The story of Pablo the cocaine-guzzling black bear of Northern Georgia – as recounted by Carolina’s Americana stalwarts, Yarn.
Release Date: 24th February 2023
Label: Self Release
It’s storytime, folks!
On September 11, 1985, some 40 plastic containers containing high-quality cocaine were dropped over Knoxville, Tennessee, from a light aircraft piloted by Andrew C Thornton III, a convicted drug smuggler and former US Narcotics Agent. After jettisoning their contraband, Thornton and his co-pilot ejected from the plane and Thornton was killed in the fall after his parachute failed to open.
Later that year, in December, a dead 175-pound black bear was discovered, just over the state line in Northern Georgia. The bear’s stomach was found to be full of cocaine – indeed, it was established that the animal had probably consumed over 75 pounds of the drug – a cool $2 million’s worth! – and, although veterinary examiners estimated that only 3-4 grams of that intake had entered the bear’s bloodstream, there was no doubt that the bear’s death had been caused by the consumption of the cocaine.
The story of the bear’s misadventure was reported in the 23rd December 1985 edition of the New York Times, from whence it – eventually – came to the notice of Blake Christiana, singer/songwriter in the North Carolina-based Americana outfit, Yarn, inspiring him to write a song recounting the whole, unfortunate, episode. That song was christened Cocaine Bear, and, since its inception, it’s been a much-requested number during Yarn’s live performances.
But it never made it as far as the recording studio… that is, until now.
Let’s now roll forward a couple of years, to the day when it came to Blake’s attention that Universal were in the process of making a movie that was also inspired by those events in and around Knoxville back in 1985. Discovering that the movie was to be named, by (probably entirely predictable coincidence) Cocaine Bear, Blake offered his song to Universal for use in the film. Having heard the song and seen the trailer for the movie, I must express my surprise that Blake’s offer was turned down; the song tells the bear’s sad story (with more accuracy and empathy than does the movie – or so it seems to me) and the classic 70s country genre of the tune seems to fit perfectly with the movie’s imagery. But – the fact remains – the song was rejected.
Undeterred, Yarn used a slice of studio time that they’d already had booked to finally commit THEIR original Cocaine Bear to tape and, in an act of what I suspect may be highly satisfying defiance, they’ll be releasing their tune on 24th February 2023, the same day that Universal’s movie hits the cinema screens.
Before we go to the song itself, it’s worth saying a few words about Yarn. They’ve been with us for quite some time – since 2006, in fact, since they first got together in Brooklyn and started to hone their particular brand of Americana at Kenny’s Castaway, the much revered but now sadly demised club on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. Alongside Blake, who contributes guitar and vocals to the band’s sound, Yarn also comprise Rod Hohl on vocals and guitars, Rick Bugel on bass and Robert Bonhommie on drums. They’ve released ten studio albums to date, most recently their singles compilation, Lucky 13 Parts 1 & 2 in 2019 and, so a little bird tells me, they’ve got a couple of albums in the pipeline for release in 2023, most imminently, a collection to be entitled Yarn Presents Blake Christiana’s Nomad Man. On the basis of what I’ve heard so far, that will be a product that will be well worth seeking out.
But back to Cocaine Bear. The song is a pleasant country shuffle, very much embedded in the 70s country ballad tradition. The subdued guitars and the light drumbeat allow the listener to concentrate on the bear’s story, which is told accurately, sympathetically and with passion. As the song’s chorus: “Cocaine Bear – watcha got there? It’s 78 pounds of the purest blow you’ll ever know – and he ain’t gonna share” demonstrates, the lyrics aren’t without humour, but the humour is sufficiently subdued to avoid causing offence to even the most committed animal lover. The pedal steel that underpins the verses is divine and the song is well worth your attention – in a way that I suspect the movie may not be…
And what happened next to the bear, I hear some of you ask…
Well, its story certainly didn’t end with the bear’s unique and unintended demise. In an example of crass bad taste – some might call it black humour – it was given the name Pablo Escobear (think about it…) before it was stuffed and donated to the Chattahoochie River National Recreation Area. For a few years, the stuffed bear went missing, before turning up in a pawn shop, from where it was purchased by none other than Waylon Jennings! Unbelievably and, some would consider, nauseatingly, the stuffed carcass is now on display, complete with a ludicrous “Park Ranger” hat, in the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky.
Thank heavens Yarn afforded a slice of dignity to the bear. Give Cocaine Bear a listen – I think you just might enjoy it!
Watch Yarn performing Cocaine Bear – Live, in concert – here:
Categories: Single Review