Vesuvius: A cocktail inspired by Sufjan Stevens

IN AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted in a cloud of stone and ash, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. An estimated 16,000 people died due to the hot gas and rock that flowed from the volcano. Molten rock and pulverized pumice spewed forth at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second, releasing a hundred thousand times more thermal energy than the Hiroshima bombing. The cities were buried in up to 20 feet of ash, and their names and locations were eventually forgotten until their proper rediscovery in the mid-1700s. 

The only eye-witness account that survived were the letters of Pliny the Younger, written some 25 years after the events that took his Uncle's life on that day. Writing to Tacitus, Pliny described what he saw as he watched from across the Bay of Naples:

... The flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, had I not derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it. At last the darkness thinned and dispersed into smoke or cloud; then there was genuine daylight, and the sun actually shone out, but yellowish as it is during an eclipse.  We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts.  We returned to Misenum where we attended to our physical needs as best we could, and then spent an anxious night alternating between hope and fear." {The Letters of Pliny the Younger}
It Came from out of Space The Volcano and the Eternal Rising , Royal Robertson  (1986)   Marker, ballpoint pen, paint, on poster board  From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Collection

It Came from out of Space The Volcano and the Eternal Rising, Royal Robertson (1986)

Marker, ballpoint pen, paint, on poster board

From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Collection

When I was six, the earth gave way in a tremble. Glass collided with floor, appliances leaped through the air, furniture slid. There was a sound before it happened: A low rumble building from deep within the earth, traveling from the heart of the jolt. I remember my confused fear as my mom scooped my sister and I up, sliding us under a table as the world crashed around us. 

My family lived less than 20 miles from the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake, but we were lucky to have been unharmed. I remember driving through neighboring towns of Watsonville and Santa Cruz, where the earth had cracked open in spots and many houses looked as though they'd been picked up and set next to their foundations. We didn't have power for a week after the quake, but my grandmother had sent us VHS tapes of the news coverage she recorded from her home in Michigan, showing California's nearly post-apocalyptic landscape of crumbled highways and buildings on fire. 

I wrote a few weeks ago about the nature of memory in storytelling, and I admit that for as vivid as these memories are for me, I have a hard time picking out what's real and what's been filled in over the years. Do I really remember the rubble of that church? Could I possibly recall the sleepless night after the main event, when I tried desperately to fall asleep to the sound of the radio only to be jolted awake by each aftershock? Did I really hear that sound heralding the quake's arrival? 

I kept coming back to these fragmented memories while reading Pliny's letters. He seemed both overjoyed and overwhelmed by survival, seeking meaning in the terror. He had found consolation in the thought that he would die with the rest of world in that moment, succumbing to destruction under a blanket of ash... And then he didn't. I wonder how he made sense of entire cities disappearing before his eyes, and that strange longing to go with them? 

The Age of Adz was largely inspired by the work of outsider artist Royal Robertson. I'm going to allow Sufjan himself to detail Royal's life, and how he found a brother in this man:

I've been spending so much time with Sufjan's art that I've started to see mine more clearly, much like he described finding a focus for his own work through the exploration of Royal Robertson. That comfort he found in entering into the intricacies of Royal's art feels awfully familiar. Who knows if you can ever truly understand someone through this disjointed relationship, but the journey I've walked through Sufjan's work has led to numerous revelations in my own. It's strange how intimate that feels. 

Because Royal Robertson was influenced by the occult, I thought it appropriate to explore the highlighted songs below through the tarot. I'll be using my pretty little Prisma Visions deck by James R. Eads.

The Age of Adz

Digital track

When I die, when I die
I'll rot
But when I live, when I live
I'll give it all I've got

You're at the wheel of a car. The rain pours down as you drive on in the darkness, headlights illuminating just enough of the road for you to see the immediate future. A bird lands on the hood just long enough to leap back into the sky, wings spread as it rises in victory. The going isn't easy, but you'll give it all you've got: 


Get Real Get Right

Digital track (free download)

Get real, get right 
For you will not be distracted by the signs
Do not be distracted by them
Do yourself a favor and get real
Get right with the lord

You've opened the door to the unknown. It is as beautiful and bright as it is dark and eternal. What waits in the center of that flurry of light? It would be easy to get distracted by the options before you, the sheer scale of it all. Is it possible that the chaos is all in your head? It's time for a reality check. Do yourself a favor and get real, get right:


Digital track.

Sufjan, follow your heart
Follow the flame, or fall on the floor
Sufjan, the panic inside
The murdering ghost that you cannot ignore

Your house was once built on solid ground, but through wind and weather the earth eroded, leaving it teetering on the edge of a cliff. Total ruin is imminent. Failure awaits, but you still have a choice: Cower in defeat of this crisis, or use your destruction to build something better. Follow the flame: 


In the video below, Sufjan Stevens describes his inspiration for "Vesuvius" as the conflict between our innate survival instincts, and our great temptation to give into the void:


I've always had this experience on the threshold... where you're on the edge and you see the vastness and the magnitude of space... And I always want to give myself over to it, in spite of natural preservation. We all have built within us self defense, and self maintenance, you know, it's a very natural, very primal temptation that phenomenon to live by any means possible. And yet I find when we're at the threshold there's this other phenomenon, this other cosmic experience in which we want to give ourselves over to The Other, to the vastness of it all... This song's about jumping in to the mouth of the volcano.

The urge to give ourselves over to The Other, to give into destruction, is a crucial part of the creative process. Many people fear The Tower card above because it portends seismic change, and I know how frightening that can be. What gets forgotten, however, is that building and tearing down are necessary parts of growth. I don't advocate looking for crises, but we can gain strength if we channel the destruction that finds us. We can also gain clarity and creative focus from it. I believe that good creation requires good editing. Destroying parts of what you've created can lead to truths you didn't know were there, but only if you don't get too precious about your work. 

The Recipe

Vesuvius: A cocktail inspired by the songs of Sufjan Stevens

Cocktail by Sara Galactica. Photo by Andrea Holodnick. 

  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz port
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • 1 oz cherry preserves
  • 3-4 dashes bitters (see recipe notes)

Add cherry preserves and lime juice to an empty shaker or cocktail pitcher. Stir well, dissolving as much of the preserves with the lime juice as possible. If your preserves are anything like what I was using, this mixture will be chunky. Don't worry. 

Add bourbon, port, and bitters. Stir well.

Fill shaker/pitcher halfway with ice and stir well, about 50 seconds. The goal here is to chill the drink, combine flavors, and dilute the drink a bit. 

Strain into coupe or cocktail glass. 

Garnish: If using Peychaud's bitters, float a star anise (shown here). If using Angostura or orange bitters, use an allspice berry. 

Vesuvius: A cocktail inspired by the songs of Sufjan Stevens. Bourbon, port, lime, cherry preserves, bitters. Photo by Andrea Holodnick. |

I thought this was a party? Let's dance!

And since you've made it this far, I figured you should probably be rewarded with this gem of a video in which Sufjan Stevens works on choreographed dance moves. It is awesome. 

Remember this moment of happiness when we dive into Sufjan's beautiful (and oh-so-sad) new release, Carrie & Lowell, next week.