Saturday, November 14, 2009

A history of countries and beer, part 1

Nobody is entirely sure when beer was invented. In all likelihood, several thousand years ago, some grains probably got saturated by water and accidentally left to stew for a week or so. A caveman or a farmer or the dweller of a shanty town then tried this concoction and, shortly after ingestion, noticed that he felt pretty good, and suddenly wasn't so damn worried about everything. Reproductions of the experiment yielded the same results. Suddenly, we had societies full of hunters, gatherers, and, of course, brewers.

And so it went for thousands of years. Different flavors and styles were invented, but it was always the same general idea. Add water to grains, and wait. In a few weeks, some magic (actually, it was naturally occurring yeast, but the original name for yeast was "Godisgood". This is not a joke) made the mixture into beer. But the basic process was always the same.

That is, until 1845. In a region near Plzen, Germany, a farmer inadvertently left his beer fermenting in a cool, underground cave rather than in the farmhouse, which was the custom of the time. When he went to sample his beer, he discovered that he accidentally came up with a new style. This style was colder, more crisp, and more refreshing than the thicker ales that were customary. Naming the beer "Pilsner" after his home region, the beer quickly took off in popularity.

To properly envision the storm of unchecked popularity that the pilsner enjoyed, imagine this: What if, in the 1960's, when the Beatles rose to popularity, every form of music besides The Beatles was destroyed. This is what happened in Germany. The pilsner was so wildly popular that regions abandoned centuries-old styles in order to brew up the cold, refreshing beer. If you were German after 1845 you would be brewing up a pilsner. All you needed were some nice, cool caves to mix up a batch. The good news was that Germany had plenty of caves like this to go around. The bad news: in just three years, in 1848, the country was embroiled in a bitter civil war.

German idealists, fed up with their country, left in droves, seeking a new, better life. Some went to Canada, but around 6 million came to the United States. They brought their national principles and culture, including their brewing techniques and their zeal for the pilsner. All they needed were the right grains, and some nice, cool caves for the beer to rest in.

Exactly the kind of caves you can find underneath St. Louis, Missouri.

This made it the perfect location for a pilsner brewer, like Eberhard Anheuser to set up shop in 1852.

TOMORROW: PART 2

Population 3,147

The first few days on the road are glorious. Those days play out exactly as you would imagine. You sleep a fitful sleep, plagued not with the thoughts of a directionless day job awaiting you on the other side. Rather, this is a peaceful, restorative sleep, the likes of which usually only happen on a Friday evening, when only the impending sense of a languid Saturday lulls you into a deep rest.

In the morning, you awaken, confused for just a moment about what city you're in, where you are, and which friends you're about to share breakfast with. Through years of training, your brain naturally prompts you to roll over and get another 15 minutes of sleep. Then, suddenly, you remember that there are adventures to be had.

You bound out of bed and take a few moments to thank your friends for hosting you for the night. After a quick shower and breakfast, you head straight for the front door, eager to see what happens next.

On those original days, as soon as you walk out of the front door, you have a soft, emotional outburst. The second the sun hits your eyes, the full weight of realization hits you: today, there is nothing but freedom. There are no responsibilities besides the adventures of a man with nothing to accomplish. On those first days, when you meet the sun, your knees get weak and threaten to collapse, and you laugh. Nothing is funny. But you laugh all the same. It is not a deep, cathartic guffaw at something humorous. No. It's just...just a laugh. An expulsion of some weakly overjoyed...some free emotion.

Composing yourself, you get into your car, affix your sunglasses, and open your sun roof. Turn the ignition. Roll down the window. Set your left arm on the sill. Double check your directions.

Go.

-----

Something happens after the first nine days. Or, maybe it begins to happen before the ninth day, but that ninth day is when this creature rears it's head in it's most noticeable visage: Fatigue. There won't be any symptoms until the evening time, after a rich day's worth of story-gathering. But then, out of nowhere, you're just tired. But you push through, because everyone would kill for this opportunity. So you shake it off, and keep pushing on.

