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John Allyn Smith Sails

John Allyn Smith is the real name of American poet John Berryman. When Berryman was a kid, his father killed himself outside Berryman’s bedroom window, and Berryman grew up a walking brain-damage case, inept at everything, a (scary-crazy) teacher too drunk to teach and a poet too drunk to read. He threw himself off a bridge in the winter of ’72: missed the water and smothered to death on the frozen shoreline.

“John Allyn Smith Sails” is the standout on the new album by Okkervil River. I’ve always been a bit lukewarm about Okkervil River — I figured that “No Key No Plan” was probably the one song of theirs I’d ever like. They tend to the musically unremarkable and the overwritten. The skill and ruthless wit of the first two minutes and thirty seconds, on their own, would make it a pleasant occasional play. But then they do something at 2.30 of pretty incredible ambition, that they shouldn’t be able to pull off. They stop dead and then do two minutes of a rewritten “Sloop John B.”

Most people know it as a Beach Boys tune. It probably dates back to around 1900, and has variously been known as “Hoist Up the John B. Sail,” “Wreck Of The John B” and “I Wanna Go Home.” John B, John Berryman. “They both kind of wreck,” says Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. The other connection is Carl Sandburg, whose career as a poet would have been the long patriarchal shadow over Berryman’s own, and who found and collected “Wreck of the John B” into publication in 1927.

The rewrite ties it all back to Berryman, and it becomes this huge, heartbreaking thing, storming and shaking. It takes some balls, a stunt like that. I think they pull it off. I’ve been listening to it all night. You try.

“John Allyn Smith Sails” – Okkervil River

(mp3 provided for review purposes only, deleted in seven days, contact if you need it taken down immediately)

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  1. […] According to this, I’m on the Honorable Mentions list in the back of this year’s BEST MUSIC WRITING 2008 anthology. For the blogpost "John Allyn Smith Sails." […]

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