Tuesday, November 29, 2005

7 Drinks of Mankind: Wine

Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, On Paris and Wine.
Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, Days of Wine and Roses.
Dean Martin, Little Ole Wine Drinker Me.
Otis Redding, Champagne and Wine.
Odilio Gonzàlez, Copa de Vino.
The Band, Strawberry Wine.
The Stanley Brothers, Little Glass of Wine.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Baptize Me in Wine.
Roy Hawkins, Wine Drinkin' Woman.
Larry Dale, Drinkin' Wine (Spo-Dee-o-Dee).
Lightnin' Hopkins, Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee.
The Nightcaps, Wine Wine Wine.
The Hollywood Flames, W-I-N-E.
The Handsome Family, So Much Wine.
Ernest Tubb, Warm Red Wine.

A Prelude

"O'Brien took the decanter by the neck and filled up the glasses with a dark-red liquid...Seen from the top the stuff looked almost black, but in the decanter it gleamed like a ruby. It had a sour-sweet smell. He saw Julia pick up her glass and sniff at it with frank curiousity.

'It is called wine,' O'Brien said with a faint smile. 'You will have read about it in books, no doubt. Not much of it gets to the Outer Party, I'm afraid.'

Winston took up his glass with a certain eagerness. Wine was a thing he had read and dreamed about. Like the glass paperweight or Mr Charrington's half-remembered rhymes, it belonged to the vanished, romantic past. For some reason he had always thought of wine as having an intensely sweet taste, like that of blackberry jam and an immediate intoxicating effect. Actually, when he came to swallow it, the stuff was distinctly disappointing. The truth was that after years of gin-drinking he could barely taste it."

George Orwell, 1984.

O Wine

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye
That's all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.

WB Yeats, A Drinking Song.

Ah: wine. Liquid elegance, the font of conversation, the bottled stuff of dreams and fancies. Appealing to the glutton and the gourmand, the fevered collector with his cellar of rarities and the priest to whom it symbolizes the very substance of God, wine is the closest thing on this earth to consumable sublimity.

It is a dignified drink, an aristocrat. "Grandfather wine," Wynonie Harris called it. Wine is often more expensive than beer--also, it almost dictates being drunk more slowly. Sure, you can chug down a bottle of red wine, but the payback is bound to be brutal, where someone can consume three beers in an hour and feel all right. (Well, I used to.) Wine is generally meant to be consumed with food, whereas, whiskey, for example, is drunk alone.

And wine songs? Not as rousing as beer songs--they are far more romantic and wistful, with traces of lost youth, faded or burgeoning love, or nostalgia. They smack of the past--reflecting the fact that, via wine, you can actually discover what a vanished year tasted like. But certainly, like most popular tunes about alcohol, a good many revolve around getting drunk.

A quintessential wine song could be "Days of Wine and Roses." Originally written by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini for the 1962 film starring Jack Lemmon, it soon became a standard.

The title comes from the 19th Century poet Ernest Dowson's Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
our path emerges for awhile, then closes
within a dream.

This version, sung by Tony Bennett over Bill Evans' accompaniment, is from 1975; it's on the functionally-titled Tony Bennett-Bill Evans Album.

"I'm prayin' for rain in California
So the grapes can grow and they can make more wine..."

Another use of wine as comfort for lost love is Dean Martin's "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me", a Big Rock Candy Mountain contribution. It hails from 1967, debuting on the pop charts the same week "All You Need is Love," "Light My Fire" and "White Rabbit" were in the top 10. On tons of compilations--here's one.

And then there's a Rev. Frost selection, "Champagne and Wine", in which wine symbolizes lost happy, high times. An absolutely masterful track, recorded in 1967, soon before Otis Redding's death--released posthumously on The Immortal Otis Redding.

After the Flood

According to Hebrew legend, the first winegrower was Noah.

As an example of the wonderful oddness of the Old Testament, we have Noah, who, mind you, only a chapter before had preserved the human race (and animal races) and had made a covenant with Yahweh, now getting bare-assed drunk and having to be hauled off to bed by his ashamed sons.

From the Book of J, an attempt to isolate the voice of the first writer of the Torah:

So it was: Noah, who tills the soil, is the first to plant a vineyard. Now he drank from the wine, now he was drunk, now he lay uncovered in the middle of his tent.

The one who fathered Canaan, Ham, enjoyed his father's nakedness: now he tells it to the two brothers outside.

But Shem and Yafat took a cloak, draped it over their shoulders, walked in backward, covered their naked father, faces averted...

Roused from his wine, Noah learned what happened, what his youngest son made of him. 'A bitter curse on Canaan,' he said. 'A servant to his brothers servants.'

There is a midrash in which Noah and Satan (!) actually plant the first vineyard together. Satan does his part, too, sacrificing animals and mulching their bodies into the soil.

No matter who the first wine grower (or wine drunkard) was, it is likely that wine is the oldest alcoholic drink known to humanity--it is a primordial drink for human beings, along with water and milk. Unlike beer, it needs no alchemy to work--all you have to do is crush grapes and keep them in a vat for a while. Some speculate wine's origins lie in the dawn of the Neolithic Era, around 9,000 B.C.

Wine naturally first came to prominence in the areas where the wild grape had established itself--basically, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Some current theories now have wine first emerging in the Caucasus mountains (today's Armenia and Iran), sometime between 9,000 B.C.-5,000 B.C. Imagine winemaking as a long vine traversing westward, from Persia to Mesopotamia, to Phoenicia and Egypt, to at last Greece, the first civilization to make wine into a centerpiece of its cultural life.

Greeks bearing gifts

"Once you see the glint of wine shining at the feasts of women, then you may be sure the festival is rotten."

Euripides, the Bacchae.

