A Drink, a Book, and a Song V
Mixing a Negroni minus the fuss. Reconsidering the “art of clear thinking.” And basking in a Finnish tsunami of sound.
Welcome back. Every Friday (more or less), I highlight a tasty drink, an interesting book, and a sharable song with the hope of imparting some useful knowledge or maybe some higher-order trivia for the weekend.
If you like what you read here, please share. If you don’t like it, kindly share with the utmost contempt. But please share just the same.
I. A Drink
It’s Negroni Week and who gives a sh . . .
Let’s start again.
It’s Negroni Week, apparently, which affords me a chance to highlight another brilliant, classic cocktail while saying a word or two about the folly of fussy drinks.
Happily, I can outsource the bulk of the job to the mighty Jason Wilson, whose Everyday Drinking Substack is well worth any bona fide boozehound’s time and money.
Wilson got the jump a few weeks ago with “The Negroni Variations.” He begins with the disclaimer that he loves the Negroni “deeply, despite . . . everything.”
That everything does quite a bit of work, as we’ll see.
Like Wilson, I, too, was an insufferable GenXer (“was”? shut up) who discovered the Negroni (by way of Paul Harrington) in the late 1990s. Unlike Wilson, I did not study abroad in Italy. Instead, I was hacking away at a Daily Business newspaper aimed at Investors, where I presumed to have thoughts and possibly opinions, and shared them far and wide among my friends and anyone else roughly within earshot.
I don’t think I was ever an obnoxious cocktail bore, though. In writing perhaps. Privately. Certainly not in person . . .
Anyway, the Negroni is a relatively simple but elegant libation. With one part gin, one part sweet vermouth, one part Campari, how could anyone possibly screw it up?
The drink wonderfully balances its floral, herbal notes with bitterness and sweetness and . . . No! Dear God, NO!
Maybe the better question is, how could anyone not screw up the Negroni?
Now, I loved the late, great Gary Regan’s work. My copies of both editions of The Joy of Mixology are thoroughly well thumbed. Naturally, I bought Regan’s Negroni book when it came out in 2013. But it wasn’t exactly what you would call necessary.
Sure, the history is interesting. Did an early 20th-century Florentine aristocrat by the name of Camillo Negroni invent the drink or didn’t he? Not if the French have anything to say about it! But . . . he probably did.
And the lore can be fascinating if you’re into that sort of thing. Regan’s book ends with a “surprise encounter with Count Negroni,” an article reprinted in full from the June 25, 1928 edition of the Spokane (Wash.) Chronicle. It seems the man was, at heart—and in spite of his title and pedigree—an American born in the wrong place.
(Maybe someone could make the case one day that the Negroni is a quintessentially American drink. Maybe. But not me. And not today.)
Regan, who died in 2019, also attempted to explain what the fuss was all about.
“The Negroni demands attention,” he wrote. “And the Negroni gets attention, too. How many other drinks have spurred essays, poems, and yes, even a cheesecake recipe? Few if any, I believe.”
Well and good. Yet fully half of his slim volume—it runs 163 pages, with a short index—is devoted to various bartenders’ recipes for drinks that are not, strictly speaking, even Negroni-adjacent. Just about all they have in common is the addition of Campari. Often, they involve elaborate preparation.
Everyone seemed to be trying a bit too hard.
What’s going on here? Vanity, I’d say.Vanity, and an overweening desire to tinker and improve on excellence. Anything you can do, I can do better. And if that means twisting a peel no less than six inches away from the glass so the drink isn’t overwhelmed with orange oil atop the alcoholic beverage, please understand that I will regard you with utter contempt if you think or do otherwise. Also: I possess a secret knowledge that I am perfectly willing to share . . . if only you possess the wit to shut up and listen to me.
And if it isn’t about the Negroni, then it’s about the Martini. And if it isn’t about the Negroni or the Martini, it’s something else. Mezcal, or single-malt scotch, or the best tonic water, or what have you.
Because it’s vitally important that you understand that this drink must be assembled and appreciated just so. Don’t you see? Don’t you?
