Friday, November 18, 2011

The Legend of Henry Porter

In my early teens I listened exclusively to rap music. I'm not sure how I ended up with a CD collection full of gangsta' rap -  nor am I sure how I segued to that from my previous favorite music, the Beach Boys - but I did.

Then one afternoon when I was 15, I was watching a movie with my dad - Cadence - and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" played in its entirety.

"Ah, early Dylan," my dad said. "Do you ever listen to that?"

I had not, but I suddenly wanted to. Not long after that I bought a live two-CD set of Dylan and The Band. Keep in mind, this was 1994; you couldn't just go online and listen to clips from any album you wanted. You had to buy the thing, and if it sucked, tough luck.

But it did not suck. The exact opposite, in fact. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before:

Disillusioned words like bullets bark/ As human gods aim for their mark/ Make everything from toy guns that spark/ To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/ It’s easy to see without looking too far/ That not much is really sacred

Wait a second... what the fuck is this? I remember thinking. This ain't Jan & Dean; this ain't Chuck Berry. Sgt. Pepper's was great, but it didn't have lines like "Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse/ When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose/ You’re invisible now..."

Or better yet: "I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you"  My God... Dre and Snoop never sounded this angry, this vicious... not even when they were talking about shooting people.

For the next year I devoured as much Dylan music as I could, often stopping by Poo-Bah's on the way home from school  - this was back when Poo-Bah's was in that little house on Walnut and you could find some truly amazing things in that pre-internet age, when independent record stores were like gold mines and you were never sure what nuggets you might find - whenever I got enough money together for another album. (Full disclosure: I loved learning that not everything was as hard-edged as those angry lines; I loved learning that Dylan could write lines of heartbreaking beauty, too.) I would browse the used CDs; I would look through all the used LPs, occasionally finding a gem like "Dylan Live at Wembley" for 50 cents. The excitement of those finds has never been forgotten.


I bought all of the Greatest Hits albums during that stretch, simply to be comprehensive, but even at 15 or 16 years old I realized that the titles were somewhat misleading: with very few exceptions, I didn't think Dylan's best songs appeared on any of the greatest hits collections. Certainly his best performances did not. When you've heard Dylan and the Hawks live in '66 or any of a number of the Rolling Thunder Revue shows, it's hard to get terribly excited about the tinny sound of those Greatest Hits albums.

But some of the exceptions were spectacular, and one in particular. On a drive back from the central coast in late November of 1994 I was listening to the recently released Greatest Hits Volume 3. And this was when I first heard the song "Brownsville Girl."

I've been walking through the fallout ever since.


Co-written with Sam Shepard, the song is over 11 minutes long, a rambling recollection of a movie starring Gregory Peck interspersed with memories of a woman long since gone; a humorous, epic, truly ridiculous tale of road trips and at one point a shootout. The kind of song where lines are dropped in like "Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt."

I tried sharing my newfound love with friends but with very few exceptions they didn't care. Most of them had little room for anything besides Hootie and the Blowfish or Pearl Jam (bands that, to be honest, I also loved). Once when I was 18 I drove out to Vegas with a bunch of friends at midnight because we thought it sounded like fun. I played "Brownsville Girl" on the way; they all looked at me for a few minutes without saying anything before my friend Mike blurted out: "Dude, Justin... what the FUCK are we listening to?"

In the second verse a character named Henry Porter is mentioned in passing, then mentioned again in the final verse with perhaps my favorite line of the song:

You know, it’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter

The line stuck with me, but it would be a few years before I put it to use.


When I was 21 I lived a mile high in the Rockies. One of my best friends from high school, Erik, lived close by. Our evenings consisted mostly of watching football, Blind Date and Jeopardy, and playing bar trivia five nights per week. Surprisingly, we were both single.

We also brewed beer from time to time, sticking our creations in a kegerator in the garage and hosting parties with a note taped to the fridge: "$1 per beer, $5 all you can drink." We weren't trying to make money, we were just 21 and students and didn't need our friends and neighbors drinking all of our beer - which they always managed to do with remarkable speed - without getting a few bucks for the next batch.