By 2,500 B.C., vines were being cultivated in Crete and likely mainland Greece, and as wine grew in prestige in places like Assyria and Egypt (where it was literally the drink of kings--no one else could afford it), wine took root throughout Greece, where, unlike in the desert empires, the wild grape could be grown seemingly everywhere, by anyone.

By 700 BC, when the poet/farmer Hesiod, was writing, wine drinking was already encrusted in ritual. In the Works and Days, a sort of philosphical farming manual, Hesiod advises:

Never, from dawn forward, pour a shining libation
of wine to Zeus and the other immortals
without washing your hands first.

Nor are you, when attending a party, to put the wine-ladle on top of the mixing bowl, as it brings "accursed bad luck". (Hesiod also advises not to urinate standing up and facing the sun.)

Tom Standage, whose book A History of the World in Six Glasses has inspired these posts (and who is reading this, I think--hello!), shows how much of Western philosophy owes its origins to wine, as wine was the fuel of formal drinking parties--symposia--at which the likes of Socrates and Plato held court.

One thing modern wine-fiends may find odd is that the Greeks (and later the Romans) considered it utterly barbaric to drink wine without diluting it with water. At symposia, wine would be mixed in a three-handled vessel called a krater. Standage: "Typical mixing ratios of water to wine seem to have been 2:1, 5:2, 3:1 and 4:1." Extremely strong wine was mixed with water 1:1. (The Greeks believed only Dionysus could drink unadulterated wine.)

Dilution was meant to prevent people from getting wasted on wine--wine was meant to loosen the tongue, to inspire someone to compose a witty verse or make a salient point, not to get a bunch of people falling around drunk. (Even today, many European parents mix wine and water for their children.)

Of the inheritors of the Greeks, perhaps the French still come close to this ideal.

"Wine is felt by the French nation to be a possession which is its very own, just like its three hundred and sixty types of cheese," says Roland Barthes. "Other countries drink to get drunk; in France, drunkenness is a consequence, never an intention." (I haven't asked the Rev. if this really is the case.)

Or as the Doctor would say to his companion Romana, Paris has "an ethos...like a good wine, it has a bouquet." From the serial City of Death, written mainly by Douglas Adams, that aired in late 1979, probably the best Doctor Who story in the show's long history. Tom Baker was the fourth Doctor (the one with the scarf), Lalla Ward co-starred with him for a time (and married him, for about a week).

As a rebuttal, enjoy "Strawberry Wine," in which Levon Helm just wants to feel good all the time--don't dilute his glass, please. "Strawberry Wine," sung blearily by Helm (on heroin at the time), is from the Band's creepy, hermetic Stage Fright from 1970.

Interlude on Port

"Port is the wine proper to the heavy drinker...The heavy port drinker must be prepared to make some sacrifice of personal beauty and agility. Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher."

Evelyn Waugh, Wine in Peace and War.

Aliud vinum, aliud ebrietas

The Romans took pretty much everything of note from the Greeks--from their philosophies to their gods--and so wine was no different.

Yet as Standage points out, the Roman convivium (drinking party) was a different affair from the Greek symposion. Where in the symposion, everyone drank from the same krater, in the Roman convivium hierarchy was essential--the nobility drank the best wine, separately from those of the lower ranks. Roman society was tiered by wine--the nobles got the best stuff, generally the legendary Falernian; Roman soldiers were issued posca (wine that had turned to vinegar, alleviated by water); and the poor received lora, "made by soaking and pressing the skins, seeds and stalks left over from wine making" (Standage). That said, the poor got angry when they didn't get their wine rations--Ammianus Marcellinus, the chronicler of the Empire's final years, mentions a number of Roman wine riots.

"When we have meat before us, we have the impression...that this is but the dead body of a bird or pig, and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice...In just the same way we should act all through life." Marcus Aurelius (who, nonetheless, drank lots of Falernian, essentially living on it during his last days).

"Copa de Vino" (wine glass) is by Odilio Gonzalez, a guitarist and composer from Puerto Rico about whom I know little, except I like the songs I've heard (anyone with more info, please let me know). Recorded in 1966; lots of Gonzalez here.

The Blood of Christ

Indulge, for a minute, in a bit of alternate history.

The Roman emperor Julian, rather than dying in battle with the Persians, has a long, vigorous life, during which the fervently pagan emperor stamps out Christianity's growing influence in the Empire.

However, the Word travels unimpeded to the barbarians beyond the Rhine and the Danube. The Goths and Franks, the Alamanni, the Vandals, even the Huns, are eventually converted to the cross. And so the neo-pagan Roman Empire falls to the Christianized barbarians, who sack Rome and leave it for dead. In its place as a cultural center rises, say, Berlin, the center of the Christian Visigoth Empire and its one Holy and Apostolic Church.

Two millennia later, Berliner Catholics across the globe attend mass every Sunday, during which the priest offers communion, distributing the wafers and drinking from a huge, jeweled flagon of beer.

Well, it's unlikely. After all, wine is a core ingredient of Christianity, appearing throughout the New Testament, from the miracle at Cana(Christ turning water into wine, a great party trick of His) to the Last Supper, in which he besought his disciples to drink wine in memory of him, and comparing himself to a vineyard.

And so wine, while falling out of favor in northern Europe and England during the Dark Ages, persevered, due to both the ingrained wine culture of the Mediterranean, and the Christian monks, who needed vineyards for communion wine. (We owe Chardonnay, for example, to Cistercian monks from that region of France.)

Wine continues to be the centerpiece of the Catholic Church. For instance, here's Pope Benedict XVI, just two months ago: "Wine, on the other hand, expresses the excellence of creation and gives us the feast in which we go beyond the limits of our daily routine: wine, the Psalm says, "gladdens the heart".

