40 Years in Beer (Book II, Part 43): Facing the music at Rich O’s in 1992


Previously: 40 Years in Beer (Book II, Part 42): Barr built the bar, and the Guinness began pouring.


That’s right, music.

After all, this series is meant to be autobiographical.

At the risk of pretentiousness, what I’m doing here is writing a book about me, a little at a time, and you are reading the essays that eventually will revert to being rough drafts, then rewritten, and hopefully combined into something bigger.

Beer certainly provides a unifying theme to the exercise, and undeniably beer has been the focus of my life for a good long while. It might still be, albeit not as pervasively as before. Knowledge itself never really goes out of fashion, although receptivity to certain bits of knowledge surely does, which has the lamentable effect of marginalizing the knowledgeable (in short, welcome to the decrepit condition of “beer knowledge” in 2024).

The part that matters most to me is that throughout a beer-themed adult life, I’ve never consumed, sold or marketed beer in a simplistic vacuum, to the exclusion of my other interests, like history, travel, books, walks, geography, food, bike rides – and music.

Rather, my aim has always been to unify these interests. I find them better together.

In the beginning at Rich O’s BBQ, soon to be refashioned into Rich O’s Public House (and later adopting the New Albanian Brewing Company moniker), it became my goal to weave these obsessions into a tapestry – a demonstrable style, both personally and as a component of the overall pub experience.

Obviously it was a pub, not a classroom, although there could always be little reminders here and there, perhaps most noticeably in a plethora of pictures, photos and wall hangings, each of them capable of becoming its own “teaching moment.”

Travel, apart from our own household journeys, eventually was facilitated in the form of beer trips to Europe that I organized for pub patrons and FOSSILS club members (1995 through 2004), which by the year 2000 had evolved into “beercycling” expeditions, with the finale coming in 2008.

In this vein, in 1992 I sensed an evolving inner awareness (read: sheer terror) that the development of a personal style – a part, a role, a persona –  was part and parcel of the Rich O’s job description, inducing an urgency to develop my personal face to the public as well as that of the business. Even before social media, branding wasn’t restricted to a product.

You were one of the products.

“The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.”

It had been only a decade since I was in college, when I read a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by sociologist Erving Goffman, who posited a theory of “self-presentation” to suggest that social interaction is akin to (theatrical) acting and performance. In short, we seek to control the impressions others have of us. I barely passed Sociology 101, and yet the book left an impression on me.

I’d been raised as an only child in an emotionally austere household, subject to crippling bouts of shyness. Now, although I still didn’t know what it meant to “own” much of anything other than a car, I was a publican in a wonderfully Old World sense of the term, literally the manager (and soon to be owner) of a pub, and while the operational details remained sketchy, I knew enough from patronizing drinking establishments that I must go about presenting myself, and there was even a recommended archetype: Sam Malone from Cheers, albeit without the good looks.

And so I knew that my specific presentational twist as “front man” would be a passion for beer bordering on the evangelical, worn openly on my sleeve, and also comprising the professional trunk from which branches of music, books, bikes and the rest would extend to complement our food, service, décor, value, and maybe even provide a measure of marginal competence at mathematics, a field that cruelly mocked me throughout my academic career.

To be perfectly clear, there was one reason, and one reason alone, that I was able to “get away” with the gradual learning curve required to hone my presentation and work a room: The O’Connell family’s five years of pizzeria sales and restaurant management experience.

It helped considerably that Amy had elevated the barbecue menu as she had, and her sister Kate was ready to come aboard. Their mother Sharon was taking early retirement to join the family business. Granted, we didn’t know at the time that Rich O’Connell wouldn’t be with us much longer (he left the family circa 1994, and I haven’t seen him one day since), but the two daughters and their mom possessed a work ethic uncommon nowadays. Everyone did a bit of everything, and also specialized where needed.

Unfortunately none of us learned how to repair pizza ovens, which would have saved the business a king’s ransom through the years.

Returning to those bits and pieces of my personal interests, as they came together to influence my daily working life and the stylistic interface of the pub, the simple fact is that not one, excepting my beer-related skill set, was more important than music.

There would come a time in this dawning age when I embraced the notion of periodic quiet time at the pub, a concept explained to me by my British friend Boris. Alas, my personal enthusiasm for silence proved to be a profoundly ill-fated notion in the context of implementation.

Whenever I’d recommend the simplest promotion ever – Quiet (no music) Mondays, or some such – our employees would react as though I’d suggested they stand on their heads in knee-deep raw sewage. Thus, while the music seldom ceased, the employee reaction taught me three important things.

