Beer Mystic Burp #14: Beer = Food = Books

Apparently I said “In NY the louder and crazier you sound, the more attention you seem to get,” and this was quoted in the Sunday Boston Globe about our Cambridge gig. Luckily they used a photo of Judy Nylon and not me.

We’re [Jordan Zinovich, Judy Nylon, Jill Rapaport, me and Nina, I think] headed northeast out of NYC toward Cambridge, shoulder-to-shoulder in a Japanese compact, dodging potholes the size of kiddy pools. It’s the mid-90s and spoken word is out-hyping cigars, Hush Puppies, melodic noise bands with hair, and retro bad-is-good re-appropriations as the thing for the idle to wrap their egos around. A Gap ad by early Unbearable Max Blagg, a major article in Time, one in The Face, national TV coverage, a full-page profile of the Unbearables in the Daily News had upped the anty and lowered my threshold of tolerance for stand-up poetry. You suddenly overheard people who had never suffered a day in their lives [which is probably a kind of suffering after all] in bars declaring that they were now “doing spoken word. I’ll be reading at Sinead and No Bar …” Like a makeover or diet or health club regimen or pedicure… The differences between these endeavors was slight and could barely be measured using a skin conductance biosensor to gauge galvanic skin response [i.e., sweat levels].

A few weeks earlier they were still bragging about their NA attendance or enslavement to a certain brand of frozen yogurt or a speed-knitting circle or Korean sushi-making workshops … You crack a side window and the stale smell of flatulence soon departs. That is a law of nature.

As soon as you’re above the Bronx you feel the rubber bands holding your puppet anatomy together begin to slacken. Your initial urban fears of what if you go too slack like Turkish Taffy left out in the sun soon give way to a breath of fresh air that feels like breathing room for your thoughts. Really. I’m not crazy. I think Jordan was driving. He had read way too much – or was it just enough? – Neal Cassady and liked dodging debris, potholes and pedestrians in a daze.

We had, over time and many readings, converted our word addictions into something high and mighty, moral and right – the word will smite all mendacity and idiocy… And each word will be worth $.10. I mean that’s what we were good at, making words alter our reality if ever so slightly for a few seconds even if payment was usually a feeble discount on the venue’s overpriced beers.

We were riffing on the value and utility of books and readings, defining our mission as wordy rapping hood evangelicals. Although, if pressed, we, the Unbearables©® or self-styled “literary interventionists” [Jim Feast], couldn’t really say what it was we were trying to tell people: Words are naughty fun? Will annoy, provoke or set you free? Buy our books?

Enlightenment can materialize in very unlikely venues. Halfway to Cambridge we spotted the sign FOOD and BOOKS. We took a quick ramp off the eastbound I-84 at exit 74, pulled into the Traveler Restaurant lot in Union, Connecticut [pop. 700], an obscure roadside corner of eccentricity, it turns out, in the middle of a grand homogenized nowhere [not like some of the nowheres with their pretensions of being somewhere significant].

The signs in the restaurant say: THESE BOOKS ARE NOT JUST FOR DECORATION THEY’RE HERE FOR YOU TO TAKE HOME!!!! RIGHT NOW EVERYONE IS WELCOME TO TAKE HOME 3 BOOKS… FREE… HAPPY HUNTING…

So while you wait for your meal you wander through this informal, family restaurant full of clutter, crazy wall paneling lined with makeshift shelves of pawed-over books falling, leaning and stacked in no known order, mayhem and chatter, framed photos of famous authors like Dr. Seuss, looking for your 3 free [left behind] books that are included in the price of every LARGE plate of diner food: fish sticks, tomato soup made with low-fat milk, open-faced meat sandwiches, clam chowder, pumpkin or blueberry pie a la mode, the kind of roadside food Kerouac used to rhapsodize about.

Most of the books on the shelves were of the fat tree-in-every-copy, 600-page variety with their embossed covers with scimitars, cherubs, renderings of Fabio-like men bare-chested on a white steed, with their raised lettering, promising rueful romances set in Atlantis, El Dorado, Camelot, Avalon or Elmira, read by women who’ve opted for weird mid-life hair dye colors that declare utter, desperate availability. We did manage to find some oddities: a 1940s medical book full of debunked theories about electroshock therapy, another on tapping maple trees, a novel told from the viewpoint of a shoe, recipes made with corn flakes, touring fish hatcheries around the world, and a romance novel where the women faint, wearing corsets made of a magical fabric that turns them into their dreams but is actually set in LA, circa 1982.

