Frank Rich took his first drink when he was ten years old. "My dad came home from work with a bottle of Jack Daniel's," Rich recalls. "He put on a Hank Williams record, poured my older brother and I a drink, and I thought to myself, 'Today I'm a man.' Then I got sick."
Twenty-three years later Rich is the editor of Denver's Modern Drunkard, a monthly publication dedicated to the fine art of getting loaded. Monthly columns include "Wino Wisdom" (quotes from self-professed booze hounds) and "Drinking by the Numbers" (a guide to finding free drinks), and a full-page centerfold features the Bartender of the Month. Last month the magazine published an investigative effort titled "To Your Health!: Why Drinking Is Good for You"; the article cited medical research that claimed, among other things, that moderate drinkers live three to ten years longer than abstainers and that the vast majority of traffic accidents are caused by sober drivers.
Rich's life, however, has not been the continuous binge that it could have been. After his first drink, he was so busy shuttling between the various Army bases where his father was stationed that he didn't get much of a chance to fall prey to the peer pressure that introduces many teens to liquor. Because he never had time to establish friendships before moving on to the next base, Rich says he "was very shy and introverted. Up until the point when I joined the Army. The Army changed all that."
After enlisting with his father's blessing at age seventeen, Rich was quickly exposed to the world of serious drinking. "When you're locked up for weeks on end [at a military base] and you finally get that weekend leave, you try as hard as you can to cram as much action into that 48 hours as humanly possible," he says. "That included massive amounts of drinking. We'd be shotgunning beers from the moment we were let loose."
Such drinking was not only accepted by the Army, it was encouraged, especially when Rich moved into the elite Rangers unit. "A Ranger favorite was called a 'Brutal Hammer,'" he remembers fondly. "It consisted of three quarters vodka and one quarter red wine for color. They made all the recruits drink that."
Despite the ferocity of the Rangers' weekends and the subsequent hungover parachute drops, the unit was locked down during the week and didn't have much opportunity to carouse--which is fortunate, considering that Rich's unit was one of the first to arrive in the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada.
"When I hit the ground, my gear weighed more than I did," Rich remembers with a laugh. "I was lobbing hand grenades in every engagement just to lighten my load. It was probably the best time of my life. It's too bad that all wars can't last just one week."
Rich says his Army experience helped him become what he calls a "functioning alcoholic," but he doesn't look the part as he slides into a tattered booth at his favorite watering hole, the Lion's Lair on Colfax Avenue. As old men inch up to the bar with the aid of walkers and drugged-out rockers strike their best Kurt Cobain poses, the six-foot-one Rich looks clean-cut and healthy in his white button-down shirt and black blazer. "I guess a lot of that [appearance] has to do with being in the Army," he says before sucking down a draft beer. "I can't shake the habit of getting up and running in the morning, no matter how bad the hangover. The Army indoctrinates you that way."
After his stint with the Rangers was up in 1985, Rich took a military-transport flight to Europe and began drinking and writing--in that order. "The military taught me how to drink, but Europe gave me my drinking sophistication," he says. "The first time I had a Guinness in England, it was like a religious experience."
Upon finding a London apartment in which to squat rent-free, Rich started writing his first novel, which he describes as a "bad sort of Philip Marlowe sci-fi detective novel set in the year 2031." Because he was broke, he wrote on the backs of pamphlets and any other scraps of paper he could find, then went out to nightclubs and got drunk off abandoned cocktails. When his first novel, The Avenging Angel, was bought by a Canadian publishing company, Rich received a $13,000 payment for the book and an advance for three more installments in what the publisher billed as the "Jake Street Bogeyman" series. "I really thought I was F. Scott Fitzgerald," he says. "I sat in bars, wrote, drank up all of my money and had to start all over again."
After a few more years of writing--"using caffeine for structure and alcohol for inspiration"--and blowing all his profits on booze, in 1994 Rich found himself jobless, carless and broke in an Austin, Texas, dive bar. That's when the idea for Modern Drunkard hit him. "I was sitting there reading Paradise Lost, and I looked up at these old drunks sitting around the bar, and I realized that these guys would never read a book, regardless of what it was," says Rich. "It was then that I had this inspiration to start a magazine for drunks. All of the other magazines dedicated to alcohol are aimed at the connoisseur-type that drinks, or claims to drink, in moderation. Modern Drunkard is for people who want to get loaded. In that bar, I discovered a niche that had yet to be filled."
Rich returned to Denver (where he had lived off and on over the years), found a straight job writing commercials for TCI and launched Modern Drunkard with $550 of the $600 in royalties he had left over from his series of dime-store novellas. The first issue was published this past August and distributed to local bars, where Rich found an appreciative audience. Monthly circulation has now reached 3,000, and Rich, who employs a staff of three, says every issue is snatched up virtually overnight. He says he has even seen Xeroxed copies of the magazine floating around due to the demand. And while he has never distributed the magazine outside of Denver, he claims to have received subscription orders from Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.
The publication manages to support itself with advertising from local bars and alcoholic-beverage companies, but Rich says his financial goals are modest. "When the magazine can support the staff's drinking habits," he says, "then I'll be happy." Rich admits that the magazine's title has turned away more than a few prospective clients. However, since Modern Drunkard is available only in bars, he says he hasn't drawn fire from teetotalers.
When asked about Modern Drunkard and its growing popularity, an employee at Denver CARES, the city-funded program that picks up inebriated individuals and brings them to a downtown shelter, laughs. "Come down here to hang out for a day," she says, "and I'll show you some modern drunkards." A volunteer at Alcoholics Anonymous is equally incredulous, though she says she has never seen the publication. "We don't go to bars anymore," she says, "so I don't think anyone here has had a chance to look at it."
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Despite the fact that some feel his magazine is glorifying alcohol and alcoholism, Rich believes his timing is perfect. "The United States has gone soft," he says. "In the Fifties, U.S. businessmen would go out to lunch and drink martinis, and we were the world economic leader. Now it's the Japanese and the Germans drinking whiskey and beer at lunch, getting loaded and being the economic powers. U.S. businessmen are drinking mineral water."
Rich admits that he wasn't around when the three-martini lunch was de rigueur for American executives and that many of his nostalgic feelings for the classic drunk-noir glorified by writers like Fitzgerald and actors like Dean Martin are "based upon memories I never had." But he still finds the lifestyle afforded him as editor of Modern Drunkard very appealing.
"The most comfortable place in the world for me," says Rich, "is sitting at a dark bar with a few old drunks, a cocktail and my laptop in front of me. It just feels natural.