  1. Employees fully understand the nature of music as a mechanism for creating a sense of affiliation in customers, this being a familiarity that bolsters a guest’s experience.
  2. Anything that bolsters a customer’s affiliation and familiarity is likely to lead directly to greater spending, and higher tips.
  3. Employees themselves view music as necessary to their own workplace morale, although usually only if they have some say in selecting what’s to be heard – and as an owner and manager, their choices work better when closely monitored.

Of these points, the third is the most difficult to parse. You want employees to have a say, but it cannot be taken for granted that their musical taste mirrors the establishment’s self-interest. Employees also tend to err in favor of intrusive and aggressive volume; some say discomfort of this sort helps by turning tables, but I don’t share this view. One cannot promote the virtue of conversation amid cacophonous tunes.

If one is to err in pacing, I believe it should be an error in favor of lingering.

Of course nowadays it’s mostly moot, and canned music comes down to selecting a digitized provider, paying fees and being sure it’s remunerating ASCAP and BMI (the primary music licensing agencies).

Or, you might emulate the owner at my most recent post-NABC pub position, who meticulously drafts Spotify playlists and wants them played every night, which is far too much formulaic repetition for my blood.

In the end music is a balancing act that each bar or eatery must address in its own way. At Rich O’s in the beginning, this task was simplified by staff and management being very much synonymous; in the short term, the music was all about me – and given that music does something to me, I tried to convey this indefinable essence to our guests by being a disc jockey as well as bartender and server.

Legendary journalist and commentator David Brinkley once said, “You’re entitled to my opinion.” That’s the same way I went about arranging the music at Rich O’s.

Exactly what music does to me remains a mystery. I’ve never been able to explain. It just happens. My molecules are somehow rearranged that when I walk into a supermarket and hear a song on the sound system, I stop dead and forget the shopping list. My wife Diana becomes understandably exasperated.

I can’t not listen, just as in similar fashion, I can’t ignore words wherever I see them, even when they’re on billboards as we’re speeding down the interstate. I must read them. It would be a startling change of pace for me to experience blank sonic inner space; Quiet Mondays or not, music would continue to play inside my head, just as it has for as long as I can remember.

My earliest childhood memories have melodic accompaniments. When very young, I’d go to sleep to the cracklings of an ancient AM radio, and perhaps that’s why absolutely nothing about being five years old remains intact in my memory except for hearing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “California Dreamin’” when both were smash hits.

The grooves on an LP collection of children’s music subsequently became worn and frayed. I recall two cuts in particular: An American folk song called “One More Day,” and Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo.”

The anecdotes are both endless and tedious, but the point is this: Music plays inside my noggin at all times, and always has. At times music invades my dreams. Most mornings upon awakening, a randomly selected song begins playing. It is glorious, maddening, and central to my being. And yet, for all the ways that music is the soundtrack of my life, I possess no musical skill whatever.

None. Zilch. Nada.

Instruments are a mystery to me, and my voice, once capable of decently carrying a tune for Floyd Central High School’s legendary choral director Mick Neely, has digressed through decades of misuse and abuse to the point of shower stall braying when alone, safely away from the ears of fellow humans, if not our utterly scandalized cats.

I listen, drum fingers, hum, whistle, and participate as best I can. It’s enough. My conclusion? If there is a “music gene,” I possess a strange variant of it. Music has spoken to me from the beginning. Had my formative years been spent with musicians as role models as opposed to athletes, perhaps it all would have turned out differently.

As it stands, I’ve no complaints. The innate pleasure to be derived from listening to music is more of an essential heartbeat than an optional amusement, and I can’t imagine life otherwise. If the music in my head ever stops playing, it will be the unmistakable sign of imminent death — and as atheists like me understand all too well, death is a symphony without encores.

At Rich O’s we had random home stereo components, a five-disc CD player and two speakers, which were duly mounted in Barr’s barroom.

We’d be playing Louisville’s three public radio stations (90.5 FM classical, 89.3 FM news, and 91.9 FM pop, rock and jazz) when not relying on cassettes and compact discs as the primary mediums for recorded music, although early on I bought a short wave radio, thinking we could listen to daily life in Berlin, Seoul or Buenos Aires. It never really worked out; I pivoted to the “world music” aisle, and today the internet can direct us to Radio Cairo in seconds flat.

I had cassettes aplenty dating to the 1970s, having never upgraded to the CD revolution during the following decade. In fact, when Rich O’s became my full-time job, I was impelled to at long last to abandon my cassette-driven musical existence in favor of CDs, of which I owned precisely none at the time. I possessed old vinyl but not a turntable, and LPs had gone completely out of fashion.