But each day grows a little worse. You become tired earlier and earlier in the day. You promised yourself that you wouldn't overdo caffeine anymore, but you don't have much of a choice. The cups of coffee become larger and more frequent. Each dose brings temporary relief, at the expense of your poor nervous system.

Then, after thirteen days, in Nashville, Illinois, it finally takes you down.

-----

This happened to me. I woke up on November 12th, 2009, after getting a hotel room one hour east of St. Louis. I had planned on visiting St. Louis and Springfield, Illinois that day, but my body -my mind- had different plans. I woke up and had to think for a couple of minutes about what day it was, and how long I had been driving the evening before (it was about five hours, more or less). Rolling out of bed, without showering, my legs carried the dead weight of the rest of my body to the truck stop next door. I ordered eggs and a biscuit.

From here, things went on autopilot.

I ordered a cup of coffee that I didn't touch. I ate my meal, though, and then watched myself float back to the hotel. Once inside, I heard a voice that sounded remarkably like mine request to stay in the hotel for another evening. That voice even mentioned the same room number that I stayed in the night before. The funny thing was, I don't recall making that decision. And yet, here I was- about to spend my second evening in Nashville, Illinois, population 3,147. They have a Hardees, and at least two gas stations.

Leaving the front desk, I watched myself saunter back to my hotel room from the evening before. I affixed the 'Do Not Disturb' sign to my doorknob, and fell onto the bed.

There I stayed until the next morning, when I awoke and felt, at long last, refreshed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hickory

The unfortunate side effect of the advent of country music in Nashville is that it vastly overshadows some of the rich history that the city has to offer. For instance, it was not until driving through that I learned that Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, lived in Nashville for a number of years. He rose to popularity as a Tennessee statesman and member of congress before ultimately winning the 1829 bid for the Presidency.

Now, I had the opportunity to visit Jackson's home- The Hermitage- earlier today. And there's nothing to be gleaned from the above paragraph that you can't get from any U.S. history book that's been published since, say, 1837- the year Jackson's presidency ended. But, here is what is fascinating about the entire story: At the time when Jackson was sent to attend congress, Tennessee was the farthest-reaching Western point of the United States. It was essentially a woefully underdeveloped outpost. Imagine, if you can, the idea of living in what basically amounted to a shanty-town, and having the opportunity to send one of your residents as a member of congress. Now, having a congressman represent the territory was odd enough as it was. Having a stranded frontiersman vie for the presidency just years later was completely and utterly unheard of.

But, that's what happened. Jackson, as it turns out, was essentially the first "Man of the People". The "Washington Elite", most notably Henry Clay, were absolutely terrified of the guy. He lived, very literally, on the edge. He was blue collar. He was a working man (or, at least, that's what his presidential campaigns would have you believe. He was still a landowner, a slave-owner, a General, and he had over 1,000 acres of land). In fact, not only was he the first "Washington Outsider" to run for the Presidency, but he was also the first ever politician to campaign for the Presidency. Fearing that some of his policies would harm his chances in the 1832 election, his supporters began a frenzy of creating political cartoons and spreading catch-phrases and slogans in across any media possible. I'll let you decide whether or not any of this was a blessing or a curse.

Here are some interesting facts I discovered about Andrew Jackson today:

- He destroyed the 2nd National Bank in order to defend a group of Americans who, later, would become the middle class. He did this in order to defend these Americans from getting exploited by rich citizens looking to get richer.

-He owned over 150 slaves and would not even broach the subject of abolishing slavery.

-He acquired Mississippi and Alabama through shrewd land deals. Michigan became a ratified state under his presidency.

-The acquisitions of Mississippi and Alabama led directly to the Trail of Tears, in which thousands of Cherokee Indians were forcefully evicted from their homes. During the march west, over 2,000 Native Americans died.

-His efforts against what was known as nullification likely cooled the national temperament that would have led to Civil War, at least for the time being.

