Beers I Have Known: Leinenkugel’s

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

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When I was in college, “craft beer” wasn’t a term I or any of my peers knew. We had only three categories of that particular potable: cheap beer, slightly-less-cheap beer, and imports. Luckily, I lived in a state where the culture of local breweries endured nicely, even toughing it out through prohibition. This meant that even my cheap beer options were pretty good. Stevens Point Brewery was right down the road from my college, so their products were our obvious go-to, leading to a lingering personal affection that I’ve expounded upon many times in this space. On those occasions when a change of pace was desire, my cohorts and I typically moved one cooler over and grabbed a case of Leinenkugel’s.

These days, Leinenkugel’s is probably best known for one of their ever-growing number of varietals. The national ad spending to tout their Summer Shandy all but guarantees that’s to be the case outside of Wisconsin. Back then, though, the only beer we needed was the original, a crisp, reverberating lager that was fundamentally the same brew the company has been making since the eighteen-hundreds. It was unfussy and deeply satisfying.

While Point could be more difficult to come by the further we were from the middle of the state, Leinenkugel’s was everywhere, which meant it was even more likely to be our beer of choice when we gallivanting around America’s Dairyland. Since that was more likely to happen in the warmer months, my strongest associations with Leinenkugel’s are around the activities that took place in the sunshine, like Milwaukee Brewers games or outdoor concerts. Forget what the commercials say, the original is the true taste of Wisconsin summer.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 112 – 110

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112. The Jam, “Start!”

“Thinking back on that period between 1980 and 1982, it was pretty relentless,” the Jam drummer Rick Buckler wrote in his autobiography. “We were literally being swept along by the momentum of the success that we were having. And the more success we achieved, the more demanding everything became. All we could was allow ourselves to go with the flow. Much of that period is simply a blur. But we were doing exactly what we wanted to do, and it was great.” According to the band’s lead singer, lead guitarist, and chief creative force, Paul Weller, part of doing exactly what they wanted to do involved avoid complacency at all costs. By early 1980, the band was ascendent on the U.K. charts, nabbing their first #1 single with “Going Underground.” Befitting an act that made their name at a time when punk was more a description of an ethos than a narrow definition of a music style, the Jam saw hitting a pinnacle like that as an impetus to tear it all down. “I thought ‘Going Underground’ was a peak, and we were getting a little safe with that sound,” Weller said at the time. “That’s why we’ve done ‘Start!'” For the song, Weller drew directly and aggressively from others. The track uses a bass line so clearly lifted from the Beatles’ “Taxman” that the band was certain a lawsuit would follow. (It didn’t.) And the lyrics were inspired by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a book built around his reporting from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Weller was most effected by Orwell’s writing about the ins and outs of democratic socialism as it was being practiced in Spain at the time. “There is a lot of talk of an egalitarian society where all people are equal, but this was it, actually in existence, which, for me, is something that is very hard to imagine,” Weller said. The Jam may have been attempting a creative shake-up, but it didn’t phase their growing audience. “Start!” became the band’s second straight chart-topper in the U.K., displacing no less than David Bowie from that position, in the fall of 1980.

 

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111. Gene Loves Jezebel, “Heartache”

The clear perception of the band Gene Loves Jezebel was that it was comprised of Welsh twin brothers Jay and Michael Aston. The was understandable. The siblings were at the forefront of all promotional efforts around the band, and they did tend to burn through backing musicians. Six years into the band’s career, they were already on their fifth drummer. The Astons tried to push back against that narrative, but the most compelling testimony comes from the other musicians who cycled into the lineup at one time or another, including guitarist James Stevenson. “A lot of the songs started with my guitar parts, my guitar riffs,” Stevenson explained. “That song ‘Heartache,’ and I don’t know how familiar you are with the songs or the band’s material, but that came from my riff in the first place. I mean, I had a lot of freedom in that band to be creative and come up with musical ideas that the twins could play off.” That creative freedom may have stemmed in part from a failed collaboration with one of most famed musical fellow countrymen of the Astons. They attempted to work with former Velvet Underground titan John Cale, but it proved disastrous. “We learned two valuable things, though: to improvise more and push ourselves,” Michael Aston said. While hardly a smash, “Heartache” became Gene Loves Jezebel’s second single to hit the proper U.K. chart (as opposed to the “Indie” chart) when it was released in 1986.