Ear X-tacy in the good old days (photo courtesy of Ear X-tacy and Kory Johnson).

During the following years I purchased hundreds of CDs. Many came from the seminal ear X-tacy shop in Louisville, both new and from the extensive used racks. I signed up for a BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) classical music magazine that came with a CD each month, as well as a Columbia subscription service for archival jazz and swing releases. Those “get 6 CDs for a dollar with no further obligation” mail order offers as yet proliferated, and more than once in the early 90s I took a stab at manipulating them to my benefit.

In 2024, somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 CDs line the walls in my home office, where I can reflect on the profound irony that our annual subscription to Amazon Prime enables me to stream all of them (and many thousands more) for a couple hundred bucks a year.

However, I’ve no regrets whatever amassing the collection. For most of us in 1992, the notion being on-line pertained to drying laundry outdoors, and without CDs, I couldn’t have made it through my first year at Rich O’s, where they all were shelved (not at our house), because when the only time you’re spending at home is a few hours to sleep, why not be a  pragmatist about it?

Music was simply a matter of mental health. Those first months of my tenure were hectic, and as one tends to do in the food service sector, I worked, drank, ate cold pizza and slept a just a little bit before rinsing and repeating – just about every day, for a good long while.

As the pub gained regulars and we all got to know each other*, there was a gratifying musical cross-pollination, especially later in the evening on Fridays and Saturdays; supposedly Rich O’s closed at 11:00 p.m., or maybe midnight. It probably will surprise you to learn that the closing time was often ignored. The blinds were closed, and the front door locked. Those were the times when the music got loud with no possibility of complaint.

Previously I’ve mentioned ROCK-FM, the post-communist pop/rock radio station in Bratislava, its signal relayed to Košice, where it kept me company via my cheap South Korean boom box during the teaching engagement in 1991-92. ROCK-FM is how the word “grunge” first came to my attention in the autumn of 1991.

ROCK-FM pursued a programming strategy of hour-long blocks, embracing numerous genres, from rock to jazz, r&b to country, and Top 40 to vintage album tracks. The “new era” exuberance of the station’s broadcasts was palpable; after 40 years of playlists determined by political writ, suddenly people there could listen to whatever they wished, and radio could freely play it.

Weirdly, listening to music while working during those prehistoric times at Rich O’s struck me the same way. At last I had an opportunity to listen. The work/travel schedule I’d adopted during the previous decade had not included much leisure time for music, apart from the limitations of my car radio and whatever happened to be playing at bars and restaurants I frequented.

I was able to keep up with the times, but only barely. Beginning in 1992, there was a great deal of catching up to do. As with post-communist Czechoslovakia, the state of my existence reflected suppressed demand for music.

Henceforth, and until this very day, the search for new music “of the sort that Roger likes” became a priority … and if our customers liked what I chose, it was a bonus, albeit with a flip side: They did not like the Bulgarian Women’s Choir CD, which was set aside for use when I actually did want to go home and sleep.

Those Balkan gals could clear a room like no other, and I’ve never properly thanked them.

* Especially Jerry Meredith; when it comes to music, we’re blood brothers. More on Jerry in a later installment.

APPENDIX: 1991 and 1992 Album Lists

Of course it’s impossible to accurately reconstruct the “playlist” at Rich O’s from the point in late summer of 1992, when I began spending the bulk of my waking hours working there and listening to CDs. However, the following two “greatest hits” lists gather some of the releases I purchased and played often that autumn, and into the following year of 1993. 

Crowded House … Woodface
Jesus Jones … Doubt
Guns ‘N’ Roses … Use Your Illusion I & 2
John Mellencamp … Whenever We Wanted
Nirvana … Nevermind
Pearl Jam … Ten
Prince & The New Power Generation … Diamonds and Pearls
R.E.M. … Out of Time
Red Hot Chili Peppers … Blood Sugar Sex Magik
U2 … Achtung Baby

10,000 Maniacs … Our Time in Eden
Alice in Chains … Dirt
Lindsey Buckingham … Out of the Cradle
Peter Gabriel … Us
Gin Blossoms … New Miserable Experience
INXS … Welcome to Wherever You Are
Morrissey … Your Arsenal
R.E.M. … Automatic for the People
Soul Asylum … Grave Dancers Union
XTC … Nonsuch

Next: 40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 44: Life becoming a landslide (1992-93).


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