A mite more blasphemous, here is Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Baptize Me in Wine", a wild dark resurrection, from 1958, contributed by Brian at Big Rock. On She Put the Wammee on Me.

Or the Stanley Brothers' "Little Glass of Wine," in which a spurned suitor poisons a glass of wine to kill his former lover. From 1949, on Complete Columbia Stanley Bros.

Interlude on Champagne

'Would you like some champagne?' she said, indicating a bottle of Dom Perignon cooling in a bucket by the bed. 'I'm not supposed to have any. But--I mean, when you've been through what I've been through...' She laughed and once more uncorked her throat incision, sending her laughter into soundless oblivion.

I opened the champagne and filled two ugly white plastic hospital glasses.

She sighed. 'Hmm, that's good. I really like only champagne. The trouble is, it gives you permanently bad breath. Tell me, have you ever thought you were dying?'

Truman Capote, Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor.


"My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!" Sean Connery, Goldfinger.

Wine, with its mystique, its (at times) overpricing and its storied history, naturally has created a society of snobs. It begins with the Romans, the first to obsess over vintages and years, and continues to this day. There's not enough space to write about the phenomenon of Robert Parker, who has created a sort of Consumer Reports for wine, enabling aspiring snobs to rank wines by "scores."

Or Sideways, which, while sending up wine snobs, likely created a slew more. Take Paul Giamatti's tirade against Merlot, which suddenly made the once-hip varietal the butt of a joke and may have killed sales.

Perhaps the greatest snob revenge story is Poe's Cask of Amontillado. You likely know the story--the narrator, Montresor, long bearing a grudge against his rival, Fortunato, discovers the best way to dispatch him.

"He had a weak point --this Fortunato --although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine." So, tempting Fortunato with the news he has a cask of Amontillado, Montresor lures Fortunato into his cellar. First Montresor offers Fortunato a "draught of Medoc" to get him good and drunk, then manacles Fortunato to the wall and entombs him.

(Below, a modern variant featuring Batgirl in the Fortunato role)

As an alternative to snobbery, enjoy "Wine Drinkin' Woman," by Roy Hawkins (another Big Rock choice.) From 1950, and can be found on The Thrill is Gone.

Spo Dee o Dee

In these days I am ever befuddled with wine.
But it is not for nourishing my nature and soul.
When I see that all men are drunk,
How can I bear to be the only one sober?
Wang Chi.

To be honest, there isn't that much difference between popular songs about wine and those about other alcoholic drinks--drinking to excess is the key, though I've always found that imbibing too much wine creates the worst hangover in the world.

The essential getting-wasted-on-wine song is "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee", originally recorded by Stick McGhee in 1947 (and rerecorded for Atlantic in '49), which inspired a slew of interpretations, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Johnny Burnette. "Spo-dee-o-dee" is a replacement for "motherfucker," McGhee's original end phrase.

Here's a couple lesser-known covers, thanks to Big Rock and the Rev.: Larry Dale's version is from 1962, (on Messing with the Blues) while Lightnin' Hopkins' take, from 1961, is on Blues in My Bottle.

And "Spo Dee o Dee" spawned a number of collateral descendants, as a host of people realized singing "wine, wine, wine" was a pretty easy way to write a chorus. Here are two--first, the Nightcaps' "Wine Wine Wine", from 1962, found here. This single was one of the 7" 45s that the late John Peel always carried around with him in a wooden case.

In the Hollywood Flames' "W-I-N-E", from 1950, the singer chastizes his woman for bringing home whiskey instead of wine (I guess he was boozing with a swanker set of people than usual). On Hollywood Flames.


"That was a relief. But the wine was not. It was cheap, new wine, bitter and sour, made of the leavings and scrapings of the vineyards and the vats, and it tasted far worse than beer. There is only one way to take medicine...I threw my head back, and gulped it down. I had to gulp again and hold the poison down."

Jack London, John Barleycorn.

When wine is cheap and bad, it really could be the most vile beverage on earth. I can't pinpoint the best bottle of wine I've ever had, but I certainly can remember the worst.

We were running low at a party in Boston back in the '90s, so a friend ran out to grab some wine, returning with a nasty bruise-colored rotgut punch that smelt like burnt cork. Stupidly, I drank two full glasses and woke the next morning feeling as if someone had taken a crowbar to my skull, then pumped my guts full of creosote. (Disgusting details omitted.) I then spent much of the day in an ambulatory coma, being deposited at my apartment in New York with scarcely any memory of how I got there.

As we sailed along, Dr. Johnson got into one of his fits of railing at the Scots...
Boswell: 'We had wine before the Union (with England).'
Johnson: 'No sir, you had some weak stuff, the refuse of France, which would not make you drunk.'
Boswell: 'I assure you,sir, there was a great deal of drunkenness.'
Johnson: No, sir, there were people who died of dropsies, which they contracted in trying to get drunk.'

James Boswell, A Tour of the Western Isles and Hebrides.

Wine drinking can be corrosive--i.e, The Handsome Family's "So Much Wine", which is on 2000's In the Air. Handsome Family tour dates, merch.

But let's end on a grace note, with Ernest Tubb's "Warm Red Wine," a celebration of wine's powers and joys. Recorded in Seattle in 1965, found on the essential Complete Live 1965 Show.

Old wine in old bottles

As opposed to beer, I have few recommendations for wine. First, I just can't stomach any type of white wine, even on a hot day, so I'm a bit useless there. Some favorite reds include Coppolla (since 1980, I'd say Coppolla wines> Coppolla films) and RL Buller Muscat. Any oenophiles with recommendations, put 'em in the comments.

Want to try to taste what the Greeks drank? Modern Greek grape varieties such as Limnio, Athiri, Aïdani, Muscat, etc., are believed to be surviving examples of ancient grapes. "It is known that, at various times, the wines of Hios, Thassos and Lesvos were highly regarded and that the wines of Samos were not." More here.

