Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hemingway's Whiskey, The Most Interesting Man in the World, and Other Re-Brandings

This article won a "readers' choice" award
from the Outdoor Blogger Network

This is not an album review or a book review.  It wouldn't be fair.  You see, I've read most everything that's been published by Hemingway and about Hemingway. The outdoorsman. The writer.  The undependable human being. The loose cannon.

 I have read detailed accounts of his good times, and even moreseo, his fascinating and horrible last years, culminating in his brutal suicide.  I remain amazed at how sick the gifted mind can be. I've also marveled at the way advertisers, and human beings in general, can mythologize about such conflicted characters in history - reduce them to a cheesy tag line, or an advertising slogan.  Ah, yes.  Our idols.

Which brings me to Kenny Chesney, pop country celebrity, who named his most recent album "Hemingway's Whiskey."  He didn't write one song, and only co-wrote one song on the entire album, so for the most part, Kenny just plays the songs.  Since he didn't write the title track, I dread to think that Kenny just bought into a romanticized idea of Hemingway - like Kenny, Hemingway loved beaches, drinking, and women, and had a hard time balancing the three.  The parallels basically end there, in my opinion.  One man was a tortured, mentally ill genius and champion outdoorsman, who ran from the darkness his entire life, until it swallowed him whole, via his own shotgun.  The other is a wonderful and well-marketed country-pop performer from Tennessee, who had a bad break up with a pretty girl about 5 years ago.  The two are not the same.

In the bigger picture, why do we so easily dispose of accurate, complex descriptions of  historical figures, and instead distill and photoshop those figures into a Dos Equis ad and say, "Awesome - I can relate to that!"? You may be asking, "Dos Equis? What in the world are you talking about?" Well, how about this redux of Hemingway, that pre-dates Kenny Chesney's album by a few years?

When the Dos Equis "Stay Thirsty My Friends" campaign came out, a slew of marketing folks noted that, "Wow, it's like a sober Hemingway."  One review offered up that Dos Equis' character was like a hybrid of "Hemingway, Burt Reynolds, Bill Murray, Royal Tenenbaum, and Don Draper."  Funny!

In so many ways, it's a re-manufacturing of a real human's life, to help their image fit a certain corporate product. Think about how scary - and sad - that is.  Now think about how often you (or people you know) let these false personae into their lives, only to feel bad about not "measuring up" to the fake idol?

So........what of "Hemingway's Whiskey" particularly? Did Hemingway even drink whiskey?  Well, it seems pretty certain that Hemingway drank anything and everything put in front of him, at some point during his life.  Numerous sources (here's one) talk of his early love of wine, then rum "grog," then brandy, then wine again, then rum (the early Key West years), then more rum (the Cuba years), then Scotch and Soda (the later Key West years).   And absolutely, there were gallons and gallons of whiskey mixed in there for good measure.

But in everything I've read, Hemingway never seemed to prefer whiskey.  Which tells me that the song and album "Hemingway's Whiskey" reflect one of two things:

Hemingway's Daiquiri - frowned
upon by the Nashville
Music Establishment
1) "Hemingway's Whiskey" songwriter Guy Clark (from Texas) and performer Kenny Chesney (from Tennessee) honestly think that a manly man like Hemingway could have only drank a manly liquor - whiskey.    Basically, a really dumb assumption.


2) Perhaps Guy and Kenny came to the realization that their fans do not want to hear a poignant and tragic song about "Hemingway's Fruity Rum Drinks with Extra Whipped Cream and Triple Maraschinos."  That makes "Hemingway's Whiskey" a marketing ploy for a specific group of people - not an honest song about hard times and a troubled mind.

Real life is significantly darker than some beach bum tunes...

Hemingway was an amazing human being and an outdoorsman of significant accomplishments.  The dumbing-down of his story into a pop-country tune featuring a socially-acceptable liquor is a real shame, but it's no worse than a million other marketing ploys (or genuine public misunderstandings) that re-cast historical figures everyday.  And in an era when the words "celebrity" and "outdoors" are increasingly written together....this is just the beginning of the rebranding.  I urge you all - don't buy into it.  Keep reading, keep learning why men and women in history did the things they did.  Don't expect Hollywood and Nashville to give it to you straight.

Hemingway and son, 1941.
If you ever want to write a song or a story about Hemingway, there's plenty of real evidence of the real man.
It may not sell as many copies as the made-up version, but it'll be a real story that people will be happy to read or hear.


Map Monkey said...

Very nice post. Have you read "The Paris Wife"? It's a pretty good (and seemingly quite factual) novel, wirtten from the persepctive of Hemmingway's wife Hadley, the "Doomed first starter wife." It gives a different window into Hemingway's life, even if you think you know all there is to know already.

FC said...

Great writing...and very insightful. Good job.

Fish Cop

Anonymous said...

With the aging of the baby boomers, uhhh, like me, the largest single group with disposable income, uhhh, unlike me, I also find it interesting that these products are being marketed to us.

Yeah baby, I still gots some testosterone left in me.

If I let my beard grow out, I'd look like that.

If I ever found myself the lone male at a table full of cute women half my age, I'd be there for the same reason women keep around cute lap dogs.

We're pretty harmless.

e.m.b. said...

