Are You Ready for the Country?

I live in the country. Part-time. I have a house in Northwestern Connecticut. It's the country alright, 22 acres, a lot of it woods. Tomatoes, strawberries, fennel, rosemary, basil, and stuff growing out back. Mint juleps growing out front. Had a big bear run through the backyard last year, found six wild turkeys on the back porch one day, and we've got hawks, buzzards, flying squirrels, deer, bobcats, snakes, turtles, salamanders, and insects that look right out of science fiction. I thought I saw Mothra one night.

I've got a shotgun but I might not have any shells. And one night I did see a mountain lion running down the road. The state pretends they aren't here because then they'd have a habitat or something, but this is wild in the country, baby. Don't leave the dog out. But it's also farm country. There are cows grazing right across the street. My neighbors raise cattle and geese and the chief executive of our town has a farmstand up the road where lately he's got organic potatoes, onions, garlic, zucchini, raspberries, and various exotic forms of salad. The corn and heirloom tomatoes aren't far off. Hey, I know urbanity is my beat, but I'm more country than you'd think. I've got a pair of overalls!

Here are some of my trees:

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I used to have a house in Long Island, a house built by a farmer in what was once a farm town, but today almost all the old fields are filled with a bumper crop of spec McMansions. I've heard that some of these enormous "cribs" are now going to seed after several years of sitting vacant. It doesn't break my heart. When I first lived out there we'd actually say, "Are you going to the country this weekend?" Later that changed to, "are you going to the beach?" Really it should have been, "Are you going to the distant suburbs?" I couldn't bring myself to say "The Hamptons." It made me depressed. But now I can say, "Are you going to the country?" and really mean it."

I've been spending a lot of time in the country lately, and suddenly I had a craving for country music. As a longtime New Yorker it might seem funny listening to country music, and I find most of that Nashville stuff horrible, but I have had a weakness for country for a long time. They do it right in Texas. Some people call it outlaw country. I call it urbane country music. I think I picked up the habit in Chicago. I used to go to an Irish pub called O'Rourke's and they had a lot of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson on the jukebox. I just fell in love with their voices and their poetics. How many nights did I stick in a quarter and pick, "Good Hearted Woman." She's a good hearted woman in love with a good timin' man. And it was in O'Rourke's over a pint of Guinness that I learned the lyrics of "Luckenbach, Texas" by heart.

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City people love country music; and it's big in Irish bars because Irish people love country music, too. Ireland is a country with a lot of country. It's really green, and they like American country music because it comes from Irish music, especially bluegrass; but they also relate to the poetry of country music, and such themes as drinking, infidelity, betrayal, heartache, all the good stuff. The fact is that a lot of what we call country music is just as much city music, and the truth is most of those country cats love the city. One of the most spectacular apartments I've been to in New York is Jimmy Buffett's penthouse. It's so high up you feel like you're in a plane. And the time I met one of my favorites, Jerry Jeff Walker, it was in the very fancy apartment of Dan Jenkins, one of our greatest country-and-western novelists. (Was that on Park Avenue?)

I love that outlaw country—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard. Hey, I had "Okie From Muskogee" stuck in my head for three days. Merle was just funnin' us, fellas. I'm sure he smoked marijuana in Muskogee. And of course, you cannot beat Hank Williams. If you have never really listened to Hank Williams you have never heard the greatest white blues ever. Eric Clapton doing Freddy King is fine with me, but Hank Williams is the real deal. I suggest that you immediately go to iTunes and grab on to "Ramblin' Man," a song that gives me the chills every time I hear it. It's the razor's edge of a high, lonesome sound that has as much soul as anything called soul music.

When we think of poetry in American music we think of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (I know he's Canadian, I mean North American music) and Tom Waits, etc., or of the great tunesmiths of tin pan alley like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, or Irving Berlin; but some of the greatest poetry in American music comes from the country tradition. Waylon Jennings's "Drinkin' and Dreamin'" is the great lyric poem of the disappointed American blue-collar man of the rust belt: All I got is a job I don't like…and a woman that don't understand…so tonight at the bar I'll get in my car and take off from the promised land…drinkin' and dreamin' knowing well I can't go…I'll never see Texas, L.A. or old Mexico…but here at this table I'm able to leave it behind…drink till I'm dreaming a thousand miles out of my mind. Or the beautifully simple irony of the refrain of Waylon's "I've Always Been Crazy:" I've always been crazy but it's kept me from goin' insane. Or the powerful poignancy of Johnny Cash's "Jim I Wore a Tie Today," as he sings to a deceased friend at his funeral, Jim, I wore a tie today…the first one I ever wore and you'd have said I looked like a dummy out of a dry goods store.