On one such occasion when we had brewed a porter I stuck an additional note on the fridge: "Henry Porter. Drink for free if you can tell me the beer's actual name."

My plan was simple - though I had not yet learned that simple and easy are often two entirely different things: a girl would recognize the name and say "The only thing I know for sure is this beer's name is not Henry Porter." And I would fall in love. She would be single, of course, and gorgeous, to say nothing of having excellent taste in music. Nor, I suppose, would she mind the fact that I played bar trivia every night - unless there was a big Lakers game I had to watch - and that every day after class I watched the movie Rushmore.

(And she could not have been friends with Erik's roommate, Anna. Anna had a cat that she loved dearly named Antonio Banderas, almost as dearly as she loved the real Antonio. I replaced his tag one day with a name I felt more appropriate: Antonio McDyess, who was then the starting power forward for the nearby Nuggets. Anna didn't notice the switch for weeks but when she did she never liked me much after that. But I'm digressing here.)

Of course, in something that came as no surprise to me even then, not a single person ever got the reference. Hell, I don't remember anyone even taking a guess through the week or so that the beer lasted. We gave hints, and in my memory I told Erik to tell a particularly attractive girl flat-out what the answer was, though I admit I may be misremembering things.

We got to the end of the keg with our clever name having been wasted. Erik and I sat on his roof one crystal clear December evening and finished the dregs. 

"I still think that was a great name," he said.

I agreed and the rest of the hour passed in silence. In the distance a transformer exploded. We drank the last of the Henry Porter. Or rather the last I would have for a dozen years.


Elizabeth and I have been living in this neighborhood of South Pasadena for three and a half years now, and if you've been a reader for any amount of time you know that our great friends Tim and Tracie live just around the corner from us and every few months there is a new beer that Tim has brewed, always an occasion for celebration. There was the stout in May, one of the best I've ever had, something that I called even better than Guinness, which is a sentence I don't use lightly. There was the beer unveiled for my birthday that Tim saw fit to call the Justin Time For Summer ale. And then the following ale, one similar to the Justin Time but even better, brewed with Centennial hops.

When Tim asked me what he should make for his next beer, we discussed it for a few minutes. I said I would not mind another batch of that stout. He suggested a porter - I believe we were talking about Deschutes Black Butte Porter at the time - and my mind started drifting.

"I don't mean to hijack another one of your beer's names," I said, "but would you make a Henry Porter?"

He'd never heard of the song so he went to his computer and bought the track. (The discrepancy between being able to download a single song now and those days when you had to buy the whole album was not lost on me. I thought of my young cousin Jonas, roughly the same age now as I was when I fell in love with Dylan - and, in fact, it was his baptism we were returning from in 1994 when I first heard "Brownsville Girl" - and wondered if he knows how good he has it.)

Tim smiled when the line about Henry Porter came around.

"Okay," he said. "Henry Porter it is."

He brewed the beer in October, taking the day off on his birthday to make it. For the first few Sundays in November we took small samples, checking its progress. Last Sunday it was completely ready and Tracie and I wandered over to Tim's house to have a few pints.

The Henry Porter was fantastic, everything a porter should be. If you've never had freshly-brewed beer by someone who knows what he or she is doing, there is no point in me trying to describe the difference. I might as well try to describe the Grand Canyon: it's beyond my capability. But if you have, you know what I'm talking about.

I thought of that car ride from the Central Coast more than half my life ago. My parents had rented a minivan for the day because there were so many of us driving together; I sat in the very back with my Sony CD player, hearing Brownsville Girl for the first time. I thought of that beer we made in Colorado a dozen years ago. I thought of Erik, who passed away in a freak accident in 2004, and how there is not a single thing I own that I would not gladly give up to be able to tell him about drinking this Henry Porter on this golden afternoon.

But that isn't even the best part.


