Smoking Cigarettes with Neko Case

Rachel Stevens
all photos by Matthew B. Thompson

Today, August 20, the 20th anniversary of Neko Case’s “Blacklisted.” I had to read that twice. TWENTY YEARS?? Wow. I remember my first encounter with this album so vividly.

Before I truly loved booze, I fell in love with cigarettes and Neko Case’s Blacklisted. I’ve continued to listen to Neko Case regularly, but there was only a short time in my life where I smoked regularly: the years between two passions—Jesus and the mountains. 

I was very religious in high school. In Texas, it’s cool to love Jesus. And I’m not great at doing anything half-assed. So I was in. I was praying a lot. I was following the rules. I was making sure everyone else was staying in-line. My younger sister was not staying in line. Around my senior year of high school, she was really heading off the rails. I caught her smoking in our backyard and confronted my mom, telling her that she should NOT be allowing her kid to be sMoKiNg CiGaReTteS in this godly home! My mom looked me dead in the eye and said, “Rachel, cigarettes are the least of our problems.”

My sister was drinking tons and starting to do a lot of drugs. I graduated high school (complete with a cross tapped to the top of my graduation cap) and headed off to the baptist university thirty miles down the road. A couple months into college, things got hard. They got hard with my family, mostly, and I started to feel like I couldn’t pray it away. I didn’t know what I wanted to do to make it go “away.” I wanted to break shit. I wanted to scream. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to smoke. It was naughty enough to feel rebellious, but still legal. And I soon discovered clove cigarettes, which are dangerous, delicious, and rebellious—perfect.

By year two, I became friends with the art kids at school. They smoked. (Pro-Tip: If you find yourself not fitting in at a Christian college, head to the art department.) My printmaking professor could tell I was struggling. Not at art—though that wasn’t spectacular either—but at life. Once after my evening class, in the least-creepy way, he asked if I wanted a smoke. We stood out in the parking lot, next to his truck, smoking clove cigarettes. He put on some music from his truck and we stood in the hot Texas afternoon, just talking. I smoked and cried about life. We listened to music and for the first time, I noticed the voice of Neko Case. 

“Who is this?”

I made him play “Deep Red Bells” three times on repeat.

"He led you to this hiding place

His lightning threats spun silver tongues

The red bells beckon you to ride

A handprint on the driver's side

It looks a lot like engine oil and tastes like being poor and small

And Popsicles in the summer"

– "Deep Red Bells"


My next class, he had a burned copy of Blacklisted for me. That album was my companion for many drives and smokes. I dove into the rest of Neko’s discography and put everything I could find on my brick of an iPod. I would go to a construction zone on campus at night and sit on a huge bulldozer while secretly smoking and listening to Neko Case. I burned a hole from ashes in my favorite thrift-store-find shirt. I wore perfume to cover up the cigarette stench and soon smelled exactly like conversations with my sister. 

"Last night I dreamt I'd forgotten my name

'Cause I sold my soul

But I woke just the same

I'm so lonely

I wish I was the moon tonight"

– "I Wish I Was the Moon"


My last year of college, my sister had a birthday right after getting out of rehab. She didn’t have any friends she could celebrate with without wanting to use, so my college friends and I threw her a party. My mom and sister showed up to the party apartment and we all milled about trying to figure out what you do at a party without booze. My sister looked lost, but tried to be grateful. My friend Jared asked her, “You wanna smoke?” She lit up—her face, not a cigarette yet. They went to the fire escape and smoked and we could hear them laugh into the night, over the music we thought she’d like that we played loud inside. 

After college, I officially stopped worshiping in churches and instead said grace in the mountains. I moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming at age 21 to work at a climbing magazine. No one in town smoked during daylight. In the mid-2000s, the ratio of men to women in Jackson was 5:1. I didn’t buy myself a drink for the first year—and I drank a LOT. Towards last call, I would gravitate towards the men who tasted like cigarettes. I loved making out with a secret. 

"Pretty girls

You're too good for this

How you break my heart

In this cold waiting room

Oh my pretty girls

You're too good for this

Don't let them tell you you're nothing

Don't let them break your hearts too"

– "Pretty Girls"

When I met my then crush, now husband, his kisses didn’t taste like secrets, but his harried past left enough grace for vices. We fell in love slowly over a couple years—playing cards, drinking bourbon, and listening to Neko Case. 

