Steven Jesse Bernstein
Requiem for a Punk Poet
by Joseph Larkin
"The difference between me and other poets is that I am really a spider."
So spoke "punk poet" (don't you just loathe that term?) Steven Jesse Bernstein. What really sets Bernstein apart from most poets is the fact that he was actually good. Really good – Maggie Estep good. And, like Henry Rollins, or a waiter at the Medieval Times theme restaurant, Bernstein was a modern day renaissance man, not only doing time as a poet, but also as a playwright, a novelist, a musician, a Jew, a junkie, an alcoholic, an absentee father, an ex-con and one heck of a ballroom dancer.
With his characteristically gruff voice, he delivered his sardonic and surrealistic monologues with seeming disgust for the words he had written. Like the best works of all great writers, Bernstein's art was a curious mix of humor and horror. He could growl out brutally sad lines like, "How 'come the hole in the roof isn't big enough so I can fly out but it's big enough so the rain can get in?" yet he could also toss off a beautiful pun like, "I found a shoe in the yard, thrown over the fence from a car-bang on dope or wine – just a one shoe fling."
Bernstein was relatively unknown outside of Seattle; all of his books are currently out of print and rather difficult to track down. No wealth of information about the man can be found on the web, and in fact, many of the sites that do give Bernstein the time of day routinely misspell his first name.
Bernstein's body of work is truly amazing, and he deserves to find a huge fan base, even though he's dead and won't appreciate it. Bernstein died of three self-inflicted knife wounds to the neck at the age of forty on October 29, 1991, two months after Pearl Jam's Ten was released, six weeks after Nirvana's Nevermind hit the streets, two days before Halloween, three days before All Saints Day and about a month and a half before his forty-first birthday, which would have taken place on December fourth.
A brief biographical sketch: Bernstein was born in Los Angeles in 1950, and was a Seattle resident for approximately twenty-five years. He suffered from polio as a child and was later diagnosed with a neurological disorder. His middle name was not Jesse but Jay. He married three times and spawned three children. His idol and chief supporter was William S. Burroughs, but don't hold that against him. He wrote a handful of books and recorded one album that is better than most poets' entire output.
Daemon Bernstein, one of Jesse's children, paints a vivid portrait of life with (and without) his troubled father: "He was not around. I met him for the first time (that I recall) when I was five. My mother and I hitched from Hollywood, CA to Seattle. I remember a little of that trip, but [I] don't know how long it took. When we arrived, she dumped me on him. He was living in a house with some other people and could not have a kid there, so he took me to a family that took care of me for six months. One day my mother showed up and took me away. I saw my dad again when I was around ten, when he came to visit a few times. Then when I was eleven, my mother dumped me on him again. We lived on Jefferson Street just off Broadway in a duplex. A family who became lifelong friends lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. But he spent a lot of time writing in a coal storage room in the basement, so I did not see him that much. He would generally write all night and then go to bed in the morning. But I did see him sometimes.
"At some point several months later I was returned to my mother. I don't remember how or who took me. At the time I was eleven and my mother left me with my dad, we had been living at a place called Eagle Mount, in a little house with no electricity and no running water. I loved that place. It was very peaceful there. In the evening the red flying ants would come out and we would watch them through a window. His being an absentee father was not entirely his fault. He had no choice. My mother had six kids by five different men over an eighteen year period from 1968 to 1987 and I was the first. She would start to hate the man she had a kid by after a while, so we would end up not seeing any of our fathers for long periods of time.
"I don't have many memories of my father. But [one] that I do remember when I was living with that family in Seattle that he left me with, he came one day and took me to a brick yard where we loaded some bricks into his car. That seems like a nice memory because, at least for a moment, I had a dad."
Bernstein's spoken word performances were combative and enthralling; the guy once pulled a knife during a reading. He was friendly with numerous Seattle rock bands, and often opened for them along with touring bands that came into town. Bernstein's most memorable night as an opening act occurred on August 9, 1987, when Big Black played its final show at the Georgetown Steamplant. During his performance, a heckler in the soon-to-be-Grunge-God-filled audience (including such Seattle superstars as Kurt Cobain, Mark Arm and Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt), yelled out, "We want music!" Bernstein's reply: "This is music, asshole!"