Anyway, here's a little playlist of what I consider essential "country music," without which you haven't been exposed to the full spectrum of American culture.


Hank Williams: Your Cheatin' Heart; You Win Again; Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do?; Move It On Over; I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry; Honky Tonkin'; Hey Good Lookin'; Honky Tonk Blues; Cold Cold Heart

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Waylon Jennings: Luckenbach, Texas; Good Hearted Woman; The Wurlitzer Prize; This Time; Lucille; Rainy Day Woman; I Ain't Livin' Long Like This; I've Always Been Crazy; Drinkin' and Dreamin'

Willie Nelson: Crazy, Good Times; Always On My Mind, On the Road Again, Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain, Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys; Hello Walls; Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other

Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire; The Man in Black; Hurt; I Walk the Line; Solitary Man; Rusty Cage; One; Folsom Prison Blues; Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down; The Beast in Me; Delia's Gone; Thirteen; Jim, I Wore a Tie Today

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Merle Haggard: The Bottle Let Me Down; I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink; Mama Tried; Things Aren't Funny Anymore; The Fightin' Side of Me; If We Make It Through December; Living With the Shades Pulled Down; Big City

Merle Haggard & Willy Nelson: Pancho & Lefty, Reasons to Quit and No Reason to Quit.

Jerry Jeff Walker: Mr. Bojangles; L.A.Freeway; Pissin' in the Wind

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Kris Kristofferson: Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down; Help Me Make It Through the Night; The Silver Tongued Devil and I; The Best of All Possible Worlds; For the Good Times

David Allan Coe: Take This Job and Shove It

Billy Swan: I Can Help

Ray Price & Willie Nelson: I Fall to Pieces

Ray Price: For the Good Times; Heartaches by the Number; I Can't Go Home Like this; Release Me; Weary Blues

Billy Joe Shaver: Old Chunk of Coal

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Tammy Wynette: Stand By Your Man; D-I-V-O-R-C-E; Til I Can Make It on My Own

Listening to classic country music is good for you. It takes your mind off your troubles because it reassures you that somebody's got it worse, and it definitely distracts you from the contemplation of fashion, gossip, and luxury goods. And country music, at its best, carries with it a sort of immunity to the cultural ideas of "alternative" and "progressive" that have infected other genres with market-driven modernism. I don't need to know who the next Amy Winehouse is as long as we've got Tammy Wynette. Which reminds me of the time I interviewed the great Tammy Wynette. I think it was at the Plaza Hotel. She fit right in at the Plaza. She was as cool a customer and as a hot a woman as I've ever met. Sexy. If you don't believe me, ask Burt Reynolds. I came so close to asking her out, even though she was five years older than me.

Ironically I don't think that an American can be truly urbane without appreciating the musical tradition of this country, from rhythm and blues to bluegrass, jazz, and country. The pinnacle of urbanity in country music is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of one of my favorite acquaintances, Ned Sublette, a cowboy musician who came of age in the New York New Wave Scene, but who wrote "Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," which became a hit for Willie Nelson and was written long before Brokeback Mountain. Ned is not only a country cat but he's a black belt in salsa, and his extraordinary album Cowboy Rhumba brilliantly reveals the secret powerful connection between country and the Caribbean, just as Gangstagrass (written about here recently) shows the alarming magnetism between hip-hop and bluegrass.

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Anyway, on Friday I'll be packing up for the country.

Dear Dash Departed

Dash Snow is dead. The great Dash is gone.

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Photo by Olivier Zahm

I heard about it yesterday, when one of his best friends suddenly burst into tears and ran from the room. All I heard was the word "Dash," but I knew what had happened. Dash was a rope-walker by nature. He was an artist working up high, and the gravity got him. He'd fallen. I was surprised and stunned and saddened, but not shocked. He worked without a net. And with a high degree of difficulty.

Dash was a beautiful person and a genuine artist. A lot of people didn't get the genuine part because to them he was a gossip star, all image. But he was the real thing, and sometimes his real was so in your face that people thought it must have been an act. It was an act, of course, but it was a real act. When you live in a world that's inside a television there are no other options. But Dash and some of his friends were re-inventing what it is to be an artist, because that's something every generation has to do. They had gotten the lay of the land and were responding accordingly.

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I was delighted to meet Dash, because when people would ask me what young artists I liked I was embarrassed to name people who were forty. But some of these youngsters seemed to have something going on, like Nate Lowman and Ryan McGinley and Dan Colen…but none of them more so than Dash.