And now Jason Wilson for the sane opposition:
And a question:
And Wilson’s reply:
The Spectator in August published a delightful takedown of the aforementioned “cocktail bore.” Zoe Strimpel recounts in the piece how a barman at a high-end London establishment would not hand over to her and her companion their $25 drinks without first delivering a lecture because, she says, “cocktail culture . . . is nothing if not didactic.”
“You need to be quiet and listen, for you’re not just a drinker: you’re a supplicant.”
Is her tale true? I could not possibly say. It strikes me as true enough. I tend to frequent normal bars, though once in a while the upscale places surprise me.
At the heart of the matter, though, is what Strimpel calls “a profound slippage in the understanding of what it is to drink.” She explains:
A drink is a social experience. It should appear as if by magic to lubricate the interaction. It is an accomplice that should bring pleasure; it is not the diva-like, needy main event. But cocktail bores, and their many dimly lit meccas, don’t agree: they think a drink has some inherent interest and value beyond giving a tasty buzz, or in the case of good beer or wine, a deeper but still background appreciation. When drinking Serious Cocktails, though, the drink is more important than the drinker.
That’s right. That is entirely true. As much as I love the history, the academic investigations, the trivial pursuits, and the earnest search for originality, Strimpel is correct.
And that is why we can’t have nice drinks.
As with writing, so with cocktails: be simple and direct. It needn’t be difficult. We’re trying to have a good time, aren’t we?
So, here is how to make a proper Negroni:
You take some decent gin. Then you take some good sweet vermouth—I prefer Carpano Antica; Wilson recommends Dolin or Cocchi Storico. You take some Campari. You mix them together in equal proportions, over ice (obviously). Stir (or shake! I’m not a stickler) and strain into a glass, straight up or on the rocks. Whatever turns you on.
Then—not that you require it—you have my permission to enjoy yourself during Negroni Week . . . and every other week of the year.
II. A Book
I was looking for a specific book in my stacks the other day. I couldn’t find it. Instead, I stumbled upon Rudolf Flesch’s The Art of Clear Thinking, which I read about 10 years ago and recall not liking very much.
So why am I recommending a 72-year-old book now?
Because I’ve had some second thoughts.
Flesch, a Vienna-born lawyer who fled the Nazis in Austria in 1938, was a total stiff. If you recognize the name at all, you likely have some acquaintance with the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. When I was a writer for Investor’s Business Daily ages ago, the editors were under some sort of mandate to apply Flesch to everything we did. The goal, as I recall, was to achieve a consistent score of around 80—roughly 7th-grade level, which was supposed to be fairly easy to read.
So, the way it worked was you took the number of words and divided them by the total number of sentences, then subtracted the sum of syllables divided by the total number of words.
How many syllables are in the word “idiocy”?
The formula worked just fine, except for the fact that it did not take into account anything like style or substance. You could run a sentence backward and get the same result. Or, as in the case of one of H. L. Mencken’s columns, you could have a 60-word sentence followed by a three-word sentence and still pass muster.
Flesch also wrote Why Johnny Can’t Read, which identified way back in the 1950s how American educators were doing children a grave disservice by abandoning phonics in favor of the “whole word” method (which eventually evolved into whole language). So I should love him, but I don’t.
Above all, I suppose, Flesch was a hard-edge humanist and a reformer that few, if any, students would tolerate let alone comprehend today. That, at least, I can respect.
So The Art of Clear Thinking just might be a vital relic in an age of muddled thought and short attention spans.
Here’s a sample from chapter seven. (Note his sentence structures):
Getting impatient? I’m afraid you are. Here you are, starting the seventh chapter of a book on clear thinking, and still there’s nothing you can put your finger on—no practical stuff, no rules, no formulas. You have read about lobotomies, and mental imagery, and Indian languages; but will all that help you improve your thinking?
Before you say no, let me put down a short list of the points we’ve covered so far.
1. All thinking is the manipulation of memories. Even “inspirations” are used on your experience and nothing else.
2. Your memories are patterns of nerve cells in your brain. When you remember, you activate these patterns electrically.
3. All memories are more or less distorted. Your brain registers experience differently from everybody else’s.
4. Abstract ideas are the patterns two or more memories have in common. They are born whenever someone realizes that similarity.
