It's the witching hour at Sadisco, and the bisexual Brittany Murphy and I are watching a Victorian snuff-play done to throbbing industrial music that sounds like rusty steel grinding against broken glass. One by one, women dressed like Heather Graham's whore buddies in From Hell are chased onto center stage by Jack the Rippers in top hats and ties, or black coats and corsets for a touch of transvestism. The first victim is hung like a rag doll from a noose. The second is strangled bare-handed by her pursuers. The third is stabbed mercilessly, her intestines pulled from her and tossed onto her ersatz corpse.
Each slaying is sexually charged, an example of that sexual sadism referred to by some shrinks as "lust murder." Papering the walls behind these pantomimed vignettes is a series of staged photos by art photogs Justin Baker and Joi Carey (a.k.a. Agony Bliss) showing the mutilated, naked corpses of mostly women and some men. One group of snaps in particular by Carey shows the obscenely splayed bodies of three naked chicks in an alley, a bottle of absinthe nearby. On the wall next to the photos is a black curtain with green skeletons on either side of a large, pale-emerald heart, one chugging absinthe, the other wielding an ax. The creation of Sadisco artist Starlyn Munzer, the macabre banner spells out the party's theme at the bottom, where it reads "Crime Lab Absinthian" in chartreuse.
"This shit is weird, Kreme," my cohort mumbles about the sicko live show, taking a hit from the pint glass of milky, silky-sweet liquid in her right hand. "Makes for a cool absinthe party, though."
I have to agree with the Jettster, save for one important fact: What's being served at Sadisco's Crime Lab Absinthian, including what Jett is drinking, is not true absinthe. Rather, what these dapper, black-clad playas are guzzlin' at this recent blowout inside the bar Jugheads -- where Sadisco pops off once a month -- are Pernod and Absente, two fake absinthes. As any absinthe Poindexter-type will tell you, these French liquors lack the crucial ingredient of Grand Wormwood, or Artemisia absinthium, a funky, bitter herb, and no, I ain't talkin' 'bout the good ganja, mon. You don't smoke wormwood. It's known for its medicinal value and for containing a substance known as thujone, which at the right levels can cause convulsions and even death.
The FDA prohibits the use of Artemisia absinthium as a food additive (though you can still purchase a bag of wormwood at most herbal shops), and so Jugheads is left to dole out Pernod and Absente, instead of the more potent wormwood-juice. It's the legend of absinthe that Sadisco's industrial-goth kiddies are connecting to, though pinkie-in-the-air absinthe snobs would dis them for doing so.
For the connoisseurs, every niggling point is of supreme importance.
So when Jugheads' barkeep pours a shot of licoricey Absente in a glass, places a slotted spoon across its mouth, sets an Absente-dipped sugar cube atop it, lights it on fire, and extinguishes the flame with a stream of water that turns the green liquor whitish, snooty absintheurs see a perversion of the traditional ritual. But for the 21st-century bohemians and artists of Sadisco, whom Jett and I first profiled a few weeks back ("Low-Rent Libertines," March 3), La Fée Verte, or the Green Fairy, as absinthe was known in its heyday, is a catalyst for their perfervid imaginations. A nightmarish green door, beyond which is insanity, violence and the promise of hallucinogenic ecstasy.
Sadisco artist/shutterbug Carey explains, "I think the appeal is the way absinthe related to art. Old-school painters and writers would drink absinthe and create these amazing works of art. People respond to that, and want to do something along those lines." Carey's absinthe-drenched morgue shots can be viewed in all their gory glory at http://fetishbliss.net/pics/thumbnails.php?album=14.
One of Carey's models, who goes only by Chloe and maintains her own goth/industrial site at www.phxfetishfix.com, says she doesn't like the aniseed taste of either absinthe or faux absinthe. But she has a firm understanding of its fascination.
"It's the evil, the euphoria, the hysteria of it," comments Chloe, who appears in one of Carey's photos as a bloody bathtub suicide. "A lot of people blamed murders on it, and lumped wormwood in with opiates. But I think the absinthe took artists and others to another level. It appeals to people with a darker sensibility, and just about everyone here has a darker sensibility."
"That's similar to what this book I'm reading says," I tell her. "The Book of Absinthe by Phil Baker. He compares it to people who smoke cigarettes despite and perhaps because of all the morbid warnings. It gives them a thrill to associate with it. Just as it gives people a thrill to associate with absinthe."
"Of course, ciggies are bad for you," chimes the Jettster, firing up a Marlboro Light. "But didn't you say that even in real absinthes, the thujone level is low?"