 

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110. Love and Rockets, “Kundalini Express”

It’s entirely understood that head-melting experiences with LSD informed a big batch of swirling rock ‘n’ roll songs in the nineteen-sixties and into the nineteen-seventies, but there were a few artists still turning to the drug for inspiration in the decades that followed. Love and Rockets were surely the most notable trippers turning their addling LSD experiences into pop music for the college radio set in the eighties, in part as a method to decisively distance themselves from the goth music of Bauhaus, the seminal band where most of the members of Love and Rockets got their start. According to David J, bassist and vocalist for Love and Rockets, the track “Kundalini Express” was originally intended to be a sort of history lesson about their drug of choice. “That song originally was gonna be called ‘Dr. Hofmann,’ and it was going to be about Albert Hofmann discovering LSD, but it just sort of mutated into this lyric about kundalini and aligning that with psychedelic experience,” J said. “Just before I started experimenting with psychedelics, I had a spontaneous kundalini experience when I was meditating. I didn’t know anything about kundalini, but I started to hyperventilate, and then I effectively stopped breathing, which was very strange.” J’s experience with the dharmic energy that originates at the base of the spine led to, as he referred to it, as a “cosmic orgasm,” which presumably is a memorable enough occurrence to inspire some lyrics and melody. “Kundalini Express” became the first single from Love and Rockets’ sophomore album, Express, released in 1986.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Sleepwalkers and White Men Can’t Jump

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This can be yours for $9.99!

Here’s another fine example of the strain and struggle I went through to link separate films when I wrote about them for The Pointer, the student newspaper where I attended college.  My only real recollection of this article involves being stopped in the hallway of the Communication Arts Center by a professor who skeptically grilled me on whether or not I’d actually seen Sunset Boulevard. I had. The academic should have given me grief over the ridiculous mixed metaphor in the last paragraph.

Writers have long been the undervalued heroes of moviemaking. Films from Sunset Boulevard to last year’s Barton Fink have shown with scathing accuracy the shabby treatment endured by the people who first generate the ideas and give actors the words to speak. Yet two recent film releases position the person behind the original screenplay as the true star, though only one film is good enough to merit true praise for the author.

STEPHEN KING’S SLEEPWALKERS: Rather than being lifted from a previously published tale, the latest horror feature to beat the name of Stephen King boasts a story that created especially for the big screen. Like the numerous adaptations of his novels and short stories, this stands as a forgettable fumble he should be embarrassed to have his name on.

The Sleepwalkers of the film’s title are shapeshifters that consume human energy to survive. A mother and son pair take the form of a pleasant-looking, middle class family and move into a small Indiana town where the son (Brian Krause) begins scouting his high school class for a pure-hearted girl to take home for mom (Alice Krige) to dine upon. A pretty movie theater employee (Mädchen Amick) is the most appealing target, but manages to continually escape the Sleepwalkers due to the timely intervention of cats, the one thing that can kill the monsters.

The creepiness of the earliest portions of the film is eventually set completely aside in favor of standard slasher movie tactics. People are thrown through windows, police officers are killed by being stabbed with pencils and corn cobs, and the audience yawns all the way to the overblown conclusion.

WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP: A far better script is at the heart of the latest from writer-director Ron Shelton. The man who struck gold with the 1988 baseball comedy Bull Durham returns to the world of sports, this time focusing on blacktop basketball and the hustlers who play it.

Woody Harrelson is the white man who can’t jump, but he can do just about everything else well enough to team up with Wesley Snipes (Jungle Fever, New Jack City) to scam big money out of players on playground courts across Southern California.

The movie occasionally drifts into unnecessary and uninteresting subplots, but when Shelton focuses on the two main characters the sharp spark of their fiery verbal sparring drives the film along at a breakneck pace. And when the two play basketball their sheer skill and boisterous energy generate undeniable excitement.

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One for Friday: Robyn Hitchcock, “The Only Living Boy in New York”

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I can’t begin to explain how strange it was. While I’m loathe to admit it (and usually build in a slew of distancing qualifiers whenever I acknowledge what’s about to follow), I largely grew up in a small Wisconsin town called Stoughton. Technically a distant suburb of Madison, the state capital, the town had a decidedly rural feel to it, thanks to the buffer of tobacco farms and other agricultural homesteads around the modest municipal center. The comparably erudite opportunities of Madison were thirty minutes and a whole world away. Culture dribbled into my town slowly and unwillingly. Certainly anything a little odd was never likely to cross the imaginary line that designated the border.

