“A meal of bread, cheese and beer constitutes the perfect food.”
— Queen Elizabeth I
“I have fed purely upon ale; I have eat my ale, drank my ale, and I always sleep upon ale.”
— George Farquhar
Drinking in New York City in the late 1970s opened a vast expanse of new delights, sights and experiences. We spent most of our time off the base in Manhattan, though occasionally we went to Brooklyn or stayed on Staten Island. I had two initial goals once I’d settled into being stationed on Fort Wadsworth, to see as much of the city as I could and to sample as many beers as I could find. In those days, unlike the more conservative Pennsylvania where I grew up, New York’s drinking age was a more reasonable 18.
There were local beers I hadn’t had, though Rheingold’s — which Eddie had the night we drove to Times Square — had gone out of business two years before. There were a few others, but nothing that distinguished itself in my memory. By and large, it was the imported beers that were so exciting to me. These were nearly unheard of in Pennsylvania, at least in my world.
It was music that led me to them. At that time Disco was in vogue, it was all you heard on Top 40 radio and at most of the mainstream clubs. Studio 54 had opened the year before and was the place to be if you were into that sort of thing. I wasn’t, but the jazz scene in New York was just as vibrant, perhaps more so, and it just wasn’t in the limelight the way disco was. But I was captivated by the scene and went to shows at least a few times a week, usually with one or more of my Army buddies.
We went to the big venues, of course, like the Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil, the Knitting Factory, the 55 Bar but smaller ones, too, all over the East Village and the lower east side. And one thing you could count on in those days was that they carried Bass Ale and Guinness. It seems odd to think of both of those beers as new, but they were to me. Both were very different from my usual choices and I loved the way they tasted. Many of the jazz clubs did not have much in the way of food but often had trays of cheese, bread and fruit (usually sliced apples) which went with both Bass and Guinness quite well. It became our standard jazz club diet.
Some of the best shows we went to were not at actual jazz clubs but were in unmarked lofts in warehouse districts. These places has no signs and if you didn’t know they were going on, you would not have ventured into those streets or, even if you had, you would not have noticed them. They’d often be on the top floor loft and we’d climb several flights of stairs, pay a cover charge, and walk through a door into a large open space. One particular venue I remember had colorful pillows covering the floors, creating what would have looked like an impromptu quilt if seen from above. It was the uppermost floor of a large warehouse building that ran the length of a block, at least. The ceiling was several times the height of a normal room. The walls were also filled with bright curtains, like the pillows, most likely to dampen the sound. It reminded me of what I imagined an Eastern bazaar might look like. I think someone must have lived in that loft, because in one corner there was a makeshift kitchen, and the beer was being sold out the refrigerator, along with the available food on a nearby dining table.
We sat around on pillows in a scene right out of Tales from the Arabian Nights, drank Bass Ale, ate cheese, bread and apples while listening to one off the greatest big bands I’d ever heard live. That band was fronted by a trumpet player named Dave Stahl, who was trying to get his own band together. Stahl had played with Count Basie and some other big names in jazz. He was also from Pennsylvania and gave advanced trumpet lessons to a good friend of mine, Jeff, who played in the same Army band with me. That’s how I knew about the show. Jeff grew up one town away from me, in Muhlenberg. We first met after he joined the Army Band, too, when we discovered we had mutual friends and began taking turns driving home on sporadic weekends. I even later introduced him to his wife, who had been the friend of one of my own girlfriends.
These were great times, both musically and from the perspective of learning about new beers. We saw countless bands, met musicians and got into as much mischief as we could. Another favorite band, the 24th Street Band, was a quartet of studio musicians we befriended, three of whom went on to be in David Letterman’s original band: Hiram Bullock, Will Lee and Steve Jordan. The keyboard player, Clifford Carter, was replaced by Paul Shaffer, of course. We even covered one of their songs, The New York City Strut, in our show band, which we called the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (or BQE), a weird rock/jazz band that visited high schools and played popular songs of the day in an effort to entice kids to join the military. We’d go on tour for weeks at a time, playing assemblies at two different high schools each day, usually in small towns and rural areas throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Ohio. Imagine the surreal sight of a group of ten people on a stage, playing rock and roll and jazz tunes wearing green Army uniforms and you have some idea of what it was like.
But while music was the reason I was there, it was the discovery of all this new beer that really made the experience sing. With Bass and Guinness, both beers had fuller flavors and tasted so different from what I was used to that it made me wonder what else was out there that I also didn’t know about.
About that same time, we discovered a bar in the East Village, Brewsky’s Beer Bar. It was a little hole-in-the-wall on 7th Avenue, but it had, for its day, a great selection of imported beers. I think the owner was Ukranian, or something like that, and there were a lot of beers from central and eastern Europe. There were dozens of similar-tasting lagers and pilsners with enchanting labels I couldn’t read. But it was the darker beers that really stood out, simply because they were so different from what I’d grown up drinking. For example, I recall Dortmunder Union vividly as a beer with distinct flavors unlike any other I’d ever tried.
I liked most of what I tried, though at the time I was drawn to the English ales, I think because they tasted so much different to me than what I was used to drinking. I was certainly hooked. I already had a somewhat obsessive love affair going with beer, but to find out that it was so much richer and more varied than I’d realized was something of an epiphany.
I longed to know more about what I was tasting, but there was scant little information available. Happily, that changed one day at the end of another long month. In the military, we were paid twice a month. I set aside about $100, a sizable portion of my paycheck in those days, for what I referred to as spiritual growth, usually books and music. With the Army’s hurry up and wait protocols, we usually arrived at our gigs hours in advance, so there was a lot of down time. I read like a fiend in those days, finishing books every couple of days.
During one of these post-payday trips to a bookstore, I happened upon Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, which had been published the year before. I almost didn’t pick it up, because the garish gold and green cover had a large Miller ad in the center. But then I spied the red triangle from Bass and flipped through it. Needless to say, I bought it on the spot. Finally, I had some context to what I’d been drinking and was able to organize my head around the various tastes I’d been trying so chaotically.
Looking back, it seems odd that there was so little available information on beer and, compared with today, how truly ignorant I was. And it wasn’t just me. Practically everybody I knew had little or no idea about beer. The regional and national breweries at the time made no effort to educate consumers. Jack MacAuliffe founded New Albion Brewery in California two years before this, but it might as well have been located on the Moon for all the impact it had for me in New York. We had no concept of beer styles. I hadn’t the foggiest notion of where beer color came from, or why so many of the new beers I was trying tasted different whereas most of the beers I knew locally tasted so much the same. I was only vaguely aware that ales and lagers were fundamentally different, but didn’t really understand why.
So Jackson’s book was a great big wallop, a slap in the face, but the good kind. The welcome kind where afterwards you say, “thanks, I needed that.” It opened up a whole new world for me, even though it would be several years and a cross-country move before the ideas that took root that year began to flower. But that was the beginning: the first awkward sips that set me on my way. And I have jazz to thank for it.