Upsetting
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
 
You never really figured out the taxonomy of brown liquor. When is it whisky, when is it bourbon? Can it be bourbon whisky, and is it ever spelled e-y?

It doesn’t matter, because it softens your bones as you drink it with your friend. He is a little older, a little more disheveled. As the older guys say, he knows where the bones are buried.

The bottle says it comes from Kentucky, and that’s good enough for you. Your friend says that his family came from the South, too, before they went north to the great metropolis of Chicago.

He talks of the death of the South Side, of all the good blues clubs have closed.

“I’m not talking about Buddy Guy’s place and all that,” he says. “The old joints.”

You wonder if the United States of America is waking from a sleep. The advertising machine says change is on the horizon, but you don’t really care about that anymore. The jazz and brown liquor is what has brought you two together, and the promise and hope from the advertising machine has long since proved illusory.

The psychologists call it the illusion of control, your friend says.

“It means you can’t do shit but still think you can,” he says.

You remember that course, too, the one about cognitive dissonance and your personal favorite, belief perseverance. When you continue to believe what you believe even though the goddamn facts right in front of your face tell a different story.

The jazz records you listen to suit the whisky or bourbon or bourbon whisky you drink.

The jazz tells a story the advertising machine fails to pick up on. It’s all there in the music of the Chicago tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, the man Miles Davis claimed got him hooked on heroin.

It’s in the Detroit piano of Barry Harris. All you have to do is listen. Look up these cats, and you’ll learn the sweetest, most sorrowful language around.

Your friend puts on a Wardell Gray record, and you think about how that tenor man roared outta the Heartland and died in Vegas at 34. Still, the story is in there, and watching your friend move away from the player, you feel lucky to have learned how to read it.

One in every woman who is born in a large U.S. city tests positive for cocaine. That’s 25 percent of the babies. They talk of things with serious names like social ecology.

He mixes the next two drinks, and now there’s hardly any Coke going in with them. But they don’t taste bad because you’re getting numbed up and liquored up. The music snakes through you like a fever.

Your friend asks you over the drinks, he actually chuckles when he says it:

“What was that like, when you first realized that white men have fucked everything up?”

He knows you too well to preface the question with “No offense, but ….”

“I mean, that had to kinda be some fucked up shit, huh?”

You try to remember when it was, and you think of your parents and their dreams. Your great-grandparents and the signs in Boston and New York: N.I.N.A – No Irish Need Apply.

You think of something to start to say, but you’re a little woozy, so you just smile at your friend. He chuckles again, and it is a bona fide chuckle: He’s a big man.

You just laugh with him and turn up the volume a litle bit.

Wardell plays on, and you tap your plastic cups together.
 
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