It’s hard to say anything about a man who knew seemingly everything, whose breadth of knowledge ran wide and deep and reached far into the dusty corners of niche cultural esoterica, be it America’s dive bars and tiki dens, New Jersey’s vintage diners, Boston’s long-lost music clubs, or, as he once told me, tailors of London. But among the realms of knowledge Brother Cleve was best known for knowing is a once-niche topic that he played a huge role in unearthing and bringing to the wider public in Boston and the nation: cocktails.
Brother Cleve, the porkpie-hat-topped musician, DJ, lounge-music revivalist and evangelist with his band Combustible Edison, historian, raconteur, and bartender, who died last month at 67, is widely referred to as the godfather of Boston’s cocktail scene. The story of how a fateful 1985 encounter with a kitschy cocktail menu at a Cleveland diner while on tour with his band the Del Fuegos essentially launched Boston’s cocktail movement was chronicled by Globe food writer Devra First. It spurred him to unearth what at that time was a long-lost history of cocktails. And this was before the Internet.
In the many conversations I had with Brother Cleve over the years, both in casual encounters during his DJ nights, run-ins during an annual cocktail conference in New Orleans, and whenever I interviewed him, listening to him map out the detailed taxonomy of drinks and their origins always brought to mind Polonius telling Hamlet of “the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poet unlimited.”
His lifetime pursuit of sharing that knowledge is rooted in the 1990s when he and his wife, Diane, lived in a Union Square triple-decker upstairs from Misty Kalkofen and Jackson Cannon, who were at that time working at Lizard Lounge in Cambridge (she as a bartender while studying at Harvard Divinity School, he on the music side). They went on to helm celebrated bars Drink and Eastern Standard, respectively.
“Everybody you know in the Boston bartending world is a few degrees of separation away from Cleve. Even the generation later, because they all came up under someone who was under his tutelage,” Misty told me. She went on to recount the night he returned home from touring in Russia. He was on the cover of Russian Rolling Stone and as they shared shots of the vodka he brought back, he regaled her with epic stories of his travels.
But the thing that comes up most often when you talk to people about Brother Cleve is that despite his Most Interesting Man in the World status, he put a premium on sharing knowledge as a friend and mentor, not pedantic scholar.
“Cleve is that special sauce that everyone sought. He wanted to see everyone around him having a good time. In doing that, he happened to have a good time, too. That was icing on the cake,” said Jared Sadoian, assistant bar director at Eastern Standard and The Hawthorn until they shuttered last year. “It’s incredible how much there was to this person, yet he existed alongside all of us with total ease. He was an easy person to talk to, easy person to get along with, and an easy person to learn from.”
On Sunday night, a memorial event was held at Lullaby in Manhattan. Cleve was a partner in the bar, which opened in March. Boston notables like Kalkofen, Cannon, John Gertsen (No. 9 Park, Drink) made appearances behind the bar that night. Lauren Clark, who chronicled the local cocktail scene from 2006 to 2011 in her blog Drink Boston, and Boston sports and radio DJ TJ Connelly were among others who traveled to pay respects. Lullaby founders Harrison Snow and Jake Hodas watched as the revelers relished the vibe that Brother Cleve helped create.
“He was an important figure in my career as a bartender,” said Snow, who bartended at Paris Seaport Bar & Creperie in Boston, where Brother Cleve oversaw the cocktail menu. “I never worked with someone of such high esteem, and yet he wanted to learn from me. He wanted to collaborate, not just teach me.”
To me, that is always the signal of a pursuit of knowledge much higher than one’s ego, a sign of genius, even. None other than Einstein put it best: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”