I truly stopped smoking when I started running. It just didn’t feel worth it anymore, because it felt horrible in my chest. The crackle I savored on inhales of clove cigarettes was emulated in my lungs on long runs in the mountains. And besides, I had leaned hard into booze—a drink for any occasion; my friend who was always there. In the mountain towns of Wyoming and Montana (and even Seattle), drinking was the more socially-acceptable way to commune, celebrate, and commiserate. So I would cut out drinking for a couple weeks, run an 18 mile trail race, and then drink five margaritas to celebrate. Then go back to work on Monday and start the cadence of normal training and drinking until the next race.

My mother-in-law visited my husband and me once in Bozeman, Montana. Walking through the farmer’s market, we passed someone smoking a cigarette. She remarked, “I just don’t understand how anyone smokes anymore.” I didn’t say anything, but I immediately thought two things:

  1. My sister would feel so unwelcome here.

  2. God, I want a cigarette.

But I didn’t smoke. I drank. I worked in advertising and then in music, both of which are perfect places for people who love to drink. And then the pandemic happened and it was kind of an all-bet-are-off situation for me. When you come from a long-line of alcoholism and you love booze, many therapists will have you take a quiz. I’ve always been “borderline” on a problem. For the beginning of 2022, I have been horribly depressed. And I felt like I had come to an impasse with my therapist. Recently, she therapist told me, 

“Rachel, alcohol is a depressant. You definitely have a problem with alcohol, but I can tell you’re not ready to deal with it yet.” 

To which, I responded… Hold my beer. Or, rather, my bottle of cabernet franc from the Loire Valley… and then two manhattans… on a Tuesday.

I went to one and a half Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with my friend Marco. On the way to the first, he told me, 

“Just don’t start smoking cigarettes. When a lot of people get sober, they start smoking.” 

I won’t. I told him. But I knew that Neko Case was coming to town soon and I already had tickets and I wanted a smoke. On my 23rd day of sobriety, I stopped at a smoke shop near KEXP and picked up a pack of clove cigarettes before biking to Woodland Park to see Neko Case with my husband and my baby girl. When I parked my bike, there was a woman smoking outside of the gate. I asked, 

“They don’t let you smoke in there?”

“They don’t let you do anything anymore. But I’ll show you a good place to smoke and listen.”

It checked out. ZooTunes is a thing for kids and I’m not delusional—I know smoking is icky. I wanted to be with my family more than I wanted to smoke, so I went in. My husband and I cuddled on a blanket and sang along to every song, while our daughter danced enthusiastically with her new friend. I wanted a glass (plastic cup) of wine so badly, but took solace in knowing I’d have a cigarette soon. And honestly, it was a beautiful moment with my family, sans any vice.

"When the new crowd

Starts to bore you

Just remember

There is someone

To adore you

When you're weary of

Nights up on the town

Look for me

I'll be around"

– "Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)"

My husband and daughter had walked to the concert, we live close enough. So after the concert ended, I asked my husband if I could walk home, smoke a clove, and listen to some more Neko Case. He sweetly agreed as I immediately pulled out my pack. Our daughter was secure in the bike while we were far enough away for me to light a cigarette without her immediately dying from second-hand smoke. But I couldn’t get it to go—I couldn’t light it. I only had an old book of matches and I went through about six matches unsuccessfully before I asked my husband to try. One match. Five seconds. He smiled and handed me the cigarette.

“This is why I love you.”

“You love me because I’m good at doing bad things?”*

They took off home and I walked toward home, cigarette in hand, earbuds in. I was alone and sober and smoking, like I used to be. I thought about the me who used to smoke by myself all the time. I am her still—again. I thought about my family. I thought about my sister. I don’t know if she smokes anymore. (I bet she does.) I wonder if she gets to smoke alone ever or if she likes the company. I wonder if she’s ever smoked a cigarette on a bulldozer.

"When I'm walkin' under stars

I covet all the waning hours

All the lonely houses stand like monuments

To thieves

When I'm walkin' in the dark

I'm free to covet all I want

You've made it all so very dangerous

I can't stay away

When I'm walkin' under trees

I'm free to covet all I please

New moons in the alley

And it's madness calls to me

Tonight, tonight, tonight

If I meet you in the night

You're free to covet all you like

Don't you try and stop me

I cling tightly to this life"

– "Tightly"

Today, August 20, the 20th anniversary of “Blacklisted,” I am 88 days sober. It’s been hard, but I feel good. I’m less depressed and I don’t hate myself when I look in the mirror. Shouldn’t that mean that I never wanna go back to the bottle? It probably should. But I don’t know. I don’t know about going to the bottle, but I do know about reaching for Neko Case. And maybe I’ll have a clove cigarette tonight.

*I’m sorry, is this not the hottest thing you’ve ever heard someone say? It’s surprising we didn’t make another baby right then and there.

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