Two hours later we’re back on the road, driving through the rampant sprawl where you sense there were once great forests of tall trees that had been confiscated in dubious manners from the natives but now all is scarred, bald land as a price we pay for progress. We’re [you’re] in the backseat not even really wondering [are you?] and only vaguely acting like you’re interested in whether you are going anywhere. Our “astute” book choices highlighting our character better than the handwriting on the wall. We begin reading passages from our finds with gusto: “Primitive races assumed that the soul actually departed via the lips” [How Did It Begin?]. But eventually we all fall silent with our 3 books on our laps, staring out of our own windows, not caring [that’s precisely its effect] that the landscape is a scar of careless ennui. Free as these books had been, some among us may have realized how easily they can turn on us, declaring in their own way that, from one day to the next, we could become as obsolete, remaindered, and discarded as they already were – like that…

Enlightenment strikes twice: In our case, the legendary Cambridge, Mass. rock club with the unfortunate name TT the Bear’s Place [a kind of CBGB’s]. Paramour Magazine‘s Amelia Copeland had arranged this gig and we were honored. But how would we hit it off performing with trans-whatever post-Dolls meets crunchy garage lounge bands like Lars Vegas, Seks Bomba, and white trash rappers Double Dong? We held our own although who was listening?

I think we drank whatever T.T.’s served us whenever we said “Beer please.” Or was it Sam Adams? Our enthusiasm for the task of obliterating the terror of thinking that all these words during readings, no matter how perfectly ordered and precisely arranged like Pythagoras’s harmony of the spheres, may actually betray us or be even more easily ignored by bystanders, forgotten or not even listened to, not even attaining the distinction of being worth forgetting. You spend most readings getting psyched, gearing up to forget, drinking to steel your nerves, wrapping your soul in a kind of liquid oblivion in preparation for hecklers or hurled projectiles. Strange, however, that we voluntarily chose to participate in these discomfiting rituals and stranger yet: these events sometimes actually had some pleasant side effects, but this usually required attaining an intermediate limbo state somewhere between stone cold sober and embalmed lush.

I remember a gal dressed for Rocky Horror who’d had a few, twirling like a Sufi interspersed with conniption hiphop moves as I read [did my prose really have some hiphop goin’ on?] with the sound man every few minutes announcing precisely how much time I had left, while others politely applauded like they do at golf tournaments or after Rotary Club speeches. Were we even listening to each other? Did we really want to recognize how good each one of us was as a writer? Also reading that night were the estimable Joe Maynard, Michael Carter, David Polonoff, Michael Kasper, Jill RapaportJordan Zinovich,  and Judy Nylon.

Afterwards, we all gathered around the Autonomedia books and zines table womaned by Nina. The table was doing briskly heartening business. Better than we were, although, a local stripper-poetess [self-described but I could imagine], hugging her copy of Wiggling Wishbone, did softly breathe into my ear: “Thanks for having an edge.” Her breath piqued with the scent of radish and rutabaga like some Old World soul. The fantastically handy nature of naiveté coupled with vanity allows my mind for the rest of the night to feed off of this one offhand compliment as casual as a sliver of fingernail bitten off and spit into the urinal.

This then was the survival strategy of beer and books: readings for audience and reader alike has always implied a ready supply of the plying stuff to wash down those dry, brittle words without a squeak. A reading without a beer was like leaping out of the trenches without a bayonet or engaging in coitus without a French Tickler.

On my long torturous journey that is truly not worth recalling in placing the Beer Mystic in a series of host sites that would wrap around the world to create a literary pub crawl I often thought of this Beer and Books idea, this complementary fusion of essential life elements. And in the fine tradition of famed &-appellations like Sonny & Cher, Smith & Wesson, ying & yang, bacon & eggs, black & tan, rock & roll, Bert & Ernie, S & M, Food & Books, there’s also Brews & Books, a site dedicated to the marriage of the 2, which seems a natural although you seldom see people reading in a bar.

Josh Christie: Is a young Maine bookseller, avid blog-geek, book fanatic, amateur brewer who hosts beer tastings, is a Maine Beer Writers’ Guild member, photographer, writes the Hop Press blog and manages Brews And Books.

bp: What made you create the Brews & Books site with the motto:  Read Great Books / Drink Great Beer?

JC: A couple things. Mainly, I just wanted a creative outlet to talk about beer and books. I’d been using Twitter and commenting on other folks’ blogs for a few months before I started my blog, and wanted a place to write in one place without a limit on the number of characters I could use. Otherwise, I wanted to improve my ability to talk about beer and books in a critical and intelligent way. I hadn’t done any real writing since college, and it seemed like a good way to learn and improve rather than let those writing muscles atrophy.

bp: What’s the relation between beer and books for you?