I thought of the little artist's book sitting in my living room that he had given me: "In the Event of My Disappearance." It turned out Dash had OD'd at the Lafayette House. Everybody said he'd been clean, clear, in good health. That's the way it goes. The day before Jean-Michel Basquiat died, he'd left a message on my machine—he was back from Hawaii, clean, and feeling great. A clean junkie lives with danger. The equation has changed. Ask Lenny Bruce.

After living through purgatory these brave boys were conned by junk. One more time. I'm sad but pissed off, again. I'm pissed off when I read the stupid blogs and comments. The worst thing about an artist dying is that he can't talk back. Dash can't say "Fuck you!" back, so I hope his friends say it for him. And to all of the glib fuckers who say he was not a good artist, let me just say: Fuck you, what do you know?

"In the Event of My Disappearance." I always thought that book, and quite a bit of Dash's work, was meant to foreshadow a dramatic demise that actually might not occur. It needn't have occurred. We all do a lot of foreshadowing during our youthful drama phase, but sometimes we wise up a bit. That's punk rock. Sid got dead; Johnny got smart.

I remember the first artist in New York I became friends with who I considered really old: Lil Picard, who had been one of the surrealists, and who impersonated Andy Warhol's mother in David Bailey's documentary on him. She must have been in her seventies when I met her in the seventies, my grandpa's age, and she said to me, "Every artist has to go through his drug crucifixion period." I was younger than Dash when she said that, but it stuck with me and I saw it again and again.

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The way Lil said it was so non-judgmental. It was like being told the facts of life, the ones your parents didn't know. Dash could have lived but death was one of his subject matters. Death and life.

Dash was good at life. He was lively. But he was one of those artists whose work was a process of self-testing, a documentation of his life.

Page two of "In the Event of My Disappearance:" A bag of heroin on a black background. Page three, a Hitler-head postage stamp. Page nine, words cut from a newspaper: "STOP SUFFERING." Page ten, a Polaroid of an empty, ruined swimming pool. Page fifteen, Michael Jackson in a bandana, with two of his children, in Spider-Man masks. Lots of beds, tattoos, beer, parties, clips from magazines, strange things found in streets and fields, and finally a newspaper clip: "Bandit downs self to end chase." And a Polaroid of a railroad track in the middle of nowhere, curving into the trees.

I called my friend Olivier in Paris. He knew, and he asked me why Dash would have been in the bathtub. I didn't know. Jim Morrison died in a bathtub, but that's a long story with lots of footnotes. And plenty of overdoses ended in a tub of cold water, as friends tried to revive a blue person, but no, Oliver said, Dash had been alone, door locked from the inside.

Dash Snow was a beautiful man. He was as much of a character as he looked. He looked like he worked on the Pequod and was in port for a laugh before going out after another white whale. With his hair and beard and tattoos and hats he looked like he'd walked out of the past, or maybe a more interesting future, and he certainly made a point of being out of time. He had a grace and nobility about him that was definitely not of our time. Maybe he was the most modern of us because he was so in revolt against the here and now. He was not available by telephone. He was not available. He made himself independent by excluding himself from the communications loop. He didn't want to be in that automatic conspiracy. He saw you when he wanted to, or let you contact him when and how he wanted. Which means he saw what was wrong with the here and now, as an artist should.

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No matter what the morons write, Dash was a hell of an artist. He was young but he was really, really good. I was at Christopher Wool's studio one day and I saw something hanging on the wall and said, "Wow, what's that?" and he said "Dash Snow. We did a trade." If Christopher does a trade with you then you're good. I hadn't seen a collage like that of his. He was getting mastery of his media. He was going to be a great one.

Too bad about the publicity. The first thing I saw on the Internet was "Warhol's Child Dies." At first I wondered what the hell that meant. I had forgotten the New York magazine cover story, "Warhol's Children," which had made Dash, Dan Colen, and Ryan McGinley into the next art movement—one apparently based on partying, self-indulgence, and decadence. They had let this writer, Ariel Levy, into their world and the writer had written it from the writer's point of view. Sensationalism! But, to be fair, it was considered sensationalism. What a surprise. The day after it came out I ran into Dash on his bike. He was mortified. I can't imagine what he expected. Sometimes not having a phone isn't enough. How could he have not known what would happen? What would be written. What people would say.

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Photo by Mr. Mort

It's a vicious circle. Artists have to be famous to work. Unless they are rich. Dash wasn't rich. He was penniless from a rich family, which is sort of the worst of both worlds. He was serious, but the readers and those to whom he was just a name, they wouldn't take him seriously. Which is why the work is important. The work is still alive.

But the dashing Dash raced to the finish. The thing is that he didn't know where that was. I guess you never do until you get there.