Also, several Roman wines have been recreated by Herve Durand at the Mas des Tourelles winery in the south of France. Standage says one such wine, Mulsum, "is a red wine that contains herbs and honey; it is sweet, but not overly so, with spicy notes." Another is Turriculae, a white wine made with sea water and herbs (mainly fenugreek). A third is Carenum, a desert wine consisting of red wine mixed with defrutum, a boiled-down spiced wine used by the Romans as a cooking ingredient.


Monday, November 21, 2005

7 Drinks of Mankind: Beer

Lou Killen, Good Ale.
Rudy Vallee, Stein Song.
Jacques Brel, La Biere.
Jim Ed Brown, Pop a Top.
Amy Rigby, Beer and Kisses.
The Replacements, Beer for Breakfast.
Billie Holiday, Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.
Luke Kelly and the Dubliners, Jar of Porter.
Hank Thompson, A Six Pack to Go.
Dave Dudley, Two Six Packs Away.
Tommy Duncan, Who Drank My Beer (While I Was in the Rear).
The Gunshy, $4 Pabst.
Ballantine Ale.

As we enter the holiday season, our thoughts turn to drinking.

The inspiration for this series of posts comes from the book A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage, in which the theory is ventured that human history, for the most part, can be summed up in the history of six types of beverages, with a seventh as an epilogue.

Our musical take on these seven drinks will be a group (and multi-national) effort--I'm drawing from some worthy constituents for extra songs and stories, and I think they've made this effort ten times greater than it would have been as a solitary one. In particular I want to thank the Rev. Frost of Spread the Good Word and Brian at Big Rock Candy Mountain, both of whom contributed massive numbers of songs to this project.

The first drink to explore is the happy product of John Barleycorn's marriage-- a garrulous, ancient individual with plenty of stories to share: beer.

A Prelude

"Bowen began thinking about beer. He wanted a pint of English beer, but not because of its nationality or anything like that...Barbara had accused him at two hundred words a minute of pretending to like beer because he thought it was working-class, British, lower-middle-class, Welsh, anti-foreign, anti-upper-class, anti-London, anti-intellectual, British and proletarian. He had replied more slowly that she was mistaken if she thought he would deny himself large gins-and-tonic or magnums of sparkling red Burgundy just because nasty people liked them too...

He had added to Barbara that beer was cheaper while still sharing with gin and Burgundy the property of making him drunk. That last factor had recieved insufficient acclaim.

If he ever went into the brewing business his posters would have written across the top "Bowen's Beer", and then underneath that in the middle a picture of Mrs Knowles drinking a lot of it and falling about, and then across the bottom in bold or salient lettering the words Makes You Drunk."

Kingsley Amis, I Like it Here.

Beer songs

Beer songs are generally not romantic, though often communal. Beer songs can be happy, but the joy derives mainly from the happy effects of the beer, or perhaps from the mere pleasure of being somewhere away from home drinking beer. More often, though, they are a bit morose. A headache lies somewhere at the end of them. Beer songs are a bit clumsy, galumphing, loud--they are not meant for wooing, unless you are German or Irish. They don't put on airs, they are not meant for the concert hall. They are meant, for the most part, to provide the foursquare rhythm for a night's drinking. They are single-minded in that way, and quite good for what they are.

"There was nothing in my life bigger than beer," The Who, 1968.

To begin, enjoy Louis Killen's version of "Good Ale", a ballad that dates at least to 1790, which sums up beer's powers, joys and collateral damages. Found on Good Ale, recorded in March 1968.

Robert Burns, a century and a half before, offered another variation:

O, guid ale comes, and guid ale goes,
Guid ale gars me sell my hose,
Sell my hose, and pawn my shoon -
Guid ale keeps my heart aboon!

Rudy Vallee's "Stein Song," from 1930, is your standard beer chant--rousing, dopey, easy to sing even when blitzed. It's the official University of Maine fight song (hear an "updated" choral version here). The song was written in 1904 by Maine undergrads Adelbert Sprague and Lincoln Colcord--Sprague took the melody from a German march called "Opie." Vallee's version is on The Vagabond Lover.

And the good Rev. Frost offers up his countryman, Jacques Brel, whose 1968 ode to beer begins like so:

Ça sent la bière
De Londres à Berlin
Ça sent la bière
Dieu qu'on est bien

The Rev provides a rough translation: "It smells beer from London to Berlin, it smells beer, God we feel good!" It's the sort of song that demands to be slurred loudly by a bar full of people. Found on Infinement.

And to explore the morose side of beer drinking, here are two sad cases:

Jim Ed Brown's "Pop a Top", from 1967, is a pure country music drinking song, sung wonderfully by the underrated Brown. I am of the last generation to remember pull-tab beer cans (and CD longboxes, and McDonald's paper cases, and other wasteful things). Find here.

"We lived on beer and kisses/all hopped up on love and foam." "Beer and Kisses" is off Amy Rigby's 1996 Diary of a Mod Housewife, one of my favorite records from a fairly uninspired decade. John Wesley Harding provides the other lead vocal. (Has the CD gone out print? Seems so.) Amy's tour dates, and other CDs (they're all good).

Bad golfer: I lost everything.
Randy: But you have beer now. So you see, sometimes things work out.
My Name is Earl
, 2005.

The first beer

There is a farmer living somewhere in what we now call the Middle East, around 9,000 B.C. Let us, for convenience's sake, situate him and his family on the left bank of the Euphrates. Being a farmer is a relatively novel job at this time--it was only a hundred years ago, say, when his people stopped roaming, following the herds, and began cultivating the fields of wild grains that stretch for miles along the river banks.

