R.I.P. Gravity Head, with a reprise: “I’d stop drinking, but I’m no quitter”

Gravity Head 2006.

Today would have been the kickoff of Gravity Head at the New Albanian Brewing Company, which has quietly let it be known that the festival of strong beers is no more.

R.I.P. Gravity Head (1999 – 2022).

The period of Gravity Head’s mightiest cultural hegemony coincided with my period of co-ownership at NABC; the buyout was official in 2018, and I take credit for my share of the intellectual property, but hasten to acknowledge that Gravity Head always was a team effort.

My former business partners and co-workers have their reasons for retiring Gravity Head, and to me, their rationale makes perfect sense. Promoting a weeks-long event of any sort strains business as usual in an era of thin staffing, and is tantamount to walking a tight rope without a net in terms of placing emphasis on the consumption of highly alcoholic drinks.

Of course, strong beers remain an attraction in craft beer circles, such that an establishment like Pearl Street Taphouse in Jeffersonville essentially offers Gravity Head on a daily basis all year round—which is to say, little in the way of novelty remains to be celebrated at a time when better beer is ubiquitous.

And, I’m told that the outdoor walk-in used for cellaring kegs failed during high summer during 2020, and the contents essentially were baked. This suffices for the creation of Madeira wine, but not beer.

Following is a rumination compiled over time at the now defunct NA Confidential blog and other forums for commentary: “I’d stop drinking, but I’m no quitter.” I’m retaining the format, which includes thoughts about Gravity Head.

Before the drinking starts, let’s consider a ship leaving the dock and making for open water. We experienced this first-hand in 2016 aboard an oversized Baltic ferry, leaving Tallinn for Helsinki in the morning and returning at dusk the same day.

In darkness of night the specific sensation might be described as lights fading, but by daylight it is the gradual disappearance of land as the ship moves away from shore. Depending on the weather and the strength of one’s eyesight, there comes a split second when land no longer is visible. It’s a melancholy feeling, like the place itself has ceased to exist apart from a lingering imagination of it.

From this point forward, until the next port of call begins slowly to materialize past the bow, the journey becomes synonymous with the undulating rhythm of the sea.

Similarly, most aspects of business ownership consuming my daily existence for a quarter-century—the good, the bad, the stumbling and the sublime—have dissolved entirely into those distant invisible headlands. Now it’s just the rocking of the waves, and pondering what it all meant.

These days it seems like another person’s life.

Col. Sherman T. Potter: I gather you drink.
Captain“Hawkeye” Pierce: Only to excess.

In the Western cultural tradition, there are numerous examples of the seasoned drinker as a sodden protagonist, at times an inspiring and compelling figure —perhaps even a heroic one, as with Norm Peterson on Cheers—although bar owner Sam Malone was a reformed alcoholic, as was the real-life Nicholas Colosanto, who played the bartender Coach on the popular show.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, although it occurs to me some of you might not want to go here, finding this topic distasteful. At the same time, it would be pointless of me to deny or to disavow a career in beverage alcohol, or to suggest that it was only a job.

Trust me; my work wasn’t left atop a desk at the office.

I drink very differently now than before, and far less overall, but drinking’s still a conscious lifestyle choice. So it goes. I don’t drive while intoxicated, and command all drinkers to be responsible.

So, back to these fictional drinkers, who in my view reflect an existential aspect of the human condition. To be succinct, what else remains to be said, done or alibied when life’s fundamentally surreal futility strikes you as inescapable, and is best addressed and assuaged by peering through the bottom of a lifted glass, one deftly drained only seconds ago?

The cultural milieu of alcoholic beverages in places like India, Bolivia or Ghana remains a mystery to me, although it is clear that the pursuit of intoxicants is a universal human condition throughout the world. Certain European and American archetypes endure to entertain and enlighten, from Falstaff in olden times to Bukowski in ours, as buttressed by diverse personalities such as W.C. Fields, Dean Martin and Dudley Moore’s Arthur.

