Darren McGarvey: I stopped drinking and got my bottle back

Kasabian perform at TRNSMT  a more civilised affair than is typical of the booze-fuelled Glasgow music scene. Picture: Getty
Kasabian perform at TRNSMT  a more civilised affair than is typical of the booze-fuelled Glasgow music scene. Picture: Getty
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The performing arts circuit is awash with booze, writes Darren McGarvey.

Alcohol and live music are one and the same.

Nowhere is the synonymy more evident than in the eclectic – if not a little punch drunk – Glasgow music scene where it’s almost rude not to have at least a few pints when taking in a gig. People like myself, who don’t drink, are the rare exceptions to the rule on the performing arts circuit and you are much likelier to find booze in a dressing room than you are to come across a bottle of water. In Scotland, we love our music – on the condition that it comes with copious amounts of bevvy.

As if we didn’t have enough going on in Glasgow in the run up to the 12th July, last weekend, events management company DF Concerts successfully rebranded their world famous T in the Park festival as a decidedly humbler urban shindig called Trnsmt.

But away from the glamour and sense of scale and spectacle that these big events offer, the real music scene in any city or town is comprised of local musicians and promoters who organise and provide the entertainment seven days a week – all year round. And many of these dedicated people, whether just starting out or established and seasoned veterans, are struggling with alcohol and substance misuse problems that can be traced back to music events.

But as much as booze is certainly associated with live gigs, you can’t really blame them for the culture of excess on the social periphery.

If people suddenly started eating broccoli at live gigs I’m sure companies would be just as willing to supply the demand.

The marketplace is extremely intuitive to our wants – not necessarily our needs – and it just so happens that most people who go and see bands also want to drink while they do it. It’s not a problem for most people, but for those who do run into trouble, it can be a hard cycle to break. Especially when you are a musician or performer.

Apart from one week where I relapsed, I’ve been off the sauce for four years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about how not to get drunk.

After a little more sobriety I also learned a lot about why I drank so much in the first place. At the core of it all, lurking in several blind spots, were a series of myths that I had created to explain why I drank and why it wasn’t a problem. When the truth was: I always wanted to stop but couldn’t imagine a life without it.

The first few gigs I did after getting sober were hard. In fact, it took me a couple of dummy runs, where I ended up drunk, to realise that my health and sanity had to come first. I withdrew from performing, including festivals, because they were undermining what was important: staying clean and sober.

When I stepped back out again after a few months, things felt awkward. I was uneasy and nervous and had to face the reality that I wasn’t as outgoing as I thought.

I had been using booze as a crutch to function socially and without it I didn’t enjoy pubs and clubs as much.

I soon learned that’s perfectly normal and that pubs and clubs are rubbish unless you’re drunk.

Then it occurred to me that many of the people who I was socialising with, that I considered friends, were more like drinking buddies. This wasn’t to say our connection was artificial, but simply that the chances of us hanging out for any significant amount of time were significantly reduced in the absence of alcohol or drugs.

It takes time for those urges and emotional associations to go away but when they do – and they will – then a new freedom comes into your life that was once too abstract to contemplate. Your life becomes increasingly simpler as the old “will I, won’t I” dichotomy, in all its falseness, is completely removed. With it goes the obsession with drinking.

Now I do all my gigs sober. I travel across the country, on my own, and the thought of having a drink rarely occurs to me.

If it does, then I simply discard it much in the same way I discard the impulse to leap from a tall building on the inkling I might be able to fly.

And rather than hinder me, not drinking and learning to live sober has worked wonders for my career.

I do about twenty shows a year, all of them paid, and when I leave I’m very clear why I went in the first place: it’s to work and not to socialise.

Sure, I may seem a bit standoffish or in a hurry to get away, but so what. It was a preoccupation with being liked that fuelled a lot of my drinking and this aggressive self-concern is rife in artists’ communities, though rarely acknowledged or discussed. Living sober has made me a better person and a better performer.

I enjoy my own company and I don’t like to be distracted from my work. The day I decided to stop drinking (and stick to it) was the day I got my bottle back but it took me a while because there weren’t that many artists locally who were prepared to talk openly about it.

But one day, sooner rather than later, we problem drinkers will have to reconcile the fact we want to drink with the fact we can’t.

One day, we’ve all got to face the music.

Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social commentator @lokiscottishrap.

If you think you have a problem with alcohol you can call Alcoholics Anonymous free of charge on 0800 9177650.