I Love the Label

I saw a customer in the store yesterday just staring at the whisky shelf in awe. He was pouring over every label, inspecting the artwork with extreme care, with a level of reverence that was almost ceremonial. I asked him if he needed any help, to which he asked, "Have you ever had this whisky?"

"I have," was my answer.

"Is it good?" he responded.

"That depends on what you're in the mood for," I said. We talked for another few minutes and, after listening to a story of mine, he smiled, shook my hand, and walked away without buying the bottle. I had talked him (purposely) out of the purchase.

"I just love the label," he told me before leaving.

I know what it's like to be obsessed with the artwork and the idea of a product. The lust I see in the eyes of today's whisky drinkers highly resembles the unabated, feverish craze I once had for music. There was a time in my life when I had over 1,000 CDs (all purchased, none copied), arranged on a gigantic wooden rack by genre, and no dollar amount spent was ever enough to break my spirit. I would buy CDs instead of food, if it came down to a decision between the two. When I was 21 and working as a waiter in San Francisco, I exacerbated the issue by taking a second job at Tower Records in the evenings. It was pretty much indentured servitude.

With a gigantic selection at my fingertips and a staff discount by my side, I expanded my musical selection like never before while working on Market St. I would talk for hours with my co-workers about my favorite albums and they would say things like, "Well if you like that, then you should try this." Then, of course, there was the artwork that would catch my attention while I stocked. I loved looking at the images on each jewel box, wondering what was happening on every disc that passed through my fingers. There were times when I wanted to buy albums based purely on the imagery; none more tempting than Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. I wouldn't call myself a serious jazz fan, but I had enjoyed works like Giant Steps by Coltrane, or Davis's earlier masterpiece Kind of Blue. I had heard of acid jazz and read about Miles's experimental foray into rock and electronic fusion, but it wasn't something that intrigued me all that much. For some reason, however, that cover just called to me.

Anyone who tells you the label on a bottle of whisky isn't important is crazy. A great label will sell a bottle of anything faster than a good review. A bad label will require the whisky to taste twice as good just to overcome the terrible aesthetic (as one of my customers once said, "I like the whisky, David, but I don't want to look at that ugly piece of shit on my bar every night.") I probably stared at that Bitches Brew cover every day for three weeks. And it was a double album! Not one, but two discs worth of enlightenment. The first side only had two songs and they were both over twenty minutes a piece. "That's a classic," one of the Tower customers said to me one day as I was holding the album.

"Really?" I asked. "I've been thinking about getting it for weeks."

"You should," he said. "It's one of the most amazing jazz accomplishments ever recorded."

That was all the motivation I needed. Sure, it was an expensive leap of faith (it was about $27 after my discount, which was a lot for a young waiter paying an outrageously high rent in the city), but I justified it by calling the purchase "a necessary growing experience." It was a classic, right? And if the genius of Miles Davis inspired the incredible mural on the cover, then it must be amazing. I couldn't wait to get home that night and pop that thing in my stereo (remember those?). I had finally found the courage to just pull the trigger and take a risk.

I think I got about halfway through "Pharoah's Dance" before I got totally bored. Then, during the title track, I got a little bit scared. What the hell was this? Was this jazz? I couldn't unwind to this! Bitches Brew was one of the least utilitarian albums I had ever owned. Like a number of whiskies I've experienced, one sip was more than enough. The drum beat kinda flowed, but the electronic keyboard was disjointed; the horns more like those honking in a car than the bebop sound I was expecting. I stared at the cover again. Maybe I just didn't get it. "Actually, maybe this isn't that bad," I said to myself, trying to convince the buyer's remorse away. I finally gave up and stopped listening about halfway through "Spanish Key." I made room for the album in the jazz section of my gigantic collection and went to bed.

Today, listening to the album again (for maybe the fifth time ever), I can appreciate it more than I did thirteen years ago, but it's not something I would ever choose to listen to. I still love that artwork though. In fact, looking at that Mati Klarwein mural right now makes me curious. Maybe I should give Bitches Brew another shot. Maybe I just wasn't in the right spot mentally back them. Maybe I'm the one who's missing something. I mean, everyone says it's good, right? It has an almost perfect five star rating on Amazon. Critics everywhere agree it's a classic. Here we go again.

Now let me tell you about the time in college when I got high, went to the record store, and tried to buy every No Limit Records hip-hop album because the glitzy, embossed artwork they used on the covers made each one seem like an incredible adventure. Thank God my credit card got declined.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll