I Am Secretly an Important Man: Profile of Underground Bard Jesse Bernstein


“The following is pure fiction: I’ve been handsome and popular all my life.” That sour joke is one of the better lines from fringe poet/songwriter/all-purpose bohemian Steven J. Bernstein, known to his never-large public as “Jesse.” Bernstein killed himself in 1991, at age 40, near his adopted home of Seattle. This being just prior to the post-Nevermind A&R landrush, he is dubbed the “orator of grunge” by one talking head in director Peter Sillen’s bio-doc, but “grunge” is just the last of many scenes that he drifted through in the footloose, rented-rooms life that followed his first hospitalization, as an adolescent, for schizophrenia. Sillen, co-director of the portrait of a cross-dressing Atlanta rocker, Benjamin Smoke, herein enshrines another doomed local legend. The myth is ready-made from ample photographs and footage of Bernstein reciting and perambulating, supplemented with melancholy ambient imagery of nighttime traffic, industrial-belt Seattle, and Puget Sound. A weedy little guy with homemade tattoos running up his arms and wary almond eyes behind chunky glasses on a squished goblin face, Bernstein is more memorable as a beautiful crank than a bard. Sillen ennobles the havoc of his life with a measure of down-and-out romance, but no moments really puncture a viewer, and the darkness is all too easily shaken off.