Blue Bottle

When the concert ended, a Chinese man drove me back to my hotel in a large black Towncar. All the way down Geary. There were Russian bakeries, Dim Sum joints, gas stations, spas, the whole beat hybrid of San Francisco deciding, block by block, whether it is a city or not. I called up a friend in Chicago, and she was getting stoned.

I dumped my bag, my music, my concert clothes in my hotel room and, with everything piled prosaically on the bed, took quick stock. There were empty hours ahead and I could make no comprehensive plan.

I went to Blue Bottle. This is a little coffee kiosk on Gough and Linden that I discovered, walking one morning, saw people waiting outside of it, fell in with the herd, and when I tasted my first sip of their filter coffee and bit into a chocolate macaroon, the sunshine itself seemed to be jealous. How is it that anyone can drink other, crap coffee? Every cup of Starbucks, for instance, I had ever drunk seemed a terrible, terrible mistake, even an amoral act. When something beautiful happens to you you sit still and work to appreciate it, you don’t mess around. I sat on a bench basking and sipping and when the coffee was finished I was not sad. I did not suck at the empty cup like the addict I am, but moved on to other enjoyable things.

So, I went to Blue Bottle, to get an afternoon cup. Their motto:

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I was standing in line and the time and the little alley seemed drifting, out of the way, a corner. My day had blown itself into this strange, bluish, dusky bend. As I ordered my filter coffee, a girl and her friend who seemed intriguing came up behind me, and the girl sort of caught my eye and I did the awkward thing of seeing her and not seeing her at the same time. But then she made a move, and asked “Do you live in the neighborhood?” and I said, no, I was visiting, and it turns out she’s a student though I didn’t ask what she was studying, but now she knows I’m a pianist. Then I fled without wanting to. I strode off with my coffee wishing entirely I had kept talking to her and to her intriguing friend.

But I had left my wallet in my hotel room and I needed to retrieve it.

So I began to walk back with this cup of coffee and there was a certain late-afternoon breeze. It blew just a little. 4:45 pm, color of bluish sky, temperature of breeze, semi-quiet though the street was busy. The coffee didn’t throw me, didn’t jostle the string which was inside me and was allowed to vibrate. I kept walking, feeling, listening. A certain temperature of breeze was which maybe exactly precisely the same temperature of some other afternoon, an afternoon I am sure, though I do not remember the exact date or person at all (to say the least), an afternoon in which I was in love with someone.

A feeling took hold. A quiet and focus, despite busy streets, and despite the caffeine ringing inside of me, and I could pay a great deal of attention that I don’t normally pay. I would live continually like this if I could. I had no desire to stop or alter the flow of the moment. (Totally irrelevant phrases to me right now: waiter bring the check; why don’t we grab a drink; what should we do next?) Proust, man, I thought, I know exactly where you’re coming from, I am so happy right now and I could feel two moments, now and some distant time, rubbing shoulders in their breezes, because the earlier afternoon, which had been totally forgotten, was not “remembered” so much as made totally alive within me: but only the essentials, and none of the facts. I felt still capable of whatever it was.

The Inn at the Opera has a very silly (quaint?) old elevator which plays all sorts of canards from the classical repertoire, including a very vexing, limp, waddling version of the Mozart Flute Concerto, which makes the endless process of waiting for the elevator to get to my floor, at times, a complete misery. That morning at 7 am, bag of laundry in hand, jetlaggy and confused, I stood and descended through a merciless and mediocre tutti, which made the morning seem unnecessarily cruel. In my mind I scolded the strings, no, I thought, don’t you get harmony AT ALL? I glowered at the concierge, as if he were responsible.

But just then, coffee in hand, the last movement of Tchaik 6 was on, while I was headed up to my room to grab my wallet and head back out, those few moments of music were thrilling. Tchaikovsky! I sympathized with him. It was that moment over a timpani pedal point. That was his world; yes, I thought, that’s yours. The strings played yearning phrases (I thought, grooving: this is really really yearning, he got that) and my soul or my stomach tidally went back and forth with them, I moved without moving. Obviously I was feeling receptive, in a mockable way, but I couldn’t laugh at myself, loving Tchaikovsky, because it was too good for laughter. The melancholy all-in-the-throatness of it, the heart well past the sleeve, pure cry and wish.