"True absinthe is still, like, 140 proof," I reply. "And there are other herbs and compounds in true absinthe that could lead to so-called secondary effects. But even if that's bullshit, there's the 70 percent alcohol, and the allure of its history."
The J-unit and I have been jonesing to do an absinthe story for some time. Because even if the Sadiscoites weren't able to suck down the real deal for fear of the po-po giving Jugheads grief, there is a true absinthe scene in town. Seems like every time we hit a new club, some wormwood-wanna-be is telling us they like to party with the Green Fairy and inviting us over for a snort. Not that the fascination with absinthe is confined to the PHX. Absinthe references pop up from time to time in films like Eurotrip and the recent remake of Alfie. Why, just the other day, Alicia Witt was on Last Call With Carson Daly, bragging about doing absinthe in Prague with none other than Queen Latifah.
But until now, the only absinthe hoo-ha Jett and I had been to was one where we supplied the absinthe. I mean, it's not like everyone who drinks the shit hangs out with each other, or is even aware of each other. Why, I'd bet you every dollar of Johnnie Cochran's estate that most absinthe connoisseurs wouldn't kick it with the gritty, gutter-noise addicts of Sadisco. As far as the Valley by night goes, there are the connoisseurs, the art freaks, and the folks who just wanna get fucked up. I'm a little of all three, though I lean toward the art freaks. And Jett? Who cares, as long as the bee-ahtch does what I tell her.
You can draw a straight line from the absinthe frenzy of the Sadiscoites to their creative grandpappies in the world of wormwood. Absinthe was a favorite of Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe. British Decadent Ernest Dowson used to dip his crucifix in absinthe before drinking it. His buddy Oscar Wilde, the Andre 3000 of his day, tripped balls on it. Hard-core absinthe drinker Arthur Rimbaud threw head lice at priests, chased pals with swords, and slashed his fellow poet and lover Paul Verlaine's hands with a knife. Wormwood addict Verlaine returned the favor by shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. According to Barnaby Conrad III's seminal book Absinthe: History in a Bottle, absurdist writer Alfred Jarry rode around Paris on his bicycle, hands and face painted green, high on absinthe, a gat on each hip, ready to make his enemies into Swiss cheese.
Painters swore by La Fée Verte. Anyone who's seen Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! knows the Green Fairy (played by dime-piece Kylie Minogue) was the inspiration for a hideous dwarf named Toulouse-Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo), who spent his time pimpin' out high-class ass such as Nicole Kidman's "Satine" to pretty boys like Ewan McGregor's "Christian." Actually, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec wasn't nearly as ugly as Leguizamo, but he was a great painter who drank more absinthe than there was water in the Seine. He mixed it with cognac in a concoction referred to as tremblement de terre ("earthquake," in English), and carried around his own absinthe supply in a hollowed-out cane. Supposedly, he introduced fellow painter Vincent van Gogh to the viridescent hooch. During one absinthe binge, van Gogh threatened his homeboy Paul Gauguin with a razor. Later the same evening, he sliced off part of his ear, and left it for his favorite ho as a present. Other than Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and van Gogh, loads of other artists found inspiration in it, including Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Picasso.
Modern artists have also enjoyed the elixir: Johnny Depp is fond of the brand La Fee Absinthe, and shock-rocker Marilyn Manson paints watercolors with absinthe themes, though you wonder if his interest in the drink is mostly a conceit. I once interviewed Manson in Hollywood, and I remember him having one of his people fill up a glass of "absinthe" for the photographers with green Gatorade. "I'll kill you if you ever tell anyone about this," Manson said to me, half-jokingly. I guess he didn't want to waste the real thing. Manson's fiancée, Dita Von Teese, takes an "absinthe bath" in a huge martini glass as part of her burlesque act. Even Eminem reportedly likes to suck face with the Green Fairy, and, uh, no, that has nothing to do with the rumors that Slim Shady might like trouser trout.
I, too, admire the legend more than the reality of absinthe, though I do appreciate how it gets you effed up. Despite the nix on the sale of absinthe here in the United States, ordering it online from overseas is simpler than signing up for Internet porn. England and Spain never outlawed it, and a revival of absinthe began with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the resumption of absinthe-making in Czechoslovakia.
Switzerland banned it in 1910, after absinthe was speciously linked to two cases of familial homicide. The United States followed suit in 1912. In France, politicians were afraid that absinthe was weakening the Gauls as a fighting force against the Krauts. So when World War I began, they put the kibosh on the absinthe trade, and Pernod, once the most popular absinthe in the land, was neutered. Now even Switzerland has come around, and absinthe is again legal in most of Europe. America lags behind, but if you want it, you can get it. Technically, it's illegal to produce and sell, but not to own. And customs rarely stops it on import.
