Friday, October 22, 2010

Rediscovering Obsessions: Okkervil River - "John Allyn Smith Sails"

I have an amazingly hard time talking to my idols. I assume most people do, and I think most of the time, the idols at hand have a hard enough time talking to their own idols so it shouldn't be a big deal but there's this whole hierarchy of idolatry that's at work that makes everything incredibly awkward. I tried to get Will Sheff to record a station ID when I was at SXSW my first time in March of 2008 and he politely declined. I was a bit crestfallen for a second, but he seemed entirely cordial and his reasons for not wanting to record a station ID were absolutely reasonable and well, pretty much the reason I didn't want to record them in the first place: Because they were hollow and meaningless little soundbytes that didn't really do much for anyone. I remember some girl came up and said Hi to him and hugged him and I started to slump off and he paused to tell me thanks for liking his band and then I saw Okkervil River play their showcase set at Stubbs the next night and it was one of the best shows I'd ever seen.

And somehow, this is all bringing me back to Minneapolis, the city where poet John Berrryman took his life and strangely inspired two of my favorite bands to write songs about him and his suicide within a year of each other. The Hold Steady featured Berryman's suicide on "Stuck Between Stations," the opening track from Boys and Girls in America and Okkervil River wrote a song about Berryman less than a year later on their 2007 album The Stage Names. It was kind of strange, but it felt like one of those amazing collective unconscious things where Craig Finn and Will Sheff both decided to write songs about this one guy at one point in time. Maybe there was influence, I'm not sure, but I'm thinking probably not since both songs fit so perfectly at the beginning and the end of these bands respective masterpieces (well, critical masterpieces, since I'll always tout Separation Sunday as the best album I've heard in forever forever).

I'm reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods at the moment and I'm almost done with it. Gaiman lives near Minneapolis, and a good chunk of the story takes place in the upper midwest when it isn't taking place all over America or, amazingly, in the geographical center of the country which is in my wonderfully crackpot homestate Kansas. And I just got back from Minneapolis a week ago where Jenny and I stayed a few days and never really wanted to leave. It was a strange feeling where I felt at home because the Twin Cities felt like everything I wanted my home to be. In this case, my home is based on the Kansas City suburbs where I grew up, the college town where I've spent the last six years, and the kind of place I've wanted to move that incorporated my favorite elements of those two places and cut out all the bad and annoying parts. The end result was a city that had numerous food co-ops, had restaurants that served local and organic food that was straight-up fucking bad ass, had a music venue where the sound system was like angels singing on high (despite the exorbitant drink prices) and where people smiled at you when you smiled at them.

"He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn out winters," sings Craig Finn on "Stuck Between Stations," which is maybe the curtest and most succinct way to explain Berryman's decision to jump into the Mississippi river. There's no discredit there, it's an amazing line. And then the backstory is fleshed out by Okkervil River a year later. It makes me think about American Gods now, too, since The Stage Names is all about this revered people in pop culture operating under assumed names and well, tons of struggle. And all things seem to be centering on Minneapolis even though it's really fucking cold in the winters. Or maybe my brain is just geared to convince my body to drag itself north, which wouldn't be such a bad thing, not at all. There is more work to be done, but this song was deeply embedded in my skull this evening.

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