Beer and Pavement

Session 56: Thanks to the Big Boys

Posted in Beer, The Session by SM on October 7, 2011

When I saw that The Tale of Ale‘s idea for this month’s session, I threw-up a little in my mouth…not because beer from Bud-Miller-Coors (BMC) is that nauseating. No, it was more of a physical memory of what I mostly did with industrial rice lagers back in my college days. Either way, I committed to be a part of this community and contribute and that’s what I’ll do.

To say thanks to the “big boys” is not an easy thing for me to do. I’ve been anti-anything-corporate for a long, long time. Beer-makers are no different. When the goal is solely to improve the profit margin, quality be damned, I’m not interested in what you’re selling.

Music is bit more difficult to judge based on this criteria. I recently wrote about the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. That album changed the game for me. A whole new world of music was opened up for my isolated self. Nirvana was a gateway into indie rock and the possibilities it held. Twenty years later, I’m still looking for the next Nirvana. I may never find it, but it’s been a lot of fun looking.

So, my music tastes might not have ever developed had it not been for one of the “big boys” of the music industry. Had Geffen Records not signed Nirvana, released Nevermind, and promoted the hell out of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I would have most likely never discovered Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Breeders, Pixies, Sleater-Kinney, etc. For this, I have to tip my hat for a moment to major labels, the BMC of the music industry.

That brings me back to my acknowledgement of the big boys of beer. Like most beer enthusiasts, I can trace my beer journey to a can or bottle of a product they called beer. I remember the fresh, clean images on a Coors advertisement. There’s the carbonation, slight bitterness, and sweetness found in a bottle of Miller Lite [sic]. Oh, and I almost forgot my first buzz at the bottom of a Budweiser can. Had the marketing and distribution powers of the big boys never existed, beer may have never entered my gullet. Had that not happened, I might not have continued down the beery trail I refer to as “the last 15-17 years.” (I was no saint and did partake in under-age drinking. Do as I say, kids, not as I have done.)

If I owe the big boys a thanks, I guess it’s for just being there. Without the big boys, I never drink my first Bud or listen to Nevermind. If I don’t do those things, then I never get the chance to enjoy a Russian River Supplication. I would have never seen Pavement, Archers of Loaf, Guided By Voices, or any other 90’s band all the kids are clamoring to see these days. I would have never consumed Dark Lord or enjoyed the value in a Lagunitas Hop Stoopid. My basement wouldn’t be lined with records that all hold some meaning and lots of memories. None of this happens without shitty rice-adjunct beers and David Geffen taking a chance on Nirvana.

So, for all of that, I say “thanks” to the big boys to helping me discover my hobbies, my passions. I couldn’t have done it without you. I guess.

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Posted in Records by SM on September 23, 2011

Twenty years ago tomorrow, music changed for me and changed me. September 24, 1991 was the day Geffen released Nirvana’s Nevermind, widely considered a game-changing album throughout the record industry. It changed even more than that.

Well, honestly, it didn’t change me on that exact date, 20 years ago. The shift came some time after, whenever “Smells Like Teen Spirit” entered my zone of awareness. I searched out the track and decided it was worthy a purchase. I can’t remember who actually paid for the cassette, but my brother and I exchanged it back and forth as we played the hell out of it.

By now, the story of Nevermind is well-known. It bumped Michael Jackson and/or several hair metal bands from their perch atop the Billboard charts. It set off a signing frenzy of bands from Seattle. Grunge became a household term to describe anything in flannel, combat boots, and full of feedback. It ignited a cultural revolution – which may have only been superficial, but a movement nonetheless.

For me, it opened up a whole new world. There was the introduction to an underground I had no idea existed. It validated my disgust for the mainstream. And it gave new voice to my burgeoning political views. It did all this and then some.

Nirvana was one of the first (and maybe only) true indie bands to completely blow up. Their previous record, Bleach, sold a few thousand copies and sounded nothing like a band ready to take the world by storm. I love some tracks from that record, but I never heard anything on Bleach that made me think Nevermind was possible – and this was in retrospect.

The band was originally signed to Sub Pop. In fact, Nevermind featured Sub Pop’s logo, indicating that the label would pay its bills with Nirvana money for years to come. The Sub Pop narrative became an obsession of mine. My uncle was school chums with Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of the label. My uncle developed a substance addiction and Poneman developed bands. The rest was history. Still, I felt some sort of connection to the label and even the band that went beyond mere fandom.

Nirvana started getting press and at every turn, Kurt Cobain was championing some great band. Off the top of my head, I can think of Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, The Breeders, Beat Happening, Bikini Kill, etc. that came into my collection mainly due to Cobain’s insistence that his fans listen to other bands besides his own. And each of those new bands lead me to an infinite number of bands I won’t list here (not to mention all the great bands on Sub Pop over the years).