In one of those funny coincidences that occur in life and make even the most hardened among us smile, one of those anecdotes you hear that relax your dystopian fears for the afternoon, Tim had been at Cafe 322 in Sierra Madre the previous evening, listening to a friend of his play music. Chatting with her, he learned that she hosts a Sunday afternoon radio program called "The Dylan Hours" on a local station, KCSN. Of course we had to listen to it that afternoon.

She played 12 Dylan songs in all, and she played some great ones. She played "Most of the Time," perhaps my favorite Dylan song from the last 25 years. She played "Dreaming of You," an outtake from Time Out of Mind, the album that kept me company on my first trip around the country when I was 19, when I first visited Erik in that Colorado town and thought Hmm maybe I should move here one day, when I drove all day from St. Louis to the east coast and listened to the album 12 times. She played "Simple Twist of Fate," perhaps the best vocal work Dylan has ever produced.

And did she take 11 minutes out of the hour to play "Brownsville Girl," that song I fell in love with when I was 16, that song my friend Erik and I named a beer after in hopes of meeting the girl of our dreams, that song Tim named a beer after 12 years later and I now sat drinking on a gorgeous autumn afternoon, the one song out of more than 700 hundred Dylan has written that I could reasonably call my favorite?

Of course she did. It could not have been any other way.


Anonymous said...

I always like the long Friday reads because it helps the weekend come faster... but this... this was something special.

Bekah said...

This was just lovely. Thank you for sharing.

Michelle said...

I read it twice already. Thanks!

Nosh Gnostic said...

The host of The Dylan Hours is Lisa Finnie. here's a link to her Facebook homage:

The show airs on Sunday evenings 4-5pm on the net
or on the air at 88.5 fm

"...And you know there was somethin' about you baby that I liked that was always too good for this world..."

SuperLarge said...

Reading that made me very, very happy.

Liz said...

Love this. That's all.

Anonymous said...

i freaking love you, pp. best post eva.

Emily said...

I don't like beer. I don't even like Dylan (so shoot me). But I loved that.

Jessica said...

Wow. What a great post. I can't find words. Just awesome.

Asmodeus said...

Driving that car as the sun is coming up over the rockies..
I know that she aint you , but shes here & shes got that dark rythm in her soul..
The song is a work of genius (rare in a song)

JustinM said...

I'm too over the edge and I ain't in the mood anymore to remember the times when I was your only man. And she don't wanna remind me.

binxers said...

Absolutely love this. That song has always been super important to me also. Great writing, especially the part about not owning a single thing you would not exchange to be able to tell Erik about drinking the new Henry Porter beer. I found this thread looking for what the Henry Porter reference was, but can’t find it, so it must just be a personal reference to Bob, or he made it up...

JustinM said...

Thanks for the compliment. I had forgotten about this post; it's cool that you found it after more than 9 years.

Sadly, Tim died in April. He thought he had COVID so he resisted going to the hospital for several days because he thought he would recover; it turned out he was having a heart attack. I'd give up everything I own to go back to this evening drinking this Henry Porter, too.

Dwight said...

Hello Justin.

First, my condolences on the loss of your friends. My experience is that the longer you live, the more loss you experience. A lousy trade. “Time is piling up, we struggle and we scrape/we’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape.” I feel like Dylan can always say something true. And thank you for this post, which I found just like binxers above in researching who Henry Porter might be. You are a wonderful writer and I enjoyed this a lot. I have a very long and equally sporadic relationship with Dylan but her has been a lifeline over the last few years. In case you or binxers or anyone else might care, I’ve reached the conclusion that Henry Porter is a reference to the character in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. That book was published in 1977 and Dylan is a voracious reader so it kind of lines up. Since it’s a fictional character it also makes Dylan’s line true. But a lot of the fun is in the wondering. Finally, I feel like there has to be a small brewer out there who would be willing to produce a Henry Porter. Might be a nice tribute to Tim. Or, it stays as a wonderful memory for you and his friends.

JustinM said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dwight. I love that you found this almost a decade later.