Mad Men Helps Us Grieve

There’s no way Matthew Weiner and the other producers of Mad Men could have planned it.

Two weeks after our country endures the Boston Marathon Bombing and the ensuing manhunt, AMC airs “The Flood,” an episode in which the mid-century modern clad characters in the show grapple with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The reality/fiction continuum collided for one hour as I watched the narcissistic characters of Madison Avenue ad agencies mourn the loss of a national figure.  I got chills when I saw Don Draper — the nihilistic, disconnected protagonist — lose his unflinching composure and look to his current wife, Megan, with an unnerved expression.  Existing as we are in the current post-Boston Marathon Bombing world, for the first time in my life I was able to feel on a guttural level the loss of Dr. King.  The producers of Mad Men attacked this great national loss with courage and tact, and it would have been powerful regardless of any tragedy du jour.  But having it line up with the Boston Marathon Bombing, made the episode absolutely affecting.

Mid-Century ModernEven more arresting was the fact that we who live in reality are grieving alongside these characters we’ve grown to know deeply over the past six seasons.  There was a breaking of the fourth wall.  Their grief was our grief.  Their fight for meaning in the midst of national loss was our fight.  Their looks of sadness and confusion were our looks.  Fiction and reality blurred.  I felt an authentic connection to these characters, not a cheap, manufactured kinship.

It was haunting television.

The wound of the Boston bombings hasn’t yet healed to a scar, allowing us to coexist in a common emotional space with the characters of Mad Men.  Draper taking his son to Planet of the Apes turned from simply being clever commentary on our species at the tempestuous time of Dr. King’s death, to being a beautiful act between a father and son in a time of national chaos.  An act many of us can relate to these days.

When Draper gets drunk at the end of the episode instead of being a strong father for his children, I didn’t judge him.  If it weren’t for Boston, I would have.

And when he gets in bed with his fear-ridden son at the end of the episode, it was all of us at the end of a tragedy-filled day — be it JFK’s assassination or 9/11 — clutching our loved ones as we try to make sense of a senseless act.

“The Flood” is a supreme example of fiction allowing us deeper into the human experience, unplanned though it may have been.

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Rising Tide Brewery: Portland’s Best New Bar

Rising Tide 2I’m unapologetically breaking my moratorium on writing about beer and beer joints.  Why?  Life’s too short not to indulge our passions.  Some people love the symphony, I love beer.  I’ll never quite fit into the sports coat I bought for high table dinners at Oxford.  I’m a low table kind of guy.

Now on to the point of this post: Rising Tide Brewing Co. being a place you need to visit.

Yesterday, filled to the brim with Springtime zeal, I found myself walking down Franklin St. with three friends on a quest to see what the hub bub surrounding Rising Tide Brewing Co.’s facilities in Portland’s Back Bay is all about.  And what is it about?  An open warehouse setting where you can buy inexpensive pitchers of brilliantly-crafted beer poured from four tap lines and wander dreamily around the stainless steel mash tuns and fermenters where the ancient art of beer alchemy takes place.

They make two of the best new beers on the ever-growing Maine microbrew scene.  Daymark is a drink-me-all-day American Pale Ale.  If this were ten years ago, this would have been a big hop IPA.  But it’s not ten years ago.  It’s 2013, and the American beer drinking palate has changed.  In the hop-crazed world we live in, Rising Tide has crafted the big winner, Zephyr.  Floral.  Citrusy.  Bitter with the right balance of malt.

Rising Tide 1Here’s what makes this brewery Portland’s best new bar.  They have cornhole.  Nothing revolutionary, but playing cornhole in a working brewery is wondrous.  The foursome I was with played three epic matches in the middle of the brewery.  All the while, other patrons filled growlers and eight-ounce glasses of $2 beer (do the math, it’s cheaper than buying a pint of Rising Tide anywhere else in Portland).  The Maine Beer bus brought a busload of people, and we just kept playing.  While tossing, I set my beer on top of a keg of Daymark next to me.  They really open up the brewery to the public.

At no point did I feel like I was imposing or being watched to ensure I didn’t break something really expensive.  Their casa, really was my casa.

My friend Tim said to me between cornhole tosses, “This is the best bar in Portland.”

