The Varnish hosts live music every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. A rag-tag rotation of musicians play old American standards on our piano, often accompanied by a drummer, bassist, perhaps trombone or fiddle. It is a very informal, low-key affair while you sip a cocktail and chat with your friends. If you visit on these nights you might find the musicians befriending regular customers and nursing rum old-fashioneds between sets; or jazz-age enthusiasts in vintage attire prodding downtown locals into an impromptu Charleston; or if you’re lucky, a Varnish bartender making a guest appearance on jazz flute.
Invariably we have plenty of guests who want to sing along with the band. We’ve heard more than our fair share of tipsy Billie Holiday aspirants warble their way through “Summertime.” But sometimes there is a guest who, perhaps with the aid of liquid courage, decides that they are the star of the show. It is an awkward and delicate endeavor to convince these folks to stop slurring “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love” at the top of their lungs.
And so I cringed from behind the bar the other night when one of our guests, after a few Mint Juleps, got up from his table, whispered something to the band, and implored the room to indulge him for a moment. He began in a slight southern twang: “My daddy was a state senator for Mississippi, a state that didn’t repeal prohibition until 1966. In 1952, one of my daddy’s colleagues, Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, was asked on the Senate floor about his views on the matter. I thought I might share his words with you here tonight”
The bassist started to pluck a few notes, and the drummer tapped out a rhythm, the gentlemen’s accent deepened and his cadence swelled, somewhere between Southern Baptist preacher, a beatnik poet and a rabble-rousing politician:
I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.”
The rest of the room fell silent and turned their heads, which is normally my cue to intervene and ask the guest to take a seat. But I was actually curious to see where he was going. His voice crescendoed:
“If when you say whiskey you mean the Devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation and despair, and shame and helplessness and hopelessness…then certainly I am against it.”
He paused to collect himself and wipe sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. The bass and drum continued softly as he took a deep breath, and then his voice boomed again:
If when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy and his happiness, and to forget – if only for a little while – life’s great tragedies and heartaches and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then I am certainly for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”
The room burst into applause, he bowed briefly and took his seat. The band started up again and everyone returned to their conversation. I approached the table.
“Are you the manager?” the gentleman asked.
“I am. Thank you for sharing.”
“Thank you for not kicking me out – I noticed you gave me quite a stern look when I began.”
“Well,” I said “we normally don’t allow guests to steal the show, but you managed to strike our sweet spot. We’re drunken history nerds.”
He chuckled and asked if he could order another Julep. We obliged.
Max Seaman, The Varnish, GM