A momentary digression. This post really has no plot or point whatsoever, so digressions should be fine. We (me and Josh) had many wonderful audiences on our most recent tour, but my favorite was in Madison, Wisconsin. This is because when Josh announced our (perpetual) encore, “None But The Lonely Heart,” as usual some portion of the audience sighed and swooned and gasped with delight. Another portion, however, after a telltale moment—and I imagine this was the younger, more studentish portion of the crowd—found this gasping ridiculous and overwrought (and probably don’t really know “None But The Lonely Heart” anyway): they laughed. This second tide of laughter was the antidote to the gasping cliché. Oh, Tchaikovsky! How Romantic! Get over it, you’re a sucker. I enjoyed this, a lot. Perhaps too much. I laughed an evil laugh inside. Perhaps somewhere deep down I had some resentment towards “None But The Lonely Heart” stored up and I was letting the audience work it out. I enjoyed imagining the two elements of the audience at war, something like the war between the lyrical and the cynical within myself. What a ridiculous title, “None but the Lonely Heart;” doubtless some mangled original Russian, some stilted bit of fey easily-sold Romantical drivel. Yick. Clearly I have issues.

And then I was back out on the street in the same breeze and still in love with someone irrelevantly in the past. Which caused me no regret, to feel the love again, disembodied. I walked a few blocks with absolutely no plan except not to imprison myself in any situation. I looked down the alley for the same girl and her intriguing friend who had talked to me, and now they were gone. No matter, they might have been a distraction. I was in a humming, happy solitude and every sight was fresh. But all I could do was walk.

I drifted into a used bookstore and bought a couple wonderful books entirely on a whim, I didn’t want to think about them. I considered getting depressed by all the old musty books and all the lives they represented but I didn’t. But there in the history section, the Brahms Horn Trio came back to me, which I had just performed (for some reason I almost just typed “deformed”): particularly the Trio of the Scherzo, the truly most melancholy moment. (Other pole to jolly E-flat.) It reverberated from the Tchaikovsky? The phrases were similar, gluey, wanting.

When music manages to feel achingly physical. When the simplest interval is back, baby, when you know it is just that wide. When all the voices of the chords seem to be resolving like intertwining hands. Some fourth resolves to the major third and there, your lover puts a hand on yours and skin touches skin; and the touch is so not about just the place you are touched, but radiates in internal channels and carries secret messages all around your body. And that is how those phrases seemed to me, of Brahms, and of Tchaikovsky, and I think some sort of pubescent naive bodily-ness came to me all of a piece with the Tchaikovsky which I had not ardently listened to since I was 15. Message carriers, profound touches. Same with every sight, every grimy street corner, every glimpsed couple in a restaurant across the street, every small whispered word, the aggregate world of every person’s ridiculous gesture all the way down Market Street to Noe and back.

And so, in conclusion, I suggest you go to the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, as soon as possible, and order a filter coffee, nothing more complicated than that, and keep ordering one a day, at least, for the rest of your life.

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I actually began having fun reading your posts backwards, and believe it or not, PREDICTED you mentioning that feeling of yours being in love with someone (paragraph 6). It’s not Tchaik, SF, or coffee, it’s spring itself (oh, human biology!) and you [with all your latest ANS ‘bleedings’]. Why havn’t you become a chemist?

  2. Galina
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    The world is need of more people like you Jeremy – to enjoy the little things in life, that in the end are a lot more important than the larger ones.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m in awe of your metaphors.

  4. hari
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    i love walking along central park west on a beautiful day. it makes me fall in love with the city over and over again.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Happy Spring, Jeremy! Enjoy!

  6. Emily
    Posted March 6, 2007 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    I feel woefully inadequate as a San Franciscan to have never patronized the Blue Bottle after your raving endorsement. I explored the link you provided and was mesmerized by the most exquisitely detailed instructions I’ve ever seen for French press (notable excerpt: “The grind should be gritty, resembling beach sand: pleasant to walk on, but not too powdery. More Santa Cruz than Carmel”). Wow! I’ll have to check it out…..

  7. eliz. s.
    Posted March 6, 2007 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    This post is pretty damn beautiful. Thanks.

  8. Anonymous
    Posted March 6, 2007 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    What a ridiculous title, “None but the Lonely Heart;” doubtless some mangled original Russian

    Actually, the original language of this song is German: it’s a setting of the famous poem by Goethe “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt”, from Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre. Many composers have set this to music, Schubert I think 7 times. Russians know it mainly in a mangled Russian translation as “Nyet tol’ko tot kto znal”.

  9. Hal
    Posted March 6, 2007 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Wunneful, wunneful — a post that made my day, a variation in miniature of Walter Benjamin’s gorgeous “Hashish in Marseilles”… I was sent over here by a link at Alex Ross’s blog, so thanks to both of you. (That swooning gasp thing, by the way, is most annoying at poetry readings.)

  10. Anonymous
    Posted March 6, 2007 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed your concert in SF. It was very exciting.

  11. Anonymous
    Posted March 7, 2007 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I desperately long for the same breeze you felt in SF this coming Sunday. New York is still frigid and the wind howling is definitely not the love I want to reminisce.

    Excited to hear you play again for the kids. Will the venue serve that kind of coffee?

    See you, Jeremy!