I’ve always been a reader of books. In the American literary oeuvre, one must push past cautionary tales of prohibitionist finger-wagging during the lamentably fevered Carrie Nation period of our national existence, straight to the dawn of the modern period occurring just after the Great War. Inhibitions fell prey to an all-encompassing, collective thirst enabled by the villainous Volstead Act, and brutal realism finally forced its way out of societal straitjackets.

Imbibing in print became great again.

It may have been Ernest Hemingway who first incorporated the drinker’s lifestyle as integral backdrop, seen most strikingly in his groundbreaking novel, The Sun Also Rises. Youthful, disaffected, expatriated Americans find solace in adult beverages at all hours of the day, even when they should be diligently working to appease the Puritanical prerequisites of capitalism and families back home.

The acerbic commentator Dorothy Parker emerged from this period, Scotch in hand. Equilibrium came with Repeal, and America scarcely skipped a beat, quickly eschewing Scott and Zelda for Reefer Madness and later, Timothy Leary. However, this is beyond the scope of today’s examination.

Malcolm Lowry was an Englishman heavily influenced by the New World, and he captured the bibulous essence in the person of Geoffrey Firmin, otherwise known as the Consul, in Under the Volcano. Firmin is a defeated man on the Day of the Dead, utterly adrift during his final hours on earth, navigating the streets of a dusty Mexican provincial town in search of celestial meaning and settling instead for bottles of mezcal hidden in the shrubbery, as well as an infamous midday jolt of aftershave.

When seeking literary inspiration across the pond, a personal favorite is J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, chronicling the antics of supposed student Sebastian Dangerfield, a profligate American carousing, drinking, roaring and whoring in Ireland. For more of the same, Anglo-style, consult Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and know that in his prime, the very real Amis fully imitated his art.

On the continent, Czech playwright-turned-statesman Vaclav Havel’s two-person play, Audience, posits an artistic, city-dwelling enemy of the totalitarian state abruptly sent as punishment to the hinterlands and a term as manual laborer in a brewery. He must endure the ramblings of his boss, who cannot refrain from sampling the fermented wares and hilariously sinks into inebriation while haplessly pretending to interrogate the urban exile.

The doctor in László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango desperately tries to ration his enabling pálinka (and fails) as he observes the disintegration of the dysfunctional collective farm, and in the first-person narrative of The Drinker, by Hans Fallada, the hapless Herr Sommer will swallow just about anything as he abruptly transitions from sobriety to alcoholism, and eventually to insanity — but schnapps is the preferred lubricant of his alarmingly precipitous decline.

For something approximating a philosophical rationale for the drinker’s lifestyle choice, we must turn to Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities and the bombastic figure of Mr. Traba, a retired Lutheran pastor in heavily Catholic (and Communist) Poland.

Mr. Traba’s daily doses of vodka are the pretext for a fateful decision. It is 1963, and he has decided to erase his life’s numerous frustrations by committing a final, exclamatory act: Assassinating comrade Gomulka, the unimaginative and degraded Communist tyrant. As the tragicomic final moment draws near, the perpetually intoxicated Mr. Traba addresses his companions:

Of course, there were moments in my wasted life when I got the audacious idea in my head to gain mastery of some earthly skill other than drinking, but upon reflection I rejected all these ideas. I drank all my life, and drinking was my work and my rest, my love and my hobby. Drinking was my art, my concert, and my artfully written sonnet. Drinking was my cognition, my description, my synthesis, and my analysis.

Only amateurs, laymen and graphomaniacs assert that you drink in order to soften the monstrosity of the world and to dull unbearable sensitivity. On the contrary, you drink in order to deepen pain and to heighten sensitivity. Especially in a case like mine: when there is nothing but drinking, it is necessary to make an art of drinking, it is necessary to reach the heart of the matter through drinking, and the heart of the matter is death.

When I first read the testimony of Pilch’s extraordinary character, I finally understood the contemporary reality of which all New Albanians boasting consciousness and a pulse must eventually grapple.

