Hey, school’s back in session on stephenhero!
I’m doing a story for mspmag.com on the songwriting class taught at McNally Smith by Dessa from Doomtree. I went to two classes over the last two weeks and even completed an extra credit assignment. The assignment was to take two songs on the same subject matter, one that uses symbolism and one that doesn’t, and compare them. My essay is basically an expansion of one of my footnotes to my story on John Berryman and his widow Kate.
My actual story on Dessa comes out in February or something. So look for it. And Dessa has a book of essays, Spiral Bound, coming out on December 6. So buy a bunch of them for stocking stuffers. For now, you get my first term paper in a decade (this is so Axl!). Dessa didn’t give me a grade, so feel free:
In Hold Steady’s 2006 song, “Stuck Between Stations,” Craig Finn sings about the suicide of the former University of Minnesota professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Berryman. He uses a rock and roll scenario we’re all familiar with—the devil accompanying the artist down to the crossroads—as a symbol for Berryman’s self-destructive mental compulsion.
The devil and John Berryman
Took a walk together.
They ended up on Washington
Talking to the river.
Finn goes on to sing about how John Berryman surrounded himself with fawning students and soft-bellied, impotent intellectuals. Finn seems to be making the point that the intoxicating but ultimately ephemeral power of language was responsible for Berryman’s demise: “that was the night we thought Berryman could fly/but he didn’t/so he died.” Finn seems to be saying that Berryman killed himself because his companions, the doctors and deep thinkers, weren’t rock enough. Or maybe Finn’s saying that Berryman killed himself because Berryman was too rock—his acolytes, in thrall to the rock star poet, weren’t able to check their idol’s Icarian impulses.
Okkervil River’s 2007 song about Berryman’s suicide, “John Allyn Smith Sails” starts off even more literally than Hold Steady’s Berryman song. But Okkervil River end up employing a uniquely literary lyrical (and musical!) symbol for the dark forces which drove Berryman to jump off the Washington Avenue Bridge in 1972: another song. Specifically, the famous Beach Boys hit, “Sloop John B.”
Adopting Berryman’s persona, Okkervil River’s lead singer, Will Sheff, begins with a warning-slash-benediction:
By the second verse, dear friends
My head will burst, my life will end
So, I’d like to start this one off by saying
“Live and love”
From there, Sheff (who–it figures–has an English degree from Macalester) continues to sing in the first person as Berryman. First, about his unsuccessful suicide attempt at the “upsettable” age of 31, before shifting to the scene of his successful suicide attempt in 1972, then to his own funeral, finally backtracking to the coldly linear rationale behind the decision: he drank too much (“I was breaking in a case of suds at the Brass Rail”), then he couldn’t write (“I knew that my last lines were gone while stupidly I lingered on”), then he realized “other wise men know when it’s time to go/And so I should, too.”
And at that midway point, just as he warned at the beginning, shit gets crazier than Brian Wilson on LSD in a sandbox. The tempo completely changes, dropping into an approximation of that Pet Sounds wall of sound (using what sounds like just a drum and rhythm guitar), and the familiar melody comes brightly into focus.
The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” was an appropriation itself, of an old Caribbean folk song about a kid and his grandfather coming in on a ship, The Sloop John B, to Nassau Town and basically having a nightmare of a time. Everybody, including the crew, either gets drunk or into a fight, the cook throws away the food, and eventually Sheriff John Stone comes in and arrests them all en masse. The whole time, it seems, the kid just wants to go home. “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” he laments.
Okkervil River’s reimagined, almost-sampled “Sloop John B” is a symbol for the mania that belies Berryman’s cold reason. The song’s journey is a symbol for Berryman’s lifetime of pain—“this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.” The lyrics have been altered: rather than calling out to the captain, Berryman regresses to his boyhood memories, and hears his masters calling him. He hears his father fall and his mother call–an allusion to Berryman hearing his father commit suicide with a pistol outside his bedroom window when he was a child, an incident that haunted him his entire adult life. But the music symbolizes something different, even dissonant, from the lyrics—this big, swelling Beach Boys tune is not only a play on Berryman’s name, is not only a nod to Brian Wilson’s own mental illness, but it’s a symbol of catharsis—the release from the malignant mental forces that have controlled Berryman for so long.
Hoist up the John B. sail
(Hoist up the John B. sail!)
See how the main sail sets
(See how the main sail sets!)
I’ve folded my heart in my head and I wanna go home
With a book in each hand
(With a book in each hand!)
In the way I had planned
(In the way I had planned!)
I feel so broke up
I wanna go home
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