Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thursday One-Hitter: John Allyn Smith Sails

For our second edition of Thursday One-Hitter, we employ the Austin-based indie-rockers Okkervil River. I've been a big fan of theirs since I found 2007's The Stage Names and subsequently discovered the band's earlier material. Last year, Okkervil River released The Stand-Ins, the follow-up and stylistic sequel to their 2007 disc.

The final track on The Stage Names made a huge impact on me from the first time I heard it - and more every time since. What begins as a twisted retelling of a suicide ends in a cascading sing-along tribute to none other than The Beach Boys... sort of.

Okkervil River - John Allyn Smith Sails
buy The Stage Names (2007)

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"

I was young and at home in bed
And I was hanging on the words some poem said
In '31, I was impressionable, I was upsettable
I tried to make my breathing stop and 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 halfway 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

Well, 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've folded my heart in my hand and I wanna go home
With a book in my hand

In the way I had planned
Well, this is the worst trip I've ever been on

Hoist up the John B. sail
See how the main sail sets
I'm full in my heart and my head and I wanna go home
With a book in each hand
In the way I had planned
I feel so broke up
I wanna go home

It's always a dangerous move to reference the fact that you're singing a song in your lyrics, but the way in which Will Sheff begins his in-character biographical tale of late poet John Berryman sets the tone for a dangerously brave song. As John Berryman (born John Allyn Smith, Jr.), Sheff warns upfront that he will not live through the song, hell... not even verse two.

There's no need to give you guys a Berryman bio here; Sheff does that pretty well in the song. But as a youngster, the poet witnessed his father commit suicide, only to do the same later in life - in much more dramatic fashion. In '72, after struggling through alcoholism and depression, Berryman lept to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. Sheff is undoubtedly schooled in the literary works of Berryman, alluding to his writing style and even borrowing a couple direct lines from his poems.

While doing a little research for this post, I quickly realized I'm in no way schooled enough in poetry and/or psychology to decode the thousands of underlying connections that Sheff has provided in this song. This person did quite the job, though.

While you may recognize the second half of the song as a Beach Boys cover, the surfing songsters were actually the ones doing the covering. Some form of the traditional maritime song (as Hoist up the John B sails, etc) has existed since before the surfboard was around. But Sheff's choice to break into 'Sloop John B' for the coda was a well-devised plan. The sixth stanza marks the beginning of the covered lyrics. They begin with another allusion to Berryman's troubled childhood, "hear[ing his] father fall." Not only is the transition seamless in melody, but more Berryman references are found in the traditional lyrics: "full in my heart and my head" is apparently taken verbatim from one of his poems. And don't think that choosing a song referencing a boat named the John B. was any sort of accident, either.

1 comment:

  1. Great song...

    One of the first things that drew me to Okkervil River was how they would sometimes find ways to tie their songs to classic tunes.

    This one and "Plus Ones" were two of my early favorites.