I took a gulp of Daymark, wiped the foam from my upper lip, and said, “You know, you’re right.”

Our exchange was interrupted by the sound of a bag slapping against the cornhole board at our feet.  I whooped as my partner got us one point closer to victory.

Hopefully the situation Rising Tide has right now on Fox St. doesn’t change anytime soon.

Album Review: Stories Don’t End, Dawes

DawesFinal

I wanted to hate Dawes.  Badly.  Before I heard a note from leadman Taylor Goldsmith’s guitar marinated in Neil Young fuzz, I only knew that they were the darlings of the rock and roll old guard.  They’ve received nods from Jackson Browne and Heartbreaker organist Bentmont Tench who both play on Nothing is Wrong.  Chris Robinson loves to jam with these guys.  And Bob Dylan just took them on tour.  Yup, even the cantankerous Robert Zimmerman likes these guys.  Rolling Stone magazine drools over their vintage sound, heralding them as the post-millennial antidote to Justin Beiber and T-Swift.  God, I wanted to hate these four guys, if for no other reason that everyone else seemed to love them.

Then I saw them live at last summer’s Gentleman of the Road tour stop in my Portland, hosted by folk revivalists, Mumford and Sons, and I got it.  I gave about a hundred listens to their 2011 effort, Nothing is Wrong.  I became a believer.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I received a text from a friend: Do yourself a favorAfter work get a cold beverage and listen to the new Dawes record.  I gladly obliged.

The albums opens with the pulsing rhythm section of Taylor’s brother Griffin Goldsmith (drums) and Wylie Gelber (bass), laying the foundation for the layered harmonies of “Just Beneath the Surface.”  Taylor Goldsmith poses a question at the song’s opening: “Have you ever thought your little girl glamour shots / And the events of that whole day spent at the mall / Is a part of you you didn’t know you were clinging to?”  These lines, like a lot of what T. Goldsmith crafts, are surprising and accessible.  This question about mall glamour shots is actually a question about self and identity, as is much of the lyric-scape of Stories Don’t End.  T. Goldsmith plays with the idea that we have past selves that haunt and pull at our slippery present self, keeping us from fully connecting with others.

This kind of thinking, though, can lead to mopey nostalgia, and that’s what we get on “Just My Luck.”  I want to urge the narrator of the song to get over himself.  You know, wrap my arm around him and say, “Dude, don’t be so passive.  We make our own luck.”  That’s my only complaint about Dawes lyrically, at times they can get mournful.  In a bad way.  Sonically, however, this song highlights a strength of Dawes as a band: they can slow down without being boring.  Much of this has to do with T. Goldsmith’s subtle, ’60’s tone guitar work at the end of the track.  It’s tasteful.  He plays only the notes that need to be played.

I’m going to break in here and put my finger on what Dawes can teach all bands.  Everywhere.  Ever.  They aren’t afraid to leave space in their songs.  It’s refreshing to see a band of this stature that doesn’t overplay their instruments.  No, refreshing is an understatement.  It’s fucking revolutionary.  This is no easy feat for musicians.  Egos abound in all bands.  There is such a respect for songs on Stories Don’t End.  All members are pulling so clearly in the same direction.  Bands, take notice.

Now back to the songs.  The winner on this album is “Someone Will.”  It opens with a Paul Simon groove and acoustic guitar picking pattern.  And like most Dawes songs, it hooks the listener with a concrete image right off: “Grab your cigarettes and follow me out of the living room / And I’ll get drunk enough to tell you how I feel.”  It’s those little bits of imagery like “cigarettes” that allows us to get inside the lyrics immediately.  T. Goldsmith gets philosophical, but he grounds us in the concrete.  There’s an ancient Chinese adage that writing must be “precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.”  These songs take that advice, and, except for the occasional detour into passive nostalgia, they are stronger because of it.

Overall, the biggest lesson a songwriter can learn from Stories Don’t End is how to arrange a song.  The name of the game here is dynamics.  They let the songs swell and settle organically.  Take “Something In Common.”  It’s a bit of a moper, but at 3:20, the badass kicks in and salvages the entire tune.  Give the album a listen just for dynamics.

Like most things I avoid because they’re popular, when I finally get around to experiencing it, I understand the acclaim.  I missed the initial boat on Dawes, but I boarded eventually.

