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Friday, May 20, 2005

The Modern Drunkard Convention: not the reportage you were expecting

It was Friday the 13th. I was slated to speak from stage to sundry drunken throngs on Sunday, but wanted to get the whole experience. I was sitting in row 13 as my flight swooped into Denver. I knew it would be special.

Modern Drunkard Magazine had me picked up at the airport by one of their (almost all) part time staff. "I’d do anything for Frank and Christa" Frank Bell told me cheerfully as we headed downtown. Mr. Bell had been designated the driver of the Drunk Bus which carted the horde of Drunkards from venue to venue to hotels for the 1st convention last year in Las Vegas. In fact he drove the bus there from Denver. It was that sort of unmitigated loyalty that I’d see repeatedly from the MDM staff during my stay.

All my hotel arrangements, likewise, seemed (rather counter-intuitively) to have been performed by a sober person; I was expected, and all was in order. At 7pm I strolled over to the Ogden Theater which turned out to be purely a rock & roll venue, not unlike the Hollywood Palladium. Things were already in full swing. Frank Kelly Rich, the human embodiment of Modern Drunkard Magazine and the brain behind the convention was onstage introducing his staffers to thunderous applause. It looked like the three bars and 2 large kegs were at full steam, as was Frank.

The performances during the three day event were an odd mix of Cirque de Solé, burlesque, lounge, rock, comedy and country thrash. Then there was me, but that comes later.

Frank was somewhat the worse for wear by the time he caught sight of me. "DOCTOR Cocktail, I am soooo glad yrrrr here!" he slurred with a giant grin. And that is really what this is all about; the cult of Frank. Everybody loves Frank Kelly Rich. He’s disarmingly sincere. In this case, a fearsome percentage of attendees wanted a personal drink with the Man. He was not fain to turn any of them down and he’d had a lot more to drink than showed. His stamina was truly awesome. He kept this up all night and, having reached this fairly early plateau of mildly slurred speech maintained that level, juggernaut-like for the unreeling hours of love. Despite the few dander-raising issues in his life (Jack Daniel’s lowering the proof of their whisky without telling anyone and THEN continuing to piously claim tradition is one, Denver Sunday Blue Laws - backed by Big Beer, he says - is another) Frank is a bona fide people lover, and it shows. When, that night, the boozing finally began to take its toll, his wife Christa was by him, head to head stroking his blond hair, and shortly thereafter they disappeared. Though, by special arrangement with various venues (including a former synagogue,) the partying would go literally all night, I also hightailed it back to the hotel full of amusement and Maker’s Mark - both on Frank’s tab.

Denver has a lot of bars, especially down on East Colfax Ave. I mean a LOT of bars. The bars are what pay for Modern Drunkard Magazine through their ads and the magazine repays them in kind with free copies, fresh humor and alcoholic insights monthly. that’s the other thing about Frank…. he’s really very smart. He’s written four novels…. fiction potboilers, and does the best of the writing for the mag and website. He has a new book deal with a major publishing house for Modern Drunkard-branded wisdom. Frank and I share literary agents, so I am bound not to reveal his advance, but if you were there and saw a couple marbles rolling around on the floor, thank you for not stepping on them - they were my eyeballs.

Which brings us to the little teapot tempest between MDM and Martini Republic before my tenure here. Editor Joseph handed MDM a backhanded compliment by directing readers to MDM’s Bill W. (A.A.) story - while opining that the writing from a grammarian point of view was, well, beneath MR’s standards. I suppose he had to say it; MR’s many viperous antagonists would surely have had a field day connecting this blog, which revels in its virtuousness, with the Drunkards’ rabble. And to be fair, when Modern Drunkard interviewed me the transcriptionists turned LA into San Francisco and my word "assuage" into "a sway." When I wrote them about it, Frank quipped, "That’s why we call ‘em the 100-proof readers!" but the website had the corrections in place the next day. That said, while Martini Republic revels in this sort of confrontation, it was a bit of a sucker punch to MDM which exudes boozy good will - and whose readers are as loyal as their staff. How loyal? Loyal like Macintosh computer owners-loyal. So they had the obligatory write in campaign and withering put downs grew like wildflowers. When I told Frank I’d be writing for Martini Republic, he simply said "Better watch out for those guys, Doc, they’re a bunch of commies." At the time I took it as a compliment. Anyway, if Joseph was actually taking issue with the talent on MDM’s staff, he wasn’t looking closely enough - and he had it wrong. If, more likely, it was the 100-proof readers, well… oh, well! The lifeblood of online posting is over-reaction.

So Frank was ensconced most of the second day with reporters as the entertainment continued to unfold. I’m not going to make any effort to further describe the acts. I’m not that kind of a reporter. On this evening, though, I chose to indulge in the one liquor company sponsor brave enough to contribute its name (and booth) to the convention: Fernet Branca. Rockers love Fernet Branca for the same reason Bikers love Malort (or, to be correct, Malørt) - to show how tough they are. Me? I actually like it. I actually like both. I like Ng ka py too, and everyone knows Ng ka py is for really tough bastards. So it was Maker’s and Fernet, though in honor of my first full convention day, I started out a smidge earlier with a three Martini lunch. Mainly the second day was the "Where’s Frank?" day. I was thinking that perhaps the Modern Drunkards’ Convention in Denver was just a little TOO close to home for Frank’s good health.

On the third day (how very biblical) I rested. I arrived an hour before I was to take stage, donned my Dr.Cocktail shirt, a stethoscope, and a 1948 physicians electrical head mirror. Frank was being interviewed by the BBC. The MC "Titsa Galore" introduced me and I spent the next hour talking earnestly about mixed drink history. I explained fermentation, distillation, the first mixed drinks (spiced wine,) the first liquor (brandy,) the main precursor to the cocktail (punch) and the whole history of the cocktail. Every 15 minutes I made a cocktail of the sort I revealed in my book: a forgotten cocktail. I’d take a sip and pass it down to the audience who had, at this point, made an orderly group to receive these sacraments. I told them of the ultimate cocktail (laudanum). I had a heckler - a set of powerful lungs screaming "COCKTAILLLLLLL!!!" repeatedly. I leaned over and said "try laudanum." "LAUDANUMMMM!!!!" "Very good," I said, "but that’s not what I meant." It was really the most harmonious stage experience I’ve ever had. The Drunkards were the dream rapt audience. From the wild applause the moment I said "I’M Dr. Cocktail - and YOU’RE the Modern Drunkards" to the serious questions in the experts seminar (me, Frank, and the MDM staff) that would follow, the whole convention had a kind of warmth of heart that is quite out of style these days, and really has been since the 60s. It felt good. It was the emotional opposite of punditry.

I find myself hoping for a long vital life for Frank and his coterie, and maybe worrying too. We got along very well, he and I. I think he was intellectually fascinated by the doppelgangers that were our mutual - and mutually-different - lives in alcohol, as was I. “You know,” he said, “yours was the longest interview I’ve ever done.” Bless your Kerouac-heart and just be well Frank, if you can’t be good.