Dr. Dessa Darling

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


8 Responses

  1. Bury me in the cantosphere.

  2. Or to put it another way:

    Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
    I ache in the places where I used to play
    And I’m crazy for love but Im not coming on
    I’m just paying my rent every day
    Oh in the tower of song

    I said to Hank Williams: “how lonely does it get?”
    Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
    But I hear him coughing all night long
    A hundred floors above me
    In the tower of song

    I was born like this, I had no choice
    I was born with the gift of a golden voice
    And twenty-seven angels from the great beyond
    They tied me to this table right here
    In the tower of song

    So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
    I’m very sorry, baby, doesnt look like me at all
    I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
    Ah they dont let a woman kill you
    Not in the tower of song

    Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
    The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
    And theres a mighty judgement coming, but I may be wrong
    You see, you hear these funny voices
    In the tower of song

    I see you standing on the other side
    I dont know how the river got so wide
    I loved you baby, way back when
    And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
    But I feel so close to everything that we lost
    Well never have to lose it again

    Now I bid you farewell, I dont know when I’ll be back
    They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track

    But youll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
    I’ll be speaking to you sweetly
    From a window in the tower of song

    Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey
    I ache in the places where I used to play
    And I’m crazy for love but Im not coming on
    I’m just paying my rent every day
    Oh in the tower of song

  3. Because it’s one of my favorite lines on the album, I have to be a pedant and say that the actual lyric is “I’m full in my heart and my head” not I’ve folded my heart in my head.

  4. Classic case of liking the misinterpreted lyric better than the original.

  5. Can somebody cut and paste the definitive text? I’m a lazy scholar.

  6. Straight from the band’s website (where they have all their lyrics except the newest album):

    By the second verse, dear friends, my head will burst and my life will end, so I’d like to start this one off by saying “live! and love!”

    I was young and at home in bed, hanging on the words some poem said in ’31; I was impressionable. I was upsettable. I tried to make my breathing stop or my heart beat slow, so when my mom and John came in I would be cold.

    From a bridge on Washington Avenue, the year of 1972 broke my bones and skull, and it was memorable. It was half a second in; I was half-way down – do you think I wanted to turn back around and teach a class where you kiss the ass that I’ve exposed to you? And at the funeral, the University cried at three poems they’d present in place of a broken me.

    I was breaking in a case of suds at the Brass Rail, a fall-down drunk with his tongue torn out and his balls removed. And I knew that my last lines were gone, while, stupidly, I lingered on. Oh, but wise men know when it’s time to go, and so I should too. And so I fly into the brightest winter sun of this frozen town. I’m stripped down to move on, my friends: I’m gone.

    I hear my father fall, and I hear my mother call, and I hear the others all whispering, come home. I’m sorry to go. I loved you all so, but this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

    So hoist up the John B. sail. See how the main sail sets. I’m full in my heart and my head and I want to go home, with a book in each hand, in the way I had planned. I feel so broke up, I want to go home.

    I don’t even know what folding my heart in my head means. I definitely prefer the actual.

  7. @Ciaran

    You guys should both join my poetry gang, the speculative actualists.

  8. @hc: It’s ok, I’ll remember for both of us.
    @Steve: if it’s in the spirit of the original, I’ve actually been a member for some time.

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