Certain Songs #1124: The Mekons – “Cocaine Lil”

Album: The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll
Year: 1989

The thing about cocaine, one of my friends once pointed out — unless it was me — is that it basically serves as an advertisement (or as The Mekons would no doubt say, “advert”) for itself. Or as another friend pointed out: it’s such a selfish drug.

The bloody-mindedness that coke inspires is at the center of the “Cocaine Lil,” a deep dark cautionary tale that that somehow refrains from being preachy, regardless of the fate of the titular character.

Anchored by a slow, slow spiraling guitar, and nightmareish echoing effects at every turn, Tom Greenhalgh (I think) matter of factly tells us the tale of Cocaine Lil.

Did you ever hear about Cocaine Lil?
She lived in cocaine town on a cocaine hill
She had a cocaine dog and a cocaine cat
And they fought all night with a cocaine rat

She had cocaine hair on her cocaine head
A cocaine dress that was poppy red
She wore a snowbird hat and sleighride clothes
On her coat she wore a crimson cocaine rose

It’s the endless recitation of the word “cocaine” in nearly every single line that makes this song so genius, because it so incredibly mimics the experience of doing cocaine. Cocaine? Cocaine. Cocaine! COCAINE. COCAINE. COCAINECOCAINECOCAINE!! Cocaine! Cocaine. Cocaine?

And so after grappling with the cocaine blues, Cocaine Lil hits upon the perfect solution. And yup, it’s what you’d expect: she does a shitload of coke!

She went to a party one cold night
The way she sniffed was sure a fright
There was Morphine Sue and the poppy-faced kid
Climbing up snow ladders and down they slid

Along in the morning about half past three
They were all lit up like a Christmas tree

Now, I’m not going to lie: this sounds like a fun party. And not unlike one or two parties I might have or have not gone to in the late 1980s. Outside of not being able to sleep when she got home, what could possibly go wrong?

When she got home and started for bed
She took another sniff and it knocked her dead

Oh. Sure, that. Of course. But, honestly, it seemed like too much: sure, a cautionary tale isn’t all that cautionary if someone doesn’t die in the end, but — outside of Len Bias — cocaine overdosing wasn’t really a thing that we really worried about.

I mean to a bunch of piss-poor bohemians working jobs in the service industry, cocaine was an occasional luxury that always ran out too soon rather than a thing that was always around, like, say beer. Or even pot. So the worst — outside of the risk of addiction, of course — was the occasional bloody nose, or sleep deprivation & depression. Which felt like the cost of doing business.

None of which robbed “Cocaine Lil” of its weird, awesome beauty. Outside of “Memphis, Egypt” it was instantly my favorite song on The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll, and remains so long long after I ever had to worry about anybody I knew suffering the same fate as its title character.

“Cocaine Lil”

The only live performance ever of “Cocaine Lil,” 2016

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