The title of this article was first slurred into a microphone by Merle Haggard in 1967—but when I wandered into Denver’s Cricket on the Hill in 1994, I thought it was all Joe’s.
It was a Monday night, and I’d set out to discover what the shifty urban quarter of Capitol Hill had in store for a young, enthusiastic chugger of beer and swiller of all things distilled. It was my initial foray into drinking in the Mile High City, and my first face-to-face with Denver Joe—prolific boozer, live performer, nonpareil and local music legend.
For the first of at least a hundred times, I watched in awe as an ominous, bearded bard with a beat-up guitar slugged whiskey and barked insults at a room full of jittery neighborhood drunks. “I want to remind y’all to drink up and be somebody, cuz this ain’t no goddamn coffeehouse. This is the world famous Cricket on the Hill and if you don’t like it you can take your faggot fucking boyfriend and get the fuck out of here. This here’s an ol’ Buck Owens tune for ya. I learned it from my Uncle Dick when I was just a little boy, and he learned it from the man himself. Kick it off, Uncle Dick!”
In between heart-wrenching renditions of time-honored country music classics, Joe would lift glass after glass of double Jack Daniels on the rocks up beneath his wide-brimmed cowboy hat and take hefty pulls while conjuring the next zinger to shock the audience. He was the only musician I had ever seen drink onstage with such profound gusto while still managing to play reasonably well (most of the time). His other special talent—insulting his fans with relentless cruelty—only seemed to make them love him more. A love they expressed by sending waves of whiskey to the stage.
A typical exchange with the audience would go something like this:
Plastered Patron: “Play David Allan Coe!”
Denver Joe: “What? Yeah, I heard you the first time, asshole. Why, he’s the biggest pussy that ever lived! David Allan Coe? Really? Where the fuck do you people come from, anyways? Why don’t you shut the fuck up? We don’t give a fuck who don’t like it, we’re gonna play an old Willie Nelson tune for ya. Go comb your hair and get yourself another Queers Light!”
The room would erupt in laughter and the heckler was either stunned, enraged or delighted, depending upon how many times he’d seen Joe in action.
That night, just like every other night, the Cricket was smoky, dark, and dirty; resplendent with a half-century of hard drinking and everything that goes along with that. I ordered a shot of Jim Beam and a bottle of beer, and the bartender poured a double and charged for a single. A fat pour at a bargain price was one of the many volatile charms of the Cricket.
As a fledgling musician who grew up on punk rock, I tended to lump all country music under one umbrella, regarding every purveyor of honky-tonk as a pussy-whipped, drunk old cracker with no truck, no job and no hope. Denver Joe took me to school, clarifying the difference between the gritty artistry of singers like Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubbs, and the polished, glittery sheen of their mass-market counterparts. I watched, transfixed, as the whiskey-swilling bellicose bastard put every shit-talking punk rock frontman I had ever seen to shame as he deftly spit out sarcastic screeds comprised equally of eloquence, wit and gut-splitting humor.
Adding a strong David Lynchian flavor to the spectacle, Joe was flanked by Dick and Lois Meis on the pedal steel guitar and bass guitar respectively. Both were renowned country music legends in their own right with decades of notoriety in Nashville and beyond. They looked like a sweet older couple stuck in the 1950s and quite possibly operating a moonshine still in their basement. They were the perfect diametrically opposed counter to their frontman—smiling and playing impeccably as the man between them hurled insults and slurs that would send the social justice warriors of today into convulsions. The drumming position was a musical chair occupied by regional and national talent—Ordy Garrison of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Graham Haworth of Railbenders and Steve McDole of Barstool Messiah, among others.
And sandwiched in with the great contradiction that was the band, was the great contradiction of Joe himself. He came off as a redneck but was actually Latino. He pushed a backwoods style but possessed the reading tastes of an intellectual. He was unimaginably loud and brash onstage, but if you ran to him on the street he seemed quite shy. No stranger was meaner, no friend more kind.
I was quickly converted into a regular Monday night Cricket on the Hill boozehead and a burgeoning fan of classic country drinking songs. I was part of an entire generation of Denver musicians who were introduced to the likes of Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubbs and Townes Van Zandt while bathing our brains into a pickled trance with Cricket-sized shots of hard liquor and rivers of cheap domestic beer. The drunker you got, the better Joe sounded, and some nights his sorcery was so palpable I couldn’t gulp down José Cuervo and PBR fast enough to keep up with his mojo.
