There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly.On “Stuck between Stations,” the rousing opener on Hold Steady’s new album Boys and Girls in America, singer and lyricist Craig Finn describes guys and gals “crushing one another with colossal expectations” while drinking too much. It’s standard rock-’n’-roll hormones— kissing and dancing, blustery choruses, a Born to Run piano breakdown. Then it’s 1972, and Dream Songs poet John Berryman is plunging from Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge into the frozen Mississippi.
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.
—The Hold Steady, “Stuck between Stations”
Buoyant, chockfull of stories, Henry lingered
at party after party, a bitter-ender.
Long when the rest were asleep
he had much to relate, more to debate
if anyone would keep him company
toward fragrant dawn.
—John Berryman, “Dream Song 182”
He skated up & down in front of her house
Wishing he could, sir, die,
while being bullied & he dreamt he could fly
—John Berryman, “Dream Song 11”
In his raspy Beatnik sing-speak, the 35-year-old Finn imagines what passes through Berryman’s head as he leaps: “I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers / but big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers.” Details of the writer’s life collide with a healthy shot of poetic license:
The Devil and John Berryman, they took a walk togetherBerryman isn’t the first or last figure in a Hold Steady song to hover by the Mississippi. Other characters in Finn’s songbook drink, drug, and break bread on the banks, keeping an eye on what washes up. On Separation Sunday, the band’s 2005 concept album that balanced bleary-eyed breakdowns with 100 proof Irish Catholicism, Gideon baptizes Hallelujah (aka Holly), a good girl from the ‘burbs, in the Mighty Miss after she “take[s] a hit” from a nitrous tank: “Hold your breath and I’ll dunk your head / Yeah, then when you wake up again, yeah, you’ll be high as hell and born again.” The river cuts through Finn’s native Twin Cities, a muse as necessary to Finn as the swamps of Jersey are to Springsteen.
And they ended up on Washington talking to the river . . .
And 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.
Berryman, who drank and desired too much throughout his life and then jumped from a double-decker bridge, provides Finn with an ideal character to place within his Midwest topography. “It’s a song about art’s relationship to depression,” he tells me. “I was thinking a lot about it because I get the most material when I’m having highs and lows. I thought, God, if I’m going to be doing this forever, I gotta figure out a way not to get all my material from the worst times in life, because then you’re seeking out misery.”
After reading an article in the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, Finn was drawn to the longtime University of Minnesota professor’s bouts with depression, his late-period semiconversion to Catholicism, and the fact that he died in Minneapolis. “It seemed obvious,” Finn deadpans.
Berryman is finding a younger audience via the Hold Steady, and in that way, he’s been reborn—he’s making the scene. Refracted through Finn’s lens, even the solitary preparations for a reading engagement sound a lot like a rock star gearing up to sing his “Song of Myself”: "Books drugs razor whisky shirts / Henry lies ready for his Eastern tour.”
Berryman published the Pulitzer Prize–winning 77 Dream Songs in 1964; another 308 songs in His Toy, His Dream, His Rest were combined with the original 77 in The Dream Songs in 1969. Accepting the National Book Award in 1969, he explained that he’d intended the Dream Songs to be “hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry.” Tired of critics reading the ribald, syntactically mangled, chatty, and meditative seven-part sprawl of rhyming 18-line poems as autobiography, Berryman stated in a note to the sequence: “[W]hatever its wide cast of characters, [the poem] is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. Requiescant in pace.”
Despite Berryman’s protests, the perceptions of overlap persist: the lasciviousness (“All the girls, with their vivacious littles, / visited him in dream: he was interested in their tops & bottoms / & even in their middles” (“Dream Song 350”), the drinking, the mourning of deceased friends. Like Finn, Berryman riffs on other writers’ suicides, alternately channeling Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath (“Your face broods from my table, Suicide,” [“172”]). When Berryman was 12, his father killed himself: “I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave / who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn” (“384”). Prior to his fatal 1972 leap, Berryman had attempted suicide once before, in 1931: “It all centered in the end on the suicide / in which I am an expert, deep & wide” (“186”).
Though less fixated on finalities, Finn also includes his own day-to-day experiences in his songs: where he attended school (Boston College), his favorite bars (various), his romantic victories and insecurities (endless). Finn says, “I’ll try putting myself in there and ask, ‘How do I fit in?’”
