Michael Jackson left us seven years ago today, leaving a gaping hole in craft beer culture that is yet to be filled. I have marked this sad anniversary a couple of times in the past by posting my story of the last time I saw MJ, a brunch at Iron Hill Phoenixville with local brewing legend Bill Moeller and Carolyn Smagalski, with whom Michael was staying. Today I’ll do the same and I’ve dug into the archives and found a couple of previously unpublished photos I took that day. I’ll lead off with those…
And this is the story I wrote about that day when I learned that Michael had died…
THE LAST TIME
An afternoon with Michael Jackson.
By Jack Curtin
If I had known it was to be our final time together, that bright and sunny March Sunday, would I have wanted it to be any different? I’ve thought a lot about that. The answer is “probably not,” except perhaps for a longer, warmer handshake at the end, and maybe a gentle squeeze of his shoulder, although that might have been an unwanted affront to his always obvious sense of personal space.
In retrospect, my last day in the company of Michael Jackson was nearly perfect just the way it was.
Michael was in the Philadelphia area for most of last March, ostensibly for his 18th straight year appearing at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Architecture and Anthropology. That happened on the weekend of March 9-11—a fancy dinner Friday night and three sold-out tasting sessions Saturday—and was followed by yet another sold-out dinner Sunday night at Monk’s Café, a smaller, less stressful event which he’d been doing for the past decade or so. Before and after meeting those obligations, he was visiting with Carolyn Smagalski, BellaOnline’s “Beer Fox,” out in the western suburbs. I suspect that those private days were of much more importance to him than maintaining his impressive streak in a city he clearly appreciated and whose beer culture he praised in venues around the world. In light of his recent open acknowledgement of a 20-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, Michael was, from all evidence, focusing a bit more on the personal side of his life, on seizing the day. Carolyn was most definitely a large part of that.
I also live west of the city, not far from Carolyn. And just up the road from me resides Bill Moeller, the legendary master brewer who was, among other things, instrumental in the start-up of Brooklyn Brewing Co. and Dock Street Brewing Co. I knew that Michael and Bill were long-time friends, stretching back to the latter’s stints in the ‘70s and ‘80s at the last of Philadelphia’s mainstream breweries, Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s. Having learned from Bill in a recent interview that they had not seen one another for several years, I decided to arrange for the four of us to share brunch at the Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Phoenixville on March 25, a week before Michael would return to London.
We arrived, exchanged greetings and settled in to order beer and food. Michael asked for a sampler and was presented with a huge tray of every beer in the house. He of course made notes of each as he sipped it—that is what he did, after all. Within minutes, the broader conversation became a matter of Carolyn and I listening in fascination as two still mentally vital giants filled in the blanks that one or the other had about this or that recollection and recalled earlier meetings and earlier beers. Michael and Bill had last seen one another roughly five years earlier in a brief and accidental encounter at a coffee shop across the street from The Algonquin, a favorite New York hotel of each, so this was their first chance to sit down and seriously chat in nearly a decade.
Much of their talk was of old friends, old times. Bill brought with him a thick folder of various memorabilia, including ancient brewing records from Schmidt’s which inspired some exchanges of a technical nature. He also brought along a treasured book about one of their shared passions, John Doxat’s “Stirred Not Shaken: The Dry Martini.” It was an autographed copy which Michael had presented to him more than a quarter of a century earlier. That too “stirred” up some memories. I recall that McSorley’s Ale, which Moeller brewed at Schmidt’s and which Michael came to Philadelphia (possibly for the first time ever) to learn more about, definitely was discussed.
I wish I could tell you all the specifics of their conversation. Perhaps someday I will. I do have an audio tape, but the quality is poor and my attempts to decipher it so far have been nothing but serious exercises in frustration. Rather than a standard tape recorder, I used a small Sony unit designed for dictation, one I normally employ for furtive notes in situations where it isn’t convenient or feasible to pull out a notepad and pen. I figured that it would be unobtrusive and not hinder their chatter in any way. Unobtrusive it was; up to the task of clearly and cleanly recording their words, it was not. We are rarely as clever as we think we are.
Along with the inveterate note-taking, there were two other quintessential Michael Jackson moments. When our meals were finished and the talk winding down, Iron Hill brewer Tim Stumpf approached the table with a bottle of Cannibal, the Gold Medal winning Belgian-style Golden Ale brewed by his colleague Chris LaPierre at Iron Hill’s West Chester pub, offering it as a take-away gift for Michael. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Nothing would do but that we slightly chill and open it right there and then, sample it, talk about it. Beer was not to be sanctified or hoarded, it was for sharing with friends. Similarly, as we were leaving, Michael began to pepper our gracious hostess, general manager Toby Jarmon, with his trademark questions about the town of Phoenixville, its history, the people who lived there. For him, place—in the broad sense of culture and history as well as geography—was always a major part of the tales of beers and brewers which he wrote so well.
At approximately 2:15 that afternoon, I shook Michael Jackson’s hand, said “see you soon” and walked out into the bright sunshine of a perfect early spring day which seemed filled, as perfect days should, with hope and promise. The temptation now, of course, is to convince myself, and you, that I knew in my heart even then that I had just experienced what I would look back upon as a near-mythic moment in my life.
In fact, it didn’t cross my mind for even an instant that my promised “soon” would never come. It wasn’t like that at all.
It never is.