So, do yourself a favor.  After work get a cold beverage and listen to the new Dawes record.  You’ll be glad you obliged.

(Click to listen through Spotify.)

Concert Review: John Prine Live at Portsmouth Music Hall (4.20.13)

Some voices don’t age well.  Dylan’s once mercurial croon is now a raspy drone.  And will someone tell Roger Daltrey to please stop.  His days of properly belting “Baba O’Riley” are long gone.

Some voices, though, seem to grow into their songs as the singer ages.  Case in point: the American songwriting genius John Prine.  Like the exterior of the Statue of Liberty losing its original copper sheen and becoming the iconic green lady we know today, Prine’s voice seems to finally fit the masterful songs he’s been singing since his twenties.  Listening to the original recordings of “Christmas in Prison” or “Spanish Pipedream,” you can hear a young voice attempting to fill timeless, penetrating lyrics.

Music HallLast night at the beautifully restored Portsmouth Music Hall, John Prine warbled his songs for an hour and a half with a voice that finally has the appropriate patina to befit his ever genius, ever sardonic ballads.  Lines like, “It was Christmas in Prison and the food was real good / We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood,” from the aforementioned “Christmas in Prison,” just sounds better now that Prine’s voice is aged and storied.

Let’s get something straight, however, the man’s voice is not raspy or scoured.  No, it still sounds very much like John Prine’s voice, it just seems to have lost its baby fat and achieved the correct timbre to tell the American stories he’s always told.

I hate to admit it, but the two biggest highlights of last night’s show were “Sam Stone” and “Angel From Montgomery.”  I know, I know, those are his hits, but I’ll gladly be damned if last night they weren’t transcendent.  It was as if Prine took us to another world filled with heartache and pain, where rooms smell like death and flies buzz in kitchens.  A world much like ours, but, like any good artist, the world is Prine’s.  Accompanied by textured and tasteful guitar work from Jason Wilber and both a bowed and plucked upright bass from Dave Jacques, the songs each had a layered sound, setting the canvas for Prine’s now-sage voice.

When he reached the final verse of “Sam Stone” singing, “But life had lost its fun / And there was nothing to be done / But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill / For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill,” I was moved near tears.  For the first time I connected with those lyrics on a human level.  Again, I attribute this to Prine’s pitch-perfect voice for these songs.

John PrineIn the same way, when Prine breathed the lines, “There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear them buzzing / And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today / How the hell can a person go to work in the morning / And come home in the evening with nothing to say,” I felt the tortured existence of the narrator trapped in that song.  I’ve never felt “Angel From Montgomery” as deeply as I felt it last night.  It’s a concert experience, as the apt cliche goes, that I will never forget.  It’s emblazoned on my psyche, nay, my soul, by John Prine’s voice.

Allen Ginsberg described Bob Dylan as being one with his breath during Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  “Dylan,” the Beat poet asserts, “had become a column of air so to speak, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body.”  In the same way, the man I witnessed on stage last night at the Portsmouth Music Hall has become his own column of air moving through well-aged vocal chords ready to tell his at once hilarious and heartbreaking stories.

Boston’s Prayer of Action in the Face of the Marathon Bombings

Flag at Half StaffIt’s been years since I’ve used language to directly address a higher power in prayer.  I was raised in the Catholic Church where it was common to hear, “Please pray for us,” or, “We’ll be sure to pray for you,” when a church member was in tragedy’s tight grip.  As any good Catholic kid, I dutifully prayed at night for the people around me in need.  That is, I used words to speak directly to a higher power.

In college I began to wane in my belief in using language to speak to God or whomever runs this show.  It’s not because I felt my prayers were unanswered — I’ve lived an easy life.  I also didn’t ditch praying with words because I, like many college students in the throes of Nietzsche and Derrida and other nihilistic texts, started to doubt the existence of a higher power.

I just wasn’t convinced that sitting alone or with others at church and saying words into the universe was the kind of prayer that set the world on fire.  The most beautiful and effective way to communicate my joy of existence, or my desire for the alleviation of pain in someone’s life, was action.

