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 5

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‘Not Sailing Just for Sport’:  The Biographical Songs and Transport

Not content to simply tell stories, Will Sheff injects an ongoing symbolic motif into his ruminations on fame and artistry.  The Stage Names and The Stand Ins are largely about transportion, whether on a personal or social level.  His characters aimlessly sail, take shore leave, and look back upon their bad trips with disdain. They also occasionally pull others along for the ride.  In a bit of inspired parallelism, both albums end with biographical pieces on doomed artists, but the respective journeys they embark upon couldn’t be more different.

In “John Allyn Smith Sails,” Sheff invents an internal monologue (or perhaps even a fictional, impossible unpublished poem) representing the last thoughts of American poet John Berryman. Berryman, born John Allyn Smith in 1914, is considered one of the leading poets in the Confessional movement, although he disputed this idea on the grounds that he didn’t consider his work particularly autobiographical.  Best known for two volumes of poetry collected into The Dream Songs (many of which feature a very Berryman-like protagonist named Henry and his unnamed companion who refers to Henry as “Mr. Bones”) and for being a difficult, temperamental teacher of future acclaimed poets at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Minnesota, Berryman ended his own life in 1972.

Sheff’s Berryman begins by telling us that he’s not going to make it past the second verse of the song in any physical sense (although he just keeps going after that, echoing Shannon Wilsey’s disembodied personality posthumously talking to us in “Starry Stairs”), but wants to preface his fractured monologue with the words “live and love.”  Through a sly allusion, Sheff stresses the burden of influence by invoking one of Berryman’s artistic influences, the Roman poet Catullus.  Sheff’s Berryman is quoting a translation of “Catullus 5”, in which the poet lays a carpe diem trip on Lesbia, the object of his affections*.  But here, of course, the emphasis isn’t so much on seizing the day as on the ultimate reason why they’re worth seizing at all.

Suddenly, we’re back in 1931, and the teenage Berryman is sitting in his room, recalling lines of poetry and trying to feign death for the benefit of his mother and stepfather, John (confusingly, Berryman, his father, and his stepfather, from whom the poet eventually took the last name “Berryman,” were all named “John” – for the record, that’s a John Smith, a John Berryman, and a John Allyn Smith who renamed himself John Berryman).  Berryman was haunted by suicide and death most of his life, being only 12 when his birth father killed himself.

We rejoin Berryman “on a bridge on Washington Avenue, the year of 1972,” moments before he plunges off, fulfilling the promise made in the first line of the song.  As his descent begins, he thinks upon his years as a scholar, cursing both sycophantic students and his own tendency to belittle them (although the line about the “ass that I’ve exposed to you” might just as easily be about an unintended propensity for confessional writing, despite his best efforts).  It’s at this point that he rewinds to a moment of clarity that inspired his decision, a drunken night at a neighborhood bar.  Berryman had been sober in the months leading up to his suicide, but had only recently overcome a pronounced battle with the bottle.  He remembers himself as figuratively tongue-less and ball-less; inspiration and strength have left him, and death has become his means of leaving his legacy intact.  Much like the case of Hunter S. Thompson years later, Berryman’s suicide binds the artist to his work – with the spark gone, the poet must depart.

But seemingly from the moment of death, the song takes a miraculous turn – the transportation metaphor takes over, as the band shifts into “Sloop John B”/”The Wreck of the John B,” a traditional West Indies folk song popularized by the Beach Boys and, interestingly, famously anthologized by Berryman’s fellow Midwestern poet, Carl Sandburg.

The pretty sadness of Sheff’s melody makes way for major-key celebration.  Berryman may be going out, but he’s leaving on his own terms with “a book in each hand.”  Unlike Sheff’s Savannah,  his Berryman doesn’t necessarily see his past notoriety as a “shimmering silver ship,” but as the very worst of trips, so he’s taking one last jaunt on the ol’ John B to join his dad.  By balancing the morose subject matter with a matter-of-fact delivery and triumphant accompaniment, Sheff places Berryman’s decision on the same level as all other views expressed on the two albums.  Suicide may not be the only response to artistic decline, but it’s one of them, and Sheff’s tone suggests that it can’t be dismissed out-of-hand.  He’s a non-judgmental writer, who allows us to weigh the points and counterpoints and come to our own conclusions.

He’s not averse to the fake-out, though.  The first actual song of The Stand Ins, “Lost Coastlines,” is another nautical-themed examination of creativity, and you might think that it’s meant as some sort of counterpoint or continuation of “John Allyn Smith Sails.”  But the thematic concerns are quite different – rather than being about the decline of artistic relevance or a journey toward death, it’s about navigating the waters of inspiration alone or in collaboration with others.  But in a brilliant move, Sheff hints that our real answer song to Berryman is yet to come – the first track on The Stand Ins is an instrumental called “The Stand Ins, One,” and its chief melody is borrowed from the last song of the album, “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979.”  This is where we find the most complete response to Berryman.