-After a failed assassination attempt, he beat his potential murderer within an inch of his life with his cane, until his advisors pulled him off. He was also famous for saying "After eight years as President, I have only two regrets: that I have not shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun". Incidentally, Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House and John C. Calhoun was his Vice President. Just try to imagine how well that quote would go over for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama.

-He recognized the independence of Texas. He later advised the annexation of Texas.

I could go on. Still, the fact remains that, for every piece of historical evidence that makes Jackson look like a brutal, impulsive bulldog, there is another fact that makes him seem like a wise elder statesman able to appropriately steer his nation in the best direction. He is not a 'bad guy'. But he is not really a 'good guy' either. He is, I think, a shade of gray; someone who exists totally and entirely within two opposite and seemingly contradictory realms. And yet, he exists quite comfortably in both of these opposing realms.

After everything I've seen, I dare say he's the perfect mascot for Tennessee.

Never Never Land

Day 10 and 11: Nashville

"You're not from Nashville!?" the woman excitedly shrieked. She and her coworker looked at each other as if they had just discovered a new plaything. "You have to take a free sample! These are the best!"

She shoved a handful of chocolate-covered peanuts into my open palms. She was right, they were very tasty. I think the secret, in all seriousness, was that they added a dose of salt to the peanuts.

"Make sure to come see us again!" the excited woman said, "We're open until 5 today!". She smiled so intensely that I was worried, just for a moment, that she was going to pull a jaw muscle. I thanked them both and -quickly- went on my way.

Call me cynical, but this is exactly the kind of over-the-top friendliness that strikes me as potentially disingenuous. I suppose that the people of Nashville are, really, truly, this outgoing and friendly, but something about the demeanor of the city left me feeling like I was in (take your pick) Pleasantville/Spectre/Stepford (as in, "Wives"). The part of me that yearns to be a grizzled writer of investigative travelogues secretly wished that I would find some long-hidden, terrible secret to this city. If there is one, I don't think I found it. Now, I don't know why I was expecting some kind of hurt in this city. Maybe it was because I had just seen, firsthand, the history of pain in Memphis that left me expecting to see the same in Nashville. What I found instead was the complete opposite. Rather, Nashville comes off as a city of joy. To be frank, I have my theories about the true nature of Nashville, but until recently I wasn't sure of what to think.

-----

I've been approaching every city I've visited with an open ear to hear the specific, individualized story that that city wants to tell me. Even cities that I've been to before, I'm entering with a clean slate, trying to hear the overtures that set each city apart from every other American metropolis. What I found in the capital of Tennessee was that the story of Nashville is inextricably linked to the rise of country music in the United States. Admittedly, this was to my chagrin, as I am not now, nor have I ever been particularly fond of the genre. Still, I owed it to Nashville to find out why exactly this place identified so closely with this piece of American culture.

First, some context: The roots of country music were born from the folk songs of the British Isles. Immigrants came to the United States trained in a variety of folk songs and acoustic instruments, more so for recreation than for any other reason. Now, this may come as a surprise, but I suppose if we can get from Bill Haley and the Comets to the Talking Heads in, what, 25, 30 years, then it is entirely possible for "Danny Boy" to slowly transmute into "Oh, Susannah" in just as short of a time. The settlers of the western American frontier brought these songs with them and ingrained them into their culture as the lands expanded towards the Pacific.

Now, here's where things get interesting. We had a pretty rough go of it in the early 20th century. World War I ravaged an entire generation. The Great Depression hit us a scant decade or so later. Of course, there are some that would say prohibition is just as bad as those other events, but that's not for me to say. In any case, times were awful, and our ancestors desperately needed a distraction.

For whatever reason, be it James Fenimore Cooper's "nobel savage" or the advent of "The Lone Ranger" on film or whatever, America fell in love with the romantic notion of the western frontiersman, the settler from years ago who didn't have to deal with fighting the Kaiser or worrying about the economics of New York City. In short: America fell in love with cowboys.

Country music exploded. Radio programs, featuring "opries" started to show up on radio broadcasts everywhere. In the local cinemas, westerns started becoming best sellers. Cowboy culture was a hit. The reason: It was a distraction.

