Rock History 101: Okkervil River’s “John Allyn Smith Sails”

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When it comes to fact-based songwriting, no one does it quite like Okkervil River. Frontman and lyricist Will Sheff has a penchant for transforming obscure, often dark events into fluid musical poetry, immortalizing their real life protagonists into twisted legends of pop culture.  Sheff’s tortured ensemble includes Shannon Wilsey, the doomed pornstar from “Savannah Smiles” and its sequel “Starry Stairs”, the yogurt shop killers from “Westfall”, and jaded glam rocker Jobriath from “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979”. Sheff’s take on every story is subtle and artful, beautifying the facts with flowering wordplay while still remaining true to the actual events themselves. The epitome of his masterful approach is exhibited in “John Allyn Smith Sails”, the closing track off of 2007’s The Stage Names, and a first person view of the suicide of acclaimed poet John Berryman.

Like “Starry Stairs”, “John Allyn Smith Sails” is a suicide song, completely apt since Berryman’s life was plagued by it. Born John Allyn Smith in 1914, Berryman rose through the ranks of great American writers after publishing Dream Songs; two volumes of 18-line poems told in three stanzas, a large portion of them dealing with the suicides of Berryman’s various friends and colleagues, including Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, and most importantly, his own father, a banker who shot himself when Berryman was only twelve.  The vicious circle completed itself when Berryman took his own life. The significant details (as well as insights into the rest of his life) are all in the song.  Let’s break down the lyrics:

From a bridge in Washington Avenue, the year of 1972

Broke my bones and skull and it was memorable

Berryman’s method of suicide was indeed jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis in 1972.

It was half a second and 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

13139 004 c63f066a Rock History 101: Okkervil Rivers John Allyn Smith SailsWhat Sheff is referring to here is the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of which Berryman was a faculty member. Several other mythic writers sat in on Berryman’s class before rising to their own fame, including James Dickey, Philip Levine, and W.D. Snodgrass. According to his students, the workshop was a tense environment, often leading to ridicule, arguments, and even fistfights between Berryman and his participants, particularly Levine. Despite this, those who did complete the course acknowledged how great an influence Berryman and his students had on each other. However, Sheff portraying Berryman as having an animalistic demeanor toward those he taught is completely justifiable.

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

The date of Berryman’s suicide was January 7th, explaining Sheff’s seasonal reference. The final section of the song is by far the most captivating. The following words are sung to the tune of a much heavier version of The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B.” The insanely clever part about this oldies-centric coda is that Sheff only had to change a few lyrics for it to make sense in terms of Berryman’s death.  Observe:

Well, I hear my father fall
And I hear my mother call
And I hear the others all whisper, “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
(Hoist up the John B. sail)
See how the main sail sets
(See how the main sail sets)
I’ve folded my heart in my head 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

beach boys   sloop john b Rock History 101: Okkervil Rivers John Allyn Smith SailsBrian Wilson’s mariner’s tale becomes an ironic suicide note. Everything takes on a double meaning. The “trip,” once meant to be a frustrating excursion at sea, becomes Berryman’s life. The line “I hear my father fall” is a chilling nod to Berryman’s father’s own suicide. Even the name John B. stands in perfectly for John Berryman, allowing Sheff to use both of the poet’s namesakes in the song.

And there you have it, kids. A little history lesson in the life and death of one of America’s most important literary figures. Another stellar song that depicts Berryman’s final night on Earth is The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations,” off of their 2006 masterpiece, Boys And Girls In America, proving that for further information on the poet, you need not visit your local library, but simply listen to some really good records.

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“John Allyn Smith Sails”

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