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Intimate Digressions with Michael Jackson

Intimate Digressions with Michael Jackson

The roses, Michael, they’re stunning!”

“Happy birthday, Lover. And the color?”

“Gorgeous … deep … blood red.” I spooned the words slowly, feeding him each in a provocative tone, projecting a visual descriptive for his mind’s eye.

“They were supposed to be white,” he grumbled. A Yorkshireman speaks his mind, as he often stated with “to-the-point” brevity. His steely stubbornness was showing. “The white rose of Yorkshire!”

“As you are, Michael.” I understood.

The blooms were not just a gift. They were the very symbol of himself, the depths of which traced traditions reflected by Chaucer, Cambridge and Oxford. ‘Liberties of England, Liberties of the Forest.’ The symbol of light: purity, joy and glory.

In his twilight years, Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter, captured love. His last article written in All About Beer Magazine meandered through his classic digressions to land mid-point, with, “Let me see, where have I been? In love. Yes, I have been in love. That’s for sure. Still am.”

Locked in time, a bittersweet treasure, left surreptitiously by the rambling bard of global renown. Was this ardor simply an anomaly? How did the Beer Hunter from London come to rendezvous with this Beer Fox from across the pond? A woman from Philadelphia, no less?

Why not Philadelphia? In 1999, Em-Jay, as many called him, wrote an article titled, “Why I Would Rather Be in Philadelphia,” as if his Bohemian spirit could foresee the future. Philly was still in its puberty, not yet proclaimed as “the Best Beer Drinking City in America.” Its well-defined neighborhoods and vibrant center provided substance, while Jackson’s persistence gave it form. For 17 years, catering entrepreneur Bruce Nichols introduced this world authority as the scholarly lead for Tutored Beer Tastings and Whisky Dinners at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in conjunction with the Book and the Cook. To Jackson, Philadelphia felt like home and his love for Philly was infectious. His events would draw 1,000 people.

Afterwards, he would wind his way to Monk’s Café at 16th and Spruce Streets where Tom Peters and Fergus Carey, along with friends and the star-struck, digressed with him about his other passions: rugby league… not union… league, blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, and that first feel through Gina Coletta’s blouse. “Back then, we were all Ginger Men,” chimed-in the Irishman.

Jackson immortalized Dock Street, Yards, Victory, Nodding Head, and Stoudt’s, along with Dogfish Head and its revered Chicory Stout, which he claimed “gave him an orgasm.” Not to mention Climax, in New Jersey. Nicole Courides had yet to establish Intercourse. Nonetheless, he might claim that Philly was “the final station after Paisley, the end of the line.”

In Philadelphia, Jackson was a Rock Star, a diamond on the cutting edge. Worldwide, it was considered chic to rub-elbows with him. Photos with Rudy Giuliani of New York, Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern of Ireland tell the story. But a side of him was humble and self-deprecating, the image of Sebastian Dangerfield, J.P. Donleavy’s original Ginger Man. Or perhaps Bruce Chatwin: “Gone to Patagonia.” On rare occasions, he would be asked to endorse a breast or a bra. He might banter at the latter, saying she was dyslexic and really wanted him to autograph her bar. But he considered it a privilege, albeit a sheepishly-disguised one. But why not Philadelphia? The springboard of John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Patti LaBelle, Grover Washington, Jr. … jazz greats, loved by this true Renaissance Man. Philly had Ortleib’s Jazzhouse, after all. It was close to New York, too, with its jazz clubs and whisky bars, mellow venues where one could munch on tapas and melt into the walls after book signings or public appearances.

In reflection, Philadelphia must have possessed the right stuff. Three tasting sessions at the mummy museum, hunger and weariness – the perfect set-up for a late-night “meal,” as he called it. The White Dog Café seemed inconspicuous enough, but the unnerved waiter couldn’t understand his British accent. Jackson thought it funny. His compatriots, of late, told him he spoke like an American. A singular paradox, indeed. I translated, his eyes sparkled … the chemistry worked. Love happened quickly.

He privately shared the details of his Parkinson’s after only three months–his Parkinson’s, as if he owned it. He had diabetes too –the kind that required insulin, but that never stopped him from a steady regimen of double chocolate chip cookies and Golden Pride, or maybe some brownies. Despite his health issues, he continued to adhere to a rigid schedule: travel, personal appearances and prolific writing.

“The sun is setting behind blazing torches. They’ve presented me dancers, dressed in gold, costumed like sheaves of wheat,” he whispered into the phone, while uninhibited Karsilama rhythms blanketed the background. He was in Turkey, at a ribbon-cutting for a new line of beer, another emerging Eurasian market. It was January. I stared at the inky darkness that enveloped the Historic Anchorage Hotel where I had settled-in for the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival. “Are you going mushing?” he quipped.

Every place, every beer, every leg of travel had a story, a digression that added richness to the theme. Along with these digressions, he’d say, “Camera rolling? Story by Michael Jackson.”

It caught him off balance when “a couple of young guys, hardly old enough to drink” recognized him late one night, heading into the Four Seasons. But being recognized on the street infused life into him, a shot of adrenaline that pumped him to action. So did being in love. In London, we dined on white Borscht and ruffleedged pierogies–the complete European experience, surrounded by Polish décor, while owner Eva Michalik served a digestif of flavored vodka. Country-western music played in the background. Who couldn’t laugh?

Michael Jackson’s triumph at the James Beard Awards in New York City seemed the pinnacle of success, the Everest in a career rich with prodigious honors. “Whiskey: the Definitive World Guide” was chosen for the distinguished Book Award in the Wine & Spirits division. Backstage, they presented him a flûte for his celebratory photo-op, along with the James Beard Medal to juxtapose his illustrious Master of the Quaich medallion. I hoped the glass was filled with Malheur, but it was devoid of head. No, it was, indeed, champagne. “Michael, we still have work to do,” I sighed. “They really must read your books on beer.”

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