John Berryman, Muse to The Hold Steady: Not News, Barely True


Mediabistro book blog GalleyCat today produces a ‘John Berryman Rock & Roll Concordance,’ rounding up four (three, of course, making the trend) “indie rock songs” that reference John Berryman: The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations,” Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’s “We Call Upon The Author,” Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “Mama, Won’t You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning?,” and Okkervil River’s “John Allyn Smith Sails.” Is the author “poised for revival?,” the post asks, by way of a Berryman feature in the Craig Finn-friendly Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

To date, the only piece to really take seriously the indie rock/tragic poets connection is Brandon Stosuy’s ‘How a Resurrection Really Feels,’ published last year on the Poetry Foundation‘s website. Stosuy had the somewhat old-fashioned idea of actually asking Craig Finn if he knew anything about Berryman. The answer, more or less, turned out to be no:

Finn’s decision to highlight the poet’s biography over his verse offers an insight into the rocker’s aesthetic. As Berryman writes in this Dream Songs maxim: “The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young” (“190”). Finn’s far from doomed, but he does have a crush on artistic misery, as well as the romance of writerly creation: the Boys and Girls in America collection nabs its title from a line in Kerouac’s On the Road.

Which is to say, if politely, that Finn hadn’t turned out to have read much Berryman—although he’s probably read more than Nick Cave, or whoever sings for Okkervil River. Interestingly, it’s Steve Marsh’s aforementioned Berryman piece—which is actually about the poet, not the rockers who cite him, or mostly anyway—that does the detective work on the origins of poet-in-music phenomenon, pointing the finger at Lou Reed, perhaps the ultimate arts dilettante:

Regarding suicidal poets being fetishized by indie rock bands: Late in his short life, only a couple of years before he drank himself to death in a cheap Manhattan hotel, Delmore Schwartz taught creative writing at Syracuse. His prize pupil, Lou Reed, would go on to front the Velvet Underground, the world’s first indie rock band, about whom Brian Eno famously claimed, “They only sold a few records, but anybody who bought one started their own band.” On their debut album, The Velvet Undergroud and Nico, the band dedicated the last song, “European Son,” to Delmore, who had passed away the year before. In a not so roundabout way, then, poor Delmore, who hated rock ‘n’ roll lyrics (which is probably why “European Son” is basically one minute of lyrics and seven of guitars), may be responsible for the entire trend.

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