Inspired by Joe’s magic and the seductive danger of the Cricket, I began playing at Sunday Open Mic Night in 1995. My first performance was probably awful but I’d mitigated my pre-show jitters with so many shots of Jäger that I can’t say for sure. I do, however, distinctly remember one crucial detail of that night. I had yet to make friends with Joe, but rather than lambast me for my obvious lack of experience and skill, he gave me a tiny sliver of approval that would fuel my plunge into the world of rock and roll. After my set, I sat at the bar savoring my participation prize; a double gin and tonic. I looked to my left and there was Joe hunkered down a few seats away from me, nursing his usual double Jack Daniels on the rocks. He didn’t look over but I assessed he was talking to me since the bar was sparse that night. “Atta boy, kid. Keep it up.”
By the following year, I had formed my band, King Rat, and by 1998 we had graduated from a Tuesday night opening act to weekend headliners. As a performer, I gained an even deeper appreciation for Joe’s ability to guzzle a fifth of Lynchburg over the course of a night and maintain his eloquence and composure. I quickly discovered that this was one of those feats that the easier it looked to pull off, the harder it actually was. Regardless, I was able to earn a modicum of respect from Denver Joe, and thus began a friendship that would span the course of 20 years.
Invitation to the Inner Sanctum
Denver Joe’s prowess as a performer and drinker is well-known. Yet, it was a seldom-shared fact that he was also a talented songwriter. Late one Monday night, after a particularly majestic performance by Denver Joe and the Lovesick Saddletramps, I was deep into an epic drinking delve. I’d had eight or nine beers and at least as many shots of Jim Beam. The staff closed the bar, told me to take a hike, and I found myself swaying in the back alley and talking to Joe about music. “Hey, Joe, who wrote that song, ‘Lee Harvey’ that you played tonight? The one about the Kennedy assassination.”
“Oh hell, I don’t know. I think it was Dan Hicks, or maybe Homer Henderson. But hey, fuck that shit. I’ll show you some real goddamn fucking songs, for crissakes.”
We ambled down the alley to his place. Not many people knew where it was, and fewer had actually seen it. Opening the front door revealed shelves and shelves of books alphabetically arranged—Campbell, Bradbury, Bukowski, Burroughs, Faulkner, Hemingway, Miller, Thompson and on and on. He had a menagerie of miniature shooters of whiskey lined along one of the eye-level shelves. I sat down and he opened his guitar case, took out his axe and began playing songs I’d never heard before. After the first tune, he stood up, grabbed a shooter of Jack Daniel’s and tossed it to me. I drank it in time with his next number. “Jesus, Lukey,” he said, “You just got here and you’ve already drank a whole bottle of whiskey.”
He Never Said “I Told You So”
After some time I became sharply attuned to Joe’s quick humor and incendiary wit, which was activated once he was three or four drinks into the night. Occasionally, we would team up at the Cricket, knocking back glasses of whiskey and yapping back and forth in a volley of euphemisms and nonsensical generalizations. The inevitable outcome was that an unsuspecting drunk person trying to participate in our banter would eventually begin to cry.
On more than one occasion, for lack of a better candidate, that unsuspecting drunk person was my date. One night it was my fiancée. We’d decided to stop by the Cricket for a few laughs. Hell, I could even properly introduce her to Joe—what a swell idea! She sat between us slurping on her vodka soda, complaining about Joe’s cigarette smoke while he and I cracked wise. He regarded her with suspicion, as did the rest of my friends. She was bad news and everyone could see it but me. I could see the mischief in his eyes and knew resistance was futile, so I strapped in.
“You know,” Joe began, “I know Lukey really digs you, but I swear to Jesus fucking Christ I don’t know what the hell he sees in you.”
“Aw, c’mon Joe, very funny. Now stop being a big meanie, okay?”
“No, really. I’m serious. Luke is a good palsy-walsy of mine, and I really can’t figure out what in the holy motherfucking hell he sees in you. I just don’t get it. I thought he was smarter than this.”
As she looked at him and started to sob, I was making throat-cutting pantomimes out of her field of vision—begging Joe to either shut up, take it back or at least cushion the blow with a placating lie . . . but no. He was merciless and I knew this meltdown was going to require at least four more vodka tonics to get her evened out, and as many shots of cheap whiskey to restore my matrimonial nerve.