Absolutely fantastic piece. "I remain amazed at how sick the gifted mind can be." Wow. Yes. Right on. When people say they wish they could be "talented" at music, or writing, or art....I always think about the point you make here, and one I know well. Almost all creative souls are afflicted in some way. The "gifted" would often gladly give that gift away for a less haunted mind.

Fontinalis Rising said...

Great piece, great writing and keen insights- I have always struggled with the notion of Hemingway as outdoor hero, I wasn't even all that fond of his writing. The way he is mythologized becomes troubling in light of the darker aspects of his life. Great post!

Steve Zakur said...

A thought provoking piece.

I'm with Jason re: Hemingway but let's set that aside. I don't think we every really get to know celebrities regardless of what we see, read, or experience -- it's only our interpretation. I agree that we should try and make our own interpretations as opposed to consuming someone else's pre-chewed version but you'll never really know the thing, you'll just have your own perspective on the thing.

Kirk Mantay said...

Jules - thanks - I have heard about half of it, but I think lost it on travel or some other tedious detail. I need to finish it!!

FC - thanks!

Ken - at age 37...I'm getting there too...the ads pointed at me are strongly in the mold of "Relive the college days! Be awesome and hilarious and don't sleep! The ladies in your life will love it (not)!"

Kirk Mantay said...

Erin.....Caveat Emptor....indeed. I'm mediocre at a bunch of things, and it's torture enough.

My three favorite authors died of suicide (Hemingway), and heart failure via drinking (Faulkner and Steinbeck). At least they all lived a long time, but reconciling with mortality was not an easy sell for any of them.

Kirk Mantay said...

Steve and Jason - ha! a conservationist....he was not.

And Steve, I tried to chew into the whole "we'll never know" aspect of any celebrity, but could not do it in a way that wasn't totally circular, long winded, and kind of useless. I struggled with that for a month (since I started this post) and finally just decided to let the rest of the post rest on its merits.

That being said, I wish I would have thought of your words to describe it. We all look at things through our lens. Ain't necessarily the most accurate way to see things, but (with our ability to reason) it's the best we've got.

See, I still couldn't make it sound better than your version.

Steve Zakur said...

I still like your version.

Jackson Landers said...

He preferred wine, I think. Good wine, from the places where he knew that good wine came from and without any sense of this knowledge meaning anything other than than a good bottle of wine.

As for the romanticism, the old man did it to himself. He did. From literally the very first issue of Esquire. He encouraged it. War and good bulls and shooting all right when it really counts and a fish worth talking about and all the rest. He encouraged it. So there's a legacy? So Mr. Chesney uses it? Well, that was more Hemingway's fault than Kenny's.

Hell, we all use it. Even in real life. There it is and you might as well draw off a few pints where you need it. He was at the right place at the right time, with the right short sentences. Will I carve off a piece of the iceberg and drop it into my own sun-downer? Yes, I will. Whether I'm hunting elephants or a little rabbit.

Kirk Mantay said...

Outstanding point, Jack. Once any of us actively push our own public persona (on the web, in print, at the office, etc), we each give up control of how anyone else may interpret that....and far be it for any of us to be upset at how others interpret it for their own use. That is a point I did *not* consider, that I'll have to reconcile, at least internally.

His motivation for such self-aggrandizement (sp?) remains unclear. Publish more articles? Impress women? Build up his own ego and push back depression? I don't know.

It makes me think of all the reality bimbos who call paparazzi before going anywhere outside their home, and get paid thousands of dollars to have cameras on call for their weddings, bar fights, and birthday parties, but then cry to the media, "OMG can't I have some privacy? This is so unfair!"

Ian Nance said...

Kenny Chesney....just pop country. And bad pop country at that. He can't be listened to anymore.

But excellent piece. The derivative ads certainly appeal to people's attraction to hemingway-like personalities. Whether they understand those personalities or not.

Eastern Shore Outdoors said...

Nice Post...perhaps one listener will opt to turn off the album and turn a page, of the "The Sun Also Rises"...Phil

Christine said...

Really interesting. I don't know much about Hemingway but now I want to. And I've never liked Chesney.

Unknown said...

I also have read about everything Hemingway ever wrote - including his early reports from the Toronto Star, and I was also a bit confused about KC album title. I mean I'm sure he drank it but when I think Hemingway I think the wine of "The Sun Also Rises" or rum of "To Have & Have Not".
Nice writeup as normal.

Kirk Mantay said...

Yeah, I'm not a fan of KC either. I originally started this blog post several months ago and it was pretty hateful towards him. But the more I thought about it, it was clear that Kenny's just a symptom of this.

And as others have mentioned - Hemingway played into it himself. Definitely a willing participant.

Anonymous said...

You will have to ask the last of the old timers at Captain Tony's, down in Key West!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the piece and comments here. Seems it couldn't be more true that the gifted are some hurting people, searching for something. I really don't know much about Hemingway and now want to go find out. As for Kenny, I am a fan. To me, he's a great interpreter of some great songs, no matter who wrote them. Sure, he's got some good-time silly songs, but many of them are about life and its frailties, disappointments, longing to go back to simpler times or feeling something is missing. I just get the impression that in spite of all his success, he still wants a lot that money can't buy. Some want to hide the dark spots in their lives, others can make a career singing about such things. I'm glad he can articulate some of those very personal thoughts; not sure I could do it.

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