It is a dry morning and the farmer leaves his home, a simple round hut a few yards in length, whose sagging roof is held up by planks and whose sunken floor is paved with broken stones. He surveys his storage pits and finds that, yet again, his eldest son did not secure the coverings, so the wind has scattered the piles of cereal grains. He, once again, is convinced his son is the product of his wife's copulation with an ass; a belief that grows more fervent when the farmer finds, by a neglected pit, a woven basket filled with half-eaten watery gruel, which his son has apparently left sitting outside for days.

The farmer returns to his hut in order to shove his son's face into the gruel basket, but finds the boy strangely has risen before dawn. So the farmer, his anger ebbing, goes to dump the basket outside but notices a strange, sweet smell coming from it. There is a finger's length of liquid in the basket, which, as he brings it outside to the sunlight, is bubbling slightly, like water from a hot spring. The farmer brings the basket up to his face--he still smells the stale tang of damp grain, but there is something new here.

Curious, he cups a hand and brings a trace of the liquid up to his lips. It is fizzy, it bites his tongue, and is sweeter even than honey. He takes another, larger sip. This makes his face warmer. He takes a third, which stings his nose. A fourth makes him laugh, something that happens so rarely his wife comes out to stare at him. At last, the farmer upturns the basket and drinks every last drop, even chewing the grains. Afterward, he reels around the hut until his wife convinces him to sit on the ground, where he begins to sing.

Unknown to history, he has become the first person ever to get drunk on beer.

A scientific equivalent: When cereal grains are moistened to make gruel, the grains produce diastase enzymes, which in turn convert starch in the grain to maltose--essentially sugar. And when this malt is left exposed to the air, which carries wild yeasts, and baked by the sun, the sugar and yeast merge to form alcohol.

"The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer," Egyptian proverb, @2,200 BC.

Empires of Beer

By the time of the Sumerians, the first recorded civilization (@3100 BC), beer had become an essential drink, if not the only drink. Beer was safer to imbibe than water, which was often polluted with animal and human filth, and provided a happy buzz to end a wearying day of farming or hunting.

It also was a sign of being civilized. In Gilgamesh, the world's first piece of literature, Enkidu, the "hairy bodied wild man of the grasslands", is presented with beer, which he has never seen before:

"they brought out beer they had brewed and set it down
But Enkidu knew nothing about these things...
(The temple prostitute urges him to eat and drink)
So Enkidu ate his fill of the cooked food
and drank the beer. Seven jugs of the beer
and he was suddenly joyful, and sang aloud."

So Enkidu, happy and drunk, allows himself to be bathed and annointed with oil, puts on clean clothes, and winds up working to guard the community's flocks from wild beasts. Beer is the passport that transforms a savage into a civilized man. It is no coinicidence that the Sumerian symbol for beer is all over the oldest written documents in human history--wage lists and tax receipts.

The Egyptians were also heavy beer drinkers--Standage notes that a survey of Eyptian literature found that the Egyptian word for beer (hekt) was mentioned more than any other foodstuff. The Egyptian gods were said to have invented beer, and sometimes got drunk on it. And the laborers who built the pyramids were paid in beer, roughly four liters a day--beer, essentially liquid bread, served as their primary meal.

A trace of this legacy can be found in the Replacements' "Beer for Breakfast," an outtake from the Pleased to Meet Me sessions in 1986. The Mats, for the younger set who may not know their legend, were the drunkest band of the 1980s, and sometimes the greatest. On the compilation All for Nothing/Nothing for All.

Grain v. grape

Beer is likely a younger beverage than its great rival, wine, but beer's cultural prominence was established first. Yet when the Roman Empire emerged, taking its gods and its cultural cues from Greece, wine drinking greatly surpassed beer drinking among the civilized, sending brew into the shadows for centuries.

Beer began to be considered a low-class, barbarian drink. For example, when the hapless emperor Valens (later to be slaughtered by the Goths) was attempting to beseige the town of Chalcedon during a minor civil war, he "received a chorus of insults from the walls and the derisive name Sabaiarius--beer swiller," writes Ammianus Marcellinus. "Sabaia is the poor man's drink in Illyricum and is a kind of beer made from barley or some other grain."

(Nor has beer fully shed its rustic image--take "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer", an ode to low pleasures. Recorded by the likes of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, the latter whose 1949 version can be found on this collection of her Decca years.)

Even today there remains a vestige of the great divide in Europe--that of the Romans and the barbarians. The Romans and their long-established provinces--France, Spain, Greece, etc.--were wine drinkers, while beyond the pale, the Germans and Celts brewed beer.

"I was back in beer territory," wrote Patrick Leigh Fermor, detailing a walking trip he made in 1933 to Germany, just after Hitler took power. "One must travel east for 180 miles from the Upper Rhine...to form an idea of the transformation that beer, in collusion with almost nonstop eating, can wreak on the human frame." Still, when Fermor sits down to drink, he finds "the blonde beer inside [his tankard] was cool and marvellous, a brooding cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth." (from A Time of Gifts.)

Peasants Wedding, Brueghel (detail)

When the Empire fell, however, beer drinking returned to prominence with the new barbarian masters of the earth. "The Anglo-Saxons consumed beer on an oceanic scale," winces HPR Finberg, in his look at the formation of England. The love of brew extended even to the clergy--Aelfric, the schoolmaster at Cerne Abbey in Dorset, wrote to his pupils that his drink "was beer, or failing that, beer water. Wine is not for the young, but the old and wise."

The Dubliners, in "Jug of Porter", emphasize how the Celtish passion for beer begins in the cradle. From 1964's Luke Kelly and the Dubliners.

The Middle Ages introduced the last, critical ingredient to beer--hops, which provide a contrasting bitterness. Hildegard of Bingen, in 1067, provides the first written reference to hops in brewing (though the practice didn't become widespread until the 15th and 16th centuries). A millennium later, in its advertisements, Schlitz would advertise the "last, gentle kiss" of its hops.

