“Smokin’ “ is a term that’s often used to describe guitar solos and tunes, but smoking is also a part of the lore of rock ‘n’ roll, and it has appeared in the lyrics of popular music since the early days of sound recordings.
Of course, cigarettes in songs are rarely just cigarettes. They’re symbols — of passing time, of want, or spent romance, of rebellion.
To commemorate the annual anti-smoking initiative the Great American Smoke-Out on Thursday, November 21, with just a bit of irony, here’s a list of 10 great songs that reference smoking:
• “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” Brownsville Station: Smoking in the boys rooms seems like a minor infraction compared to what we see in the headlines now, but in 1973 it was still an expulsion worthy offense that indicated exactly the kind of delinquency that rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to inspire, and that this song celebrated. This number by Gibson Les Paul player Cub Coda was also recorded by Mötley Crüe.
• “Cigarettes and Alcohol,” Oasis: More on that delinquency and rebellion theme from Oasis with this song from 1994, with cigarettes and alcohol serving as symbols of ’90s post-punk discontent and nihilism.
• Fishnets and Cigarettes,” New York Dolls: This song from the Dolls’ 2006 reunion album is an unflattering portrait of a manipulative woman, with cigarettes and fishnets symbolizing a certain attitude in the lines “I’m talking ’bout happiness/Fishnets and cigarettes/A pagan monkey in a dress.” This is punk rock’s polar opposite of the image of the cigarette-smoking femme fatale immortalized in film noir by the likes of Lauren Bacall.
• “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the Replacements: A sense of wanting and impatience pervades the Replacements’ classic 1987 masterpiece Pleased To Meet Me, and in this tune from the album cigarettes and their ashes serve as markers of the passing of wasted time, spent desiring something more — a theme in much of Paul Westerburg’s songwriting.
• “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Johnny Cash: Kris Kristofferson’s novelistic story of a man spending a Sunday morning alone after smoking his “mind the night before with cigarettes and songs” he’d been picking is a sobering portrait of loneliness, with that nicotine ingestion used to humanize a character living in sad isolation. This number was a country hit for Ray Stevens in 1969, but became part of the American songwriting canon after it was recorded — brilliantly — by Johnny Cash in 1970.
• “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” Tex Williams: The great picker and songwriter Merle Travis wrote this 1947 hit for Tex Williams. It became a number one country smash for 16 weeks. The tune is a rare instance in popular music where a cigarette is just a cigarette.
• “Cigarette in Your Bed,” My Bloody Valentine: Although cigarettes are quiet killers with long-term use, the British rock noisemakers had something more violent in mind in 1988 when they sang, “Falling down/I watch you crawl around/Arms untied, scratching your eyes out with a smile/Strange stage, strangled by the blade left in your heart/I glide by, slip a cigarette in your bed.”
• “Smoke On the Water,” Deep Purple: Ok, so this hit from Deep Purple immortal 1972 album Machine Head isn’t about smoking at all. The song refers to the fire that interfered with the band’s recording plans, but it’s so great it had to be included.
• “Have A Cigar,” Pink Floyd: Cigars, due to their expense and their preference by Victorian-era dandies and businessmen, have come to symbolize money and power, making the cigar from this tune on the 1975 masterpiece Wish You Were Here an easy symbol of the corporate music business.
• “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Rolling Stones: The Stones were wry lads back in 1965, satirizing the hollowness of the Mad Men era’s ad-mad culture in this song, but butts also tie in perfectly with the snotty, rebellious attitude Jagger imbues in this riff-driven classic snarler, getting double mileage — if not coupons — with his smokes.