Music

Grieving, dreaming and 'Drinking in L.A.'

On its 25th anniversary, Andrea Warner remembers how the ultimate '90s slacker song helped change her life.

On its 25th anniversary, Andrea Warner remembers how the ultimate '90s slacker song helped change her life

The single art from Montreal-based band Bran Van 3000's 1997 hit single, "Drinking in LA." It features a vintage 50s-era colour drawing of two young people in profile running.  The young blonde woman is wearing a red one-piece bathing suit and the young man is wearing a navy blue bathing suit. The name of the song and the band's name are scrawled across the pair. A dark blue background directly behind them looks a bit like waves or the ocean's depths. A brighter blue background stretching around them also conveys a blue ocean.
How a 1-hit-wonder helped our writer make sense of a very messy and difficult 1997. (Album art; composite image created by Andrea Warner)

Distortion like hazy sunbeams, the electronic fuzz of synths, a drumbeat's loose strut and a shimmer of "ooooh-ahhhh-ooooohs." Just over the minute mark, the chorus kicks in and we hear Stéphane Moraille's commanding vocal for the first time: "What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. — at 26?"

The band was Bran Van 3000 and the song, "Drinking in L.A.," was released in February 1997. It is quintessentially '90s in sound, vibe and composition: a blend of electro-pop, hip hop, chill lounge, spoken word and trance soul with a golden sheen across the production. It was the ultimate slacker anthem, but it was aspirational, too. What more could any young Canadian artist ask for as proof of their own success than to find themselves wondering, "What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A.?"

It was exactly the song that I needed to hear at that precise moment in my life. 

Grieving

Just two months earlier, in December 1996, my father died. I was 17 years old, he was just 39. Dad had pneumonia but he didn't grasp how bad it was. He insisted he keep working because he was a single father running his own business seven days a week, raising two teenage girls, and supporting his mother, as well. We all lived together in a two-bedroom apartment over a drugstore on a busy street in Southeast Vancouver. We were a close unit, the four of us — trauma-bonded in the aftermath of my parents' separation — and they were very tight quarters that we lived in. My sister and I shared a room, my grandma slept in the living room, and my father had to walk through our bedroom to get to his. When dad died, every stable thing we'd managed to build together felt like it was gone. 

I think the sound of the heart monitor flatlining jolted me from my body, and I've never really returned. There is a before and an after when someone you love dies suddenly, and there's no going back. The most important person in my world was suddenly supposed to just be a memory overnight? His absence was an implosion of our family, our home, everything. I was in the middle of Grade 12. I was supposed to be applying to universities and colleges. Instead, I helped plan a funeral and took more than a month off school to help close down dad's business. 

In the same month that my dad died, the Counting Crows' "Long December" climbed the charts. The song's ubiquity was both welcome and a little ironic. It was everywhere, like a cathartic haunting as I was fully immersed in a fog of loss that I could have never imagined. "Long December" was a space of commiseration and the ache of lead singer Adam Duritz's delivery was an invitation to grieve in public. The song's chorus culminated in a bittersweet bite of hope and I turned that one line over and over again in my brain, even then: "Maybe this year will be better than the last." 

I returned to school in February and I was a completely different person, but I still had to navigate the same old things. And then suddenly I found "Drinking in L.A." Or, more likely, it found me. It seemed to be pouring out of speakers, TV sets and Discmans in every corner of my world. It became an inescapable, blissful surround sound that dulled the cacophony in my brain. The song felt like L.A., or at least it felt like my idea of what L.A. represented. Amidst the references to Snoop Dogg's gin and juice, copious amounts of beer, and the "nectar" of a fix, the song's narrator talks about writing a script and making a film, the ultimate Hollywood dream. "I know that life is for the taking," he sings, "so I'd better wise up and take it quickly." 

I was supposed to graduate high school in a few months and I needed to decide what was next for me. The plan had always been post-secondary and I wanted to pursue creative writing. I had already considered leaving before my dad died and it felt next to impossible. Now he was gone and I didn't know if I could leave my sister and grandma behind and go away to school. Our new existence was excellent fodder for a tragicomedy: we were all living with my mom and her boyfriend (the man she left my father for) and my uncle in a two-storey house. My grandmother was living with her ex-daughter-in-law because my sister and I refused to be separated from her. 

