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Rapturous Trauma? Exploring the Music of Okkervil River

All those men were there inside,
when she came in totally naked.
They had been drinking: they began to spit.
Newly come from the river, she knew nothing.
She was a mermaid who had lost her way.
The insults flowed down her gleaming flesh.
Obscenities drowned her golden breasts.
Not knowing tears, she did not weep tears.
Not knowing clothes, she did not have clothes.
They blackened her with burnt corks and cigarette stubs,
and rolled around laughing on the tavern floor.
She did not speak because she had no speech.
Her eyes were the colour of distant love,
her twin arms were made of white topaz.
Her lips moved, silent, in a coral light,
and suddenly she went out by that door.
Entering the river she was cleaned,
shining like a white stone in the rain,
and without looking back she swam again
swam towards emptiness, swam towards death.
~Pablo Neruda, “The Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks.”
I never wanted to depress people, and I never wanted to make people feel despair…
I’m really interested in the idea that trauma can be a really rapturous thing. You know, some people return again and again to trauma– they re-enact it and feel it again. It becomes something that defines their personality.  But… I wanted all of those things to be submerged. I wanted on the surface there to be a party going on. We know all of that horrible stuff is down in the cellar, but up here we’re going to have a party.
~ Will Sheff
I. Beauty, Terror, Love and Death
Okkervil River, the band fronted by singer-songwriter Will Sheff, recently released a single called “Mermaid.”  You can listen to it here and I suggest that you do so before continuing.  Others have pointed out the similarities between the song and the poem by Neruda that I have quoted above.  Both pieces are haunting, beautiful and terrible.
Over the last couple of years, Okkervil River has quite possibly become my favourite band.  Sheff often writes distinctively uncomfortable songs.  One notable example of this is the song Westfall, which speaks of an atrocious, violent act (the murder of two young girls) while also holding onto the humanity of the killers.  This is no easy line to walk, but Sheff does it well.  Thus, on the one hand, the killer states: “when I killed her, it was so easy, that I wanted to kill her again.”  On the other hand, the song concludes with these words: “Now with all these cameras focused on my face, you’d think they could see it through my skin.  They’re looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but evil don’t look like anything.”  In an interview, Sheff provides the background story for this song:

There were these murder cases in Austin where these two girls were working in a yogart [sic] shop and these three college guys went to rob the place and killed and mutilated them… I worked for the state at the time and heard the details they didn’t report — how they cut them open and filled them with frozen yogart.  They caught one of the kids that did it, and there he was, on TV, and I remember my co-workers looking at him and looking at him for the evil on his face.  You wanted to see the evil, but it wasn’t there.

Another song picks up on this effort to humanize those whom society treats as monsters.  In The War Criminal Rises and Speaks, Sheff wants to blur the line that we posit between those who commit violent crimes and everyday people.  He comes across a story in the news and writes the following:

The head wants to turn, to avert both its eyes, but the mind wants to learn of some truth that might be inside reported crimes.
So they found a lieutenant who killed a village of kids. After finishing off the wives, he wiped off his knife and that’s what he did. And they’re not claiming that there’s any excusing it; that was thirty years back, and they just get paid for the facts the way they got them in.
Now he’s rising and not denying. His hands are shaking, but he’s not crying. And he’s saying “How did I climb out of a life so boring into that moment? Please stop ignoring the heart inside, oh, you readers at home! While you gasp at my bloody crimes, please take the time to make your heart my home: where I’m forgiven by time, where I’m cushioned by hope, where I’m numbed by long drives, where I’m talked off or doped. Does the heart wants to atone?  Oh, I believe that it’s so, because if I could climb back through time, I’d restore their lives and then give back my own: tens of times now its size on a far distant road in a far distant time where every night I’m still crying, entirely alone.”