Working man's brews

PORTER: Drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.

MACDUFF: What three things does drink especially provoke?

PORTER: Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

MACDUFF: I believe drink gave thee the lie last night.

Macbeth, II:iii.

Beer, ever since its use as a payment for Eygptian pyramid builders, has been the classic working class refreshment and as such, beer songs sometimes fall out of favor when musical fashion veers towards greater sophistication or pretension. For example, after a period of fraternity beer anthems in the early 1960s (like "Double Shot of my Baby's Love" or "Louie Louie"), beer songs essentially vanished during the heyday of the hippies.

But country musicians never forsook beer. Big Rock contributes three mighty beer songs:

"A Six Pack to Go", from 1960, is by the great Hank Thompson. Find it here.

"Two Six Packs Away" begins with Dave Dudley shrugging off a painful night of drunk driving. From 1965, on Essential Collection.

And of course, there is Tommy Duncan's classic "Who Drank My Beer (While I Was in the Rear)". Tommy was Bob Wills' main singer, though this track hails from Duncan's later, solo years (1952--I think). On Beneath Neon Star (pay no mind to the review of some Swede who calls this song "flat".)

Taste antiquity

"[I thought to] try if I could not make some of my barley into malt, and then try to brew myself some beer. This was really a whimsical thought, and I reproved myself often for the simplicity of it: for I presently saw there would be the want of several things necessary to the making my beer that it would be impossible for me to supply; as, first, casks to preserve it in...In the next place, I had no hops to make it keep, no yeast to made it work, no copper or kettle to make it boil; and yet with all these things wanting, I verily believe, had not the frights and terrors I was in about the savages intervened, I had undertaken it, and perhaps brought it to pass too.."
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe.

To get a sense of what antique beer tasted like, here are a few possible stabs:

King Cnut Ale
, brewed once a year by St Peter's, is not brewed with hops, providing you a taste of what beer in the 11th Century might have tasted like. Standage says "it tastes sweet and fruity, rather like wine"; a West Yorkshire beer reviewer is not as positive: "there just appears to be too much going on to get a clear impression...Juniper, orange, herbs and spices too much confusion of flavour. Supposedly an ale from the first millennium. Thank god we've progressed."

Sahti, a Finnish beer, is one of the last surviving "primitive" beers, hailing to the 9th or 10th Century. The beer critic Michael Jackson says of Sahti: "It emerges with not much head, like a traditional Southern English bitter, and has an amberred colour. The flavour is sweetish, with some mint-toffee and banana notes, balanced by a clean, perfumy juniper dryness."

Xingu Black Beer is an attempt to recreate 16th Century brewing techniques from South America.

In the '80s, Anchor Brewery attempted a "Sumerian Beer Project", in which brewers used a recipe from the "Hymn to Ninkasi", @ 1800 BC, to replicate "the first professionally brewed beer"

And an Egyptian Beer Experiment.

Modern Favorites

"What should we drink?" the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
"It's pretty hot," the man said.
"Let's drink beer."
"Dos cervezas," the man said into the curtain.
"Big ones?" a woman asked from the doorway.
"Yes. Two big ones."

Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants.

One of the few societal improvements I have noticed in my lifetime is that there is generally a better, higher-quality range of beer in the grocery stores now (at least in New England). Some current favorites include:

Any Rogue offering, but especially the Shakespeare Stout. Undescribably good. Heavy, with a chocolate aftertaste.

BBC Steel Rail.

John Courage.

People's Pint. Any selection.

Carling. Yes, I know, the favorite pint of hooligans, but still, I spent two weeks in Ireland living on the stuff and came out fine.

Anything from the Brooklyn Brewery.

Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Gunshy's "$4 Pabst" is on Souls.


Bud Ice. Tap water mixed with too much alcohol; good for a cheap high, but really, get some malt liquor if that's where you're headed. When I was in the UK in the late '90s, this swill was on tap in pubs all over the place, for some reason.
Zima. The wine cooler of the beer world.
Heineken. Thankfully has lost its position, held in the 1980s, as a sort of "premium" import beer standard. My thoughts on Heineken reflect Frank Booth's.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Big Joe Turner, Honey Hush.
LaVern Baker, Soul on Fire.
Dixie Doodlers, Best of Friends.
Johnny O'Neal, Ugly Woman.
Rosalind Russell and Edith Adams, Ohio.
Peggy Lee, My Heart Belongs to Daddy.
The Mills Brothers, The Jones Boy.
Duke Ellington, Passion Flower.

In John Cheever's story "The Enormous Radio", a Manhattan couple's new radio begins to pick up conversations of neighbours throughout their apartment building. (What follows? Voyeurism, despair, etc.) So to finish our survey of the year, imagine that your radio (say, the Motorola 53H, pictured above) is able, one night late in 1953, to pick up swathes of music, from across the city and around the country.

It's a chill November night in Sutton Place, so settle in with some martinis to listen in on the world.

First hear some of the year's R&B smashes, from Atlantic Records: Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush" and LaVern Baker's "Soul on Fire." Turner's record, a wild dress rehearsal for the even mightier "Shake Rattle & Roll" of the following year, swings and stomps, while Baker's confession simply demands to be heard. "Honey", recorded in New Orleans on May 12 and issued as Atlantic 1001, can be found on Turner's Very Best, while "Soul", recorded in New York on June 19 and released as Atlantic 1004, is on Soul on Fire.

turn off the waterworks, honey

A twist of the dial and the sound of the South emerges. First, on Nashville's Excello Records, comes the Dixie Doodlers with an odd, clattering track that seems as if it could have been recorded during the Coolidge administration. Released as Excello 2023 and found on the out-of-print Excello Story Vol. 1.

