At the beginning of his interview, Frank Kelly Rich apologizes for having missed an earlier interview we had scheduled. He was out conducting research for an article, he explains, and couldn’t be reached.
By that he means he was out having a drink. Well, more than a drink. Actually, it was a “mini-bender.” It happens fairly often too.
“Sometimes they’ll be actual seven-day style ones, especially when I’m researching a story,” he said in a phone interview from his native Denver, Colorado.
Those kinds of work habits would get most people in trouble with the boss, but not Rich. Not only because he’s his own boss, but because his work literally demands serious drinking. Rich is the founder, editor, and guiding light behind Modern Drunkard Magazine.
Now in its tenth year, with a circulation around 35,000, the bi-monthly humor magazine celebrates all things related to drinking alcohol. For those who can’t find it on the newsstand, a compilation of its most popular articles was published last year.
Inspired by the likes of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, poet Charles Bukowski, W. C. Fields, and countless others, Modern Drunkard recalls those earlier eras when getting hammered nightly was the height of coolness, not a cry for help. Its mission today is to preserve that culture against a rising tide of “neo-prohibitionism” that Rich says is slowly overtaking America.
“The government [is] getting deeper and deeper into the bars and controlling stuff. We printed a propaganda poster concerning that: ‘First, they’re going come for your cigarettes. Then they’re going to come for your happy hours. Then they’re going to come for your booze,’” said the libertarian-inclined Rich. “They’re doing the ‘drop by drop’ prohibition approach. Instead of shoving [it] down our throats all at once, they’re just going to slowly take it away, piece-by-piece.”
The man has a point. The norm for drunk driving laws nationwide is now a .08 Blood Alcohol Content level, down from .10 in most states a decade or so ago. States like Maine have lowered it to .05 for people already convicted once of DUI. In Washington, D.C., a woman was thrown into jail overnight last year for having a .03 BAC level (about one glass of wine), a decision that was perfectly legal on the part of the police, who are empowered to arrest anyone with a BAC level of .01 or higher.
Alcohol is also the nation’s most heavily taxed consumer product. More than half of the price of a typical bottle of distilled spirits is for taxes, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the leading trade group.
Modern Drunkard aims to rouse the public against this tide. First, it wants Americans to get over their conflicted, guilty feelings towards getting drunk, and instead to embrace non-sobriety. The magazine’s tone is raucous, funny, and unabashed with articles like “I Busted Out of Rehab,” “How To Ace an Intervention,” and “History’s Greatest Blackouts.” Its motto is, “Say it loud, say it plowed.”
Why did Rich take up this crusade? It helps to understand the magazine’s origins. After a stint in the Army, Rich spent his 20s bumming around Europe with starving artists. When he got back to the U.S., his initial plan was to found a magazine called “Modern Nihilist” and mix discussion of punk rock with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. That didn’t quite work, so Rich went with something else he had studied in Europe: drinking. Even so, it was a struggle for a while. In early issues, Rich had to create fake ads to fill out the 16 black and white photocopied pages. Nobody would advertise because it was a “crude, crappy ‘zine,” Rich freely admits. Today it’s a 60-page, full-color glossy, but the original punk ethos remains.
It is perhaps the only magazine with the nerve to attack Mothers Against Drunk Driving, claiming that the group’s facts are bogus and that it is “now marching toward one thing and one thing only: total prohibition of alcohol.”
“They accomplished all the early goals they set out to accomplish and like any animal or machine, once it is alive, it does not want to die. Like a shark, if it doesn’t stop moving forward, it dies. So every year they just get ‘mad’ all over again. Now they attack alcohol in general, like alcohol advertising. They’re not involved in driving anymore. They’ve turned into the anti-saloon league–slowly, but surely,” Rich said. (MADD did not respond to requests for comment.)
The magazine has also railed against smoking bans, efforts to lower blood-alcohol content for DUI and DWI laws, and data that supposedly shows the health risks of drinking.
Modern Drunkard has issues with the liquor industry too, arguing it cringes before anti-drinking groups. The magazine stopped trying to sell ads to the industry (Modern Drunkard’s advertising comes almost entirely from bars) after one tried to get Rich to change the name to “Modern Drinker.” That wouldn’t have gotten the point across, Rich says.
Rich and his staff once even got thrown out of a liquor- industry convention for trying to sell their magazine there. “It was like somebody throwing a Hustler rep out of an orgy because, ohmigod, that’s a dirty magazine,” he recalled.
If that’s not enough, Rich is also leading an effort to boycott Jack Daniels, noting that the makers have lowered the whiskey’s alcohol content. That’s shameful, Rich says. “I grew up on the stuff. If you were drinking Jack Daniels, you were drinking a manly drink. But nowadays we’re trying to get out that it isn’t a manly drink anymore, that it’s for sissies,” he said. “Hopefully we have impacted their sales.”
Modern Drunkard’s arguments don’t always hold up to scrutiny. The magazine gleefully highlights any medical news that shows that drinking has health benefits, but these news items inevitably refer to moderate imbibing. That’s definitely not the lifestyle that the magazine celebrates.
Yet even Rich’s libertinism does have its limits. While he rails against most “nanny state groups” that discourage drinking, he’s got something of a soft spot for Alcoholics Anonymous. “I’m glad there is a safety net there for some people because not everybody can handle alcohol. Alcohol is certainly not for everybody,” Rich said. “We certainly don’t want them at the bar, dragging us down and ruining our good time. And they will.”
For the same reason he’s not a big fan of ending the war on hard drugs either. If crack were so widely available that people could buy it at their local pharmacy, “they would lose their freaking minds,” he said. Why fight to legalize that stuff when you can just pour yourself a shot instead?
Whatever happens, he’s having fun and plans to keep the party going until the powers that be shut him down or his liver finally gives out on him. And that suits him just fine.
“Who’d want a dreary, long, gray life when you can have those highs and lows? I’d trade ten years for that,” he said. “It’s like a blackout. It’s better [to have] a good time that you can’t remember than a bad time that you can.”
–Sean Higgins is a reporter for Investor’s Business Daily.