"Here, try this," burps our seedy absinthe pal Raoul (he keeps his last name secret for obvious reasons), as he hands Jett and me a glass each of his home brew. "Tell me what you think."
"Christ Almighty, that's disgusting!" I gag, as Jett's making a face that looks like she licked an emu's balls. "How did you make it?"
"By steeping wormwood in Everclear," he tells us, giggling, while lighting up a clove cigarette with the burner on his stove. "It was the simplest recipe I could find."
"Blech! What's the point?" I say, getting ready to throw it in his sink.
"No, no, try one more little swig," he pleads. So I give it another toss. Like sucking on a mouthful of pennies that your cat's pissed all over. That's enough for me. Raoul breaks out some beers from the fridge. I don't know if it's the Everclear or what, but I'm feeling a little buzzed.
"See, what did I tell you?" he asks.
"Sure, but wouldn't it be easier just to smoke a joint?" I respond, as Jett wobbles toward me, like she wants to lock lips. Obviously the potion is working on her.
"What the fuck!?" she says, straightening up suddenly.
Next time, I'll tell Raoul to add some roofies.
The reason we'd stopped by Raoul's is that this big shot we know, whom we'll call Big Daddy Kane to protect the guilty, was having a party and had asked me to produce a few bottles, practically overnight. Big Daddy also wanted me to play bartender, and to give a little historical lecture on the still-illicit substance. Ordering via Europe would have taken two to four business days. But that would have meant disappointing Big Daddy. And believe me, Big Daddy is not a fellow you want to disappoint.
Fortunately, Raoul knew someone who knew someone who could get us two bottles of illegally distilled Swiss "La Bleu," one bottle of Spanish Mari Mayans Absenta, and two bottles of French Emile Pernot. There was a substantial markup on all of them, considering the short notice. Raoul copped a bottle of La Bleu for himself, adding it to Big Daddy's tab. The home brew is something he did as an experiment. I had to admit it was effective, though as nasty as yak sweat.
At Big Daddy's crib, I covered the waterfront, as they say, on absinthe's history. Bottles, slotted spoons, and sugar cubes arrayed before me, I expounded upon its origins in Switzerland as a cure-all tonic, supposedly invented in 1792 by Frenchman Dr. Pierre Ordinaire. The acquisition of Ordinaire's recipe by the Pernod family came next, and on to its popularity with French soldiers fighting in Algeria in the early 1800s, where it was prescribed to fight off malaria and dysentery with some success. French warriors returned to the cafes of Paris, demanded absinthe, and it became hip to drink the elixir, which also contained hyssop, fennel and anise. It caught on with the bourgeoisie and the bohemians, and was made even more popular when Frog vineyards were wiped out by the parasite phylloxera from about 1860. Absinthe was a cheap alternative, and according to author Conrad, France's consumption of it jumped from 700,000 liters a year in 1874 to 36 million liters a year in 1910. No wonder Paris' happy hour was nicknamed l'heure verte, "the green hour."
For various reasons, absinthe began getting a bad rap. Wormwood was said to eat holes in your brain, make dudes as violent as Arizona State University's Loren Wade, cause them to hallucinate, and buy them a first-class ticket to Charenton, the famous French insane asylum. According to some sources, the wine industry and the temperance movement colluded to end the reign of absinthe, demonizing the Green Fairy as a murderess. All the wack-ass poets and artists on absinthe probably added fuel to the prohibitionists' fire.
Until recently, the agent in wormwood known as thujone was blamed as the root of absinthe's evil. Here was our chance to test absinthe for ourselves, I told everyone at Big Daddy's par-tay, and see if there's finally a liquor that will at long last make Jett want to sleep with me.
"Just pour, Fat Boy," cried the PHX's switch-hittin' Lil' Kim. "If you start looking like Angelina Jolie, we'll talk."
I started making the wormwood cocktails the classic way, a dose of absinthe in the glass, slotted spoon over lips of same, sugar cube on spoon, a trickle of water until the absinthe began to louche (pronounced "loosh") a cloudy white, and voilà! But soon, I was just dumping it all in the same glass and stirring, in order to meet the demands of the thirsty crowd, eager to get crocked. I partook of my fair share along the way. By the time the bottles were empty, Big Daddy had stumbled off to his boudoir, bodies of boozers were sprawled everywhere, and I had to be led away like a zombie. Jett, in full lezbot mode, was last seen in the arms of another woman. The morning after, no one reported hallucinations, flashing lights, tracers or green fairies incarnate. But everyone agreed that the 140-proof firewater had made mincemeat of our cerebellums.
