Spin It Round, Flip It and Reverse It

As you may or may not know, Okkervil River is one of my favorite bands. I’m not alone in thinking this either. Last year, Lou Re ed told MTV after the VMA’s that they were one of the best bands in the country. The overlapping taste makes sense, considering Lou and I burn each other mix tapes … but either way, it goes to show you I’m not the only one.

When I interviewed Will Sheff of Okkervil (see the feature in today’s issue), we had an interesting conversation once the tape ran out. On the closing track of The Stage Names, “John Allyn Smith Sails,” Sheff sings of poet John Berryman’s suicide. The song morphs into a rendition of “Sloop John B” made famous by the Beach Boys.

Besides making a fool of myself …

Brian: So I assume that you were doing the Beach Boys version and not the traditional one?

Will: Um, actually it was the Okkervil River version.

Brian: [silent shame]

We also talked about The Hold Steady’s recent rendition of the same event – Berryman’s suicide – in “Stuck Between Stations.”

“I had not heard their newest record and it wasn’t until the mixing of ‘John Allyn’ that I was told of The Hold Steady song,” he said. A label man brought the CD over to the studio for the band to hear. “It was totally out of left field,” commented Sheff about the news that initially shocked and bummed him out.

Though I am an outsider looking in, it probably shouldn’t be that shocking. In the past dozen of months or so, not only did The Hold Steady and Okkervil River sing about the famous poet, but Clap Your Hands Say Yeah did the same in “Mama, Won’t You Keep Those Castles in the Air and Burning.” Three very prominent rock bands writing songs at approximately the same time about an event that happened over thirty years ago is very suspicious. Did they all go to the same indie rocker suicidal poet themed birthday party? I hope they did … because thinking that a party like that could exist is somehow life-affirming.

Sheff was not too upset about the content cross over; he put the song on the record anyway. One of the reasons cited was the historically inaccurate account. “I was gratified,” Sheff explained. “I couldn’t believe someone didn’t take the time to check the facts.” Immediately catching himself, Sheff went on to say that, “Little things are wrong, but I have nothing against it … I think Craig Finn [of The Hold Steady] is a brilliant lyricist and they are a great band.”

True, Finn is brilliant, so I’m sure he was going for general thematic vibes more than accuracy. The inaccuracies cited by Sheff in “Stuck Between Stations” include:

– Berryman, when jumping off the Washington Ave. Bridge, hit the pavement and did not drown.

– The suicide happened in the morning, not the middle of the night

– Berryman had not been drinking, it was a sober decision

Sheff forgot to mention, contrary to the line in the song, “the Devil and John Berryman [DID NOT] take a walk together.” Are factual details important in a song? I guess it depends, but I don’t think songs or poems are ever meant to be historically correct. Either way, I’d say both are fantastic … good thing Berryman did it, right? Er …

Brian would like to reiterate that the last sentence was in jest and can be reached at brianmcgo@gmail.com

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