Even today, it is virtually impossible to attend a public meeting in this town without recourse to strong drink.

Meanwhile, an ancestral imperative creeps into the narrative.

When Gravity Head launches at NABC’s Pizzeria & Public House, as it will again this Friday, February 22, the familiar space and time continuum is briefly altered. Normal routines appear Byzantine by comparison. Life’s infinite horizons narrow. One reverts to existence by the hour, or minute by minute. Passing through the looking glass is perfectly boring by comparison.

As for the fest’s actual commencement, once the opening bell sounds there is a collective observance of Dr. Sidney Freedman’s immortal dictum:

“Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice – pull down your pants and slide on the ice.”

Why do I continue to mention Gravity Head even after my final, much belated exit in 2018 from the company I helped found?

It’s simple, because once upon a time Gravity Head was my idea. I’m proud of my creation. Of course Gravity Head no longer is about me, assuming it ever really was. It always took the entire workplace village to pull it off, and I imagine this remains true.

Besides, gravity’s the law. It’s bigger than you and me.

Gravity Head’s opening day has become somewhat of a chaotic scrum, and a singular tradition all its own. Folks seem content with the interior logic occurring at the fest’s beginning, but this isn’t what every celebrant looks forward to experiencing each year.

Rather, there’ll inevitably be a quiet Tuesday night on the second or third week, with a handful of friends, and leisurely, contemplative sipping of one or two quality libations, spiced with conversation. These are the precious moments that lead to feelings of timelessness.

And without timelessness, beer is far less interesting to me. Will I attend this year? Not sure, and it doesn’t matter. Have fun if you do, and be responsible.

These days I’m working in the beer trade at Pints&union in downtown New Albany. It’s been 17 years since our presumed civic revitalization began with the establishment of Bistro New Albany—a pivotal if short-lived eatery and watering hole. It operated where Brooklyn & The Butcher is located today.

Amid the prevailing Gahanian personality cult of present times, the pendulum has swung all the way back to alcohol as the best available means to deepen pain and heighten sensitivity. Dissipation may be a masochistic coping mechanism to counter the Disney-fried dictatorship, but it has the benefit of reminding us of how little the base culture of obliviousness has changed in all this time.

My favorite way of defining dissipation is this: “Unrestrained indulgence in physical pleasures, especially alcohol.”

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been an aficionado of dissipation, albeit in the manner of a willful, controlled narrative. In the hands of lesser mortals, dissipation can be harmful, but there are times when it proceeds from conscious calculation in the face of savage, visceral, conditioned responses, as when a glance at the calendar confirms that it’s a first Monday or third Thursday, and the occasion for another New Albany common council meeting.

(Given that attendance at fix-forever-in Redevelopment Commission meetings would require sedation by an anesthesiologist, let’s not even go there … literally as well as figuratively.)

Considering the implications of meeting attendance, you find yourself thinking about how those impossibly brief final hours should be spent before history rudely repeats itself as tragedy, farce or vaudeville’s worst ventriloquist routines. Will you smoke a cigarette, have a last supper, and leave a testament for posterity?

Better to have a stiff drink, relax and enjoy the inevitable. Dissipation suddenly ceases to be a pejorative term thrown your way by the kill-joys and health fascists, and comes to more closely resemble what Hemingway, a true giant of the dissipative genre, once described as a “means of sovereign action.”

Papa was talking about a bottle of liquor, which could be consumed, used to crack skulls or rendered into a Molotov cocktail, sometimes all at once. Until recently, I stuck to a regimen of Progressive Pints somewhere downtown before ambling down to the meeting room and taking in the floor show

But times change, and medicine’s effectiveness changes with them. Lately the prescription has come full circle, all the way back to the improvised still in the Swamp at the 4077th.

It may or may not have been gin, but there can be no doubt that it was the right stuff.

Hawkeye Pierce: Let’s make a pact about drinking.
Trapper John McIntyre: All right.
Hawkeye Pierce: Let’s never stop.