At Tranzylvania, the exquisite new Goth-Romance club that pops off on Friday nights inside Palazzo, next to Amsterdam on Central Avenue, there are no murders at midnight. No women being stabbed or strangled in pantomime. But when the clock strikes 12, La Fée Verte rocks the room. See, at midnight, the black lights go on, and the already baroque, Anne Rice-like interior, with its marble floors and gargoyles, comes alive with fluorescent panels of everything from Van Helsing-inspired castles, demonic orgies and cavorting sinners in Hell to fetish femmes performing unspeakable acts. In one panel above and to the left of the bar, behind the grill of the club's second-story catwalk, is the image of a nude man dancing with a skeleton, a bottle of absinthe open before them.
"This is my ode to Edgar Allan Poe," Palazzo proprietor Steven Rogers tells us in his charming Southern drawl. "It's the work of artist Kent Mathieu of the L.A. company WildfireFX.com. I wanted to have one absinthe piece because these days I only drink either a good tequila or a fine absinthe."
"Nice ass," sighs Jett, referring to the butt cheek in Mathieu's painting. "Usually all I have to look at is Kreme's double-wide backside."
"Keep it zipped while Mr. Rogers is dropping some absinthe science on us," I order my skankified sidekick. "Or you'll be getting' up close and personal with the back of my hand."
Rogers continues, relating that he keeps eight different types of absinthe at home. He began with Absente, but found it distasteful, "like drinking gasoline," he says. Doing his own research, he found out how easy it was to order actual absinthe, and is now a wormwood wonk.
"There are a lot of myths," Rogers points out. "If you read Ted Breaux, you realize that it's not wormwood that's giving you that amazing clarity you get with absinthe. It's the other herbal combinations. I don't serve it in the club because that would be illegal. But it's not illegal to consume it or have a bottle at home. I drink it maybe once a week. I prefer the Swiss La Bleus as well as some of the better French absinthes."
Ted Breaux is a chemist and founder of Jade Liqueurs (www.vintageabsinthe.com), which produces absinthes in France using antique distilling equipment and recipes painstakingly re-created from samples of century-old absinthe. Breaux argues that his absinthes are the closest you can get to what folks such as Oscar Wilde were drinking back in the day. Also, like many of the more refined absinthe enthusiasts, he pooh-poohs the hysteria surrounding wormwood and thujone. We got him on the horn not long after conversatin' with Rogers.
"I can't deny what they call 'secondary effects,' but these are nothing like the effects of illicit drugs," relates Breaux. "While you can feel the effects of the alcohol, your mind stays somewhat lucid. People have said it's because absinthium contains thujone, and all these absinthes have high levels of thujone. But researchers in Germany and England have concluded what I first demonstrated back in 2000, which is that it doesn't matter how much absinthium you use, you just don't get much thujone in the finished product."
True dat. According to a bangin' article on the subject by Ian Hutton on the all-encompassing absinthe Web site "La Fee Verte" (www.feeverte.net), analyses of vintage bottles of Pernod circa 1900 have lower levels of thujone than recently produced commercial brands and privately brewed batches like the La Bleus. But even if thujone is not the scapegoat we'd like it to be, Hutton writes that "adulterants" used in cheapo absinthes from back then could have been harmful to old-school absinthe addicts. Also, Breaux suggests there are little-studied compounds in modern absinthe that might explain the drunken "lucidity" so many achieve while embracing the Green Fairy.
"If you take a look at the traditional herbs used in the production of absinthe, some exhibit sedative-like effects, some excite, so that it's sort of like an herbal speedball," says Breaux.
Breaux's Nouvelle-Orleans absinthe has many admirers, but I found it almost impossible to drink, its musty, moldy smell and taste reminding me of licking the inside of a stripper's shoe. My friend Abby (again, she prefers to go sans last name, natch), unfamiliar with strippers' fuck-me pumps, refers to it as a "swamp funk." Abby is an absinthe maven in Tempe who has devoted an entire room of her house to absinthe, absinthe antiques, art and poetry. She calls it her Green Room, as it's painted sage green throughout, with antique tables and chairs sporting green cushions. Absinthe bottles crowd cabinets, and everywhere are framed portraits of Rimbaud, Verlaine and Oscar Wilde. The door is covered by a reproduction of an absinthe poster, and the windows are shaded by diaphanous green curtains. Encircling the room are lines in French from Rimbaud's A Season in Hell.
