The Godfather: Peter Corris on cigarette songs
Cigarettes and smoking featured in many popular songs of the 20th century but seem to be absent since, say, the 1990s.
A good early example of the association between smoking and romance (and nostalgia) occurs in ‘These Foolish Things’, written in 1936 and made popular a little later by Leslie Hutchinson.
The singer is reminded of his, apparently lost, lover by the traces of her lipstick on a cigarette – presumably a butt. There is no place however for that word in the gently crooned song.
Humour in the matter emerges with a Western flavour in the next decade in Merle Travis and Tex Williams’s ‘Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette’ (1947) and Buck Owens’s version of ‘Cigareets [sic] and Whisky and Wild Wild Women’. Williams both laments and celebrates his habit, so ingrained as to cause him wait for another cigarette before entering heaven where, by inference, smoking is banned along with everything else enjoyable. As the subtitle to Owens’s song suggests, craziness and insanity await the smoker and drinker, although fun can be had along the way.
But romantic associations are also there in the same period in ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ (1944) popularised by Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark. Here, in a two-hander, the man persuades his companion to stay with him because the weather is bad. The woman, more willing than reluctant, agrees to stay ‘for maybe just a cigarette more’.
Relying on memory and a list from Wikipedia, I found no smoking songs in the 1950s, which is surprising. Humphrey Bogart and others were still puffing away.
I note four contrasting examples from the 1960s. Bobby Edwards’s ‘You’re the Reason’ (1961) associates smoking with coffee, heartbreak and insomnia. In ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ (1966) the Rolling Stones tell it like it is – smoking is a brand-driven big money business – smoke this brand or you’re not a man, although Jagger’s delivery suggests a resistance to the message.
Simon and Garfunkel’s innocent, slightly surreal ‘Let Us Be Lovers’ (1968) associates cigarettes and comfort and togetherness, while ‘I’m So Tired’, apparently written by John Lennon when suffering from insomnia and also released in 1968, links tobacco to unease and ‘curses’ the man who introduced it to Britain – Sir Walter Raleigh.
To hard-driving Bob Seeger in ‘Turn the Page’ (1973), smoking the last cigarette of the day, by implication one of many, is just a part of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle along with the one-night stands and hearing damage.
John Prine’s ‘Grandpa Was a Carpenter’ (1973) is unique in that it mentions the brand of cigarettes chain-smoked – Camels. The singer also says that Grandpa died but doesn’t assign a cause.
With kd lang’s powerful lament ‘Down To My Last Cigarette’ (1988), we return to the old theme of coffee and tobacco dependence – the coffee is finished, the pack is almost empty and the phone will not ring.
I lost close touch with popular music in the late 1980s, and I’m sure there are more cigarette and smoking references in songs within this period and later. I suspect, though, that they will become fewer as smoking more and more ceases to be regarded as cool. Oh, Kool menthols – remember them?