My heroes of prayer are the doers.  Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Ghandi, Henry David Thoreau, for example, all seemed to have lived their prayers through daily action.  Yes, they prayed through language, too.  They were brilliant writers.  But for me, their words were secondary to their bold actions.  Martin Luther King Jr and company prayed with nonviolent protest in Bull Connor’s Birmingham.  Ghandi made salt in direct defiance of the British Empire as his graceful prayer.  In his humble cabin, Thoreau tried to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”  That idea of living deep, what a prayerful action.

So years ago I quit praying to a higher power through words and attempted to pray with action.  A hike on a fall day in Northern Maine to communicate my thanks of existence on a habitable planet.  Listening to a student whose life is falling apart — listening fiercely while holding back judgment.  Pulling over during a snowstorm to help push a stuck car out of a parking space.  Snow-blowing my neighbor’s driveway while he’s in the hospital.  Waking early to let the dog out and feed her so my wife can sleep longer.  These are my daily prayers.

Following Monday’s tragic explosions at the Boston Marathon, the word ‘prayer’ has been invoked in speeches by the President and other politicians and in Facebook and Twitter statuses.

Watching the footage of the explosions and the immediate aftermath that ensued, I, like countless other Americans, witnessed the powerful form of prayer in the way of direct action.  Facebook statuses have been riddled with the urgency that instead of watching for the people fleeing from the scene, we need to pay attention to the men and women rushing to the bomb site.  Men and women pulling down barriers to get to the victims, lifting scaffolding, kneeling next to the wounded who were enduring pain beyond understanding.  Some of these ‘helpers,’ as they’ve been called, were police officers, some off-duty doctors, while others were simply citizens leaping into action.

I think of the doctors praying right now through their work to save the lives and limbs of victims still undergoing surgery.

I’m ever learning how to pray properly through action.  Thankfully, the citizens of Boston have been teaching me how it’s done since the tragic moment when the first explosion sounded.

Like that once-Catholic kid trying to understand how to best communicate with a higher power, I’ll continue to look to the people of Boston for guidance over the coming weeks.

Stay strong, Boston.  I know you will.

A Yankee Fan’s Open Letter to Kevin Youkilis

Dear Mr. Youkilis,

Remember 2007?  That was the year that Yankee pitchers tried to take you down.  Literally.

I remember it well.

Scott Proctor hurled a pitch that smacked your helmet.  A few months later, the overzealous, cornfed Joba Chamberlain tossed two pitches over your noggin.  Both clocked in around 98 mph.  Both intended to ring your head-shaped bell.  Then a couple weeks later, Chien-Ming Wang sent you on the 10-day disabled list by plunking you in the wrist with a pitch.

And what was I doing in each of these instances?  I was inches from my television screen, bellowing, “Take that, Youkilis, you troglodyte!  Shave your stupid beard!”  Spittle from my exuberant insults peppered the glass screen.  Here I was, a grown man cheering for another human being to get hurt.  My liberal arts education failed me as the intoxication of professional sports turned me into a bloodthirsty spectator at the Roman Coliseum.

Yankee HatsBut, Mr. Youkilis, you have to understand, you were my favorite Red Sox player to hate.  You don’t have a classic baseball body type — more Home Depot salesclerk than big-league third baseman.  Your batting stance looks cartoonish.  That big goatee inspired hundreds of similar looking beards in my New England.  You married Tom Brady’s sister.  And if all that weren’t enough, you were impossible to strike out.  Every time you were up, you got on base.  Every friggin’ time.  And if you did strike out or hit a slow dribbler to third, you went in the dugout and mashed Gatorade watercoolers with your large hands.  You robbed Yankee hits at both third and first.  You found a way to win.

Reading over the above paragraph, Mr. Youkilis, it’s clear that I hated you for surface level characteristics.  And because you’re a do-whatever-it-takes-to-win ballplayer who hacked away at my team.  A twenty-first century Charlie Hustle.  With you in the lineup, the Red Sox were that much harder to beat.  Can I really hate a guy because he’s a gamer?

Of course I can!  As long as he plays for the Red Sox.