This is understandable. When times are tough, even today, we resort to recreation to take our minds off of wars or economies or whatever is the ill of the hour. What makes the country movement fascinating is that, even years later, the fascination never stopped. America fell in love with The Cowboy and, 70 years later, it is still considered perfectly acceptable in some communities to walk into a business meeting with boots, a belt buckle, and a hat.

(This still strikes me as a completely wild notion. What if, by happenstance, America fell in love with, say, pirate culture in the 1920'a and 30's? Would we have a Shanty Hall of Fame? Would we have songs proclaiming "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Buccaneers"? Would we have PMT- Pirate Music Television? This is all rhetorical, of course. Still, I'm awestruck that we fell in love with a schema and it became perfectly normal for grown men and women to play make-believe).


So, to summarize: America was distraught over various world events, and turned to cowboy culture for relief in the form of escapism. So how does Nashville become the capital of Country culture?

Ever heard of the "Grand Ole Opry"?


-----

In the 1920's, it was not unusual for radio stations to broadcast programs that revolved around country music. One such broadcast, started in 1925 on WSM 650 in Nashville, Tennessee was the "WSM Barn Dance" (later the "Grand Ole Opry"). Now, this wasn't the only country program in the United States. But it was the one that had the most powerful radio tower. With 50,000 watts of broadcast power, the Grand Ole Opry could literally be heard from coast to coast.

From here, Nashville became the capital of country music essentially through a self-fulfilling prophecy. Say you grew up in Reno, Nevada in the 1940's. Whenever you listened to your favorite country program, you heard it was coming directly from Nashville, Tennessee. So, when you decided to try your hand at becoming a country artist, naturally, you went to Nashville. Country musicians came to Nashville because of the country musicians in Nashville. Put another way, Hollywood isn't the only place in the world where they make movies. But if you are a budding actor or actress, where would you go to start your career? With that logic, aspiring country stars have been flocking to Nashville for the better part of a century.

-----

At first, this idea struck me as intensely uncomfortable, which explained my reaction to the friendly women I encountered at the candy store. Think about it: country music rose to popularity as form of escapism. And Nashville was the headquarters of said escapism- country music. So, by that logic, it felt like the entire city was, for lack of a better term, sweeping all of their problems under the rug. Maybe I found my dire secret after all.

But it was then that I realized that Nashville is the perfect and completely necessary counterweight to Memphis. In essence, both cities dealt with a central theme -pain- but reacted in two different ways. The blues and soul of Memphis confronted pain directly, singing about it, coping with it, and fighting against it as best they could. The country music of Nashville encountered similar pains and, instead of fighting it, literally played through it. Where Memphis chose sadness, Nashville chose joy (relax, Johnny Cash fans- there are always exceptions). These two cities are a proverbial yin-yang. They need each other's ideologies, I think, to be themselves.

Whether or not I favor one philosophy over the other is immaterial. What matters is understanding that the cultures borne of these two cities, in my mind, were basically very different responses to the same central stimuli. There is no right or wrong in this equation, only 'different'. Each city plays it's own part in creating the full tapestry of what exactly Tennessee is. And what Tennessee is is this: a state that, in the past 70 years, has been hugely responsible for a huge piece of our musical, and therefore societal, culture.

Knoxville? Mufreesboro? I believe it's your move.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The River

I spent the afternoon riding a steamboat on the Mississippi River, sipping warm Earl Grey tea and not particularly caring about anything at all. Unfortunately, the sun didn't join us for most of the trip. Still, the temperature was just as it should have been and everything felt pretty free and easy.

video

Halfway through the trip, an unassuming looking man named Seth started up a conversation with me. He seemed pretty decent, and he reminded me a lot of my uncle Bernard. I warmed up to him immediately.

"First time on the river?" he asked.

"It is," I replied, "I'm just passing through, spending a couple of days in Memphis. I'll be headed up to Nashville tomorrow, but I couldn't resist the urge to take a tour of the Mississippi".

He nodded. "This is our third time here, mine and my family's" he said, gesturing off behind me.