Sheff then concludes by suggesting that any of us are capable of acting in this way.  He sarcastically remarks: “Our blood-spattered criminal is inscrutable; don’t worry, he won’t rise up behind your eyes and take wild control.”
Other songs exhibit this mixture of violence, love, beauty, and loss.  Sheff captures something of the other- and self-destructiveness that seems to be entwined with our desires to love and to be loved, and he seems to choose to embrace this rather than fight against it.  For example, one can watch the (official) video for the song For Real and think that Sheff is telling a pretty story about a boy who has been hurt by his father and who then also becomes something of a monster, but who is liberated by the love of a girl.  Together they run off, while the monster follows after them with his head bowed, weeping burning tears.  However, all of this adds to what are, on the album, otherwise very stark and brutal lyrics:

Some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries… I and really miss what really did exist, when I held your throat so tight… And I don’t want to hear you say it shouldn’t really be this way, because I like this way just fine.

The song avoids the redemption that the video offers.
Elsewhere, Sheff spends a fair bit of time exploring the theme of suicide.  In the song, John Allyn Smith Sails, he writes about the American poet, John Berryman (born John Allyn Smith, Jr.), who killed himself by jumping off of a bridge in Minneapolis (Berryman’s father had killed himself when the boy was twelve, and that event haunted his life and writings, and probably played a significant role in Berryman’s subsequent alcohol use and depression).  Again, we have the representation of tragic violence, communicated in an hauntingly beautiful manner.  Alluding to Berryman’s poetry throughout the song, Sheff writes:

I was breaking in a case of suds at the Brass Rail, a fall down drunk with his tongue torn out and his balls removed. And I knew that my last lines were gone while stupidly I lingered on, oh, but wise men know when it’s time to go. And so I should too.
And so I fly into the brightest winter sun of this frozen town. I’m stripped down to move on.  My friends, I’m gone.
Well, I hear my father fall. And I hear my mother call. And I hear the others all whisper, “Come home.” I’m sorry to go. I loved you all so. But this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

Sheff is largely successful in his efforts to empathize with Berryman’s action in this song.  As he says when asked about this song in another interview:

in the case of any song, I try to give the character– whether or not I agree with them or like them– I try to not insert my voice in there. I try to give them the song, to explain where they’re at and why they’re doing what they’re doing. The fact of the matter is that somebody makes a decision, and sometimes these decisions are tough to make, and it’s your right to kill yourself. If your want to kill yourself you have that right: nobody’s going to be able to stop you. And that’s a decision that the character in that song, who is sort of me trying as hard as I can to imagine what it would be like, has believed in for a long time… I kind of wanted to portray the image of a choice he made as being liberating, even if it’s a choice that’s not very popular. I don’t necessarily agree with the logic of that song. But I wanted to give that character a chance to explain himself. And I wanted to express the idea of death as being joyful, something magical and mystical. This idea of crossing over into something else that is perhaps more meaningful.

In a similar vein, Sheff writes two songs about Shannon Wilsey (some claim that the song Red is also about her, but I haven’t found confirmation of that).  Wilsey was a porn star, who went by the name of Savannah (she picked that name based upon her love for a movie called “Savannah Smiles,” which was about a girl who runs away from home because her father doesn’t pay attention to her; the actress who played Savannah in that film later died of a drug overdose).  Wilsey, after connecting with some major rock stars (Gregg Allman got her pregnant before she turned seventeen, and she also had relationships with Slash, Vince Neil, and Billy Idol), fell from fame due to substance use.  She was scheduled to film a come-back movie but got into a car accident which broke her nose and lacerated her face.  Upon returning home from that accident, she shot herself in the head with a 9mm, and died shortly thereafter.
The first song Sheff writes about Wilsey is written from the perspective of one of her parents and is called Savannah Smiles.  I think that it is is one of the most poignant and sad songs that I have heard, and its poignancy has only increased since I have had my own child.  It is worth quoting the lyrics in full:

Midnight, late last week
My daughter’s diary
Didn’t know what it might be ’til it was open
I only read one page
And then put it away
Talk about your big mistakes
Hey, Shan, nice going
Photos show no tears
In her eyes, all those pretty years gone by
I just cannot believe could do that to a child
A child
A child
Shannon just flew down
Four days back in town
She sleeps and lies around and then she goes out
And then one day, she’s gone
What should I have done?
Joe turns the TV on with all the lights out
Photos on the wall
She’s my baby
She’s my baby doll
Is she someone I don’t know at all?
Is she someone I betrayed?
It’s a gray day in the fall
And the radio’s singing down the hall
And I rise to turn it off cause all I’m seeing is her face
Age eight

