Smoked Out


By Steve Oppenheimer

(June 2005)

Recently, I had to get a room on short notice in a city in central California that shall remain nameless. I had my German shepherd with me, and the only room left at the only hotel in town that accepted large dogs turned out to be a smoking room. Normally, most hotels and motels air out smoking rooms reasonably well, but not this time; the stench was so heavy that I couldn’t breathe, not to mention sleep. I finally gave up, in a mean mood, and I could not wait to see that town in my rearview mirror. But it got me thinking about how things have improved for working musicians when it comes to tobacco use.

When I first played in bands, most of my bandmates, including the lead singers, smoked cigarettes. (Many smoked the other weed, too, but that is a separate issue.) Usually, I was the only nonsmoker. In retrospect, I wonder how I managed to get through all those years of playing and singing in smoke-filled clubs and rehearsal rooms. At the time, I suppose, I just took secondhand smoke for granted. Still, I hated coming back to the hotel room after the gig with clothes reeking of tobacco, and I am even more sensitive to it now that I don’t have to put up with it daily.

Gradually, the situation improved. The last two bands I toured with before I got off the road had only one tobacco smoker, and he had cut back considerably and had become more considerate of nonsmokers. Rehearsals were a lot more pleasant as a result. Incidentally, these bands were based in Nashville and in Arizona, not in, say, San Francisco, where one might expect less tolerance of public smoking. The air in many studios improved, too, because sessions included fewer human smokestacks.

To a large extent, that pattern reflected an overall change in our society’s view of tobacco. But I think many musicians also realized that if you sing for your supper and you want to keep eating, you ought not poison your throat and lungs. It’s about time we figured that out!

Now, as a survivor of the drug-infused rock scene of the late ’60s and the early ’70s, I admit that I am in a poor position to cast stones regarding drug use. I am well aware that quitting can be very difficult. And I certainly do not advocate outlawing tobacco, because I think people have to take responsibility for their own decisions. If they insist on killing themselves, I regard that as natural selection at work. But I deny anyone’s right to poison the rest of us, and I support restricting tobacco use in public places, including bars. Fortunately, many smokers have become more considerate of nonsmokers when they decide where and when to light up.

As a result, you can actually go see a band — and gig with a band — and be able to breathe at the same time. I call that progress. For me, it seems, the next step is to convince the manager of a certain Best Western motel in the central San Joaquin Valley to air out his smoking rooms properly.