When I went off to college, I happily embraced one of the most resolutely strange musical artist who took a favored place in the student-run radio station’s rotation. It’s unclear to me if Robyn Hitchcock was my favorite artist back then, but he was surely the one the meant to most to me. Amidst his bizarre imagery of tendrils and melting wax dolls, there was a piercing emotional honesty that I found elevating. Maybe more than any other records that I placed on one of the two station turntables in that radio station, those that featured Hitchcock, with or without the Egyptians, were most likely to feel like they were cracking open a part of the universe that was previously forbidden, or at least beyond the established limits of my perception.

A little more than a year ago, I returned to my home state of Wisconsin after nearly a decade-and-a-half of residency in other places. There have been a series of entirely unexpected opportunities since my homecoming, including a live show by a long defunct local band that I was sure I’d never see on a stage. Nothing is more mind-bending to me, though, than Hitchcock playing to a reasonably full audience at a posh Main Street venue in Stoughton, Wisconsin. But there he was, and there I was.

To commemorate, I hunted down a song Hitchcock mentioned but did not play that night. In keeping with his typical methodology for asking for soundboard adjustments, Hitchcock at one point asked his traveling tech to make him sound like Art Garfunkel on “The Only Living Boy in New York.” When Hitchcock recently settled into the studios of Seattle’s KEXP-FM for an extended on-air performance, he took a crack at that very Simon and Garfunkel classic. Rather than a fleeting flirtation with broadcast listeners that vanishes into the ether immediately after it airs, such a thing is preserved on the internet, accessible for all who care to click. So many miracles, so little time.

Listen or download –> Robyn Hitchcock, “The Only Living Boy in New York”

(Disclaimer: I got this music file from the invaluable Internet Archive, which doesn’t post such material unless the artist and, presumably in this case, the originating radio station is down with it. I’m therefore operating with the understanding that it’s equally acceptable for me to share it here. I guess that could be incorrect. I didn’t exactly scrutinize the fine print. Regardless, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request. And I’ll also urge everyone to head out to their favorite local, independently-owned record store and buy any Robyn Hitchcock album they see. They’re all worthy of love.)

 

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Now Playing: Loving

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It can be too much of a burden to put on a movie, to insist that it offer a cautionary alarm about the conflicts and risks swarming into modern society, doing so with clarity and firm intent. It is challenging enough to tell a story on screen, especially one based in fact, when the needs of drama and the moral obligation of accuracy can tug on different sleeves, without the pressure of winning a moral argument. And yet that is precisely what certain movies can do. It is not necessarily an obligation, but it is a gift, at least of sorts. Relevance can arrive.

Loving, the new film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, debuted in May, at the Cannes Film Festival. It opened in limited release days before the U.S. presidency was decided and will be seen by most in the smoldering aftermath of that historic event. For most audiences, it will be be viewed in that context. No matter what motivated each of the tens of millions of voters who cast their ballot for a man who casually trafficked in aggressive hate, the most shameful strain of the national character has been given a triumphal moment. Suddenly and with ample, agonizing warning, it’s now difficult to see Loving as a depiction of a past we’ve moved beyond.

Richard and Mildred Loving (played in the film by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively) weren’t chosen to stand on one side of a prolonged legal battle over miscegenation laws because they were the perfect plaintiffs, though in many respects they were, right down to their shared last name. In arguing that the state had no business imposing a social prejudice over which consenting adults could marry, there’s no more fitting name for the court case than Loving v. Virginia, as if the act of affection itself was standing up to testify. More than that, the Lovings were no rabble-rousers, fiery radicals hurling invectives as they demanded their rights. They were quiet and unassuming, humble people from the country who wanted to live a quiet life in the way they chose. With his crew cut and bricklayer build, Richard even looked the stereotype of the sort of redneck who’d be standing outside the courthouse angrily rooting for the outcome that would keep a mixed-race couple separated by the force of law.

