Interview: Dan Dunn, author of Living Loaded: Tales of Sex, Salvation, and the Pursuit of the Never-Ending Happy Hour

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

By Scott Alexander

“It’s my job to hang out with remarkable, passionate people. Winemakers, distillers, and brewers are all doing what they love, and that’s an inspiring thing to be around.”

Read an excerpt of Living Loaded elsewhere in Memoirville.

Dan Dunn is the author of the recently released memoir, Living Loaded: Tales of Sex, Salvation, and the Pursuit of the Never-Ending Happy Hour, which chronicles the period of his life he spent as a nightlife columnist for Playboy. During this time he got to live the life many of us dream about (while we secretly hope the guy who actually lives it is not having as much fun as he appears to be). The bad news? Dunn is having a blast. But it’s not all fun and games. While far from a weepy addiction tell-all, Dunn does pack some emotional heft in with his tales of strip-clubs, booze conventions, porn stars, christian rock concerts and Vegas. And to his credit, throughout the book he grapples in a variety of ways with a central (and uniquely American) question: Is there more to life than having a good time?

Full Disclosure: I was Dunn’s editor at Playboy, and, where we developed Dunn’s column, The Playboy Imbiber (on which the book is based).

The book features a character who is a snarky analogue of me, as well as the single most obnoxious song dedication in the history of publishing. I have thus used this forum to exact some small modicum of payback, in part because I didn’t get a penny of the author’s advance. Was this professional? No. Was it satisfying? Yes. I hope that what I lack in objectivity, I have made up for in authenticity. This interview was conducted in a bar, during the afternoon, when most of the respectable world is off being respectable.

What are you drinking, Dan?
I’m drinking a 12-year-old Glenlivet on two ice cubes.

I hear you’ve written a book.
I did. A brilliant, brilliant book.

Your memoir deals extensively with your often-cavalier relationship with alcohol. Meanwhile, your dad is an alcoholic. Was that ever an issue between the two of you?
An issue? No. But we talk about it a fair amount. In fact, I transcribed one of our conversations about booze in the book. I think my dad has a mistaken idea that I can actually handle alcohol a lot better than I can. He hasn’t seen my less shining moments. But he liked the book.

There are aspects of your book that feel like they approach some of the territory explored by J.R. Moehringer in The Tender Bar. What did you think of that book?
When I read The Tender Bar I was disappointed. Mainly because I knew I could never write anything that excellent myself. A lot of people think a drinking memoir has to be drunk or dumb. One of the great things about The Tender Bar is that it’s comfortable with the fact that a corner saloon can be a holy place.

What are your favorite memoirs?
Kitchen Confidential is up there for me. And I was morbidly fascinated by Going Rogue.

What about Tucker Max?
Remember what I said before about drinking memoirs being drunk or dumb? Well they don’t always escape that trap. I’ve been compared to Tucker Max more times than I’m entirely comfortable with, but hey, his book sold really well so maybe I shouldn’t fight it. But for the most part, I prefer to keep my drunk dumbness off the page. This book is about drinking as a vocation, not how awesome being drunk is.

Why should anyone read your memoir?
Because it’s funny and sad and full of deep meaning. You do know I’m a modern Shakespeare, right?

Actually, I think it’s worth the price of admission just for the recipes. Sixteen original cocktails from some of the most accomplished bartenders in the world.

How do you go about getting 16 of the world’s best bartenders to help you write your book for free?
I suppose they might feel like they’ll get something back in return someday. Which reminds me, I probably have to send those guys some books. That’s going to be a pain in the ass collecting those addresses. That’s how much of an asshole I am. These guys go out of their way to create original drinks and write up witty paragraphs to go with them, and I’m pissed I have to email them all.

You poor, poor thing.
Actually, I’m joking about that. I’m not going to send them books.

You being an asshole is something of a theme that runs through the book.
I think that by the end you get the clear understanding that I’m a good guy. But I do have my quirks.

Some might call them shortcomings.

Adorable idiosyncrasies.

One man’s asshole is another man’s iconoclast.
I had a rough upbringing.

Oh, I see. Your bad behavior was thrust upon you. What do you mean exactly by ‘rough upbringing’?
Alcoholic dad. Mentally ill mother. Rough neighborhood.