And then, from the depths of Sam Phillips' Sun studios in Memphis, Johnny O'Neal's tasteless, hilarious "Ugly Woman", a song no one but the folks at Sun actually heard in 1953 (the first take was finally released in the 1970s on a Charly record called "Delta Rhythm Kings" ( I think this take is found here); this is the third take, which was issued as part of the now out-of-print Sun Blues box).

Another spin of the dial brings you to Broadway-- in particular, to "Wonderful Town," then playing at the Winter Garden Theatre. "Wonderful Town" remains the quintessential coming-to-New York story--songs like "What a Waste", a litany of failed aspiring artists, should be required listening to any ambitious kid thinking of moving to Brooklyn in search of fame. But "Ohio", while beginning as a lament about escaping New York's miseries, turns into a bitter roasting of provincial life. Edie Adams always cracks me up: "And dating those drips I've known since I'm FOUR!"

Original cast recording, taped on March 8 (a week or so after the show's Broadway premiere), can be found here. The music market was undergoing a changing of the guards in '53, so the soundtrack was available as a collection of 78-rpm discs, as a 45-rpm EP, and, most enduringly, as a 33-rpm LP.

Then for a bit of mainstream pop music, the type of song being played on stations like WOR. Peggy Lee's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", a gleeful gold-digger's anthem written by Cole Porter in 1938, was one of her first hits on Decca, the label that revitalized her career. Recorded on May 1, and released a month later as Decca 28737. On Best of: 1952-1956.

Or the Mills Brothers' "The Jones Boy", a #5 pop hit in late '53. (Warning: the song's endless, jaunty chorus is likely going to get stuck in your head for days). Released as Decca 28945, and found on All Time Greatest Hits.

And at last, before heading off to bed, listen to Duke Ellington wend through Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower," accompanied only by Wendell Marshall on bass and the barely audible Butch Ballard on drums. Ellington rarely recorded solo (or close to it) piano works--this, a quiet, stately exploration of one of Strayhorn's loveliest compositions, is a happy exception. Recorded in Los Angeles on April 13; you can find it on Piano Reflections.

Films of '53

What a glorious year!! The fifties' high-water mark--one of the best years ever for movies.

(The Earrings of) Madame de...

Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story).

I Vitelloni.
Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear).
Ugetsu Monogatari.
Duck Amuck.

All of the above are top-shelf masterpieces. Madame de..., Max Ophuls' greatest film, is pretty much a perfect movie (and yes, no U.S. DVD release yet); Fellini's I Vitelloni created Martin Scorsese; the Ozu and Mizoguchi films are the two men at the peak of their powers; and if you've never seen Clouzot's Wages, well, do so. Duck Amuck, in which Daffy Duck is Job to Bugs Bunny's capricious God, needs no introduction.

Pickup on South Street. In which the Communists are shown to be no more than another brand of thug, a type more brutal and desperate than Richard Widmark's purse-snatcher. The knock-down fight between Jean Peters and Richard Kiley is unbelievably vicious.
The Naked Spur. There are two great cycles of Westerns in the '50s--the Budd Boetticher films, starring Randolph Scott, and the Anthony Mann movies with Jimmy Stewart. Of the latter, this is probably the best.
Le Carosse d'Or (The Golden Coach). The start of Renoir's late period--a weirdly artificial, beautiful gemstone.

The Hitch-Hiker.
The Band Wagon
The Big Heat.
The War of the Worlds.
Les Vacances de M. Hulot (M. Hulot's Holiday).
Eaux d'Artifice.

That's it for '53. For the rest of the year, "Locust St" will be taking another thematic break and will dedicate itself to drinking, with a little help from some friends. Fun starts either next Monday or Tuesday.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


"Little Maxie" Bailey, Drive Soldiers Drive.

On July 27, 1953, the Korean War finally ended, essentially in a truce. Here are the memories of one Australian soldier, serving during the last days of the war.

"To a man, we all believed we were destined to die that night, and we were hell bent on taking the enemy with us. A strange thing happened at that time. Despite the danger of the moment, it seemed to occur to all of us at once, that we might die with a man and not know his name. We all made sure that we learnt each unknown man's name."

This was less than a week before the cease-fire.

In the same month, in Nashville, an R&B singer forgotten by history released a song that on the surface sounded like a stomping recruitment anthem--drumming up men into service for a bloody war that had long fallen into stalemate, and was weeks away from ending:

"President Ike is a mighty man
He called for the whites and the browns and tans
Come on boys and follow me
We're gonna end this war in Ole Koree"

But for me, there's no mistaking the imp in Bailey's voice, as he goes on about how "Uncle Sam is your financial backer", and delirously assuring his prospective GIs that Ike can still somehow magically win the war, and so fast, that there won't be any gas rationing. The chorus, exhorting its prospective soldiers to drive on, is also sending them on to their deaths.

"Little Maxie" Bailey is pretty much an unknown--after releasing two singles for Nashville's Excello Records in '53, he vanishes completely. "Drive Soldiers Drive" was issued in July (c/w "My Baby's Blues") as Excello 2016 and was a minor R&B hit that year. You can find it on The Excello Story Vol. 1, which unfortunately appears to be going out of print.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


The "5" Royales, Baby Don't Do It.
The "5" Royales, Laundromat Blues.
The "5" Royales, All Righty!
The "5" Royales, I Like It Like That.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the greatest rock & roll group of the 1950s--the "5" Royales. Known today, if at all, for providing the original versions of the Shirelles' "Dedicated to the One I Love" and James Brown's "Think", the Royales were visionaries and jokers, crafting a form of gospel-infused, soul-fired rock music that was years ahead of its time (perhaps it still is).

