Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: The Jackson I miss the most.

The idea is to stay disciplined by continuing to write Wednesday columns here at the blog, but to try posting one each week instead of every other week (as was the case for the late Mug Shots in LEO).


Last week (June 25) marked the passage of a year since the American entertainer Michael Jackson died.

In two months, it will have been three years since the death of Michael Jackson, the British beer writer.

Although ever willing to concede that it’s a chronologically relative kind of thing, I never once bought into the “King of Pop” tag for Jackson the singer. Maybe Hoboken’s Frank Sinatra, or Hound Dog Elvis Presley fits the bill, but not the Moonwalker.

Conversely, a highly convincing case can be made that Michael Jackson the Yorkshireman fully deserves the title “King of Beer,” and in a far more plausible way than A-B InBev’s classically insipid American Lager ever will be able to claim.

From their respective vantage points in music and writing, both Jacksons brilliantly synthesized artistic and stylistic themes that preceded them, but of the two, only the beer writer can be said to have annotated, denoted and connoted his source material into what amounts to a living language of beer, one that aficionados speak every single day of their beer drinking lives.

Pop music certainly is enriched by the canon handed down by Michael Jackson, and yet its everyday vocabulary is not referential to his body of work. The language of beer surely does pass directly through Michael Jackson. Even the swill merchants speak in his voice with their “triple hopped” this and “bock” that.

Yes, it is true that Jackson the beer writer did not create this vocational tongue from the ether, in the sense that a musician like the other Michael conjured melodies and choreographed dance steps, and yet our beer man clearly was the first to systematically consider beer styles, to explain them, and to show how aspects of the brewing process, historical practice, geography, chemistry and myriad other human experiences pertained to them, demonstrating in the process that our enjoyment of the genre is enhanced immeasurably by greater knowledge and linguistic “beer speak” aptitude.

What’s more, our Jackson performed this feat in an entertainingly and enduringly readable way, neither dumbing down nor assuming the role of lofty pedant. He far exceeded the journalist’s basic mandate to clarify and explain, because he was an erudite prose stylist in addition to his skills as reporter. He told wonderful stories while never forgetting the newspaperman’s facts-first orientation. I persist in believing that Jackson is best compared to figures like Samuel Johnson and other great essayists in the English past.

Some beer writers working today have equaled Jackson. None have surpassed him. Meanwhile, time marches forward, and matters like these fill my mind during those times when I toy with melancholia. I’d caution you that a changing of the guard is under way, except that it is likely to have already occurred.

I note merely that many of the same socio-economic, technological and cultural reasons why there’ll never again be recorded music “album” sales in the multi-million range of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” also preclude the emergence of another beer writer of Michael Jackson’s caliber and far-reaching influence.

There remains much wonderful music to enjoy, and there exists prolific writing about beer, with reams of both available on-line. Just as musical choice has proliferated far beyond what a relative handful of corporations formerly permitted us to hear, so has beer writing expanded in all directions, documenting the expanding choices, and encapsulating the Internet-driven democratic ethos that we’re all experts, even if some (most?) are slightly less expert than others.

My personal annoyance is that so very little of what is written nowadays about beer so much as touches the writer Michael Jackson’s elegant classicism. What annoys me even further is that this absence seems not to bother others in quite the same way that it disturbs me. Changing times, indeed.

Plainly, beer appreciation in its modern interpretation has been with us for long enough to pass across one and maybe two generational lines, and differing ways of conceptualizing and processing information on the part of succeeding generations are not confined to popular tastes in art or music. Shift happens in beer, too.

It already has, and even as we celebrate the growth of beer consciousness, there is acute awareness that the social shifts prefacing the decline of the compact disc and the newspaper inevitably must have an impact on what we do, too.

In short, with all the facts at our fingertips, are missing the crucial back story, essential history? More folks than ever know their beer styles – do they grasp the intrinsic stylishness of those styles? Had Jackson himself come to maturity during our present age, would there would be a medium to serve his talents?

I have no answers, no solutions, and I cannot rule out that I’m completely wrong in all of this. The simple fact is that I miss Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson -- alive, working and drinking in our world. As should be obvious, he was an enormous formative influence on my career in beer, which always was as much about storytelling and writing as understanding enzymes and identifying precise hop types.

But that’s for another day. Get a good beer, and one of Jackson’s books, and see what I mean.

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