In the second song, Starry Stairs, Sheff writes from Wilsey’s perspective.  He deals less with suicide here and more with the complexities of working in the sex industry.  Sheff sings about how it can tear a person apart (“I’m alive. But a different kind of alive than the way I used to be… while all these guys, all these curious sets of eyes, safe behind a TV screen, I let them pry, pick apart and hang-up to dry almost every part of me”) but he also sings about what can draw a person into that sort of work (“If you don’t love me, I’m sorry.  Oh, what a trip.  What a shimmering silver ship. Oh, what a hot half life I half-lived…”), while also concluding that perhaps that were something about Wilsey that remained wholly her own and wholly unconquered (“So, here’s goodbye, from the part that’s staying behind, to the part that has to leave, to the sublime lips that were never spoiled by lying, but to the face inside the being, who wasn’t me”).
Of course, there are several other Okkervil River songs that contain the sort of “rapturous trauma” that Sheff is keen to explore.  The entire “Black Sheep Boy” album is based upon the life and death of Tim Hardin (an American folk musician who died of an heroin overdose).  The most haunting song on the album, So Come Back, I am Waiting, captures something of the genuinely seductive nature of addiction.  Addiction isn’t just some demon that overpowers you — it is something that is often desirable, something that can feel better than anything else in the world, the “pearl of great price” for which a person might be willing to trade everything else.
Other songs Sheff writes describe the way in which we love and (inadvertently) end up destroying and being destroyed by our lovers (some of my personal favourites here are The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion, Ends With a Fall, Seas Too Far To Reach, Girl in Port, and Calling and Not Calling My Ex [had to pick a cover for that one, for the sake of hearing the lyrics]).  Significantly, what one often sees here is a willing embrace of the the breaking that comes with loving.
Which, in a long roundabout way, leads me back to the Mermaid song.  The song concludes with a sailor drowning because of a mermaid.  Yet, while he is drowning, he is only thinking of how beautiful she is, how much he loves her, and how there is nowhere he would rather be — even though he has given up his wife and children along the way.  In this regard, Sheff’s song differs from Neruda’s poem.  Here, the sailor dies while the mermaid swims away, more full of life than ever.  However, the beginning of the song is very much like Neruda’s poem, for there is nothing innocent about the sailors “love.”  In fact, Sheff seems to be alluding to rape, when the sailors first capture and bind the mermaid.  Here are the opening lines:

So I said, man, pull her out of the water and then
Lay on hands and bind back her flippers and tail
Until international waters and there
We’ll feel all that’s human inside of her

