30 April 2010

Liquor King


beer We all know the results of the US prohibition on alcohol sales: good jazz, a proliferation of speakeasies … oh, and organised crime. This week the government increases the price of tobacco (why not go further, like Australia, and put cigarettes in brand-free packets that look like poison?). It also came down on ‘gardening’ shops that have been selling cannabis growing tools for years, but chooses to cherry-pick a careful report on alcohol abuse.

So this aside in a long piece in Smithsonian magazine on Wayne B. Wheeler, the US religious zealot who managed to get the prohibition law passed, had special resonance. Just how hard was it to get around a loophole?

As declarative as the 18th Amendment was—forbidding “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”—the Volstead Act allowed exceptions.

You were allowed to keep (and drink) liquor you had in your possession as of January 16, 1920; this enabled the Yale Club in New York, for instance, to stockpile a supply large enough to last the full 14 years that Prohibition was in force.

Farmers and others were allowed to “preserve” their fruit through fermentation, which placed hard cider in cupboards across the countryside and homemade wine in urban basements.

“Medicinal liquor” was still allowed, enriching physicians (who generally charged by the prescription) and pharmacists (who sold such “medicinal” brands as Old Grand-Dad and Johnnie Walker).

A religious exception created a boom in sacramental wines, leading one California vintner to sell communion wine—legally—in 14 different varieties, including port, sherry, tokay and cabernet sauvignon.

Early closing in pubs might see an increase in churchgoers there for the altar wine.

29 April 2010

High Priest on Queen

Stephen Stratford, the “literary gossip” who creates mischief over at Quote Unquote, reflects on a childhood epiphany: seeing Thelonious Monk live in concert in Tauranga. It reminded me of an anecdote I heard that, combined with a great photo that once seen is never forgotten, made the history books.

The story is twice removed but I can claim some ownership as it appears in Redmer Yska’s marijuana history because I told it to him on Lambton Quay (and also about the picture which he then used on p79 of his 1990 book New Zealand Green). He credited a mutual friend, though that kind of suited, also …

Monk on TimeMonk’s New Zealand visit happened in 1965, and one of the curiosities about it is that it happened under the auspices of what is now called Chamber Music NZ. So the beatniks of Tauranga would have been well outnumbered by Brahms loving farmers’ wives and their bemused husbands. Bob Owens probably heckled.

More beatniks were at an apres-gig Auckland party (perhaps that one in Parnell mentioned by Stratford). Monk was sitting down, surrounded by acolytes. He said, "Anyone got a cigarette?"

Instantly, the gaggle of Abe Lincoln-bearded young jazzers and hipsters around him flicked out their Rothmans. Monk was surrounded by a circle of erect filters.

Monk looked around them all, then said, "No. I mean a special cigarette..."

The person who was present and later told this story - artist Pat Hanly - said that almost no one there knew what Monk was referring to. But someone did, and sorted him out.

After another function pianist Mike Perjanik gave Monk a lift in his (I think) Ford Prefect back to the Montmartre or some club near Queen Street. But that's another story.

Instead, here is a link to Time magazine’s 28 February 1964 cover story on Monk. The image is by the Russian artist Boris Chaliapin, who painted so many Time covers when it gave the subject instant worldwide status. At the time, the Beatles had just conquered the US, but it would be three years before they received a cover. Monk’s cover had been planned for the last week of November 1963, but it was naturally bumped for the JFK assassination.

Which reminds me of another story. Janis Joplin was lined up for a cover of Newsweek in 1970, then almost as important as Time. Rock musicians were almost never on the cover of the two newsweeklies then, and the music press had yet to enter the mainstream. Joplin’s cover was pulled at the last minute because former president Dwight Eisenhower died after many years of illness.

Joplin shrieked, “Fourteen fucking heart attacks and he has to die in my fucking week?!”