5. Translation helps your thinking because you use two sets of nerve patterns instead of one. This includes translation into other English words.
All this is far from useless information. In fact, if you were able to remember these five points constantly during all your waking and thinking hours, you could stop reading right now and say you have mastered the art of clear thinking. You could even go further and boil the five points down to two:
1. Don’t forget that everybody, including yourself, has only his experience to think with.
2. Detach your ideas from your words.
As long as you keep these two points in mind, you are a top-notch clear thinker and your problem is solved.
The trouble is, of course, that nobody can do that . . .
If you can find it, buy it. Read it (maybe with the help of a Negroni or two). Absorb it. Argue with it. Cherish it. And protect it. Because we need all the clear thinking we can get right now.
III. A Song
When it comes to music, my tastes tend to be wide-ranging bordering on the promiscuous. I traverse the scenes. Metal, punk, classic rock, blues, jazz (in most of its variations), classical (with almost all that it entails), country, bluegrass, zydeco, ska, hip-hop, techno, electronica . . . give it to me. Give me all of it. At least once.
I listen to music when I work. Often, I find it helpful to play a particular track on repeat. It helps me focus. Sometimes, I obsess. And every so often, as I’ve noted before, the algorithm offers up something delightfully different.
A few months ago, Spotify recommended “Piritorilta taivaaseen,” by Teksti-TV 666.
What by who, now?
The band’s name is weird. (It means Teletext 666.) The song’s title is impenetrable. The lyrics, in Finnish, are utterly incomprehensible to me.
But the sound! The seven-piece ensemble includes five guitar players. The style has been described variously as “psych rock meets garage punk” and a “fusion of krautrock and shoegaze with catchy, classic garage-punk songwriting.” The band itself has been compared to The Hellacopters, Explosions In The Sky, and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.
If you recognize the words in the previous paragraph as English but they make no sense to you whatsoever, believe me, I understand.
So listen to the song. Please. Just once.
In an interview at Bandcamp, which released the band’s three EPs as a single album in 2016, the members explained what’s behind the song’s title and lyrics:
Forgive me, for I am yet to learn Finnish. Can you explain what some of your lyrics are about?
The lyrics are simply about some local characters, and what’s been happening around here. They’re mostly in the first-person perspective. It just felt right to sing in Finnish with this band. We’d always sang in English in our previous bands, so we just figured we’d try out Finnish this time.
Apparently your song “Piritorilta Taivaaseen” translates as “From Amphetamine Square to Heaven,” and is inspired by an infamous plaza in Helsinki where drugs are dealt semi-openly, which attracts various rascals and rogues.
Yeah, but it sounds worse than it really is. It’s a pretty basic place most of the time. You can tell by the price of the rent these days.
I like it. But Rudolf Flesch almost certainly would disapprove.
This entire column, of course, easily—rightly—could be characterized as an exercise in vanity. Every writer wants to be read. And every writer wants acknowledgment of some kind. I’m keen to share my interests. Also, I’m a collector of books. I don’t think my collection of books on cocktails and the history of drinking is all that special, at least compared to those of some professionals and academics, though I’m fortunate to own a few rarities. I’m also an odd sort of reader and collector. This, in particular, is a niche subject. Most people—I’m thinking of my parents, but I suspect you will know what I mean—will have a dusty old copy of Mr. Boston’s and that’s about it. Twenty-odd years ago, I was fascinated by the cocktail culture. But I wasn’t fascinated enough to become a Jason Wilson—whose work I really cannot recommend highly enough—or a guy like David Wondrich, who went from writing Esquire Drinks (which is a terrific guide) to a groundbreaking history with Imbibe to co-editing The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. Quite a journey!
I will try both Negroni recipes! My husband and I both love a wide diversity of music, I don’t know why but I thought of Deftones with the song, but hubby and I really liked the song you suggested! And (we love Johnny rotten too btw)
Will look into the clear thinking book as well!! Have a great weekend BBBB
Cool song. Reminded me of Jambinai or maybe Bo Bingen or, come to think of it, both at the same time.