Dear John Letter

Okkervil River

Remember last week when I talked about how I’m a sucker for clever lyrics? If you’re not, you should probably stop reading here. For those who are sticking with me: It’s that weakness (or strength, depending on how you look at it) that resulted in my falling madly in love with Okkervil River. It was the song “John Allyn Smith Sails” off the Austin folk-rock outfit’s latest album The Stage Names that really got me. At first, it was just that it samples the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” totally out of nowhere.

 Charming, no?

But it goes beyond that. The song is frontman Will Sheff’s ode to American poet John Berryman. For those who may not know their American poetry history, Berryman committed suicide by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minnesota and artists (recently indie rock bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Hold Steady) have been referencing him ever since.  John Allyn Smith was Berryman’s original name, prior to his own father’s suicide and his mother’s subsequent remarriage. Props to Sheff: Way to appropriate the lyrics to “Sloop John B” (which was originally a traditional West Indie folk song) and make it apply to John Berryman (John B! Get it?) for your own artistic purposes. That’s the kind of smart pop I can geek out about (or write a college English paper about—comparing Sheff and Berryman to the wrecked boat in the original song).  You can geek out in person when the band performs at the Independent on Sept. 5.
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