I just learned that Michael Jackson has died.
Jackson was immensely influential on all of us: drinkers, brewers, distillers, and of course, writers. (He could be almost too influential; I remember one writer telling me that he didn't read Jackson's work at all any more, because he didn't want to sound too much like Jackson.) His books were bibles for beer and Scotch whisky drinkers -- moreso here than in the UK, perhaps -- and his tutored tastings were ground-breaking. Jackson was the first rock star of beer, drawing crowds of admiring fans whenever he appeared.
I was one of them. I met Michael in the men's room at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, during one of his mass tastings that was part of The Book & The Cook. It was before I even knew what TB&TC was; Michael Jackson was in town doing a beer tasting, what else did I need to know? After the tasting (yes, I took notes, and still have them), Jackson was signing books and I overheard someone asking him a question about "stock ale," in the context of the Samuel Adams Boston Ale, then sub-labeled as a stock ale. MJ gave a somewhat circuitous answer that left me still curious (At a TB&TC press breakfast years later, I told him I admired how he took questions, any question, from a beer audience and answered in detail. "It's simple," he told me. "If I don't know the answer, I take a sentence or two to speculate, another sentence to note what other subject that brings up, and then I just answer the question I want to answer.").
I was a long time in the line for the bathroom afterwards, and just as I stepped up to the urinal, I heard some commotion behind me: "Pass him up! Oh, please, Mr. Jackson, go ahead! After you!" The next thing I knew, there was MJ at the porcelian appliance next to me. I took the opportunity to introduce myself, declined an offer to shake hands, and asked him "So the stock ale: is that really a style, like a New England biere de garde, or just an extra-aged ale?" He eyed me, still working, and said, "Well, more age, more hops. It was made, but I don't know if I'd call it a style." I thanked him, we washed up, and then shook hands. I'd met Michael Jackson.
Working with John Hansell at Malt Advocate gave me a lot more chances to talk to Michael; he and John were good friends. Eventually I would wind up editing his column for the magazine. It was not something I looked forward to; Michael was a bit of a sloppy writer at times, largely because of the rush he was always in. MJ always had numerous pots boiling at the same time, a project here, a project there, trips, visits, lectures, editing, writing. He was immensely productive: multiple columns in print and on-line, books on beer and whisky, feature articles, video series, CDs. If it was about beer or whisky, he did it.
But it was Michael's sense of place that really made his writing so important to me. When MJ wrote about a beer, he wrote about where it was brewed and where people drank it, the look of the walls and the lay of the land, why the town was there and who the brewer's father was.
I remember driving Michael around on a tour of area breweries, a day that turned into a travel disaster. He was two and a half hours late leaving New York, thanks to some skinny git who was trying and never did open a brewpub in NYC, but still managed to hold MJ's attention all morning; I suspect he simply refused to take him to Tony Forder's house until he'd said all he had to say. We had to cancel the appointment at Yards and drive on to Brandywine Brewing near Wilmington in heavy rain.
Yet when Michael got there, he calmly pulled out his notebook, tasted beer, and started asking questions...about the rug in front of the fireplace. "Now why is that rug there? It doesn't look like the right place, it doesn't really fit with the rest of the room. Is there a spot on the floor? Why that rug?" I was baffled and a bit annoyed; I brought him all this way to find out about a cheap little imitation oriental rug? Dave Dietz shrugged and said "It's just a rug."
But as we slowly, slowly made our way up through heavy rain and ridiculous traffic to the Stoudt's Fest, arriving an hour before it ended (MJ made a quick tour of the floor, and then locked himself in Carol's office with a bottle of Triple), I realized that he was right. The rug didn't fit on the wide expanse of blonde wood floor. Except it was a touch of softness in an open space, something interesting. Whether he ever wrote about it or not (and I never saw anything about it), it was a memory key, a small something that would bring back the whole feel of the place. I learned that trick, and use it myself.
Maybe the most valuable thing I learned from Michael Jackson was that importance of place. I learned it second-hand, because it was actually something he told John Hansell, and John's hammered it home to me: you can't write about a place if you haven't been there. Seems simple, obvious, yet I see writers crossing it every week. I did. I'm working to overcome that, and to go to the places I write about.
What Michael meant is that it's crucial to go to the place where beer or whisky is made to understand it. I finally went to Scotland for the first time just last month, and Scotch whisky makes much more sense to me, even though I've been drinking it for years. I went to Köln and Düsseldorf in January to get my own personal understanding of kölsch and altbier. I've been to Kentucky a number of times, including 12-hour helldrives to save money. I went to Bamberg, I went to Aying, I went to Andechs. I'm planning a trip to Ireland, and a trip to Belgium. And it's all because of Michael Jackson.
What I do, every day I write, is all because of Michael Jackson. If MJ hadn't been there to fire my interest, to show me a path that could be taken, I'd still be a librarian. I might be happy with that, but I wouldn't have had the fun, the late nights with great people, the satisfaction of a well-written piece or the satisfaction of opening someone's eyes to a great beer, if not for Michael Jackson.
It's hard to believe he's gone. We all knew he was sick, he had been staring down Parkinson's for years. When I came across him walking to his Monk's dinner with Carolyn Smagalski this past spring, he seemed cheery, lucid, and not so weak as he had been. We greeted each other gladly, and walked on to Monk's -- that's the picture above. He did a great presentation, good stories, much less meandering than usual. It was the last time I'll see him.
Michael Jackson has died. I'll miss the man, the writer, the friend.
All About Beer has published MJ's last column for them on the web. Go read it; Michael had come to grips with his disease -- and death -- in his own singular way. I'm still holding off tears -- for a very Jacksonian reason; I have a story to complete -- but reading this almost broke me.