Friday, August 31, 2007

Grieving the Beer Hunter's passing: Michael Jackson, the Red Room and Louisville.

Michael Jackson unexpectedly visited Rich O’s Public House in November, 1994, a tad more than two years after it first opened, and if I hadn’t been drinking much of the same day as an obviously weary Beer Hunter made pre-arranged appearances at Bluegrass Brewing Company and the now defunct Silo, I surely would have been too nervous to properly function in the role of host.

I’ll never know why he consented to accompany twenty-plus awed, fledgling and inebriated beer enthusiasts on yet another beer journey, this one at 9:00 p.m. after a long day’s work, from Louisville, Kentucky, across the Ohio River, to an embarrassingly unfinished space in a strip mall that, at the time, could offer only three beers on tap.

Moreover, knowing that most of our regular pub customers would be with us that day following Jackson around Louisville, we’d closed the pub tight, and with the motorcade from the Silo approaching, came dashing inside to turn on the lights, sweep up and make the barroom look somewhat presentable. Once seated, and following hours of one-ounce samples and a furious scribbling of notes, Jackson ordered a full 20-oz Imperial pint of Sierra Nevada Porter, and when he left an hour and a half later, wryly observed, “"I've been to many pubs in America, and I've never seen one quite like this."

It took a while, but eventually I understood what he meant.


It is impossible to overstate the influence that Michael Jackson had on thousands upon thousands of beer drinkers, who found in his elegant and precise prose a purposeful rationale for their pursuit of the perfect pint.

I'm prime among them.

Analogies with other cultural pursuits are difficult and fleeting, but they're most apt when made in literature, with the temptation being to describe Jackson as comparable to William Shakespeare in terms of reach and pervasiveness.

To me, far more flattering is the positing of Jackson as the beer world’s successor to the 18th-century English essayist Samuel Johnson. After all, Johnson established an expository norm for non-fiction and wrote a dictionary of the English language, and a century and a half later, Jackson synthesized Johnson’s style and words to write the language and vocabulary of beer.

We’ll be speaking and writing the fruits of Johnson’s and Jackson’s life work for quite some time to come.

As Lew Bryson perceptively notes in an appreciation elsewhere, it is Jackson's association of beer with place that survives as the finest representation of the beer writer's particular genius. 20th-century industrial complexes may have stolen beer from its traditional point of localized orientation, but Jackson stole it back, first a little, and then a lot.

He generally refrained from writing about technical brewing details, possessing instead a superhuman ability to filter hyperbole of the sort favored by marketers, and viscerally connect beer to its own "terroir" in terms of physical geography, human culture and social conditions. Jackson did so factually, wittily, often majestically, and always with supreme lyricism.

He was a damned fine writer, and the father of us all.


Five years after the nocturnal November visit, I found myself at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, a few samples under my belt, standing somewhere on the mezzanine, leaning against a vacant table and chatting with the beer writer and editor Stan Hieronymus. After a few minutes, Stan asked me if I had brought a book to be signed. With my face registering obvious cluelessness, Stan motioned behind me – and there was Michael Jackson, settling in for another afternoon with his reading public.

Surprisingly, I was at the head of a gradually lengthening line of people forming behind me, and entirely without a Michael Jackson book for autographing, but I had a GABF program tucked under my arm, and it was duly presented to Jackson as I reintroduced myself and asked if he remembered the late evening at Rich O’s.

Jackson smiled and said yes, and then added that the FOSSILS newsletters we had since been mailing to him in London were entertaining. “You’re quite the polemicist,” said Jackson.

You’d better believe I was blushing, but before there was much time to consider a coherent response, Jackson pushed away the program and said, “Have I told you why your Red Room made such an impression on me?”

No, he had not, and this remark seemed odd at the time it was offered. In 1994, the Red Room had only just come into being. Then, as now, it is a small seating area at the pub, with one wall painted red and a massive three-part Soviet-era poster of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on the wall, since augmented with other examples of Communist paraphernalia.

It surprised me that Jackson even noticed the Red Room during his brief visit, and of course there had been no other times when he might have explained what it meant to him, so I answered as directly as I could.


Jackson promptly put down his pen and began telling the story.

It began in 1945 with his earliest childhood memory at the age of three: The long delayed, post-war British election campaign that ended in sweeping victory for Labor and the fall of Winston Churchill. Jackson’s father, whom he referred to as the family’s political agitator, was working one important day, so his mother – normally apolitical – took young Michael to a gala rally for their constituency’s Labor candidate, who in fact was red-letter Socialist (unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the politician’s his name).

Jackson said that he never forgot the rally’s numerous red buntings and campaign banners, and a week later, the Socialist/Labor candidate handily won the seat and began a long and distinguished career in Parliament, so long in fact that after the adult Jackson graduated from university and embarked upon his own career in journalism in the mid-1960s, the very same politician was still holding the seat won in 1945. Jackson was assigned by his newspaper to interview the aging MP.

During the interview, Jackson learned that the politician had actually lived in American prior to the second war, and had worked for …

“The leftist Louisville newspaper,” Jackson said, “what is the name of your leftist Louisville newspaper?”

By now I was kneeling, and starting to become uncomfortably cognizant of perhaps 75 people queued behind me, and what’s more, I was unable to think of any newspaper in Louisville that would fit the description offered by Jackson, who tried his best to joggle my memory.

“The newspaper’s owners were wealthy liberals,” he said, “and they’ve since sold the paper to a media company.”

I blurted, “The Binghams? The Courier-Journal?” and Jackson almost came up out of his chair.

“Yes! The Courier-Journal, and the Binghams – that’s it. That’s where he worked.”

As it transpired, the member of parliament – the man whose campaign rally had been burned into Jackson’s memory by virtue of the color red, who had worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal, and who had spoken of Louisville when interviewed by Jackson so many years before – was the cognitive impetus for Jackson’s reaction when he walked into our pub in 1994.

Finally, it all made sense: Red Room, geography, colors, politics and beer, all combining to make more than a few other beer lovers impatiently wait their turn while the dots were meticulously connected for me by the world’s greatest beer writer. It is something that I’ll remember until the day that I join Jackson at the celestial tap room's bar, when I’ll ask him the one question that most needs answering:

What was the journalist/politician’s name?

I briefly spoke with Jackson a third time at another GABF, and then a fourth at a British ale tasting in Indianapolis in 2001, and that was all. Now he’s dead, and the return visit to Rich O’s that I always thought would be made some day isn’t to be.

To remember Michael Jackson, I can do no better than appropriate Edwin Stanton’s words at the passing of Abraham Lincoln: Now he belongs to the ages.

He was, indeed, the father of us all.


MrG said...

A wonderful story and personal tribute. Thanks.

Do you have info about what originally inspired Jackson's interest in good beer?

All4Word said...

I think I can give you the answer well before you reach the celestial bar rail.

Konni Zilliacus was elected MP from Gateshead in 1945 and served until 1949, when he was expelled from the Labour Party after voting against joining NATO. In 1955, he regained the seat and served until 1967.

That fits the math - Jackson would have been about 25 when Zilliacus left Parliament.

He was born in Japan to Finnish-Swedish parents and was an avid supporter of the League of Nations and then later, of nuclear disarmament.

He was an archetype of the anomymous blogger or pamphleteer, writing under the Vigilantes. His flirtations with Soviet-style communism came to an end when he favored Tito over Stalin. He also got in trouble at home for writing in a Czech publication. I suppose he enjoyed Budvar!

What a wonderful story about your second meeting with Mr. Jackson.

antzman said...

Excellent prose Roger. A very well written piece about your times with Mr. Jackson.