Remembering poet Jesse Bernstein
The gritty voice of grunge returns on film
I have an audio tape that’s been sitting in the pencil tray of the same drawer of the same desk for 20 years. It has a dog-eared yellow note stuck to it that says “Jesse—transcribe me.”
It’s a recording of an interview that I never used for an article, so I never listened to it. Last week, as I prepared to write about Steven J. Bernstein and the gritty, lilting poetry, plays and songs that defined an era of my own history and Seattle’s, I popped the old cassette into a player, worried not just about the brittleness of the tape, but what it would be like to hear Jesse’s voice these 19 years after his suicide.
It is a hall of voices, clinking cups and jazz. We are sitting in the Cafe Counter Intelligence, an art coffeehouse that once overlooked the Pike Place Market. Jesse has just come from the offices of Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, a then two-year-old indy label that would help launch Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden and give Jesse international exposure.
It is the exposure that Jesse is discussing, with some amount of annoyance. The intensity of his voice and the dark irony of his poems had brought him out of Seattle’s cafe readings and onto rock stages as the opening act for grunge bands—a trajectory tracked in a documentary on Jesse’s life that, 19 years later, filmmaker Peter Sillen has finally finished and will debut Oct. 6 at Seattle’s Moore Theatre.
In 1989, Jesse opened for friend and fellow writer William S. Burroughs at the Moore. He read “Come Out Tonight,” the poem from which Peter Sillen takes the title of his film, “I am Secretly An Important Man.” (“The moon ripens and turns red. It rots and is swallowed by the darkness ... Sherry, Sherry Baby, won’t you come out tonight?”) It is the same poem that Sub Pop, in late 1988, released—a cut of Jesse reading on its “Sub Pop 200” compilation album—unfortunately, without telling Jesse, who described on the tape in 1990 how he found out.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, his eyebrows arching above his glasses, his words long and drawn out, “there’s something about being called from a bar and being told that your shit [is playing] on the jukebox when you got nothing to eat. You just go, ‘Waaait a minute. No, no, we don’t do that.’ ... Let’s see if I can find that man’s number.”
We are laughing now. “That man” was Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt. It took some months and getting a lawyer to write a letter before Pavitt would sit down to discuss the lack of permission and talk terms, but once Pavitt did, Jesse dropped the lawyer. It wasn’t Sub Pop’s fault that it was exploding, he said—it was the demands of the capitalist machine at a time when Seattle had the hottest music. All he wanted was to talk and to get paid for his job.
It’s a phrase that turns up over and over in Jesse’s work and interviews—that writing was his “job”—but I hadn’t noticed it until screening a copy of “I am Secretly an Important Man.” In the opening, Suzy Schneider, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer and collaborator of Jesse’s on several theater works produced at On The Boards, quotes Jesse on his work ethic.
It was his “job” to write and he pursued it relentlessly in a life filled with unbelievable struggles. Polio as a child. Mental illness in his teens. Hospitalizations. Heroin addiction. Alcoholism. As the film reveals, the charsimatic Jesse, who was 41 at his death, had a friend in every corner and every walk of life and he told them all different pieces of his story—something that Sillen, who became a fan through the “Prison” album of poems released by Sub Pop after Jesse’s death, sews together with footage of Jesse and interviews with those who were close to him, including childhood friends, his brother Jeff, and his two sons, Daemon and Alex.
The short version of the story is that he grew up in Los Angeles, grew up in Los Angeles, was hospital- ized at an early age, escaped the mental ward, was a runaway off and on, and eventually came to Seattle after making money as a musician. By the ‘70s, he had settled on writing as his craft, sharing it at readings of Red Sky Poetry Theatre or performances set to the bass plucking of jazz musician Pete Leinonen.
He was the narrative voice or “god- father” of grunge, as NME magazine has called him. But he was also a writer and performer of love poems, heart-wrenching songs and timeless stage works of intellect and ether. With the release of Sillen’s film, says Leslie Fried, Jesse’s longtime girlfriend and the executor of his estate, there is a renewed effort to archive the thousands of papers, poems, letters and stories boxed up at her Capitol Hill apartment so that they can finally go to the University of Washington’s Special Collections, which has been asking for the papers for years, Fried says.
Since his death in 1991—a suicide accomplished by a knife to the throat—Fried,who was once a scenic theater artist, has put herself through graduate school to get a master’s degree in library sciences. She is now using what she’s learned to reorganize the file system she created years ago and cross-reference, date and document each item properly.
As part of the effort, Jesse’s brother, Jeff Bernstein, has just sent her a bulk scanner and, on his end, has already scanned some 3,000 pieces of Jesse’s writings, drawings, family photo- graphs and memorabilia for a website he plans to create.
“Now that I’m going through the poems again and through some of his letters,” Fried says, “[Jesse] really had this skill in knowing when to just be incredibly strong and violent in his imagery, but he could also be incredibly soft and evocative in a soft, sensual way.”
“His most powerful work taps into the guts of human experience,” she says. “It could be really difficult subject matter or it could be the height of love and devotion, but it’s human experience and he had a way of tapping into that.”
the only thing resembling that era today is the proliferation of heroin junkies throughout seattle… its like the junkie prostitute capital of new america
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