Moon sound the same without the musical fuel that tobacco provides?

Believe me, Oregon, I am not proposing that we all should form a pack-a-day habit to encourage musical creativity. But I when I think of Portland's bars going smoke-free, I am reminded of a show I saw four years ago at Berbati's, back before the bar jumped on the smokeless bandwagon. Brooklyn-based emo-rock band Jets to Brazil came through town for the first time in years, and I was front and center for the show. The last song of the night was “Sweet Avenue,” and frontman Blake Schwarzenbach sang, “This cigarette it could seduce/ a nation with it smoke/ crawling down my tired throat/ scratches part of me that's purring/ softly stirring.” Standing there in a hazy, smoke-filled Berbati's, taking a drag off my own Camel, I knew exactly what those lyrics meant.

It wouldn't have been the same without that smoke, Oregon. And neither will you.

Image by Chad Crowe.

More info on Oregon's smoking ban
The aforementioned ANTM episode
List of famous smokers
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