Hold Steady fans have gone further, though, initiating homegrown Berryman-Finn mash-ups. An editor at Cole Slaw Blog, for instance, places Berryman’s “The Traveler” side by side with “Stuck between Stations,” and includes photos of Berryman and Finn. (“I think Finn and Berryman look a little bit alike,” he writes. “Even if it’s just in the glasses.”) “LeRoy,” an astute reader of the site, posts the complete text for “MPLS, Mother,” a Berryman poem published posthumously in a Minneapolis newspaper. He notes, “I’m not sure, but I think it could be his most Finn-like in its concentration on local geography, though Berryman was more academic than beat.”
I asked Finn about his debt to Berryman and about the various convergences showing up in his songs. “It wasn’t something I consciously did,” he laughs. “I think it’s probably a stretch.” Still, Berryman does work his way into Finn’s words, the concerns of the Dream Songs meshing with Finn’s obsessions. “She was golden with barlight and beer,” Finn sings. “She slept like she’d never been scared. / And then last night / she said words alone never could save us. / And then last night / she cried when she told us about Jesus.” According to “Stuck between Stations,” “words won’t save your life,” but Berryman held a near-religious belief in their permanence: “Hunger was constitutional with him, / women, cigarettes, liquor, need need need / until he went to pieces. / The pieces sat up and wrote” (“311”). The poems make him whole.
Finn is younger than Berryman was when he wrote The Dream Songs—his characters (not counting Berryman’s cameo) generally zone out, perhaps exchanging kisses in the emergency ward, but the songs are about being the lives of the party (with lives ahead of them) rather than the end of the night. But in their odes to friends, liquor, and the ladies, the two writers jibe stylistically.
In “Chillout Tent,” Finn describes a one-time meeting at an outdoor rock show in western Massachusetts. A Bowdoin coed, sick on psychedelic mushrooms, is consoled by a dude from the wrong side of the tracks who, on “his first day off in forever,” took three too many pills: “She looked just like a baby bird, all new and wet and trying to light a Parliament. / He quoted her some poetry—he’s Tennyson in denim and sheepskin. / He looked a lot like Izzy Stradlin. / They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs.” Overlapping the 19th-century British poet laureate and the early Guns N’ Roses guitarist is Finn at his high-low best. “The guy who knows a little about both Tennyson and Izzy Stradlin is probably our target market,” Finn laughs.
Nodding to a shared influence (and Irish American heritage), Finn and Berryman both run into William Butler Yeats. Berryman actually met Yeats in 1937, while studying abroad at Cambridge. In 1966 he visited Ireland just in time for the fall semester, with 77 Dream Songs under his belt: “After thirty Falls I rush back to the haunts of Yeats / & others, with a new book in my briefcase” (“281”). He offers Yeats a cigarette elsewhere: “Took Henry tea down at the Athenaeum with Yeats / and offered the master a fag, the which he took, / accepting too a light / to Henry’s lasting honour” (“215”). (Yeats’s influence on Berryman’s work is well known: In interviews, Berryman said he derived the Dream Song format, three six-line stanzas, from the Irish bard.)
Finn places Yeats at a party in “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night,” a song from the 2005 album Separation Sunday. It’s a raucous scene: “Nelson Algren came to Paddy at some party at the Dead End Alley. / He told him what to celebrate. / And I met William Butler Yeats. / Sunday Night Dance Party, summer 1988. / At first I thought it might be William Blake.” Later in the track, identity back in place, Finn shouts: “Hey William Butler Yeats. / The Irish seemed wired last night. / They tried to separate our girls from our guys. / They had cigarettes where there were supposed to be eyes.”
The Dream Songs are a life’s critique: “Henry’s now respectable, / a householder, child & all” (“163”) and “Failed as a makar, nailed as scholar, failed / as a father & a man, hailed for a lover. . . .” (“184”).
In turn, 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.
Blown away by the new album, the editor of the blog Unremitting Failure ponders, “What’s next, a five song E.P about Edmund Spenser . . . ?” I doubt it—the Knight of the Red Cross never ventured into Minneapolis. Though Finn currently resides in Brooklyn, he still identifies entirely with his band’s birthplace. “Lou Reed can write about New York,” Finn says. “He understands it more. I understand Minneapolis. I know Minneapolis so well as a city, that if something’s going to happen, I can tell you what block it’s going to happen on. It’s a setting that I can picture in my mind very easily and effectively. I’m not sure I have my whole head wrapped around New York. I’ve never even taken the Staten Island Ferry.” Using that knowledge of place, Finn effectively imagines Berryman digging University of Minnesota sports teams, fearing cold winters, wandering those memorized streets, and diving out of this world. In this way he becomes the poet, even if only for the duration of a four-minute pop song.
Homepage photo by Marina Chavez.