Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Overkill River, Or ‘That’s an Awful Lot of Analysis for “Some Mid-Level Band”’ Part 1

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So we’d been trying to come up with a project on which we could collaborate with our friends L and E from The Geek Prospectus for a while.  When we originally hatched this plan months ago, we were taking a cue from their excellent analyses of some Decemberists songs in their Daily Rec feature and the release of Okkervil River’s fantastic new album, The Stand Ins.  Well, work and graduate school got in the way, and The Stand Ins isn’t so new anymore, but it’s still fantastic – probably my favorite album of the year, in fact.  So I’m selfishly using this project to tie-in with my annual Music Marathon.

In any case, we decided to put together the thematic puzzles of The Stand Ins and its immediate predecessor, 2007’s The Stage Names, which may be an even better release, overall.  Originally conceived as a double-album, these works intertwine in fascinatingly specific ways, with multiple songs taking on different positions on the same theme and motifs repeating throughout.  This is our attempt at tying the whole deal together.

‘A Different Kind of Alive’:  The Savannah Songs

While the lion’s share of songs on The Stage Names and The Stand Ins are presumably about composite characters and original creations, some of the albums’ most melancholy and inspiring moments come from a set of expertly drawn biographies.  Four of these – “Savannah Smiles,” “John Allyn Smith Sails,” “Starry Stairs,” and “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” – deal directly with doomed, stage-named, semi-obscure artists (“Blue Tulip” is arguably a fifth biographical sketch of a pseudonym’ed tragic figure, but the presumed subject, Blue Tulip Rose Read, is on the other side of the fame equation).

Shannon Wilsey, known professionally as “Savannah,” scores two songs, “Savannah Smiles” and “Starry Stairs.” For a brief period in the late 80s and early 90s, Wilsey was the reigning queen of the porn industry.  A stripper, model, and adult-film actress, Wilsey was perpetually obsessed with marrying a rock star.  Wilsey had a troubled childhood, although accounts vary as to whether she was physically abused or simply had abandonment issues, having had virtually no contact with her father until she was 13.  She left home early, becoming romantically involved with Gregg Allman while in high school.  After this relationship ended, Wilsey began a series of relationships with other musicians of note (Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big, Billy Idol, and Slash are among the big names), eventually turning to porn magazine photo shoots and adult films under the name “Savannah,” inspired by the early 80s children’s movie, Savannah Smiles.  With her youthful looks and porn-legal age, she was a hit.

She was also a mess.  Often described as arrogant, Wilsey alienated others in the industry and developed all-too-expensive tastes in clothes and a debilitating drug habit.  She also developed a love for fast cars.  Privately, though, she was insecure and began to find that the rock stars she so desired weren’t interested in long-term commitments.  As Peter Wilkinson writes in a Rolling Stone article on Wilsey’s death:

“They always want Savannah and never Shannon,” she complained. The result was that Savannah spent more nights than she wanted to admit home alone as Shannon, curled up in her red beanbag chair, making collages out of snapshots, clipping coupons or dressing her Barbie dolls.

Careers in porn don’t last long, and Wilsey was already approaching has-been status by 1992.  She’d started to earn much of her income via stripping and began making offhanded references to suicide.  Despite seeing a therapist, she continued her drinking and heavy drug use.  She had paranoid visions that burglars were repeatedly ransacking her house and bought a .40 caliber Beretta to defend herself.

On July 11, 1994, Wilsey ran her Corvette through a white picket fence into a tree.  Her nose bleeding (although the autopsy later showed that she suffered little injury from the crash), she drove herself and a passenger, a House of Pain hanger-on, back to her house.  She suggested her companion return to the fence to check the damages.  After he left, she called her manager who called an ambulance; by the time it got there, Wilsey had fatally shot herself in the head.  Earlier that year, she had told a friend, “”If I got in a crash and ruined my face so I couldn’t be who I am, that would be it.”

As rock groupie and porn star, Wilsey operates on both sides of the fandom and stardom gap that Will Sheff examines on The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, but Sheff doesn’t focus on either side on “Savannah Smiles.”  As if to remind us that there are human beings behind these stage names, he tells the “Savannah” story from the point of view of Pam, Wilsey’s mother.