Philly, right? What part?
The part where you get beat up. Frankford. Northeast Philadelphia. It’s sort of the Philly equivalent of South Boston. We were lower-middle class. Not the poorest, but bad shit seemed to follow us around. My mom’s crazy, my dad lost his arm driving drunk, step-dad died in a fire. You know. Fun stuff.

How does one go about starting a career like yours?
Oh, now it’s a career? Cool. Does that mean I’m going to start getting a living wage? Seriously, though, the perks of this job are great. But there’s a harsh reality right behind them. Sometimes my colleagues and I go on these booze junkets so we don’t have to spend any money that week. You figure if you’re on the road for half a year at least you have half your grocery bill paid. Then again, it’s hard to make free travel, free food and free booze sound like a sob story. A lot of people work real jobs to afford to do what I do for a living. At the same time, I spend a lot of time hustling and trying to figure out ways to make money. When I got into the game, you could be a columnist for a magazine, write a column once a week, and make $75-80,000 a year. That’s over. Doesn’t exist any more. Today you work ten times more for one-tenth the money.

You seem to be managing.
I just had an idea: If I start getting them to fly me first class, maybe I can downgrade to coach and get paid the difference.

Nice move. Is there something in your upbringing that causes this sort of behavior?
I think it’s the Philly in me. Growing up there taught me that you take any edge you can get. What some people call illegal, others call survival.

Is it ever weird having a blue-collar Philly background and going to fancy wine tastings in L.A.?
That’s part of what I wanted to deal with in this book. Because it’s definitely weird sometimes. At the end of the day, though, I actually think it gives me an edge. I can see this world from the outside. And I’m not going to be as swayed by bullshit and schmancy trappings.

Speaking of non-schmancy, in the book you talk about the Dive Bar school of daycare.
Yes. I came close to calling this book: Everything I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten (From A Bartender). The summer when I was seven, I lived with my dad full-time, and this was back when pops was drinking heavily. So we’d spend most of a given day at his favorite bar.

A sort of crash course in bonding…
Not so much. I loved spending time at his bar, P&J’s, but once we hit the door, we didn’t hang together. Having a seven-year-old trailing you will put a serious crimp on your pickup skills. Thankfully, one of the bartenders, Tall Paul, took me under his wing. Taught me how to mix drinks.

At age seven?
Yup. Taught me all kinds of other stuff too. When to cut someone off, who got a buyback and when and how you marked it. It was like this secret language. As a kid, being behind the bar was the best thing ever. It felt so adult.

There was no issue with you being behind the counter?
No. These were less litigious times. Plus, I don’t think Tall Paul had anything to worry about, as far as the cops went. Philly’s still like that. Closing time in Philly is 2 a.m., but a lot of bars just stay open. They don’t even hide it! I was at a friend’s bar–the place has windows looking out on a busy street–it’s 3 a.m. and they’re drinking. Big smiles. Good evening officer! Everyone’s got a brother, uncle, dad or kid that’s a cop. It’s a good system.

A lot of people would look at this book and say: drunk father, mentally ill mother. This guy doesn’t need a job in drinking.
See, I would counter that these people don’t need jobs criticizing poor, defenseless booze journalists.

What was the best thing about writing the book?
It was my job to hang out with remarkable, passionate people. Winemakers, distillers, and brewers are all doing what they love, and that’s an inspiring thing to be around. Today I had lunch with Jim Koch [founder of Sam Adams]. Great guy. Tonight I’ll be hanging out with elite winemakers. Plus, beyond just getting to hang out with them, I get to expose what they do to a wider audience.

Have any public responsibility-type groups come after you for being irresponsible? For promoting reckless drinking?
It’s not like I’m naïve on the topic. My dad’s in AA, my brother’s in AA. And I have nothing but respect and encouragement for people that quit drinking. I respect your reality, just please don’t impose it on me. Especially when I’m trying to get some quality drinking done.

Finally, Dan Dunn, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Fine. I got the next round.


BUY Living Loaded.

READ an excerpt of Living Loaded.

FOLLOW Dan Dunn on Twitter.

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