The Royales came from tobacco country--Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Lowman Pauling and Johnny Tanner began performing gospel together by the time they were in their early teens, and by 1943 they had joined a professional group, the Royal Sons, of which Pauling's brother Clarence was a member. By the end of the '40s, the Royal Sons were established as a popular regional gospel group.

Yet the lure of the secular world pulled at them. First Clarence Pauling bailed, heading up to Detroit to ultimately wind up with Berry Gordy, producing singles like Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike." And when the group signed with Apollo Records in 1951 (having changed their name to the 5 Royales), Apollo approached the group with a proposition--they were gospel singers, sure, but there was some money in making pop songs, and Apollo asked if the group would be interested. It didn't take much persusasion...

The core Royales lineup was Lowman Pauling (who played guitar and composed most of the group's songs), Tanner (generally the lead tenor vocalist), Obadiah "Scoop" Carter, Jimmy Moore (who could do falsetto), Johnny Holmes and Otto Jeffries. After Jeffries left the group, he was replaced by Tanner's brother Eugene.

So the "5" Royales were actually six. Ed Ward: "The '5' was written as it was to show that the group could, in fact, count."

Where to start? Why not with the group's first major hit, the epochal "Baby Don't Do It", released as Apollo 443 at the tail end of 1952 and a #1 R&B hit by early 1953. Apollo, convinced they had some hitmakers on their hands, hired a band to back the Royales--an all-girl orchestra headed by a character named Charlie "Jazz" Ferguson. If the couplet "If you leave me pretty baby/I'll have bread without no meat" isn't enough, enjoy Johnny Tanner's lead vocal, backed by the group's elaborate harmonies; or the stop-time bridge that leads to a wild chorus designed to drive a crowd into a frenzy.

The Royales' next single, "Help Me Somebody"/"Crazy Crazy Crazy", was more along the lines of standard R&B, but the B-side of the follow-up, "Laundromat Blues", released in July 1953 as Apollo 448, was filthy and crazy. Whether it's the spectacle of a gospel group providing truly nasty, moaning backing vocals, or Pauling using a coin-operated washing machine as a metaphor for his lover's prowess, the whole thing is pretty amazing.

"All Righty!", released in October 1953 as Apollo 449, was a showcase for the group's increasingly sharp and sophisticated harmonies--even Charlie "Jazz" Ferguson gets a little wild on his tenor sax solo. "I Like it Like That", recorded on Dec. 16, 1953 but released in April 1954, is another variation on the theme--amazing, at-times hilarious vocals; a loopy, sloppy sax solo.

It was just the beginning. By the end of 1953, the Royales were planning to leave Apollo for King Records--their greatest successes were yet to come.

The best place to find all these singles is on a lamentedly out-of-print compilation, Monkey Hips and Rice, a 2-CD set issued by Rhino in 1994, featuring invaluable liner notes by Ed Ward, but most can be found on The Apollo Sessions.

Top couple: Henry Moore's King and Queen.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Webb Pierce, It's Been So Long.
Webb Pierce, Slowly.

Webb Pierce
was the humble, flamboyant face of country music in the '50s, perhaps the last of the line of country standard-bearers, certainly one of the last to be unaffected by rock & roll. He possessed the sort of classic high, nasal voice that by '53 was going out of fashion with the smoother, professional Nashville sound, instead becoming confined to traditional bluegrass. Over the years, Pierce has often fallen out of style--he can be a bit corny, he dressed like Liberace's Louisiana cousin and his ostentatious ways--guitar-shaped swimming pools, silver-dollar-studded Pontiacs--earned him disdain from purists and neighbours alike. (Ray Stevens, one such neighbour, went to court in the '60s to stop tourists from flocking around one of Webb's guitar-shaped pools.)

From his peak, here is Pierce's "It's Been So Long," in which Webb baldly nicks the melody of Ted Daffan's "I've Got Five Dollars and It's Saturday Night" (listen to a sample of George Jones' and Gene Pitney's version of "Five Dollars" here) to make a fine up-tempo track, while "Slowly" features both an exquisite vocal by Pierce and Bud Isaacs' then-radical use of a pedal to quickly change tones on his steel guitar. (Gram Parsons' pedal steel player Neil Flanz flipped when he first heard it).

"It's Been So Long" was recorded on March 25, 1953, in Nashville, and released as Decca 28834 (c/w "I'm Walking the Dog"); "Slowly", which Pierce co-wrote with Tommy Hill, was recorded on November 29 and released as Decca 28991. Find both on King of the Honky-Tonk.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Jimmy Reed, You Don't Have to Go.

Jimmy Reed was another journeyman blues musician who at last found an audience in the '50s. Born in Dunleith, Mississippi in 1925, Reed served in the Navy for two years during the war and then, like many of his generation, moved north in search of work, winding up in a meat-packing plant in Gary, Indiana, killing 240 hogs an hour.

There he met up with a boyhood friend, Eddie Taylor, who had taught him the guitar, and the two began performing. When Vivian Carter and Jimmy Bracken announced they were forming a new record label, Vee-Jay, Reed (along with the Spaniels) was the first act they signed.

"You Don't Have to Go", recorded in the waning days of 1953, features Reed's searing harmonica work, a droning, insistent rhythm crafted by the bass strings of Taylor's guitar (with no bassist and a drummer who seems to drift in and out of the recording, Taylor becomes the song's spine and muscle), and Reed's passionate, barely articulate vocal. Cub Koda: "This track's got such an odd sense of meter that it seems to take Jimmy about an hour to get all the way through one single chorus."

Recorded on December 30, 1953 in Chicago, with John Littlejohn also on guitar and Albert King on drums; released along with "Boogie in the Dark" as Vee-Jay 119 to become Reed's first major hit, as well as the song that established Vee-Jay (ten years later, Vee-Jay would be one of the first U.S. labels to take a chance on the Beatles). On the Very Best.