Modern Drunkard Magazine: The vast majority of your art revolves around the culture of alcohol. Why is that?
SHAG: I was raised a strict Mormon; alcohol, smoking, going to bars, carousing, etc. were against the rules of the religion. I think the lure of what was once forbidden is very powerful.
MDM: Drunken Shriners appear in some of your paintings. Was your father or an uncle a Shriner?
SHAG: As far as I know, there were no Shriners in my family. I do remember them from parades when I was a kid. They used to ride around in their little red cars and they seemed quite mysterious. I’m really attracted to the idea of secret subcultures in our society; especially if they surround themselves with mysterious trappings.
MDM: Why do you think the culture of organized drinking groups (Shriners, Elks, etc) has faded? Is our drinking culture Balkanizing into smaller, more diverse groups?
SHAG: I think television killed a lot of evening social activity. As the TV became more prevalent in peoples’ homes, the idea that one needed to go out in the evening and socialize with others, and consume alcohol in a communal environment, became less attractive to people. It’s much easier to get a beer out of the fridge, turn on the TV, and have a simple, hassle-free evening of drinking and entertainment.
MDM: Do you ever feel like putting on a Shriner hat and getting fantastically drunk in a public place? As an homage to our fathers?
SHAG: That’s a funny question. I don’t really have the desire to get drunk wearing a Fez — when I do get really plastered, it is usually unplanned; ordinarily I spend my evenings out trying not to get too drunk!
MDM: Outrageous. When you walk into a bar on any given night — or day — what do you order?
SHAG: I like gin based drinks: Gin and tonic is usually a safe bet in any bar. I also like a Tom Collins if the bartender seems capable. If I know the bartender is really good, I’ll order a Singapore Sling.
MDM: What’s your vision of the perfect lounge?
SHAG: There’s no sign outside, it’s never too crowded to get a seat, has every alcohol imaginable behind the counter, with a bartender whose skills match the selection.
MDM: Would it ever close?
SHAG: I wish every business were open 24 hours a day. Even though society has lived with artificial light for over a century, we still stick to the archaic system of closing things down at night. I think communities without “last call” laws are progressive and should be emulated.
MDM: I should say. Do you remember your first drink?
SHAG: It’s a little odd, but I don’t remember my first drink. I can’t even remember how old I was.
MDM: It must have been a good one. How important is alcohol in passage-into-manhood rituals?
SHAG: I think it’s a very important, deeply established part of our culture. Things have evolved in a manner that the desire to drink corresponds with the age one feels one becomes an adult.
MDM: Do you use alcohol as an inspirational tool? If so, which liquor opens the most doors?
SHAG: I used to drink when I painted, thinking it would free me up creatively, but it just made me want to stop painting and start socializing, or if I drank enough I just wanted to go to sleep. Now I always paint sober, although I’ll sometimes pour a cocktail when my painting time is winding down late in the evening.
MDM: If you could spend a night drinking with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?
SHAG: I’d like to drink with Peter Sellers, Brian Jones (from the Rolling Stones), and Henry Miller. All three are dead, and I want to ask them certain things.
MDM: Where would you drink?
SHAG: We’d start with early evening cocktails at the Sky Bar in London, then take a quick flight on our customized Lockheed Jetstar to Gatto Blanco in Rome for dinner and good wine. The evening would end at the Spiele in Zurich, where one can drink as late as one likes.
MDM: You’ve exhibited your work in Europe, Australia and Japan. Does America’s drinking culture compare favorably or unfavorably with theirs?
SHAG: Unfortunately for us Americans, I think we’ve got some catching up to do. I’ve had my most fun evenings out in other countries. They seem to be less uptight about going out and consuming alcohol.
MDM: Do you have any drinking rituals?
SHAG: The only ritual I have is an after-evening process: I drink three tall glasses of cold water before I go to bed. I usually wake up refreshed.
MDM: The 50s and 60s were awash in drinking icons, i.e. the Rat Pack, Bogart, Trader Vic, Woody Woodbury, Gleason, etc. How do you think the current — and might I say disgraceful — lack of inebriate idols impacts today’s drinking culture?
SHAG: Drinking has definitely been stigmatized by society since the late ‘70s. It has become a bit more socially acceptable to be a drinker in the past few years, but I doubt it will ever return to it’s heyday. Maybe that’s why drugs have become so popular with the kids. They don’t have any positive role models who are heavy drinkers. I think the hip-hop culture, which tends to be less concerned with political correctness, still celebrates drinking. “Pass the Courvoisier.”
MDM: Word. Which of the Rat Pack members best reflects your personality?
SHAG: While I don’t really approach the coolness of any of them, I think my temperament and personality is closest to Dean Martin’s. He took things in stride, generally wasn’t a real hot-head, but had a closely guarded side of his life that he kept extremely private. He was always fun to be around, unlike Sinatra, who might turn and become aggressive, depressed, or confrontational.
MDM: Speaking of confrontations, have you ever been ejected from a bar?
SHAG: I’ve not been kicked out of a bar, at least not that I remember. I have woken up at home or in my hotel room after a big evening without memory of how the night ended, but I don’t think any of those involved forcible ejection.
