There have been many musicians who wanted to be poets: there was Jim Morrison and Jewel. There have also been some poets who wanted to be musicians; William Matthews and Joy Harjo come to mind. But the leap between the music world and the poetry world is a large one, despite the similarities in craft. Trust me; I’ve attempted to write a poem about the song “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones at least a dozen thousand times. And I still don’t have more than three full lines to show for it.
Songs that reference poems or vice versa almost always seem to be pretentious and uncreative; not always, but most of the time this is true. That’s why I rolled my eyes the first time I saw this video by The Hold Steady. Not 20 seconds into the video there is a shot of the bass player sitting off to the side reading a copy of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. But after listening to the song once through I was amazed at how well they melded rock music and the world of poetry.
In a way combining the world of poetry with the world of rock music is quite contradictory-but that’s just the point. Berryman’s whole life was a contradiction. He was a brilliant poet and at the same time a dysfunctional human being. His life ended in a suicidal jump from the Washington Street bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River in Minneapolis (which is where, not coincidently, The Hold Steady is from). It can often feel like musicians are name dropping when they put the names of famous writers or literary works into their songs. But it doesn’t seem that way here:
The devil and John Berryman took a walk together
they ended up on Washington talking to the river
he said “I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers
but big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers”.
There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly,
but he didn’t so he died.
She said “you’re pretty good with words but words won’t save your life”
and they didn’t so he died.
He was drunk and exhausted but he was critically acclaimed and respected.
He loved the golden gophers but he hated all the drawn out winters.
He likes the warm feeling but he’s tired of all the dehydration.
Most nights were kind of fuzzy but that last night he had total retention.
In a song about the contradictory nature of human beings and the contradictory nature of our world, Berryman is the perfect central figure for this song. The tragedy of the situation isn’t used to capitalize on the emotion (“There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly, but he didn’t so he died”), Berryman’s name isn’t used to capitalize on a sense of intellectualism (“‘you’re pretty good with words but words won’t save your life’ and they didn’t so he died”), it seems that Berryman is in this song for no other reason than because he fits in this song. For me it’s the second chorus (“He was drunk and exhausted…”) that goes directly to the heart of what this song is getting at.
I think this is a good video that goes along with a good song, which turns away from pretension every chance it gets, and for that I applaud The Hold Steady. It’s also a pretty damn catchy tune. Enjoy without fear of pretension.