But now, Mr. Youkilis, you’ve complicated things by becoming a Yankee.  The mixed emotions I felt on the day you signed your contract weren’t akin to the feelings I had when the Yankees signed Wade Boggs or Roger Clemens or even Johnny Damon.  For some reason, it just felt easier to cheer, “Come on, Boggs” or “Strike ’em out, Clemens” than it does to utter, “Crush it, Youk.”  (A slight nausea just came over me writing that sentence.)

So here we are, you grinding out your brand of baseball adorned in pinstripes, and me donning my New York hat as I expectantly watch April baseball.

Let me publicly apologize for all my digs at your beard, batting stance, body type, temper, et cetera, et cetera.  You play baseball the way it’s meant to be played.  You practice the hard-grind dance of 162 games with the best of them.  I have respect for your game and you, sir.

What I’m trying to say, Mr. Youkilis, is I’m sorry for the years of verbal slander I’ve cast in your general direction.  It shows a lack of growth on my part that it took you becoming a Yankee for me to apologize.  But, hey, we all grow at our own speed, and I’ve miles to go before I sleep.

Godspeed as you work to earn your keep in the Bronx.

Sincerely,

Signature

David R. Patterson

Experience the Spatial Bliss of Portland’s In’finiti Distillation and Fermentation

I once heard the poet Derek Walcott read a poem where in it he vows not to write any more poems about the moon.  That’s the way I feel about writing about beer and beer joints.  Wolcott has the moon; I have beer.  If I indulge every writing whim I have for praising an IPA that is part of the microbrew renaissance or a bar for their beer selection and atmosphere, I’d have a full-time job.  (Hey, that actually sounds like a great job.  I’ll look into it.)  I’m trying to keep my writing topics varied, broadening my horizons beyond the establishments I haunt.  I want to be a well-rounded man of letters, for God’s sake.

No more writing about beer or beer rooms!

Well, maybe just one more piece.  You see, In’finiti, the newest endeavor by the guys who opened Novare Res off Exchange St., isn’t simply a taproom with the choicest microbrews and a good atmosphere for getting loose on a Friday night.  In’finiti is an experience.

I’m going to defer to the Bollard’s article on the raison d’etre of In’finiti, a solid piece published in March.  They do a nice job explaining why this place is localvore bliss.

Instead of praising their noble made-in-house, consumed-in-house mission, what I want to highlight is the inspiring control of space that In’finiti boasts.  The guys did a supreme job designing and defining the space that is In’finiti.  It’s a place you want to be in.  In short, it’s spatial bliss.

In'finiti

Quick tour: when you walk in, you’re greeted by a still behind a pane of glass.  Yeah, a bon-afide still.  Immediately, your eyes are satiated.  Continue into the big open room, and you’ll find a beautiful bar that I was told was made from a single black walnut tree that fell in the Philadelphia area.  Behind the bar are the shiny copper brew kettles.  Before continuing, order one of the beers on tap that was made in said brew kettles.  Got a pint?  Good.  Now turn around from the bar and look at the raised dining area.  Notice the materials they used for the floor?  That’s repurposed wood from an old barn in Canada.  See how thoughtful every inch of this place is thus far?

Impressed?  I haven’t even described the real genius design touch these guys added to their space.  If you look closely at the wood slats along the railings of the raised dining area, on the body of the bar, and on the lights affixed to the walls, you’ll see that the pieces of wood are curved.  Why are they curved?  Because they are pieces of old Jim Beam bourbon barrels.  In’finiti acquired the barrels from Allagash Brewing Co. who had used them to age their Bourbon Barrel Black beer.  Go ahead, take another look now armed with this information.  I know, brilliant, right?

Bourbon Barrel LightsBut wait, as they say in infomercials, there’s more.  Look up at the light fixtures.  Those industrial metal globes?  Those, mon frere, are the metal bands from the bourbon barrels.  More imaginative repurposing.

I found myself mouth agape for the majority of my first visit to In’finiti.  There’s no place like it in Portland.  And that’s saying a lot considering it’s a city brimming with brilliant places to enjoy a locally crafted Maine brew.  It’s such a unique establishment that it forced me to break my self-imposed moratorium on writing about beer-related topics.  In the same manner, I’d like to believe Derek Walcott still looks up at the moon from time to time and is affected by its gravitational powers to the point of penning a line of verse about its mysterious beauty.  It’s ok, Derek, none of us have to be so strict with ourselves.