In a Pitchfork interview, Sheff provides a possible reason for this indirect take on the perils of fame:

The case of Savannah is interesting because– while not particularly special– her parents blamed the adult film industry while the adult film industry blamed her parents and nobody really knows what the hell happened. And that’s sort of the point of “Savannah Smiles”– you don’t know.

One of the most lyrically spare songs on either album, “Savannah Smiles” plays with the idea of guilt, but, as Sheff explains in the interview, the song never assigns it.  “Is she someone I don’t know at all? / Is she someone I betrayed?” Pam wonders as she pages through her deceased daughter’s diary.  Meanwhile, second husband, Joe, conspicuously “turns the TV on with all the lights out.”  This single, offhand reference makes one wonder if there’s some culpability there.  Was Shannon’s stepfather abusive?  Wilsey would often allude to familial sexual abuse to friends, but never directly implicated anyone.  In Sheff’s song, it seems that Pam might have some vague suspicions of this or, at the very least, isn’t sure where to put the blame.  Herself?  Joe?  The industry?  But she never questions Wilsey’s responsibility; Shannon’s the victim here – someone broke her.

Not so in “Starry Stairs,” its companion song on The Stand Ins (originally titled “Shannon Wilsey on the Starry Stairs” and released as a bonus track on the iTunes download of The Stage Names).  Here, Sheff gives Wilsey her own voice – a fragmented, confusing voice, but one decidedly resigned to its fate.  It’s a tougher song to pin down, but it seems to be, at least in part, a conversation between Savannah, the disembodied image of the minor celebrity, and Shannon, the real woman who hides behind her hair while basking in the attention, who bleeds, and who ultimately dies.  But while Shannon may have died in 1994, Savannah is “alive, but a different kind of alive than the way I used to be” as her image persists in “old stag magazine[s].”

In the middle of “Starry Stairs,” Sheff sums up the dichotomy of Savannah/Shannon in his delivery of a line from her acceptance speech at a 1992 adult-industry awards ceremony:  “If you don’t love me, I’m sorry.”  In the context of her speech, it’s snarky and tossed-off, a follow-up to her earlier words, “I’d like to thank… all the critics who voted for me.  And all of you who didn’t, ha, ha.” (The band uses the original speech to interesting effect in the live performance embedded below, though – and some enterprising fellow tacked a video of her speech to the end of the youtube clip.)

In the studio version of the song, it’s heartbreaking – part apology and part goodbye.  To whom?  Maybe to the industry people she’d made enemies of, the rock stars who took her for granted, the mother she aimed to impress with the illusion of wealth and success (Wilsey was in severe debt when she died), or the perpetually absent father who emerged, born-again, only to make her feel worse about her career choices.  But, at the same time, there’s a sort of strength in Sheff’s delivery, a reclamation of the circumstances that Sheff’s Pam ascribes to others in “Savannah Smiles.”

Elsewhere in “Starry Stairs,” Savannah describes her journey in the land of fame as “a shivering silver ship.”  Images of vessels (from boats to starships) run through the two albums.  While the most obvious may be the metaphorical sea journey of “Lost Coastlines,” “John Allyn Smith Sails” ends with Sheff’s take on the Beach Boys’ version of the classic seafaring folk song “Sloop John B,” and “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” ends with a ride on Jobriath’s “morning starship.”  I’ll discuss these last two songs in my next installment at the end of the week.  In the meantime, Raina, L, and E will hit some of the other themes of The Stage Names and The Stand Ins.

Check out  The Geek Prospectus tomorrow for the next entry.

Sources:

http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/feature/44522-interview-okkervil-river

Wilkinson, Peter.  (1994). “Dream Girl.”  Rolling Stone pp. 693 – 81.

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Written by Dave

January 19, 2009 at 3:16 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Part 1 – Dave […]

  2. […] more, I kindly suggest you take a peek at the first installment of our cross-blog project right here. Filed under: All, Music Tags: I can haz blawgs tiemz too?, LD, Okkervil […]


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