I should point out that I had a hell of a time finding people to interview for this piece – a couple of Bernstein's collaborators declined to be interviewed. One person who didn't was the delightful Laura Cassidy, a staff writer/columnist for Seattle Weekly. She is a vocal supporter of Bernstein's art and a knowledgeable fan who wanted me to point out that she lived in New York City during the fabled "grunge years," and thus many of her comments are to be taken as informed speculation and opinion.
Sub Pop attempted to record Bernstein in the style of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison, with the artist churning out his poet songs (or spoems) for a group of convicts at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
It didn't really work.
Cassidy sheds some light on the aborted live in prison album: "It didn't end up sounding like the real Folsom Prison record – I think the deal was that it just wasn't that call-and-response, audience-participation thing that Johnny Cash's record is. It was recorded in the morning, [and] the prisoners were into it, but they weren't whooping and hollering. I bet it was a little too quiet and dull, so why release a record with awkward room noise when you can either record Bernstein in a better setting or set a bunch of music to it?"
Which leads us to Prison, Bernstein's posthumously released masterpiece that, ironically, was not recorded in a prison. Cassidy reports, "Jon Poneman at Sub Pop told me that Prison grew out of Bernstein stopping by the Sub Pop offices with tapes of his singer-songwriter stuff. That folk approach didn't fit where Sub Pop was at the time and, eventually, he made the spoken-word type recordings, [which] fit better. It's interesting to think what we'd have our hands on if there was room for a singer-songwriter in late-'80s/early-'90s Seattle, though I sure as shit can't picture the [typical grunge] dude in the white high-tops going anywhere near that."
Sub Pop released Prison in February of 1992, and only one track, "No No Man (Part One)," was completed before Bernstein took his life. Bernstein's readings were recorded from 1990-1991, and three of these poems were recorded in his home studio. The readings were set to "soundscapes" made by producer/composer/musician Steve Fisk. The backing tracks often sounds like bad metal or cheesy synth-jazz, but somehow this music compliments Bernstein's sardonic poetry perfectly. On tracks like the brutal "Face," there is a touch of ambient noise gurgling at just the right parts in the background. Prison is a challenging tour de force made by two men who really didn't have much to do with each other.
"Fisk made it clear that [he and Bernstein] weren't friends but I do not believe there was any hostility between them. In fact, Fisk was somewhat uncomfortable even being put in the role of a Bernstein authority; I think part of it is his personality in general, but he absolutely came across as a very humble person in regard to his involvement with Prison. He declined to have his picture put on the release along with Bernstein's, and he saw himself as a producer rather than another player – or even a collaborator – on the record. Sub Pop gave him a job to do (it was their idea to pair the two; they were inspired by the rash of Burroughs stuff out at the time e.g. The Priest They Called Him with Cobain), and he did it.
"Fisk did say that there were times when Bernstein was difficult. He told me about a time when Bernstein was staying at a hospital here in town and had thrown some fits and gotten himself in a bit of trouble with the staff. But he insisted he was 'on' and he wanted to be recorded.
"Furthermore, Bernstein and Fisk didn't really work 'together' all that much. They had meetings to discuss what Fisk would do, and according to Fisk, Bernstein gave Fisk complete artistic license. I'm sure there were other people involved in those meetings and if Fisk had done something that Bernstein didn't authorize, I'd imagine someone would have said so. People really revered [Bernstein]; he was loved. Other than that, Fisk did the majority of [Prison] on his own without checking in with Bernstein – in fact, most of it was completed after Bernstein died."
Most people will never quite understand what Bernstein was doing. Even his son Daemon has trouble figuring out his father's work: "Honestly, I never understood his writings for the most part...I heard [Prison] recently, when I picked up a young hippie couple in Key West.
"As we were traveling though Florida, we got to talking, and [one of the hippies] found out that I was his son, and I found out he was her favorite poet. That really struck me, because she must have been around eight when he died. How did he become her favorite? Anyway, we listened to her copy for a while. I don't know how to describe his music, except to say this: I do know that there are as many different ways of thinking as there are people. And there are general patterns that apply to larger groups of people. His particular way of communicating was for a certain general group of people. Some will have a natural understanding of it, but many will be baffled by it."
Laura Cassidy is one of those select few with a natural understanding of Bernstein's way of communicating. "I absolutely think Prison is one of the best records to ever come out of [Seattle]. Because I'm moved by words above all else, hearing it for the first time was totally monumental. Aside from maybe Bukowski, no one has ever made poetry that cool...what Bernstein did with poetry, it's so goddamn punk rock, and if you care about words, you can't help but be moved by that.