(Oddly, there are no clips of Okkervil River performing this song live on youtube; I can only guess that the band doesn’t play it live due to its complicated arrangement on the album.  Here’s a lovely solo version by Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann, which highlights how uncomplicated the song really is – although he mumbles over the key line, in my opinion.)

Bruce Wayne Campbell is better known (although not much better known) by his stage name, Jobriath.   This page has a nice, succinct history of Jobriath**, but to be even more succinct, Jobriath was the world’s first openly gay rock star. Elektra aggressively promoted him in the early 1970s as a sort of American version of David Bowie***, but the campaign failed, and, after a second album was released to even less critical acclaim and public attention, he was dropped.  Most tragically, his contract forbid him from recording for another decade.  Whether it was homophobia or the unrealistic expectations foisted upon him that did Jobriath’s career in, he would never again come close to reaching the quite modest heights he attained while on Elektra.  Campbell retreated to a strange, pyramid-shaped apartment on the roof of New York’s Chelsea Hotel and took to performing classic Broadway-style songs under yet another assumed name, Cole Berlin.  He died of AIDS in 1983.

But Sheff throws us another curveball.  The name of the song is “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979,” not “Bruce Wayne Campbell Reminisces on His Deathbed, 1983.”  Of Sheff’s real-life subjects, Campbell may have burned the least bright for the shortest amount of time, but Sheff refuses to go the easy route and make Jobriath his ultimate tragic figure.  Instead, he freezes a moment in time between Campbell’s early near-success and his death, using the sole interview he conducted during this time as a starting point.

Like Sheff’s version of Berryman, Campbell’s thoughts jump from the present to past, thinking of his occasionally tedious current role as small-time performer (“fuck long hours, sick with singing…”) and back to the old days which held such promise.  Those days seem to “win on every issue” as his fire to create remains lit but he’s without a means to set the hearts of fans ablaze.  But he’s not ready to quit.  He addresses his personified past directly:

… I bet you think I’m finished.
Think I’m not winning.
Well, go on, assume.

As the music swells, he signals the great transition of the song:  “Take me, I’m yours, Morning Starship!” (invoking both “Morning Starship” and “Take Me, I’m Yours” from his debut album).  It’s a surrender, but not to death as one might expect, given what we know of Campbell’s eventual end and the song’s counterpart on The Stage Names.  As with “John Allyn Smith Sails,” the transportation metaphors hit mid-song and carry through to the end, but here the tone is even more celebratory and optimistic, though guardedly so.  If the Morning Starship is his artistic inspiration (perhaps Urania, the muse of astronomy, has finally made her appearance?), he’s given himself fully to it.  And as Campbell’s journey begins, Sheff raises those basic issues that he’s dealt with again and again on these albums:

  • What constitutes a “pop lie”?
  • What happens when the maps fail and “nothing you’ve actually seen has been mapped or outlined”?
  • What do you do when “this thing you once did might have dazzled the kids, but the kids once grown up are gonna walk away”?

The starship descends to take aboard “this man left almost passed out/Cause we’re pretty sure he needs a hand.”  It’s not clear whether Campbell is in his distant or recent past now, but it doesn’t matter:  there’s a broken-down fan in need of musical salvation, and Campbell’s prepared to be his savior.  This is because, unlike John Allyn Smith and Shannon Wilsey, Bruce Wayne Campbell chooses life and art even in the face of failed popularity and artistic decline.  So he’ll engage in some pop lying.  He and this solitary fan are going flying tonight, no coastlines in sight, much less maps to guide them on their trip.  And who cares if the kids grew up and walked away?  This guy’s still listening.

And even if he weren’t, there’s the one crucial issue that I intentionally left out above.  It’s a question that embodies the struggle every artist occasionally has – why am I doing this?  It could be a matter of playing to the bartender,  confronting yourself over your artistic integrity and honesty, or wondering what to do when the well runs dry.  It’s a rhetorical question asked only once on either album, but it’s one that Will Sheff has clearly answered for himself, even after the soul-searching that he does on The Stage Names and The Stand Ins:

  • “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks?”

It’s fucking fun to play music.

*  To give you an idea of what a clever bastard Sheff is, it took me a good 15 minutes of googling to to confirm that Sheff was, indeed dropping relevant quotes from Berryman’s life all over the song, that the line was from Catullus, and that Berryman was, in fact, not only a fan of Catullus, but spent some time translating his work.  Since I’ve never read Berryman’s autobiography, and this is a blog post, not a thesis, I’m not going to go much deeper into the literary allusions here, but I assume the song is loaded with them.

**  This page has a lot more, although the streaming MP3s don’t seem to work.

***  The resemblance in style is certainly there, but Jobriath is even more indebted to American musical theater.  His music is more overt and less experimental than Bowie’s with a greater emphasis on his primary instrument, the piano.  As if to compensate for this lack in musical innovation, the visual elements of his act were pushed to an outrageous level that sometimes vaguely resembles Bowie’s late 70s video for “Ashes to Ashes”.


Written by Dave

January 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

One Response

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  1. great writing and research. i love berryman but had never heard this song. thanks


    January 25, 2009 at 1:34 am

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