The funny part about Nirvana and Nevermind‘s influence over my music tastes is that this record wasn’t that great. Sure, it’s a nice collection of good songs. However, it’s a clear ripoff of The Pixies’ loud-quiet-loud dynamic. Someone had finally put to tape a collection that properly nodded to the underground and then spruced it up with a remix. It’s a slick-sounding record which sort of betrays what Nirvana was about. Lucky for us, MTV still showed music videos and live performances at that time to help us see what Nirvana was all about. Still, I’d have to say that In Utero was a stronger album and represented a truer version of Nirvana, but it didn’t have the impact Nevermind had.

Either way, the aesthetic and message of that album, Cobain’s championing of the underground, and my new obsession with Sub Pop and the Pacific Northwest pushed me into what is turning out to be a lifelong pursuit of independent rock, aka indie rock. Sure, Pavement is my favorite band of all-time, but Nirvana was my first true love.

Cobain not only used Nevermind as a way to promote the music he loved, but it was also the thing that vaulted him in the public eye in a way that made him the spokesperson of our generation. Fair or not, Kurt Cobain spoke to and sometimes for all of us. And the things of which he spoke were important. He was notorious for testing gender lines and the status quo. My eventual path down progressivism was initially guided by Cobain’s own political and social views. There are pieces of that in Nevermind. I found them while listening and re-listening in vain attempts to decipher Cobain’s screams.

It’s easy for someone to discount Nevermind‘s importance to society. I mean, it basically rehashed the previous 20 years of punk in one fell swoop. So, very little new ground was ever covered within its grooves. One might even point out that the record industry looks very much the same despite Nirvana’s success.

Still, it was the first wildly successful record that sounded the way indie bands did in those days. Nevermind‘s release was the culmination of decades of punk, hardcore, and indie breaking through a wall put up by major labels and corporate radio. That had as much to do with its big sound as anything. And the lasting effect is that indie artists actually share space on industry sales lists with major label releases. They command the same venues and often outlast their corporate cousins. I’m not sure indie music is as strong without Nevermind‘s success, even if it wasn’t an indie release itself.

And what about the music?

Maybe some of the most famous guitar licks to open an album ever happen at the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The best part of the song is that insults the mainstream kids who flocked to stores to buy Nirvana’s major label debut. It was an inside joke with legendary riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna. It’s the song that signified everything was changing. Maybe that change was fashionable or superficial for some, but whatever it was happened as this song first hit the airwaves.

The second track was the fourth single off the record. Interestingly, “In Bloom” was considered for Bleach, but I think most would agree that it fits with Nevermind‘s anti-mainstream theme. I don’t know whether it was prophetic or not, but the song came out as a single at the right time as sort of retort to all the d-bags and jocks who were adopting Nirvana as their own.

“Come As You Are” was the second single and, quite honestly, was more hit-worthy than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The only thing it lacked was the punch the first track contained. Still, a hit is a hit. Sadly, it’s clichéd to say, but this song was ironically accurate with its now infamous gun lyric.

“Breed” brought it in a way that Bleach-era Nirvana did. This song reeked of angst and alienation. Plus, it never hurt to attract young males with aggression and some heavy guitars.

The third single was “Lithium,” a song I think would have felt at home on In Utero, Nirvana’s best album. Teenage angst and male awkwardness comes through loud and clear. The loud-quiet-loud dynamic is certainly apparent. This is maybe Nevermind‘s best track.

Where do I begin with “Polly?” As the story goes, some assholes sang the song while raping a woman. Cobain was disgusted by the entire episode and made sure to call out the perpetrators in the liner notes for Nirvana’s rarities release, Incesticide. Aesthetically, it didn’t fit with Bleach and found itself on Nevermind. We all ate up that grunge performed acoustically thing. (see: MTV Unplugged)

Fuck, man. Rocking out to “Territorial Pissings” was what it was all about. And was he saying “gotta find a way, a better way” or was it “gotta find a way, I better wait?” Does it matter?

A perfect B-side for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was “Drain You.” This is maybe the lone love song of Nevermind. Following “Drain You” is the fantastic “Lounge Act” with its obtuse drug references. “Stay Away” was what every teen-age boy questioning everything thought all the time. “On a Plain” is one of the best songs any band has ever snuck into a next-to last slot.

“Something in the Way” is an eerie and depressing way to close the record. However, it hints at the subtlety Cobain longed to fit into his repertoire, getting away from the aggression of grunge and moving beyond Nevermind‘s pure aggression into something more complex.

