Saturday, 11 August 2007

John (Ash)Berryman, the Most Important Influence on Literate Living Lyricists (despite being Dead himself) Jonathan Lethem once called The Hold Steady "the John Ashbery of rock bands." The man must have mistaken his berries. He surely meant to call them "the John Berryman of rock bands." Consider the opening stanza of Berryman's "Dream Song 1": Huffy Henry hid the day, unappeasable Henry sulked. I see his point,—a trying to put things over. It was the thought that they thought they could do it made Henry wicked & away. But he should have come out and talked. You can graft that onto many a Hold Steady tune and hear Craig Finn singing it. From the forced alliteration to the stilted colloquialisms to the jarringly sudden last sentence, it sounds like something off Separation Sunday. Plus, the first track on Boys and Girls in America mentions Berryman by name: "Stuck Between Stations" [mp3]. The influence is obvious and I think Lethem must've meant Berryman of course. I admit: Finn's phrasing's damn contagious. It comes from the Berry Man, however, not the Ash of Berries. An understandable mistake. But I come not bury Lethem, but to praise another band which chose to honor Berryman's breakdown and eventual suicide. I'm not the biggest fan of this band, but I must give praise where praise is due: this song haunts me. The band's Okkervil River, the song "John Allyn Smith" [mp3]. ("John Allyn Smith" being Berryman's birth name.) The song's innocuous and pleasant for the first two and a half Berrymanian minutes, but turns brilliant when, for a reason desperately demanding interpretation, it turns into "Sloop John B" [mp3]. That's a traditional song, recorded by many an artist, but Okkervil River break out into the Brian Wilson version, which surely means something. I'm not sure what. Give it a spin and see whether or not you can enlighten me.

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