Yesterday afternoon the news was still percolating in my head. I looked for more information on the web and saw all these stupid comments about Dash joining "the 27 Club." I had been through all of this before with J-M.B. They couldn't wait to make him into Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker.

A song sort of started going around in my head. I hadn't played it in a long time, but I could still hear it—that oddball non-singer's voice chanting: "Junk is no good baby…no good baby is junk…no junk baby is good…good junk is no baby….no good no good no good."

That was a song recorded by a great Beat legend, the artist and writer Brion Gysin, in 1982 when he was 66. "Junk is no good baby…" It was going through my head.

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Brion knew what he was talking about. He'd been there, done that. That's why he performed "Junk is No Good Baby." He put it out as a single, produced by a young Frenchman named Ramuncho Matta, and then it came out on a CD along with other songs like "Kick That Habit." I met Gysin in Paris around that time. I remember his spectacular cough. He practically turned blue smoking a cigarette while we sat in Privilege in Paris, under Le Palace, and when he regained his breath he patted me on the knee and said, "My dear boy! I believed that I had breathed my last."

But Brion didn't breathe his last until 1986, when he died of lung cancer. Before he did he recorded a song called "Quit Smoking" that featured him coughing cancerously. It's horrible and it's fun. "Stop smokin' your joking….I'm chokin'….I'm croakin." It was released six years after he died.

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Brion Gysin

Gysin was an inspiration to William Burroughs. He invented the Dream Machine, which he, Burroughs, and others used as an oracle, a non-pharmaceutical means of consciousness alteration, and he devised the famous cut-up technique that was such an important method for Burroughs in such works as Naked Lunch. Brion was a great and amazing painter, whose work has not yet been properly assessed, but for him life was more important than work, and to be in his presence was a joy. He said, "I enjoy inventing things out of fun. After all, life is a game, not a career."

That's what the kids ought to know. It's not written.

The great Dash Snow is gone. Real gone. Dash is dead. Long live Dash.

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Photo by Mortensen

Drinking (Again) for Health

I just noticed that one of the Topics listed on this page is wine. This would suggest that I should cover it semi-regularly, at least. I love wine. I do believe in Bacchus. I do believe in Dionysus. (Not Tinkerbelle.) I drink wine daily, more or less. And I would probably drink a fair amount of wine even if recent articles had not suggested that drinking it in moderation might have health benefits and even promote longevity. Turns out that—like butter, and real sugar, and lard—wine is good for you!

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Bacchus, god of wine, by Caravaggio

I do believe that there are health-promoting substances in wine. I just don't think anyone, at least nobody I know, drinks in what the experts call "moderation." Like, one glass a day. Even the nuns I've known drank more than that. But I do believe that wine is good for you, although I also recognize that it's possible to overdo it and that I have overdone it on, well, several occasions. Like last night. But not tonight.

In any case, I wrote on this blogue last January about how I no longer drink spirits, only wine. So if you'd like to go back and read that as a preamble, I'll wait….

Anyway, wine drinkers are supposedly 32% less likely to get cataracts than non-drinkers, and 43% less likely than beer drinkers! Moderate wine-drinking is also said to cut the risk of colon cancer by 45%. And, of course, red wine is supposed to be good for your heart because it contain tannins and tannins contain procyanidins, which help prevent heart disease.

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Dionysus (with Eros)

Recently I was listening to an NPR chat about a book called The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner of National Geographic. Buettner noted that the place on earth with the most male centenarians is a shepherding culture in Sardinia. It's full of lively oldsters like the 104-year-old Giovanni Senai, who was out chopping wood at nine in the morning, after a glass of the local red, Cannonau. One of the theories on the longevity of the geezers of that region is their culture's long-term consumption of this wine called Cannonau, a red that is particularly full of procyanadinis and anti-oxidants. According to Mr. Buettner, it has three times the anti-oxidants of any other wine.

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Dan Buettner

Anyway, ever since I've been studying the effects of Cannonau. If I'm chopping wood when I'm 104, you'll know it's the vino. Actually the "cannonau" grape is the same known elsewhere as Grenache, which is generally considered to be native to Aragon in Spain, where it's known as garnacha.

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Cannonau, or garnacha, grapes

Some experts, particularly the Italians, insist that the grape is native to Sardinia and it was exported to Spain during their four centuries ruling that big, luscious island.