"Prison is amazing on a musical level as well. I have this theory about how punk rockers go soft (we all know an '80s skate punk who became a Phish follower – my theory puts Bad Brains at fault), and there was a time in my life when I would have hated the sort of quasi-sleazy/easy jazz/hip/trip-hop/sampled vibe of Fisk's end of things; after all, I hated all the electro-icky bossa-nova machinations of the 'lounge,' but thank God I'm now able to appreciate the really good aspects of that stuff. Prison outperforms albums by bands like Stereolab. It does all of that better, tougher, grittier, and with more heart."
On 10/10/03 More Noise Please: A Portrait of Poet Steven Jesse Bernstein opened at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Laura Cassidy was there and notes, "Fisk did an amazing job of deconstructing/reconstructing Prison. It was absolutely surreal. He chopped up the most grating, obnoxious pieces of Bernstein's snarly voice and looped and/or stuffed them into his mixes and loops of other stuff and he just kept hurling them out of the speakers. It was so irreverent and beautiful and amazing and loud and jarring and active.
"The EMP is a big ugly mess built by one of the richest men in Seattle. They do some great things there, but it's also a hand-job of the most embarrassing proportion. Fisk took Bernstein's spirit into that place and pulled off a sound collage that allowed Bernstein to fit inside the museum. It was crazy; you'd be talking to friends, getting a drink, using the bathroom or looking at pieces of notebook paper tacked up behind glass, and you'd be hit by a venomous line from More Noise Please or This Clouded Heart. How great it was to be at a party for Bernstein and hear him go, 'I don't like parties.' All the grunge gods and goddesses were there, and so was Jesse."
There was a brief period of time in the early-'90s when spoken word became fashionable. MTV funded station promos featuring poets and even produced an episode of its Unplugged series featuring performances by spoken word artists. Too bad this short-lived popularity occurred a good year after Bernstein took his own life. It also occurred years after other truly inspired spoken word albums were released to little acclaim, like Emilio Cubeiro's Death of an Asshole and Armand Schaubroeck's A Lot of People Would Like to See Armand Schaubroeck...DEAD. Once again, MTV proved to be on the cutting edge of culture – but still, it's difficult not to appreciate those carefree times when poetry could actually be considered cool, and not just by fifteen-year-old goths.
"My feeling is that, considering the prevailing aesthetic of the time (heavy on the rock, heavy on the terrible flannel shirts, not so heavy on the art) it's a real boon that bands like Soundgarden played 'No No Man' and 'Morning in the Sub-Basement of Hell' before taking the stage," Laura Cassidy says. "Picture one of those proto-typical greasy, white high-top wearing grunge fans with a can of really cheap beer in one hand and the other up his girlfriend's black leather skirt...Where else would he be hearing poetry? As someone who loves poetry (the good stuff), I think that Steven Jesse Bernstein was an incredible, fantastic boon for words in general. How amazing that the longhairs heard it too, and how great for us all that for a moment at least, poetry was cool."
Cassidy continues, "Fisk told me that, especially at the end of his life, Bernstein was a really sweet, engaging person. Whenever he wasn't in the midst of his demons, he was someone you just wanted to be around. Always had great stories, always had a great way of telling them. Fisk also said he went out of his way to help young artists. I think it's interesting that Bernstein's legacy is bogged down with stories about bomb threats, etc. Fisk even projected that had he lived, he would have really enjoyed getting the strokes and public acceptance that was likely just around the corner for him. I don't think that he was as crazy as he sometimes seemed, and I think those who knew him saw that.
"We think of him as this loud, crazy character – and he was, and he paid for that; some folks (the ones who were irritated by Seattle's explosion/implosion and wanted a scapegoat) made him the whipping boy of the Seattle scene because he was, without a doubt, a troublemaker at least some of the time (Poneman called him 'omnipresent'), but after seeing the EMP exhibit and talking to more people who knew him, it was clear to me that he was also just a really giving, sensitive artist who could really touch your life if you were lucky enough to intersect with it."
Let your life intersect with Bernstein's, dear reader, by purchasing copies of Prison for yourself and everyone you know. And please heed the words of the man himself: "If you dare condemn my life it will come after you with a sharpened rake."
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