As you know, almost all of the songs we write tell stories. We want to share those stories with you. We’ll post the story behind the story for each song on 13 here for you to read. The plan is to feature one song each week for the next 13 weeks.
Here is the story behind 100 Cigarettes as related by Clark Hansbarger.
The song “100 Cigarettes” (Or Lost Love Songs: Part the Second)
Anyone who has recovered from a heartbreak knows that the healing happens in fits and starts. You wake up one morning, and, hallelujah, you feel cured. Then, a few hours pass, and the pain creeps back in like a cold you can’t seem to kick.
That’s what “100 Cigarettes” is about.
There is no real story behind this fictional song other than that the fact that most of us have felt what the narrator feels. He’s dancing the old “two steps forward; one step back” dance, trying to handle a hurt bigger than he’s built for.
As the song opens, the narrator is driving south on Interstate 95, trying to outrun his loss. But he is on his last legs, cruising in an old Blazer with bald tires and a radiator about to overheat. Yet, all he can focus on are the words his ex said a year ago. The voices circling in his head overshadow the external realities he should be concerned with. It ain’t pretty, and it hurts.
I wonder whether driving is a uniquely American cure for what ails us? Young and old, we head south or west, believing that eventually we’ll arrive at a land where all is well, where the sun is warm, where fresh fruit falls from the trees and fish gather mouth-open to be caught. Everyone in California and Florida is happier, right? Or is it Old Rock Candy Mountain?
This new ideal place is an illusion, of course, but a shared one—a cultural trope that is almost myth. In such a big country, we’ve come to believe that a changing landscape can transform us. A new self awaits us around the next bend. The problem is we haul our baggage wherever we go. Our mess is portable.
To add to this guy’s troubles, he’s not taking care of himself. When he should be keeping himself fit and clear—toning up for the tough times ahead—he’s smoking hard; one hundred cigarettes since he started driving. If my math is right, that’s five packs a day. Hmmm. No wonder he feels like crap. (One day, I’m going to write a heartbreak song about a guy who eats well, goes the gym, and joins a men’s discussion group. I just don’t know what genre that would fit into—certainly not country and probably not even sensitive big boy music.)
Anyway…for the most part, the drive south on 95 is one long string of Cracker Barrels, Targets, and Taco Bells. Strip mall America flits by like so many center line markers. However, one bit of weird, authentic Americana still lives on there: South of the Border.
Foretold by garish billboards for a hundred miles, South of the Border is a Mecca for folks who definitely aren’t headed for their winter homes in Boca Raton. I love it. Now, that’s some people watching to be had right there.
In verse two, our narrator is about to implode when a cop stops him beneath a sign about Pedro’s fireworks (one of the many fine gift items one can buy at South of the Border). Instead of blowing his top, our narrator gets a bit of relief from a cop who has felt his pain and let’s him off with a warning. This is a rare moment of male empathy. A very rare moment. Rare. OK, maybe impossible.
The chorus then repeats the narrator’s dilemma. He has many more miles to go and more gallons of gas to burn before he will find peace.
In the last verse, he has made it to Florida, but finds himself disappointed by the “redneck wasteland going on and on.” In truth, northern Florida is damn beautiful—much more haunting and lovely than that mess further south. But lets pretend it’s not. What the narrator is really caught up in his own redneck wasteland of heartbreak, and he will certainly be traveling on that road for a few hundred more miles.
I don’t mean to sound so hard on the guy. I like this character because he is seeking a change. He is open to hope and discovery. What more could we ask of ourselves? Drive. Run. Escape.
“100 Cigarettes” is one of my favorite songs to perform because of the four part harmonies on the chorus. Something about the way the other Bitter Liberals chime in so robustly gives me hope about the guy. It’s like the cop and a few other friends have joined him for a few bourbons, a sing-along, and some cigarettes at the seedy corner bar.
In other news, last week’s contest winner for Best Subject Matter for a New Song is Loudoun County’s talented artist and songwriter Stilson Greene. His entry “Bluebirds in a Box” was not only a most unusual subject, well, it was also the only one. The rest of you can’t win for losin’. Congrats, Stilson!