It’s hard to know if Sheff backs away from this (wanting to emphasize the animal nature of the mermaid instead of viewing her as a human person?) when he later refers to the mermaid as “tonguing” the “rusty rim” of the tub of salt water in which she is held.  If that is his intention, I’m not sure if it succeeds because, to me, that line creates a picture of a person who is bound and driven wild with fear.
II. The Darkness Outside and the Darkness Inside
So, what is one to do with this sort of music?  More specifically (and self-indulgently), I wonder why I am drawn to it.  Not that many years ago, I would probably have rejected Sheff’s lyrics noting that there is nothing “rapturous” about the trauma of violence that is enacted against the bodies of women (given Sheff’s tendency to describe either women who have experienced violence, or men who have enacted violence against women), and that it is voyeuristic to feel anything “rapturous” when telling such stories.  By doing so, one simply reveals that one is already a part of the problem (of male violence against women) and is only further entrenching oneself within an abusive and unsafe position.  Truth be told, I think this line of criticism is still pretty valid and that Sheff can’t escape some of these charges.  I’m still enough of a feminist to recognize that and to prioritize the reactions that some of my survivor friends have to songs like “Mermaid.”
But I still can’t shake the way this music draws me.  I still listen to it.  As I have reflected upon this, I think that this is for a few reasons.  First of all,I respect Sheff’s desire to empathize with those who are often demonized within popular discourse.  One of the major lessons I have learned from working with a wide variety of the excluded — from dealers to gang members to pimps to sex offenders — is that people are far more complicated than a black-and-white moral discourse will ever be able to recognize.  Along the way I’ve learned that some people are very sick, others are plain old assholes, others appear possessed, but I have yet to meet somebody whom I have not been able to identify with in some manner or another.  I haven’t seen the “evil” that so many others are looking for.  I’ve just seen people (“Peoples is peoples,” to quote the Muppets).  I like that Sheff seems to understand something of this.
Secondly, my perspective on love has changed a lot over the last few years.  Through a series of failures and disappointments, despite the best efforts and intentions of everybody involved, I have learned that love itself is often terrible and violent.  Here, I’m neither referring to Oscar Romero’s notion of the violence of love, “the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work,” nor am I referring to the violent exclusivity that falls within more standard practices of love (portrayed in one way in popular “revenge” films, and criticized in another way in the remarks that those like Hardt and Negri make about the nuclear family).  No, what I have learned is that it is often precisely our love for others that wounds them the most.  One need only mention that breaking that can occur when lovers split to understand this.  Despite everybody’s intentions and actions, people can grow apart and it is the experience of being loved more deeply than you have ever known that will, in the end, shatter you.  Of course, this sort of event need not be limited only to romantic relationships.  To provide one more example, I think of the time I spent in a community in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.  There, I spent a lot of time building loving relationships with a few others — a couple young guys who had gotten caught up in drugs or gangs or whatever, one older woman who was involved in sex work, and so on.  Once things went bad in our community, once people starting burning out, we moved out of that neighbourhood, and those relationships were dropped.  Those were people who relied upon me, I had told them that they could rely on me, and I let them down.  Turns out, I wasn’t reliable.  Sorry.
Finally, combining the first and second observations here, I’ve come to realize that the darkness outside, the darkness one can observe in others — those lost in drugs, those on the side of the highway with their thumbs out, those in prison for committing violent crimes, those who wake up in the hospital because they weren’t quite as successful as they hoped to be — is also a darkness I have learned to recognize in myself.  Once upon a time, I used to think I was a good person, and once upon a time I think that I was.  I don’t think that anymore.  I’m the same moral melting pot as anybody mentioned in Sheff’s songs.
III. Overwhelmings
Some years ago, I read a book called The Shape of Living by the British theologian, David Ford.  In it, he argued that life is defined by “overwhelmings.”  One the hand one, we may be overwhelmed by trauma, and pain, loss and loneliness.  On the other hand, we may be overwhelmed by beauty and joy, love and hope.  At the end of the day, Ford argues, we tend to prioritize one or the other kind of overwhelming — the negative or the positive — and his book seeks to encourage the reader to choose the positive.  For a long time, that’s what I did.  During the last few years, I think that I’ve shifted.  I can’t tell if that means that I’m falling apart or not.  Maybe I’m not so much waking up to darkness inside of me, as inviting more of the darkness into me.  Maybe the shift in my taste in music is a reflection of that.  I don’t know.
Back in September of 2008, I wrote a post in which I tried to say something like this:
“Look, I’m tired out, God.  You tell us that your strength is perfected in our weakness, so I’m going to try taking you at your word.  I’ve been working damn hard, and stretching myself thin.  I haven’t been resting much and I’m starting to fall apart and let people down.  I can’t keep trying this hard, anymore.  On top of it all, I can’t keep clawing my way towards you, looking for you, doing all the things that one is supposed to do in order to journey with you.  Because I’m sure as hell tired.  So, look, God, it’s time for you to step up.  I can’t do it anymore.  I’m admitting my weakness.  It’s time for you to be strong.”
After two years of waiting for God, I only find myself weaker, more tired, and in a darker place than I was before.
Anyway, I’ll give the last words to Sheff.  It may be appropriate to conclude with a few lines from the song Yellow:

And I really do think that there’s probably more good
than anger or selfishness, sickness, or sadness
would ever completely allow us to have in this life,
I think I’m sure.
But that doesn’t mean it’s bad.

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  1. This is a remarkable reflection. I don’t think I have anything to say or add at the moment, except to express my own love for Okkervil River’s music and Neruda’s poetry.