Dream Song 89

File the Berryman poetry reading at Smuda’s under “Dork, off the.” Incredible crowd–poets, rappers, rockers, filmmakers, journalists, painters and assholes. For me, the most powerful moment was when Kate Donahue, Berryman’s widow, read Dream Song 89. The most awkward moment was sitting next to Kate when somebody else read Dream Song 69.

Anyway, thanks to everybody who read or just showed up and bought a beer. We’re planning on doing another poetry reading, this time stuff inspired by Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, probably in late February. We will let you know.

Here’s Berryman’s Dream Song 89 (Op. Posthumous 12)

In a blue series towards his sleepy eyes
they slid like wonder, women tall & small,
of every shape & size,
in many languages to lisp ‘We do’
to Henry almost waking. What is the night at all,
his closed eyes beckon you.

In the Marriage of the Dead, a new routine,
he gasped his crowded vows past lids shut tight
and a-many rings fumbled on.
His coffin like Grand Central to the brim
filled up & emptied with the lapse of light.
Which one will waken him?

O she must startle like a fallen gown,
content with speech like an old sacrament
in deaf ears lying down,
blazing through darkness till he feels the cold
& blindness of his hopeless tenement
while his black arms unfold.


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

Makee Makee Makee

Adam Switlick shot this video of my favorite band, The Mattoid, on Wednesday night. Emmy alert?

Where Yo Stunna Shades At, Dawg?

The alleged left-wing, liberal socialist, baby-killing, AIDS-spreading, Demofuckingcrat coward in question.


I got a love letter today! An actual love letter. From Tom Hutchison, of wonderful Lakeville, MN. Enjoy!

Your Teeth Are All Clear

Yeah, I know it’s been awhile, and yeah, I’m seriously going to start my first blogging effort in a couple of months like this:

So last week, I went to the dentist.

(It will get better. Trust me, loyal Stephenhero fans.)

Anyway, my dentist is a former Marine, Dr. Kingston, and usually his wife, Mrs. Dr. Kingston is my dental hygienist. But here was some chick in a white coat with blonde Bridget Fonda bangs. Porn-o-rama?

Nope. But her name was Brigid at least. That’s fun.

She stuck her fingers in my mouth.

“I errhey rhike hurrr hrrehcut.”

“Oh, thank you. I just got it all cut off. I donate it to this organization that makes wigs for breast cancer patients. It’s usually down to here.” She motioned down to there.

Maybe I should tune out and tune into the Journey song that’s playing?

“Hiisth isr a rretty rroood rrgong.”

“Yes, it’s LOVE 105 FM. I really like it. They play ten songs in a row without commercials! My husband and I are from Bismarck, ND and we listen to it all the time.”

Oh dear. Why do I keep trying to start conversations with women’s fingers in my mouth?

“Urrkay, Rrridid. Rrher idhg you rrerrrrk effore?”

“Well, I worked at this dentists office in Plymouth, but he fired me. You can spit.”



“He was a Scientologist, and I don’t know much about Scientology, but I’ve studied it a little bit since I was let go (there’s this website, xenu.net and they have all kinds of information), and I think he considered me an RP, or Repressed Person.”


“Yeah! He was this really charming guy; good looking, nice smile, and we used to have so much fun there when we started, but then he went to Clearwater, Florida for a year, and things started to get really weird when he came back.”

“Rrid he hrret hrreeally rraanoid?”

“Yes, his name is Scott Scharf. (You say it just like ‘Shark.’) He has a website that you can check out. He has a wife and two daughters. I remember once his wife came into the office when he was away for that year, and I asked her how she was doing, you know, all alone with the kids, and she kind of whispered, ‘Actually, Bridgid, it’s kind of nice to have my microwave back!’ You know, because Scientology bans microwaves, and she was trying to get meals together for the kids all by herself!”


“Okay, rinse. And anyway, when he got back from Florida he was super controlling and really focused on us making our quotas and upselling teeth whitening procedures and stuff. I was never comfortable with that, you know. Even in the beginning, when I was applying for the job, he made me take a Personality Test before my first interview. I thought that was kind of weird.”

“Hhrrow can a Rrrientolorisht rree a Rrentist anyrray? Arrent dhrey againsht rrainkillhrers?”

“Yes! But he said it was okay for us to give other people novocaine, it just wasn’t right for his lifestyle. And Scientology is really involved in dentistry. There’s this organization called Sterling Management Group out of California that helps a lot of Scientology dentists with running a business and putting a client list together and scheduling and stuff. Well, one weekend they were coming in for a retreat, and all of us girls were upset because we had to work on the weekend, and we all had to sign this form that said we wouldn’t take any painkillers or prescription medicine for 48 hours before the retreat. One girl said she had a heart condition and that if she didn’t take her prescription that she would die, so Dr. Scharf said it was okay if she kept taking her medicine. But the rest of us had to sign this form. And then when we went into the office that weekend, we sat in this room and they handed out these like Dianetics coloring books and I kind of raised my hand and asked what this had to do with our jobs and some of the other girls started asking questions too. We had a little mutiny!”

“Rrrood rror you.”

“Yeah, and anyway, they went out the door and when they came back they said we’re going to do some other things now and we started talking about stuff that actually had to do with dentistry. You can spit.”


“Yeah, but he really got controlling and mean when he got back from Florida. He said he was at a level where he could audit himself now, and I think he knew I wasn’t interested in hearing about it because he started not talking to me. And then he fired me. He fired all of us in the office in the last few months, actually. Cleaned house. At first I was nervous because there’s so many dental hygienists out there, and it was a good job, but now I work here a few days and a few days in another office. Okay, you can rinse. Dr. Kingston will be right in to check on you.”