The film, which draws significantly from the 2012 documentary The Loving Story, honors the individuals it depicts by adhering to their restraint. Nichols is careful and kind, blessedly rejecting sensationalism or manipulation, at least until he caves a bit and allows a few scenes toward the end that sprinkle in cinematic phoniness like a dash too much salt on a delicate dish. That restraint is the film’s boon, but it also hampers it somewhat, leaving a few scenes drained of the life that it tries so ardently to capture. In its reticence, the film can still command attention, especially when Negga is onscreen, showing precisely how a deep performance can be built around a person who choses to say little.

Since the recent election, the local university’s stellar film society have taken to sharing a Roger Ebert quote that can be reasonably viewed as his crowning paragraph as a writer:

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

A movie like Loving accentuates the enduring value of Ebert’s thesis. The film is imperfect, but its flaws are almost irrelevant when held up against the truths it illuminates. In his stalwart intent, Nichols has made a work that does what it needs to to do, that takes that right stands, that offers a dose of heroism to those historic figures whose sacrifices are forever in danger of being erased in a country filled with people who are chagrined when someone else — some suspicious “other” — steps forth and suggests that maybe, just maybe, they’re deserving of consideration, too. Nichols has made a work that matters.

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The Art of the Sell: Wes Anderson, “My Life, My Card”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Wes Anderson is rightly earning a fleet of social media raves for his new Christmas-themed ad for H&M. Thankfully, it’s far better than what he came up with the last time he pointed his camera at Adrien Brody on a train.

It also got me thinking about other commercial spots Anderson has directed, including his contribution to the American Express “My Life, My Card” campaign. The meticulous detailing that can swerve towards preciousness can get wearying across a feature — and I type that as someone who unabashed loves several Anderson films — works beautifully in the briefer format. There’s no cause to root for Anderson to abandon the big screen, but he sure can work marvels on a smaller scale.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

 

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Now Playing: Rules Don’t Apply

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It’s reasonable to be skeptical about Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s first directorial effort in nearly twenty years and his first big screen acting performance in fifteen. While Beatty was never a prolific speed demon as filmmaker, that’s the sort of lengthy layoff that can rust up even the most limber creative joints. Even the fact that Beatty has been tinkering with a film centered around Howard Hughes for so long that the span is best measured in decades. All this suggests a film that arrives pre-atrophied.

Instead, Rules Don’t Apply is striking in its liveliness. From the very beginning, Beatty zips through scenes with a buoyant impatience, holding just long enough to polish off whatever narrative, character development, or thematic business needs handling and then moving right along with barely a half-breath spared. In less skilled hands, this approach could become scatted, fragmentary. Beatty’s old pro wisdom comes to bear, though, instilling the individual moments and their vibrant progression with clarity and purpose. As should be the case, the story is trimmed to the essentials.

That story may ostensibly be about Hughes (Beatty), but it mainly focuses on a pair of fictional characters in his odd sphere: a driver named Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and the starlet hopeful (Lily Collins) he ferries around nineteen-sixties Los Angeles. In different ways, they’re simultaneously in thrall to and hampered by the wildly swinging whims of Hughes’s world, cloistered in privilege. They’re handy audiences surrogates, viewing the excess they’ve been inviting into with brows furrowed by wary wonder. Naturally, there’s also a shaky romance between the two, compromised by the controlling dictates of Hughes and their own religious upbringings. Beatty’s screenplay (Bo Goldman shares a story credit) is equal parts insightful and contrived in the rendering of the relationship, but the charisma of both leads goes a long way towards smoothing the narrative’s plaster.

Casting acumen has long been Beatty’s most formidable weapon, and not just because the gravitation pull of his movie star status means he can usually get whoever he wants, even if only for a scene or two. He has sharp instincts about who fits best in which roles, including an uncanny ability to discern how individual performers’ histories can help fill out a character. Ed Harris has essentially a single scene as Frank’s father, but the imposing figure he strikes immediately carries the characterization three-quarters of the way to the destination Beatty sets out. That further allows Beatty greater ability to keep things snappy. The whole film is peppered with performances that are as terrific as they are fleeting (led, it should be noted, by that of Annette Bening, the ace stacked at the top of Beatty’s deck).

While Rules Don’t Apply is a strong effort, it falters badly in the closing minutes. Everything Beatty has done to keep the film brisk and original is knocked asunder in favor of a deadening level of import. After a romp that’s admirably unconventional, Beatty caves in and delivers a closing that is drab, predictable, and contrived. At precisely the worst moment, rules are applied.

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December 2016
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