Two years after I married her she ran off with her cocaine dealer. We were finally divorced after I tracked her down and served her papers three separate times over the course of 18 months.
I spent 2007 drinking my way out of the divorce doldrums, and Joe stoically sipped alongside me and listened to my woes. I was constantly expecting a good ribbing but he never once said: “I told you so.” Instead, he would buy me another drink, pat me on the back, and say “It’s a good thing you’re tough, Lukey.”
By the summer of 2008, I had bought my own bar just down 13th Street from the old Cricket, which had since closed. It was a hardscrabble time in Capitol Hill in 2010, with 30% vacancy and every knucklehead doped out of their minds on legal medical marijuana. Denver Joe dropped in one weekend night and asked, “Hey, Lukey, what would it take for me to play here?”
“Just you asking, Joe.”
And with that, we bellied up to the bar and settled the deal over a round of whiskeys. The Denver Joe Show would be held on Wednesday nights at Bender’s Tavern. Although we could not replicate the magic of the Cricket, Joe had a new home.
We’d recently joined the Great Jack Daniels Boycott, after the new corporate owners had lowered the proof whilst their massive media campaign blathered, “Some things should never change.” I explained to Joe that Buffalo Trace or Jim Beam would have to be his new jerk juice.
“Oh, it’s okay, amigo,” he said. “They put Old Crow into the Jack Daniels bottles at the Cricket anyways.”
I always thought it tasted funny.
One Last Toast
Denver Joe died at an age far too young for such a resilient guy. It was the Spring of 2018 when he—to put it in his own words—“passed on to The Glory.” A memorial was held, which was basically one big blubbering boozefest. He hated that sort of sentimental crap and would have greatly disapproved, but hey, memorials are for the living, not the dead. Afterward, I went to his son Rio’s place to pay my respects. We drank beers together for awhile—sharing stories of getting loaded at the Cricket with our honky-tonk hero and taking turns trying to recreate his most scathing, hilarious one-liners.
On my way out the door, Rio stopped me and laid down one of the heaviest scenes I’ve ever experienced.
“Hey bud, I’ve given this a lot of thought and I know it’s the right thing to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“This.” He pointed to a tattered black guitar case by the dining room table. “That’s my daddy’s guitar, and I know for a fact that he would have wanted you to have it.”
Needless to say, I was speechless, floored, dumbfounded. My eyeballs turned into saline geysers. I knew that resisting a gift of this magnitude was out of the question, yet I felt incredibly unqualified to yield an instrument of such power.
I thanked Rio repeatedly, and just like his old man, he didn’t miss a chance at a good ribbing. “Yeah, man, I heard you the first time. Now get the fuck out of here.”
I felt that an honorary drinking marathon was in order, and this one would have to be just me, a bottle of whiskey and Joe’s guitar. I stopped at the liquor store and picked up some Kentucky windage in honor of Joe and a bottle of Espolón to satiate my own proclivities for Mexican booze. That night I got through the whiskey, strumming Joe’s old Takamine into the wee hours and finally breaking into the tequila before passing out.
After a short nap, I hoisted myself upright to continue the vigil. I was straining to remember the words to one of Joe’s original songs when the right sequence finally came to me. I stood in my kitchen, regarding the corked bottle of Espolón Tequila that was about to be my breakfast. I began to strum Joe’s guitar as I sang the chorus of what he had entitled, “Song for My Father (Whoever the Fuck He Was)”
Well I’m drinking beer, doing drugs and fighting at the drop of a hat
Riding to live and living to ride, tell me, what’s the matter with that?
A lot of these people, they don’t understand some of the things I do
Hey man, I’m just trying to have a good time, buddy, what the fuck’s the matter with you?
As I got to the last word of the last line, the cork of the Espolón Tequila shot out of the bottle with a loud pop and landed on the counter in front of me. Call it what you will, but I chose to take it as a sign of spiritual mojo, a heralding of good luck and a manifestation of good faith. Although my brain was a bit bleary, I was clear on one thing; this was an indication that I should immediately make a toast to Denver Joe and drink deeply from that goddamn bottle, which I most certainly did.
Cheers, you crazy ol’ ballad-bellowing whiskey-drinking bastard. See you on the other side.