I could write about the hidden track (“Endless, Nameless”), but it was hidden for a reason…

Nevermind was an important record for many reasons. This is the first time I’ve seen the reason to celebrate something that’s 20 years old. This album represented a movement, even a generation. I remember feeling a ton of dissatisfaction with the world and Nevermind captured that. In fact, I’d argue that Nevermind is still meaningful to our current condition. Generation X has been through a lot and Nevermind was there for all of it.

I was lucky enough to see Nirvana during their In Utero tour. They were probably the last huge band I could ever love. Nevermind was the beginning and the last two decades of searching for the thrill Nevermind gave me since has made for a fun ride through indie rock. Happy birthday, Nevermind.

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Gateway Beers (and Bands)

Posted in Beer by SM on December 22, 2010
Get it?

Image blatantly lifted from the blog I link to in the first sentence.

One of those beer and whiskey loving brothers[1] posed the following question:

Is Blue Moon good for craft beer, or is it a soul-sucking vortex of all that is good and holy?

Basically, the best selling “craft-style” beer[2] is Blue Moon. For the uninitiated, Blue Moon is hardly considered a craft beer. It is brewed and bottled by the monolithic Coors corporation, maker of all things rice adjunct-ed. So, crafty, Blue Moon is not. It is not the typical American industrial lager brewed with corn or rice, but that still doesn’t make it a craft beer.

However, that’s besides the point. Blue Moon’s status as mistaken craft brew makes it a prime candidate as a gateway to craft beer nirvana. Consumers who typically purchase cases of Budweiser or Coors, might take a chance on a Blue Moon. It’s light in color, not particularly offensive in flavor. So, it won’t scare anyone away. With some clever marketing, Blue Moon even feels like it could be a craft beer or the old-school “microbrew” to the craft beer ignorant. A beer with flavor that’s perceived as crafty might be a short jump to more ambitious brews, but I have yet to witness this effect. Let me illustrate…

Let’s just say that your PBR-guzzling bro orders the BM[3] at Friday’s or Chili’s or wherever BM is the most enticing option. He takes a swig (most likely from the bottle[4]) and holds the bottle out and inspects what he’s just dumped down his gullet. Cirtus. Bubblegum. This beer actually tastes like something other than beer.

“I might have to give some of these microbrews[5] a try.”

The night ends and eventually, your bro finds himself in the beer aisle with yet another case of PBR in-hand when he suddenly notices a display. On the display are some strange beers he’s never seen before tonight, before his craft beer revelation. They’re from exotic locales like Portland, San Diego, and Milton. The styles are even more interesting: India Pale Ale, Russian Imperial Stout, Saison with Brett. He realizes that these are the microbrews he was after. He drops the case and grabs what he thinks is a six-pack, only to find that it’s just a four-pack. That seems cool to him; this bro is low on cash after the trip to TGI Friday’s. Then he’s sees the price tag. “TEN FUCKING DOLLARS?!?”

Your bro carefully puts back the four-pack as if it’s his grandmother’s heirloom ceramic angels that he just super glued back together before she returns from the store. Then he eyes a bomber. “Hey, that’s like a forty. I love me some forties,” he thinks to himself. However, this “forty” is more expensive than the four-pack and has a cork in it. He nearly drops the beer before placing it back on the shelf, grabs his case, high-tails it out of the supermarket, and vows only to drink Blue Moon on special occasions, like eating at Chili’s.

And scene.

Of course, the vignette above doesn’t even address the surprise the craft beer curious experience when they do take a chance on a true craft beer. Imagine the same look the old dude with the bitter beer face from those ads in the early nineties upon a noob’s first sip of and IPA or DIPA in the neighborhood of 85+ IBU’s. Or think about that guy who drinks energy drinks instead of coffee because he doesn’t like the taste of coffee testing a big Russian Imperial Stout. Don’t even consider what happens when the craft beer ignorant try sours or Belgian beers. Forget it. This is not their father’s Blue Moon. If the prices don’t scare them off, the flavors will.

That’s why I think the best gateway into craft beer is…well…CRAFT BEER.

Take my gateway into craft beer, for instance. I started out on rice adjunct, industrial lagers like the rest of you. I tried to mix it up with a Rolling Rock[6] here, some Little Kings there, and maybe a Sapporo now and again. None of those beers satisfied and most imports of the day were skunked. Guinness and Sam Adams soon dominated my beverage choices by the end of college. After that, I often chose these beers or the periodic microbrew, thinking my palate was expanding but never really finding anything that challenged.

Then, the craft beer epiphany[7] happened.