"Do you live here?" I asked.

"Yep." he said, "Been here for a few years."

"That's interesting," I responded. "Typically you wouldn't expect residents to do the tourist attractions. I would only expect out-of-towners on this ship".

"You know, you're probably right about that," said Seth, "But we decided a long time ago that once a month, we're going to do something. Have an adventure, go out of town, just something."

"Every month?" I asked

"Yep. It's too easy to fall into a routine. If you hold yourself to once a month, then you've always got something to look forward to." Seth paused for a moment. "I grew up in San Francisco, and everyone asked if I ever did 'this event' or experienced 'that event'. And I was never able to say 'yes'. It made me realize that I may have been missing out on a lot. So, I wanted to live life a little differently, and I want to raise my girls in a way that they'll always be thirsty to just go out and experience life."

As if on cue, his two little girls approached to show them a new game they had cooked up together. Pardon the cliche, but I do believe "cute as a button" is appropriate here. They played in front of their daddy for a moment or two, before scurrying off again.

"A friend of mine got some huge TV, some, I don't know, million-inch flat-screen plasma or some such," said Seth, waving his hand dismissively. "He refuses to watch any sports at our house, because I've had the same medium-sized TV for years. And we've only got the one. I don't see the value in burning a lot of time and money on TV. That just means more time sitting at home doing nothing".

"After all," he said, "There are plenty of adventures out there".

-----

Whenever a stranger starts up a conversation with you, there's always the gamble that he or she could be a little off, or a little peculiar, or maybe they just have a personality that doesn't quite mesh with yours. Seth was not any of these. He was just a friendly family man looking for a couple of minutes to shoot the breeze. I was happy for the conversation, and for the company.

Before I knew it, we were docked again. It was time for us to part ways. I shook Seth's hand and wished him luck on his next adventure. Funny thing: he wished me the exact same thing.

As I headed off the ship, I thought about how nice it was that we had an hour-long conversation about life, without once discussing what we did for a living.

-----

Hundreds of voices have created art, literature, and music based on this river. I thought that this might be my only chance.

So, after the boat trip, I stood on the banks of the Mississippi River and desperately thought of something original to say. The words never came.

So I threw a rock into the Mississippi River. I don't know why.

It just seemed like something a free man would do.

Old Wounds.

Memphis is a scarred city.

The history of this place is, sadly, not an unusual tale in our country. The necessary details of the story of Memphis involve racial segregation, hatred, and even murder. One would think, though, that we've moved on from some of these hurts, that, just maybe, some of these aches have healed. Instead, these wounds of this city are visible even today. "You'll like Nashville", said a Memphis resident to me the other day.

"It's like Memphis, but white".

There is still something of a palpable tension in the air here. It is unspoken, and hard to pinpoint, but it is present. Part of me wonders if the murder of Dr. King, which unfortunately occurred in Memphis will keep these wounds from ever properly healing here.

There is hope, yet, I think. For just as Memphis is the scene of great hurts and great sadness, so too did Memphis find the one salve to ease this pain: Music.

People older and wiser than I can tell you about how racially charged America was in the former half of the 20th century. Decades after emancipation, there still existed an uncomfortable tension in the United States, especially in the South. There had to be a breaking point. Something had to give.

Arguably, the man who set this all in motion was Sam Phillips, owner of the Memphis Recording Services. This is a man who, in 1950, wanted to record talent, regardless of skin color. His company, which later became Sun Records, originally brought to fame artists like Howlin' Wolf and Riley "B.B." King. But I suspect that then mention of 'Sun Records' will bring another artist to mind for plenty of people.

That person, of course, is Elvis. The past couple of days in Memphis have allowed me the opportunity to dig past all of the overblown commercialization of the life of Elvis Presley and actually discover, for myself, what made the man important in the first place.

In a time where there was clearly defined "black music"- the blues coming from Clarksdale, MS, and "white music"- country from Nashville, it was Memphis, comfortably geographically snuggled between these two cities, that brought them together. In short, Elvis was the first person that didn't make music for white people or black people or whoever. He just made music. Period.