JC: As I write in the intro to my site, Brews and Books  is written for everyone that loves a good book in one hand and a good beer in the other. I’m not sure what the connection is, but I know it’s there. There’s plenty of people in the beer world that are literature nuts or otherwise obsessed with books. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, for example, was an English major, and the owners of Cisco Brewing on Nantucket also own the island’s bookstore. As I’m sure you’re aware as the Beer Mystic, there’s examples of libation-obsessed authors all over the book world. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, even Thompson. Maybe the link is that, at the end of the day, good authors and good brewers put a certain amount of artistry into their products, and we appreciate that in the same way as consumers.

bp: Bukowski used to get lucid with a bathtub of beer on stage. Chandler [‘”Alcohol is like love.”], Dorothy Parker, Berryman, Dylan Thomas … How do books and beer relate for you? Did it happen in college or elsewhere? to me the 2 create a kind of alternative universe… when you have books, it’s pretty straight and straight forward, when you have brew, you have all of the craft beer nerd / junkies vying to become consumer pundits. but when you have books plus beer you get something entirely new and different – you get something many aren’t bargaining for like inspiration, like moving beyond the page, beyond the glass into some new convivial hanging out phase that means ideas, dreams, plots get discussed…

JC: Well, while you mention that books are pretty straight and straightforward, I think the truth is a little blurrier than that. Just as you’ve got the Cantillon-loving, Budweiser-despising beer geek crowd, there’s plenty of book geeks that will go nuts for Murakami and turn their noses up at Nicholas Sparks. For me – and, trust me, I’m aware that this will sound cheesy – books and beer relate to me because they are amazing, transporting, and potentially life-changing things. The right beer will remind me of a different time in my life, a girlfriend, a place I lived. Similarly, a really good beer can help cement memories in my head. A book can subvert your view of the world, and memories will be evocative of those “a-ha” moments in the same way. Though the love for (good) beer definitely started in college, the love for books goes back to reading under the covers with a flashlight when I was a tyke.

bp: Great beers may have a narrative of flavor all their own but I still prefer subtle libation – beers that don’t announce themselves overbearingly – you know, like the annoying loud drunk who wants to butt into your conversation with his witty repartee. I don’t want to be unduly distracted from the main event which is conversation. Sure, let’s talk about the beer’s qualities and its character but let us not be diverted from our human interaction. So great beers are those that are not filled with a lot of overkill, presumption and fanfare. Do you think reading and drinking go well together?

JC: Good beer and good books are two of my favorite things, so I certainly love the idea of combining the two. And, as you said, alcohol can lubricate creativity and facilitate conversation, and beer is a very communal, conversational drink. I think the inverse is a bit trickier, though I’m certain I’ve been more receptive and obsessive of some books I’ve read while having a pint or two. There’s a handful of bookstores and libraries around the world with beer bars (rather than coffee bars), and I think they’d be the first to tell you that, yes, reading and drinking definitely go together!

bp: Can you name a few? I seem to remember the Globe Bookstore in Prague having books and beer in the early 1990s… There’s the Library Bistro in Seattle…

JC: See my Book Bars! Beery Bookstores!

bp:  You’re in Maine. Are there any good beers up there?

JC: Heck yes! Maine has over 20 craft breweries, and they brew styles from British (Shipyard, Geary’s, Gritty’s) to Belgian (Allagash, Oxbow) to the traditional and extreme threads of American brewing (Baxter, Marshall Wharf, Sebago). We’d have enough variety with just Maine beer for the rest of our lives, but Maine also has great distributors who bring in beer from around the US and the world.

bp: We hope to go up there next summer to visit friends who own the renovated Birchwood Motel in Camden. Might be a good occasion to try some of these.  Is there an underground that sees what you are getting at with brews and books?

JC: Certainly. As I mentioned, there is some serious crossover between the worlds of beer and books. I get loads of comments from beer lovers who stumble onto the site about what a great combo it is because they love reading, too. Same from book lovers. It’s probably even how we got in touch with each other!

bp: I know somewhere in here there is an audience for BEER MYSTIC. I’ve for years been talking with the editor of Smoke Signals about printing out laminated copies of the novel to be attached to the bar of special handpicked bars like Rudy’s in NYC so that imbibers can read parts while they’re drinking. Still thinking about some updated version of this idea [iPad / kindle or some app or some link left at bars so people can read it on their smart phones].  I notice there are thousands of people profiling themselves on blogs, facebook and twitter as beer experts. mostly come from either the totally gonzo end or from the consumer/expert/critic end – they provide a service… how do you fit into this?

JC: Ugh, “expert” is a very tricky term. In the most recent issue of All About Beer magazine, Fred Exkhardt writes that an expert “learns more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing.” I prefer the term he settled on for himself – enthusiast. That goes for both books and beer. I don’t have a cicerone certification or an English degree. I just know what I like, I enjoy enthusing about it, and I want to turn others on to my favorite reads and drinks.

bp: Great Exkhardt quote. So true what you say. I notice that bars with interesting beers but not too self-consciously obscure are often a lot friendlier – there is some conviviality that is probably based on the surprise of great new beers recommended by patrons or bartenders and the general atmosphere is one of casual interaction based on the intriguing nature of the beer selection. This is a far cry from years ago when bars could be deathly with them serving up swill with no attachment or sentiment or enthusiasm… A beer should only be as good as the drinker. If too overwhelming it greedily draws too much attention to itself.

Read Beer Mystic excerpt hosted @ Brews & Books.