MDM: I operate under the same optimistic set of assumptions. I always prefer to think that I’m on best behavior while fantastically blacked out. Friends try to tell me otherwise, but if you knew my friends, you’d recognize them as the sort not to be trusted with the truth. What do you reckon is the best quality in a bartender? Besides not throwing you out when you’re fantastically blacked out?
SHAG: A great bartender knows when you need a refill before you give him (or her) the eye. A knowledge of how to mix real cocktails is helpful as well.
MDM: And the worst quality?
SHAG: I don’t like bartenders who seem to always have a group of “friends” at the bar, and spend their whole time conversing and socializing with that group while ignoring the rest of the bar. Unless, of course, I’m in that group of friends. Then it’s okay.
MDM: Natch. Your paintings are imbued with Tiki gods and symbols. What is it about Polynesian drinking culture that makes it so enduring and attractive?
SHAG: The Tiki culture speaks to suburban human’s desire to escape the humdrum modern world and go someplace exotic, if only for an evening. The tropical decor and powerful cocktails help people go on a mini vacation, even if it’s only for a couple hours.
MDM: Or a couple days, if you’re doing it right. Are there any true Tiki bars in your area?
SHAG: There are still some good bars around L.A. The Tiki Ti, on Sunset Boulevard, still makes the best tropical drinks, and is responsible for inventing some great classics. Trader Vic’s is pretty good, and Bahooka is also really authentic.
MDM: Would you describe yourself as a Sophisticated Misfit or a Supersonic Swinger?
SHAG: While I hope others think of me as a Supersonic Swinger, I’m really more of a misfit who happens to be a bit sophisticated.
MDM: You’re being modest. Do you recall the drunkest you’ve ever got? And aren’t you deeply, deeply ashamed?
SHAG: My wife and I went to the closing party of The Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio, which was generally regarded as the greatest Tiki Bar in the world, in the summer of 2000. As soon as I stepped in, people started buying me drinks, and I quickly reached the point of no return. I only remember the first half hour of that evening, and don’t recall meeting many people from all over the world with whom I’d corresponded over the years, or taking a special “behind the scenes” tour of the massive structure. The next day, my wife told me I’d passed out, and vomited in the car of someone who had graciously driven us back to our hotel because he admired my art. I regret the evening, but I’m not too ashamed to talk about it.
MDM: Such stories are the fabric of life. A lot of brand liquors appear in your paintings. Are they sponsoring you or are you merely a fan of their products?
SHAG: I’ve never been sponsored by a liquor company; I just like the aesthetics of alcohol bottles and labels. I think the look of booze bottles, full, half-full, or completely empty, is really beautiful.
MDM: Call me narrow-minded, but I find them all the prettier when they’re full and within reach. Your paintings have brilliantly captured scenes of past drinking glory. Do you ever intend to paint more contemporary drinking scenes?
SHAG: I always consider my paintings to be set in the present, so I guess my reality is really skewed. While they certainly aren’t contemporary, the paintings reflect the way I wish the present world really was.
MDM: Amen. The women in your paintings are often the source of danger and/or drinks. What is it about the femme fatale with an ample supply of booze that’s so damn mesmerizing?
SHAG: It must go back to some deep seated need to be plied with alcohol to a point where I am no longer in control, and a woman who may or may not be implicitly connected to my fate takes control of the evening. This is, of course, pure conjecture.
MDM: There isn’t a red-blooded American alive who doesn’t know exactly where you’re coming from. Many of your paintings also resonate with the carefree sophistication of the jet set. Do you think jet setters still exist in this day and age, and if so, where the hell are they?
SHAG: I don’t think there are classic jet setters any more. Trust fund people just stick a needle in their arm and they don’t need to get on a plane and go somewhere. Everyone else — myself included — who travels are just a bunch of workaholics.
MDM: It’s a sad state of affairs. Animals are oftentimes seen cavorting with alcohol in your works. In this age of growing animal-empowerment, do you think monkeys and other simians should be allowed to drink, if they so desire?
SHAG: I think they should be allowed, but it will have to be scientifically determined at what age they reach the equivalent of 21 human years. Dogs can drink when they turn three, but monkeys and bulls have yet to be codified.
MDM: Would you like to drink with the monkeys, Shag? Just once?
SHAG: I actually have drank with monkeys. There was a club in Tijuana called La Vereda which was decorated in a Central American faux-tropical motif. They had monkeys — little monkeys from the Yucatan, I don’t know what they were called — and exotic birds which roamed free. The birds kept to themselves, but the monkeys liked booze and bar snacks. Their conversation usually wasn’t very scintillating. They climbed all over the bartenders’ shoulders and would reach down to snatch peanuts or tortilla chips from the bar, and would get an occasional sip of tequila. I think it was done mostly for show.
MDM: Yeah, but it’s great work if you can get it. You also feature devils in your art. If the devil does exist, would you care to have a drink with him? In which direction would you steer the conversation?
SHAG: If the devil exists in the way I conceive him, then he’d definitely be a good drinking partner. I’d hope we’d do some shit-talking about the hoity-toitys up in heaven.
MDM: Will you be drinking at your upcoming show in Denver?
SHAG: It’s a ‘work evening,’ but I’m sure I’ll have something.
—Interview by Frank Kelly Rich