Good Whiskey

My roommate Jamie brought home a new bottle of whiskey. And not wanting to be impolite, I offered to help him drink it. 

It was alright*. 

Like the pretentious drinker I am, I commented on its lackluster character. But just as my snobby nose was in mid upturn, Jamie pointed out something interesting. “You can’t really judge it yet,” he said. 

The fact is that most “good” whiskey is aged for some time, like over a decade. The distillery where this whiskey came from though, has only been making the stuff for maybe five years. So while this bottle wasn’t particularly impressive, we won’t really know the quality of the brand until the whiskey has had time to age. Because it is in the aging process that the richness of the drink comes through˙.

Below is a video from 1970. James Taylorº is performing his then new song, “Fire and Rain.” Watch some of it. 

Unlike Jamie’s whiskey, this song was objectively great from the start. It was a hit. It sold well initially, and more importantly secured JT’s place among the great artists of that day. 

Here he is, about 35 years later, performing the same song. Watch all of this. 

It’s amazing to think about just how many times JT has played this song over the years. It has become so iconic that I doubt he makes it through any show without playing it. Even 40 years later, people "pay good money to hear ‘Fire and Rain’ again and again and again."

"Fire and Rain" is a song born of pain. Broken dreams, addiction, and the death of a friend are all covered in its verses. I imagine that Taylor felt quite deeply when he wrote it. And I imagine that in his first few years performing it, he carried that emotional weight with him. 

But what happens to a song after a decade? You get tired of it. The depth of inner pain has died off along with the thrill of a receptive crowd. This is where I think many artists miss it. They think the song has run its course. It has seen its best days. Future performances will only be a shadow of what was, appeasing a nostalgic audience. The artist begins to subtly resent it, because every night they play a song that no longer speaks.

They don’t understand that a song, like whiskey, can actually taste best after decades of aging. 

When I first heard that second video, from JT’s live album One Man Band, I was floored. In my opinion, this performance was far greater than the original recording, or any of his other performances to date. In my opinion, he accesses a depth of meaning that can only be sounded by a veteran artist, someone who didn’t stop digging at the first glint of treasure. I wonder what Taylor’s reaction would have been if, in 1970, somebody told him, “If you think this song is good now, just wait 3 decades. You’ll perform it with a mastery you can’t imagine, and it will deeply impact a kid whose parents haven’t even met yet.”

How does he do it?

How does James Taylor continue to pull something fresh out of a song so old and broken in?

"What I know can keep from what I need to know if I don’t remain a novice." 

Bill Johnson said that. And it’s because he chooses to live that way that he has become one of my heroes. He understands that his approach to the familiar determines the depth of revelation he can receive. 

I’ve been challenged recently in this respect. I can skim over a familiar passage of the Bible and go, “Oh, here’s what that means.” But because I have decided that I know what God meant, I can miss out on what God is saying

It’s like that in romance, too, or at least that’s what it seems. 

"Remaining a novice" means choosing to position yourself as if you are encountering an unknown world, surrounded by mystery. And mystery is fuel for romance. When there’s nothing more to learn, passion begins to dissipate and boredom sneaks in, like a slow-dripping poison. 

I wonder how many marriages have ended because the couple didn’t realize just how remarkably sweet the 30-year whiskey could taste. 

I also wonder if that metaphor even works, and how I even got here in the first place. 

Welcome to the blog, everyone. 

Marching madly,

B

* By the looks of it, this post will not be receiving the “Most Exciting Opening” award. Hope you’re staying awake ok. 

˙How obvious is it that I actually don’t know anything about whiskey? 

º I know, I know. I’m due to write about somebody else beside JT. Maybe someday…