  12. Scott
    Posted March 7, 2007 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Beautiful, beautiful writing. And now I desperately want coffee and Tchaikovksy. Cheers from Madison, Wisconsin!

  13. Jen B.
    Posted March 7, 2007 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I was supposed to be writing a paper this morning, but in procrastinating with the help of my friends’ blogs, I was directed here by an old friend who lives in Berlin. I live in New York, but I’m a San Franciscan first. My last year in SF I lived in Hayes Valley, but apparently, I left a year too early, because all the time I lived in fog city, there was nothing on that patch of Linden Street but…Linden Street. Now I am sitting over my tiny breakfast at a tiny table on the Lower East Side, looking out a window at passing snowflakes. I am drinking tea, because the coffee here is no good. And damn you, right now, I want nothing more than to be back in Hayes Valley, on a crisp morning, walking toward downtown with a stop off on Linden.

    What a beautiful writer you are. Thanks for the morning diversion.

  14. alek
    Posted March 7, 2007 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Might be interesting to know that the founders of Blue Bottle Coffee (Jim Freeman and Colleen Donovan) were both professional musicians in their previous careers, and excellent ones at that. I studied clarinet with Jim for about five years, and when he opened the shop, nothing about it surprised me. It exhibited the same mix of passion and precision (along with a healthy dose of literary aphorism) that he brought to his teaching and his performance.

    Also experienced the phenomenal weather this weekend, and I’m sure your description would resonate with a lot of San Franciscans. I spent Sunday in Dolores Park eating potato salad, and it was exactly as magical as it sounds.

  15. Will
    Posted March 8, 2007 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Interesting the Proust could get so many thousands of words from biting into a medeleine, and you this luminous post from a cup of coffee, when the human sense that is scientifically “proven” to stimulate the memory most of all is th sense of smell. On the other hand, coffee aroma probably was involved as well.

    I found you this morning via Alex Ross. I’ve bookmarked this blog because I love good writing and because music has been such a bedrock part of my life.

  16. Anonymous
    Posted March 8, 2007 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    In a previous comment a rough translation of Goethe would be:
    “only those who know longing”

  17. Anonymous
    Posted March 8, 2007 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps you’d be interested to know that Brahms and Tchaikovsky shared a birthday (May 7th)

    Maybe you already knew that and you subconciously made the connection from Tchaik 6 to the Brahms Trio.

    Our brains work in weird ways.

  18. Sze
    Posted March 9, 2007 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I am so happy right now and I could feel two moments, now and some distant time, rubbing shoulders in their breezes, because the earlier afternoon, which had been totally forgotten, was not “remembered” so much as made totally alive within me: but only the essentials, and none of the facts. I felt still capable of whatever it was.

    that’s lovely.

  19. Isa
    Posted March 10, 2007 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
    (J.W. Goethe)

    Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,
    Weiß, was ich leide!
    Allein und abgetrennt
    Von aller Freude,
    Seh ich ans Firmament
    Nach jener Seite.
    Ach! der mich liebt und kennt,
    Ist in der Weite.
    Es schwindelt mir, es brennt
    Mein Eingeweide.
    Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,
    Weiß, was ich leide.

    And 2 very different versions in English:

    None but the lonely heart
    Can know my sadness
    Alone and parted
    Far from joy and gladness
    Heavens boundless arch I see
    Spread about above me
    O what a distance dear to one
    Who loves me
    None but the lonely heart
    Can know my sadness
    Alone and parted
    Far from joy and gladness
    Alone and parted far
    From joy and gladness
    My senses fail
    A burning fire
    Devours me
    None but the lonely heart
    Can know my sadness

    (2) the more literal one from HARVARD CLASSICS SHELF OF FICTION

    You never long’d and lov’d
    You know not grief like mine:
    Alone and far remov’d
    From joys or hopes, I pine:
    A foreign sky above,
    And a foreign earth below me,
    To the south I look all day;
    For the hearts that love and know me
    Are far, are far away.
    I burn, I faint, I languish,
    My heart is waste, and sick, and sore;
    Who has not long’d in baffled anguish
    Cannot know what I deplore.

  20. Claire
    Posted March 11, 2007 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    it’s posts like this that remind me why i keep coming back to your blog! the passion, the cognition … it’s so delicious!!!

    i was really struck by the common thread throughout this 😛 the connection we have with music the emotions we identify with that are embodied by the music, the way a composer expresses a strong emotion, the way we expose ourselves through music. that’s why i’m a musician 🙂

  21. Domina
    Posted March 11, 2007 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Another lovely post… Your writing makes me wish I’d been the girl at the Blue Bottle.

  22. Anonymous
    Posted March 11, 2007 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    totally in agreement domina! I’m going to speak for all the females that are secretly infatuated with you Jeremy and say – who was this woman you were in love with, and was she crazy to let you go?!