If "Long December" was one of the places I anchored my grief, Bran Van 3000's "Drinking in L.A." became one of the places where I tried to let it go. 

Dreaming

"Drinking in L.A." captured an aspect of the very things I had spent so much time dreaming about growing up: becoming a writer in New York or L.A. These were the most accessible-yet-cosmopolitan-and-cool places I could imagine myself living as a young person from Vancouver. New York was my true goal, but L.A. was a great alternative. The magazines and TV shows that I wanted to write for populated both cities, and their literati scenes seemed to not just glow, but burn with an intense eternal flame. This was where I could write books and plays and poems and soap operas and movies and TV shows. I could write features and cover stories. I could have a career and an artistic practice and I could "make it" if I could just get there. It wouldn't be work all the time; it would be artists at work and play, living crowded lives full of people, and then creating things out of those experiences. Even sitting around doing "nothing" in L.A. was extremely cool compared to living in Vancouver. 

The drinking didn't hold much interest for me thanks to some alcoholics I'd grown up around, but with a canon steeped in booze, I already knew that being a "real" writer was associated with gin-, whisky- or wine-soaked practices. "Drinking in L.A." glamourized that on the surface, but I heard something else in the break of Moraille's phrasing: "What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. — at 26?" There's a sadness there, that something about the situation is maybe spinning out of control. I grafted onto that uncertainty: what was I doing just trying to hold it together at 18? Things seemed completely beyond my grasp, and yet I had nothing but choices. I needed to trust my gut, choose myself and invest in my writing. 

Twenty-five years later, 'Drinking in L.A.' is still a visceral memory avalanche that buries me back in 1997, but it also builds me back up and reminds me of the good things that followed all of the crushing grief.- Andrea Warner


"Drinking in L.A." wasn't the first song that I loved and attempted to manifest into reality, but it was the most pivotal one. I decided I couldn't fully leave my family or put an international border between us. I mean, I probably couldn't have done it financially either, since I was dependent on student loans, but I wasn't thinking about that. I was 18 and a mess — and I was trying to steer myself into a future that, for the first time, was mostly centred on me. "Drinking in L.A." met me where I was in the spring of 1997. It became my summer soundtrack as I hung out with friends and tried to figure out the in-between of everything. And then it helped move me through to the next stage of my life that fall. I applied to the creative writing program at the University of Victoria, and I got in. It was far enough away from the abyss of my dad's absence, but close enough that I could come home and see my family whenever I wanted or needed. 

Twenty-five years later, "Drinking in L.A." is still a visceral memory avalanche that buries me back in 1997, but it also builds me back up and reminds me of the good things that followed all of the crushing grief. The song still sounds like permission and freedom and something kind of radical: taking the space I need to sort myself out. Going away to school was exactly what I needed. I had my own room with a lock on the door for the first time in my life. I met my best friend. I accidentally signed up for journalism instead of creative writing, which helped me make an important decision: if I wanted to write professionally and earn a living — which was a pressing concern even at 18, given my situation — journalism was the smartest and quickest path forward. 

I moved back home after my first year at UVic, applied to a two-year journalism school and began that program in the fall of 1998. One year later, in the summer of 1999 between semesters at journalism school, I moved to New York for almost five months to do an internship at Soap Opera Weekly. I lived in an old mansion that had been converted into international student dorm rooms. I made friends from all over the world. I transcribed until my wrists gave out and I had my first bylines in a magazine with a million-plus circulation — one that I'd been reading religiously since I was 12. I wrote poems and went to readings and plays and musicals and films. Sometimes I did nothing all day. It wasn't drinking in L.A. — somehow, it was even better.

In a delightful moment of full-circle fulfilment, in 2021, I did end up in L.A. for a few days to work on my first film. It was nothing like what I could have imagined in 1997 — again, it was better — but as I stood on the massive outdoor rooftop patio of the Academy Award Museum and surveyed downtown L.A. spread out below me, I couldn't help but hear the chords and that chorus in my head. What the hell am I doing in L.A.? Everything I ever dreamed of.

now