Legend has it that the first time "That's All Right", the first 'true' Elvis song, was played on the radio, the DJ had to play it 14 times in a row. Phone calls were coming non-stop from both black and white people wanting to hear the song. This is the first time this had ever happened.

Now, this isn't an essay on why Elvis was great, or what musical influences he wrought after this record. What this is about is that his music was, I think, a step in overcoming the dividing line in Memphis. For once, it was something that everyone could agree on.

It was this new unity that allowed a musical commiseration for the first time in the American music scene. Without Elvis, it is likely that we would not have had Stax Records, a company responsible for some of the most soulful songs ever. The best part? The house band, Booker T. and the MG's, a funky, soul-driven band, was flanked by two white men on guitars: Steve Cropper on the six-string, and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass. Music, at this point in history, was simply music.

The story is familiar from this point. Suddenly, black and white came together for the same music: to write it, to record it, to play it, to dance to it, to love it. For maybe the first time in American history, people were just people.

This is the overwhelming identity I got from Memphis. This is part of why they are so proud of their music. Yes, they are happy to have been the birthplace of Rock and Roll, and they are proud to have launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and other such giants. But more than anything I think the people of this city are just proud that they've found some semblance of healing for the darkest and most heinous, despicable details of our collected history.

For Memphis, it is now, and has always been, about the music.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Birth of an Icon

Day 8: Memphis


I have two apologies to make. The first is this: I should be making a longer post, because I have a lot of developing thoughts about Memphis that I need to relate. However, I've decided to wait until tomorrow evening to post these thoughts. The more I see about this city, the more I understand the important role music has played in the development of Memphis and, from there, the country. However, I haven't seen Stax Records or Sun Records yet, so, for lack of a better term, I need to do more 'research' before making anymore commentary on the local music scene.

The second apology I have to make is for the simple reason that this entire entry is going to be completely and utterly self-indulgent. This is because I am a musician who, today, got to tour the Gibson guitar factory in Memphis.

To put this in proper perspective, understand that Gibson is to guitars what Mercedes-Benz is to automobiles. Famous, incredibly high-quality, and, most importantly, iconic. If you named your top 5 musical idols, I would be willing to bet at least one of them is a loyal Gibson player. B. B. King, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi...the list goes on and on. Paramount players in every genre and style have excelled at their craft while playing a Gibson. To actually see how these instruments are assembled is an incredible experience. This is basically the equivalent of touring the cacao fields where Willy Wonka harvests his chocolate. It is the opportunity to witness firsthand the still-binding DNA of an icon.

Speaking of Wonka, I was like Augustus Gloop touring this factory. Surrounded by casual tourists, I wandered bug-eyed through the factory, asking irritating super-fan questions that clearly irritated the snarky, hungover tour guide. "How many double-neck guitars do you do? Is the date on the wood the date of harvest, or the date of curing? Is the rosewood affected by changes in atmosphere during transport from India?". Our poor tour guide was getting irritated. Suffice it to say, I eventually stopped asking questions. Point is, I was excited.

Even the smell of the factory is gorgeous. It smells like freshly cut timber, wood oils, and lacquer. It smells as it should: like a craftsman's workshop.

I'll spare everyone the details of what goes into the manufacturing process. I will say, however, that these instruments are a masterpiece: a perfect combination of artistry, craftsmanship, beauty, and industry (as perfect as these instruments are, they are still able to crank out 35-60 per day). And, when finished, they absolutely sing. Playing a Gibson Les Paul for the first time today, I felt like a caveman who had previously cooked food with twigs and flint stones, only to accidentally stumble upon a professional-grade kitchen with an endless array of spices and ingredients. It was a completely new sound in an arena that I thought I knew well enough already.

I have fallen in love with Gibson guitars. One day, I will own a blue Gibson Les Paul (which may or may not exist- the picture below is under the 'Epiphone' brand). Still, I'm glad that these instruments are so affordable, retailing at a very reasonable $5,000

(gulp).