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On the Town

Jill Tracy
Roger Porter

Absinthe Aficionado: Jill Tracy, a San Francisco chanteuse who drinks the emerald-green, hallucinatory liquor absinthe, says, "You see it and you think, 'What is the magic of this elixir?' "

The Absinthe Drinkers

By Michelle Goldberg

No drink looks more natural in Jill Tracy's thin, white hand than an irradiation-green glass of absinthe. Tracy is a San Francisco chanteuse whose decadent "creepy ragtime" music appeals both to black-clad romantics in love with the Victorian era and to tweedy literary types nostalgic for the jazz age. Absinthe is the illegal, allegedly hallucinatory liquor beloved by such gods as Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe, now much sought-after by San Francisco goths, gourmets, aesthetes and aspiring writers alike. "There's a whole mystery and allure surrounding it," Tracy said. "It's an instant connection to many of the visionaries that have inspired me as an artist."

One Saturday in November, Tracy brought me to an absinthe party in Noe Valley at the home of a gourmet named Oliver. After more people had arrived, most of them musicians, Tracy produced a videotape. Everyone gathered in the living room to watch a Hard Copy segment from last summer, a reefer madness-style report on San Francisco's absinthe subculture called "Strange Brew."

Many of the people in the room were on the screen. Music from Tracy's 1995 album "Quintessentially Unreal" served as the soundtrack, playing over a clip of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails imbibing absinthe in his "Perfect Drug" video. The show featured a staged absinthe party at the home of Upside editor Michael Mattis, a gaunt man in black leather pants who stood smirking in the corner. "The show's producers were disappointed that we weren't piercing each other's nipples," Mattis said.

Though an absinthe aficionado, Oliver had emphatically refused to participate in the program. "Can we pixel out your face?" he said, mocking the tabloid's producers. "No! Can we distort your voice? No!" Oliver has nothing but contempt for the "ridiculous resurgence" of absinthe among the underground. "There's a lot of knuckleheads," he said. "Certain elements of the goth community read their Oscar Wilde, their Baudelaire, their Rimbaud, then they see Trent Reznor and they think absinthe is nothing short of ecstasy, nothing short of LSD. Certainly, it's not some big mystery drug."

But while he sneers at absinthe poseurs, Oliver treats the drink with near reverence. Many of San Francisco's absinthe dabblers have to make their own, but Oliver serves only the real thing. His connections as an upscale wine importer allow him to get the licorice-flavored liquor from Portugal, one of the few countries in the world where it's still legal. It comes in plain bottles, which he decorates with handmade, art nouveau-style labels. An old, original absinthe label hangs framed on the wall next to his bed. He has a collection of antique absinthe spoons from between 1850 and the turn of the century. "It takes a certain kind of cafe society to drink absinthe," he said. "It's about recapturing that age."

For absinthe lovers, part of the drink's intoxication is the ritual of serving it. Oliver filled up five tall, thin glasses with about two inches of emerald-green liquor. Then he balanced the spoons--each of which is filled with tiny holes--on top of the glasses. He put a sugar cube on each, then poured chilled water over them until the sugar dissolved into a syrup that dripped into the absinthe, turning it a milky, nuclear chartreuse. Tracy said the otherworldly color once accounted for its intrigue. "At that time in history, dyes were not commonly used. You didn't really see that color. Artists became obsessed with it. You see it in so many paintings: Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso. You see it and you think, 'What is the magic of this elixir?' "

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Oliver insists that absinthe is just an elegant aperitif, but after a glass of it and a bowl of the absinthe-flavored parfait that he invented, I was quite sure that the sensual, narcotic glow I felt came from more than alcohol. Wormwood extract is a key ingredient in absinthe, and it contains thujone, a chemical that is thought to act on the brain similarly to THC. "The history of it is that this is something that drove people mad, and the people it drove mad were some of the most interesting people in history," said Jonathon Keats, a senior editor at San Francisco magazine who says he's "obsessed" with absinthe. Keats threw an absinthe party the same week as Oliver's and invited all of his magazine's editors. Though he's not sure about the drink's hallucinatory properties, his guests' behavior suggests more than booze. "One man was stumbling around my floor and threatening to beat up anyone who didn't like Ulysses," he said.

While Oliver is annoyed that absinthe is becoming a fad, the yearning for sophistication and elegance that's sweeping San Francisco which makes absinthe seem so suddenly "right" is working in Tracy's favor. Her macabre cabaret music, influenced by film noir and carnivals, has collided with the zeitgeist, and the four-year-old "Quintessentially Unreal" is suddenly in the Top 10 of college radio stations nationwide. "I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse, because I haven't changed," she said. "I hate to be suddenly lumped in with this new movement, but it's very reassuring after so many years of people telling me that I was crazy to think anyone would like this kind of music. In Victorian times, it was very common to just sit and listen to a woman play the piano."

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From the December 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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