I had ordered a sub sandwich to be delivered and figured I could wash it down with a beer. Of course, I didn’t really need a ton of beer, just a few before I settled in for the night. So, I sauntered down the street to the beer shop, the Pace-High Carryout. After looking around a bit, I noticed a cooler of these big beer bottles. Right at my eye level was a beer with a gargoyle looking back at me with the words “Stone Ruination IPA” etched on the bottle. I liked pale ales and the like and thought a couple of these bottles would do the trick for the evening. Plus, it seemed easier than lugging a sixer down the street.

Upon opening this beer and pouring it in the tumbler I once stole from a bar, the aromatic hops hit me like a ton of bricks. Then the huge malt backbone and tremendously intense hops pummeled my tongue into submission. How was this beer? Where had this kind of beverage been all my life? This was my gateway beer, not effing Blue Moon blandness in a bottle.

Of course, it took me a while to fully figure out this whole craft beer thing. It didn’t help that my local beer retailer had issues restocking their shelves. Either way, I was constantly in search of that big flavor and aroma Stone’s Ruination thrust upon me. The search never stopped, even after finding many, many fine craft beers. Bland beer did not make me a craft beer fan. Craft beer made me a craft beer fan.

The same goes for music[8]. My gateway band was Nirvana. Sure, I had flirted with the likes of U2 and REM, but it was Nirvana that exposed me to indie rock[9]. By the time I discovered Nirvana, they were no longer on Sub Pop, but Kurt Cobain and co’s feet were still firmly planted in the underground, choosing to tour with unknown indie bands, touting Dinosaur Jr on MTV and The Breeders in the pages of Rolling Stone.

I fell in love with indie rock because of indie bands, not bands marketed as indie or alternative. Bands who obviously came from and still supported the underground showed me a whole new world of music that corporate whores could not. Bands developed by major labels for the masses have never made me want to try out new bands the way indie bands have.

The point is that quality is not something one can fake through slick marketing or copying an aesthetic. You can’t beat the real thing, whether it’s music or beer. So, the next time you see your buddy reaching for the sixer of Blue Moon, direct him toward a Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca or Allagash White[10]. Or, really blow his mind with something else entirely, like an Arrogant Bastard or Maharaja. There’s no need to settle for the corporate thing that supposed to taste like the indie thing. Just go with the indie/craft product and we’ll all be happier.

Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s this.

1The little one.
2Read “craft-style” as “blatantly ripping off good, hard-working folk trying to keep tradition alive while still innovating and stretching boundaries in order to keep beer real” as that’s really all macro breweries are doing by marketing “craft-style” beers. Check the ratings for such beers on RateBeer or BeerAdvocate. You’ll find that the copycats only resemble craft beer in marketing and image, not flavor.
3I used this abbreviation for Blue Moon on the Brothers’ blog comments and it was pointed out that a “BM” is also a bowel movement. Freudian indeed.
4Because if you drink mocro beer, you don’t care what it smells like. In fact, you may actually hate the smell. I always ask people who drink a good beer from the bottle if they would smell a rose through a straw. Drinking a beer from a bottle has the same effect. Why is drinking from a beer bottle so accepted, but if I drink straight from a bottle of wine or liquor, I’m a lush? Avoid drinking from the bottle if you want to enjoy the beer. Pour it in a glass.
5I use the term “microbrews” as this is what peopel mistakenly call craft beer. I don’t know when/where this started, but I remember first calling them “microbrews” back in the nineties. The problem with the term is that it insinuates that these beers are somehow just smaller versions of the larger macrobrews or industrial lagers. Aside from the crazy numbers corporate beer pushers produce, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the macros are big, but their beers are not. Craft brewers brew the biggest beers and they are anything but smaller versions of Budweiser et al.
6At the time, Rolling Rock was still a pretty small, regional brewery. I thought I was drinking a microbrew at the time. Little did I know how similar they were to the big boys. Eventually, Rolling Rock was bought out by said big boys. The rest is rice adjunct history.
7Just learned this term in an interview by one of my favorite beer blogger/Buckeye fans, The Beer Wench. Her interview of The Dude from It’s a Fucking Beer is a must read.
8Sorry. This is where my argument gets a bit week. I still contend it applies, but I’m too lazy to really make it work. I’ll tie it all up with a reference back to the beer. Don’t you worry.
9This is a bit unfair to REM as they were and have always been a true ally to indie rock. I think it had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t old enough nor possessed the ability to know about REM and the bands they came up with. For me, they were not a good gateway as they were presented as something so separate from the underground, unlike Nirvana.
10Seriously. If someone likes a Belgian-style white ale/witbier that much, they should try what the style is really supposed to taste like. If they don’t like that, they should try other styles…or just quit pretending to like craft beer with real flavor.