I have had quite a few bottles of Il Bombarde, which costs less than $15 a bottle and is a fantastically rich wine for the price. The popular blog "Good Wines Under $20" edited by Deb Harkness, who knows her stuff, writes: "The 2003 Santa Maria La Palma Le Bombarde was one of those wines that reminded you that rusticity is something that you happen upon all too infrequently these days when drinking wine. ($18, Bion Divino). Upon first sip, it smelled and tasted like iron—overwhelmingly so—with some gamey notes that made me think I had made a serious mistake with this wine. I left it alone in the glass for 15 or so, then sipped it and the iron tang had gone, replaced by flavors of meat and leather. Another 15 minutes and the meat and leather had melded with a strong, cherry liqueur flavor. In the end it was very much like an older Chateauneuf du Pape, with all the rusticity and funkiness left in and none of its opulence of plushness. Tonight we have Sileno on the menu, from Ferruccio Deiana, under $20. Tomorrow perhaps 'Inu Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva Contini," a bit more than $20 but certainly not too rich for my tannin-thinned blood."

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I know the idea of drinking wine for health is not exactly widespread among Americans, who probably find the concept propaganda from the decadent French and Italians. In fact I imagine there are far more Americans who think they are drinking diet soda for their health than those of us who use that excuse for drinking wine. And I have quite a few friends who belong to a club where drinking is frowned upon. In fact, not drinking is the purpose of that club. Personally, I think such organizations are marvelous for some people, and I have seen their beneficial effect on both friends and family members. But in recent years AA seems to have lost a bit of the chic quality that it had around the turn of the millennium. Let's just say that there are probably fewer non-alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous today than there were back then. A friend of mine used to try to talk me into going to meetings with him. I'd say, "But I'm not an alcoholic." He'd say, "it doesn't matter. You should should see the chicks there. Everybody goes to this meeting. Aerosmith goes to this meeting…"

"I thought it was supposed to be anonymous," I'd say. My friend just shrugged. But I knew about several meetings attended by friends that were packed with sharing, qualifying celebrities. Anyway, now several of my friends who used to be teetotalers in that club now drink again, and I must say that I find it to be something of a relief. It's okay that it took them ten years to figure out that they were heroin addicts, not alcoholics. Whatever it takes. As for the long-term members of the club, I must say I believe that some of them have literally had their lives saved by the program. But then there are others, even some whom I might have called drunks at one time, who have achieved long term sobriety and still I'll think, "Maybe he should go back on the bottle." A delicate balance there. Personally I believe in cutting down. Temperance is not abstinence; it is moderation. If you think you're drinking too much, read Under the Volcano and switch to beer for a while. I recommend drinking Guinness. Unless you're Brendan Behan you'll likely get full before you get drunk.

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Brendan Behan

I once heard a story that back when the late, great Behan was Ireland's de facto poet laureate he was approached by the beer-making giant Guinness to come up with a slogan for their famous stout. According to the story, Behan said that he was interested in the project but thought he needed some of the beverage to inspire him. The company arrived with a large quantity of stout, and Behan told them to return the next day. Supposedly the executives arrived, knocked and knocked, but got no reply. The door was unlocked, however, and they let themselves in and discovered Behan lying on the living room floor unconscious. Scrawled on the wall in large letters was the slogan: "Guinness…it gets you drunk." Undoubtedly this story is untrue, but I choose to believe it anyway. In fact one slogan that the stout used for years was "Guinness is good for you." Some macrobiotic folks I used to know called the stuff "Irish miso" and believed it was very beneficial. I make a point of having one now and then, particularly if I'm in a pub where they have it on draft. The bottled stuff, in my opinion, is not so good, although that magic pint can they've developed served up a genuine draft quality drink. I also find Pilsner Urquell in the magical draft pint can quite excellent.

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I admit I have had a doctor tell me to quit drinking. He may have been drunk when he said that. I believe he was definitely smoking a cigarette. Of course there's the old joke about how a doctor knows if you have a drinking problem: if you drink as much as he does. I once had a very, very old and wonderful doctor. He was so old that his hand shook so much I used to ask him if it was okay if I stuck the needle in when he was taking blood. (He never let me, so I always got a big bruise.) I don't think he was shaking from drink, but he did drink, which is maybe why he was practicing well into his 80s. He said, "Son, I'm not out to make a teetotaler out of you." Which meant I could continue going to him. I remember seeing Tom Waits on Broadway years ago. He had a set on stage, with a table, a chair, and a refrigerator. Several songs into the show he went to the fridge, took out a beer, and opened it. "I went to the doctor and he told me to to quit drinking," Waits said, "Now I'm the doctor."

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That was, of course, some years ago. I hear that now Tom's wife is the doctor. Anyway, we all have to find our own path. Right now I'm drinking wine for health, one day at a time. I'm the doctor, my doctor, but not your doctor. To your health!