A Palaeontologist Walks into a Bar: A speculative Account of Cocktail Bars
Almost simultaneously on Friday afternoon I received e-mails from the Tar Pit Barin Los Angeles, advertising some upcoming musical performances, and the Velluto Champagne Bar in Potts Point in Sydney, advertising ‘Martini Mondays’, offering special deals on a trio of Martini’s: White Chocolate, French Martini, and Dirty Martini. The e-mail was illustrated with a photograph of a young Marlene Deitrich in a tuxedo in a booth at a club.
Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club
It reminded me of a concept I had a while ago, “The Blues In Orbit (named for my favourite Duke Ellington album) Speculative Cocktail Bars” website. I’d write about the iconography and history of cocktail bars, a social history of their place in cities, the sad and quiet and small and ordinary things rather than the glamour. And write a lot about jazz. I also imagined that once I’d gathered a bit of material that McSweeneys could publish a deadpan imaginary Great Cocktail Bars of the World Guide bound to look like a 1930’s bartenders guide. They’d be scenarios for places built up from conversations between all manner of characters.
The Mythology of the Cocktail Bar
Cocktail bars have a rich mythology. I’m particularly interested in the New York branch, with the Cotton Club in Harlem, The Stork Club on East 53rd Street and the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Building. The formula for cocktail bars is drawn from these places. 1930’s Hollywood glamour, cocktails, supper with a jazz band playing, or a lone piano player in a private room or a quiet corner.
The New York Times, recently ran a story about a 1920s party at the Museum of the City of New York.
“Tucked in the foyer along with the accessories was a flower-embroidered flapperlike dress from that era, impeccably preserved and encased in a glass box. The treasure was similar to the dresses worn by Anastasia Chaplygina, 23, and Karla DeVries, 27, interns at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art who nabbed their garments at H&M for around $20.The ’20s was “between sort of sad eras,’’ Ms. DeVries said. “It’s a happy era,’’ she added as she stood around a table with friends, one of whom sipped an azure drink called a Blue Moon. “You’re sneaking around drinking alcohol and going to parties. I think we kind of want carefree these days.”
What we miss in abstracting a veneer of glamour from the 1920′s is that Cotton Club and Stork Club started with gangster owners and there was a desperate, ugly edge to the proceedings. The Cotton Club was meant to be a “stylish plantation” for rich and powerful white people to hear black musicians perform. You could follow this line through the mobster casinos in Vegas in the 1950’s to Orlando’s club in The Wire, the front for the Barksdale drug syndicate. These places all had sharp, hip music: Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, Sinatra in Vegas, and recordings of Bill Withers tunes at Orlando’s.
An Imagined Event at the Real Tar Pit Bar
Tar Pit Bar
I’m mesmerised from afar by the Tar Pit Bar. The first feature I’d run on Blues in Orbit would be an account of an imagined show where the Friends of the Pleistocene give a small, sharp lecture about how the Pleistocene era, the era of the fossils that are drawn from the tar pit, connects with our lives today. They’ve recently written about the geological history of a statue Shinran, a Buddhist monk who lived between 113 and 1263, that had been moved to New York after surviving the atomic bomb blast.
”Shinran’s geologic materiality is complicated–and incredible. Technically, he’s made of bronze, which is remarkable in itself as we discovered last week (materials used to make bronze originated in the stars, billions of years ago). It’s also remarkable because as metals became scarce in Japan during World War II many bronze statues and ornaments were melted down to be used for the war.”
There’d be a performance by pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, who at the Jazz Festival in Melbourne in 2009 performed a “cocktail hour” set of standards. He has a deep grasp of jazz history that he writes about with warmth and insight on his blog. ‘Cocktail music‘ has become an insult, soft, sloppy background music. But in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, jazz was popular music. The bands who played at the cocktail bars were creating extraordinary music, and the popular songs of the day were written by fine composers and lyricists, and sung by great singers, including Billie Holiday and Lena Horne.
Writing a Social History of the Tar Pit Bar’s Menu
And I’d write a social history of the Tar Pit’s Menu. I downloaded the menu’s from their website and they’re sharply funny, they capture the fact that comic arts reigned in the 1920’s and 30’s with the Marx Brothers, screwball comedy movies, comic writers James Thurber, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker at the New Yorker, and witty lyricists, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields.
There are cartoon representations of the animals that were pulled from the Tar Pits: A Short Faced Bear in a tuxedo waist deep in bubbling pool of oil with a bone as a swizzle stick in his highball glass. A Giant Sloth sitting at the bar surfing on his iPhone. A Dire wolf many martini glasses turned over in front of him. Sabre toothed cat, which is the official fossil of California. He has a bib tied around his throat and is brandishing a knife and fork. There’s an homage to the Stork Club’s logo: a fossil of a stork-like bird wearing a top hat and with a cane tucked between its wing ribs.
There’s a cocktail named for Georgia O’Keefe. Hibiscus infused gin, St. Germaine elderflower liquer, Orange bitters, champagne. Her Ghost Ranch in New Mexico had fossils from the late Triassic period, and on Wikipedia I discovered there’s a “primitive crocodile that had evolved into a bipedal dinosaur like creature whose fossil is named Effigia okeeffeae”.
The menu itself is a social history of how the food of the early cocktail era relates to today and i’d want to write it as well as Joseph Mitchell wrote about the gin mills of the 1930′s. There’s Lobster Bisque, Shrimp Louie, Lobster & Scallop Newberg, but also a nod to Tar Pit animals with Wild Boar Meatballs.