Abby's well known in the online absinthe community, where she spends her time when not at an office job she's less than stoked about. She's traveled to Seattle and elsewhere for absinthe tastings, and as recently as February held one in her home, with 10 other absinthe maniacs flying in from all over the country for a three-day-long swilling spree. She's shared her emerald firewater with me, but she doesn't suffer absinthe fools gladly. Why do you think I went to her house minus Jett? When I tell Abby about the raunchy goings-on at Sadisco's Crime Lab Absinthian, she seems both amused and annoyed.
"I'd probably want to slap them," she tells me, smoking and talking quickly. "People think it's like a drug and is going to totally fuck 'em up. They see these movies like Eurotrip, and they do things like set the sugar cubes on fire. The problem is, most people don't do their research. It was probably in 2001 that I first heard about absinthe, and I happened to stumble onto the best Web sites for it online with tons of information, like FeeVerte.net and Oxygenee.com."
Abby claims to have never had any secondary effects from drinking absinthe. Basically, she just gets plastered. That's cool. But why her obsession with it if all she does is get tight?
"Because it tastes so good!" she enthuses. "It's got such amazing flavors, and there's so much variation that I would think most people would come back for that alone. But I guess some people feel different drinking it because it's taboo. Or because Marilyn Manson drinks it."
When I accuse her of doing something similar, of drinking absinthe in part because she digs poets like Rimbaud, she disagrees, saying her love for absinthe came first. However, I can't help but see some parallels to the Sadiscoites. Maybe they can't distinguish anise from fennel like Abby can, but then I'm not so sure that Ernest Dowson or Paul Verlaine would have been able to, either. The poets liked the way it tasted, but they also liked the effect it had on them, which they regarded differently from that of other alcoholic drinks.
Like many wormwood-heads, Abby makes a fetish of collecting absinthe-related items, everything from antique glasses and slotted spoons to vintage saucers placed under absinthe glasses (pre-priced in francs) and a beautiful reproduction of an absinthe water fountain with four small spigots, used to drip ice-cold water over the sugar cubes and into the absinthe glasses. She even has these sugar-grilles in the shape of an elephant or a man's face, which are used for the same purpose as the slotted spoons.
But Abby's collection is dwarfed by that of Betina Wittels, whose rambling Tucson abode is filled with rare and unusual absinthiana. Wittels is the co-author of Absinthe, Sip of Seduction (edited by Ted Breaux), a modern guide to appreciating La Fée Verte. Wittels deals in absinthiana through her Web site www.allthingsabsinthe.com, and travels frequently in Europe and elsewhere on the hunt for, well, all things absinthe. She appeared on the Food Network's Thirsty Traveler TV show during a special episode on absinthe. Some of her rarer acquisitions include an absinthe spoon owned by Toulouse-Lautrec, Eiffel Tower spoons in the shape of the French landmark, antique glass "topettes" used to measure and pour absinthe, and a rare green, glow-in-the-dark absinthe glass containing uranium.
When I interviewed Wittels, she'd just returned from France, a bunch of antiques in tow.
"The market for absinthe antiques has snowballed," she explained. "I don't want to say what I buy things for and then sell, but I can tell you what the retail prices are. The antique spoons, anywhere from $500 to $2,000 each. Five years ago, I could get a fountain and sell it for maybe $1,000 to $1,500. Now there's nothing decent and in good condition for less than $2,500."
For Wittels, there's a direct correlation between the antique market and absinthe drinking because people tend to use what they buy.
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"A big part of absinthe is the ritual involved in making the drink. They're all caught up in that era where people savored the moment in the cafes and enjoyed a drink, enjoyed putting it together, pouring the water over the sugar and into the glass."
Hence the rise of an entire industry dedicated to dealing in and reproducing the accouterments of absinthe drinking.
What the trade in these objects indicates is that people are attempting to buy not only a piece of the history of absinthe, but the mystique surrounding it. True, absinthe's continuing illegality in the United States no doubt enhances its mystique and the myths surrounding the green muse. Absinthe could only be legalized if the FDA were lobbied and convinced that this green liquor is just another alcoholic beverage, like a souped-up bourbon or scotch. But who wants absinthe to be just another drink? Not me. Not the party people at Sadisco. Not even Abby.
"I prefer it this way, that it's restricted," she confides, as we sit in her green room, louched glasses of absinthe before us. "If it were legal, there would be all these frat boys and sorority girls lining up, setting their sugar cubes on fire. It would completely ruin this lovely, dignified beverage and turn it into flaming Dr Peppers. I'd hate that."