  23. Anonymous
    Posted March 11, 2007 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    From yet another grateful reader who found you by way of Alex Ross’s blog: Thanks for writing so beautifully.


  24. Samantha G.
    Posted March 12, 2007 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Deep down you’ve a soft spot in your heart for such “easily-sold Romantical drivel” that is as soggy as a coffee-soaked madeleine (and you know it!) Lovely imagery.

    You were all marvelous in the family concert yesterday, by the way! I had a terrific time. As there were no small children accompanying me, I had about as much of a legitimate excuse for being there as I do for watching the occasional Spongebob episode. But it is always a joy to hear you guys play. Well done on the Dudley piece. What a riot!

  25. Lane Savant
    Posted March 12, 2007 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Roy Orbison have something to say on this subject?

  26. Anonymous
    Posted March 12, 2007 at 1:15 pm | Permalink


    Never thought I would be so into your “blog”! But I am beyond intrigued and flabergasted by your writing…only wishing that I had that talent and obtained that from none other than your father, my Grandpa. But I haven’t, and I never will, which is why, again I am intrigued and flabergasted by your writing. I will continue to read and be intrigued byut your writing. After all, working for US Customs is not exactly that most intriguing, so this brightens my day and makes me smile.


  27. Anonymous
    Posted March 13, 2007 at 12:28 am | Permalink


    We love your uncle’s writing and his music too! That’s why his blog is very popular. He has his own following. Wish I could have an uncle or a brother like this man who thinks and analyze the world surrounding him.

  28. Anonymous
    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Dear Jeremy,

    I was always wondering what caught your attention in movie “Andrei Rublev” (you mentioned it once in one of your interviews as one of your favorites)? Its ‘juxtaposition’ (complete self-sacrifice) to what people used to watch (about me-me-me) is so obvious. Is it the the Russian soul (we all know from music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and other greats) or what? I love the movie myself and would greatly appreciate if you elaborate on that one day.

    Thanks in advance!

  29. Kathleen
    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Domina said…
    “Another lovely post… Your writing makes me wish I’d been the girl at the Blue Bottle.” and

    Anonymous said…
    “totally in agreement domina! I’m going to speak for all the females that are secretly infatuated with you Jeremy… ” Exactly what I was thinking. 🙂 Now we need a blog from the girl at the Blue Bottle and how Jeremy caught her eye but she was too shy to linger more than an instant and connect with this handsome, engaging musician….

  30. Anonymous
    Posted March 13, 2007 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    are you people kidding? i hope so…

  31. Anonymous
    Posted March 14, 2007 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Oh if you think SF has good cofee, wait till you come to Portland OR this summer!

  32. Anonymous
    Posted March 15, 2007 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    In Ann Arbor, I smirked audibly when the audience “ooohed” over the announcement of Rach’s Vocalise. Sure, it’s a beautiful piece, but I’ve accompanied children performing it on several different instruments, and the collective delightment of the audience seemed to argue the brilliance of the proceeding Beethoven and Meyer. The distinguished gentleman next to me glared dissaprovingly, and I spent most of the beautiful Vocalise wishing I had a martini to toss at him.

  33. Anonymous
    Posted March 15, 2007 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I’m so on your side: anti-Vocalise-performance activist. An overplayed, overly abused poore piece of Rach. The voice’ed version is THE WORST.

    Sorry, Jeremy, has nothing to do with the Blue Bottle, except! I’m drinking coffee right now…

  34. Anonymous
    Posted March 15, 2007 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    There’s worse. He could have played some Liszt finger porn, such as the Don Giovanni transcription (although too long for encore) So be happy. Lang lang visited this show off vulgarity on his New York audience last year, to great effect (the audience roared) The poor piano was banged so hard, it was embarassing

  35. Anonymous
    Posted March 15, 2007 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    finger porn!!!!

  36. Anonymous
    Posted March 15, 2007 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    one colossal term…
    Plus, you should have listened to Rach 2 with Gergiev and Lang Lang. It can be personal, but I call it “cockroach’s death” – I’m sorry, it’s killing. After about 2 min the only wish you have is to turn the music off.

    Btw, I deeply regret, Jeremy, I missed your all-Bach recital in Philadelphia this year. YOUR musicianship is absolutely phenomenal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Love and always tuned into your music-making.

  37. David Wiebe
    Posted March 18, 2007 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    I was first in line to greet you after your concert at Bard this evening playing the Brahms violin sonatas with Laurie. Liquid pianism, flowing out of your piano like melted chocolate. Unbelieveably smooth, elegant, suave, macho style. I wonder how Brahms woulda played it… Your ensemble was so tight, the whole thing was so artistic and musical. Too bad I cant write you directly but hope you see this. Soft velvet, your playing seemed always totally in control of every little thing. Thank you.

  38. Anonymous
    Posted March 19, 2007 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Denk, do you really read this? and why?

    just curious…

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