Underappreciated Album: Steven Jesse Bernstein – Prison
“The poem I write is a colorful affair within the body of a man playing dead – a man whose fingers secretly twitch just enough to work the typewriter, who, when it is dark enough, will hitchhike from the scene of his death.” – Steven Jesse Bernstein, 1991
Steven Jesse Bernstein was an outsider among the outsiders.
Though little is known with much certainty about the early years of his life, Bernstein developed a kind of strange underground following as a writer/poet in Seattle in the mid-1980s but died by his own hand before the eyes – and ears – of the world turned toward the region. In a town and an era where grungy guitars and pounding drums ruled, Bernstein’s weapons of choice were vastly different. His gravelly, frequently monotone voice was a disarming vehicle for prose that was a twisted combination of dark ruminations on everyday life and even darker fantasies about the filthy underbelly of addiction, lust, loneliness, and the crafting of personal history.
Bernstein’s published and unpublished body of work has started to surface in bound volumes over the last 10 years, but his own spoken-word recordings, rare as they are, remain somehow more vital than what stands on the printed page. His stream-of-consciousness-inspired texts are volatile, emotional works with images that writhe and twitch and pull switchblades on the reader.
Bernstein’s recordings of his own work, though, are even more vicious and affecting beasts. Aside from sparse appearances on comps like the infamous Sub Pop 200, the posthumously released Prison is the only real document of this, a nuanced gem of a spoken-word record that pairs the writer’s readings with the sound collages and arrangements of Seattle musician/producer Steve Fisk.
From first breath, Prison is a strange and upsetting little document. Instead of using guitar drones or other sounds without their own inherent or apparent narratives to back Bernstein, Fisk casts the writer’s words against manipulated music that calls to mind a much different time and place. The album-opening “No No Man (Part One),” the only track on the disc completed before Bernstein’s suicide, and “This Clouded Heart” use looping pieces that could have sold kitchen appliances on black-and-white TV in the 1950s. Warped with turntable lurching and cuts, the soundtrack only makes Bernstein’s words – first-person narratives that wanders around images of lust, urban decay, and self-examination – all the darker and more disorienting.
Elsewhere, the sounds Fisk cooks up are more conventional to what could be expected from 1992. “Morning in the Sub-Basement of Hell” uses a hip-hop drumbeat and a jazzy bass grind, but instead of sounding like a bandleader, Bernstein again hovers above it all, cast strangely outside of the music that surrounds him, much as his work existed both within the Seattle “scene” and somewhere beyond it. “The Sport (Part One),” which ends with a gunshot and sizzling white noise, and “Party Balloon,” the most grunge-centric track, pull similar tricks, though Bernstein again feels like his scathing narratives are being unreeled in a world separate from Fisk’s production. It may be a testament to how much his words, with or without musical assistance, hit their target, the listener.
Some of the finest tracks in Bernstein’s prison walls, though, are the ones that force the listener to ingest them without the help of context, where the writer’s voice is slapped stark naked on a wall to be inspected without the comfort of aural footnotes. The best example is “Face,” an incredible 13-minute pseudo-autobiography (whether it’s real is unclear and, arguably, insignificant to the work’s power) that follows Bernstein from his sad childhood, to his admission into a psychiatric hospital, to his lack of closure as an adult. Bernstein is accompanied only by spare found sounds, mixed deep, deep in the background, and the rope that ties the track together is Bernstein’s dreadfully straight-forward – and deeply symbolic – hatred of his own face.
The way he spits out the words, the pace and repetition of it all, becomes a kind of mantra, a way of explaining Prison. “When I comb my hair, I wear a blank paper mask with eyeholes. I shave with an electric razor and no mirror like a blind man. You have seen more of me already than I will ever see of myself,” Bernstein says. “I hope you weren’t as alarmed or offended by my face as I am … There will always be something wrong with my face.” The track, for all its gruesome details, has moments that are so honest and on-the-mark and heartfelt, it could break your heart in half.
Bernstein pulls similar tricks with “More Noise Please,” a somber but oddly affirming reflection on living in a noisy city. There, again, Fisk’s soundtrack is muted and subtle, allowing Bernstein the room and air (unlike the city in question) to simply think and relate on a gut level with anyone who has ever been lumped in the category of “apartment dweller.” This delivery and ability to communicate through monologue shows how much Bernstein sharpened the tools of his trade in the few years that separate Prison from an early track on Sub Pop 200, where Bernstein barked out the lines of a poem titled “Come Out Tonight:” “Forecasts in chrome and plastic / tyrants breathing alloy of slavery / planet hunger, versions of Jackie O. / Sherry, Sherry, baby, won’t you come out tonight?” It’s not a call to arms, but it is a call to listen.
In a foreword to the Bernstein collection, I Am Secretly an Important Man, Grant Alden wrote, “Jesse always had a story, and told it well.” There may be no simpler and more direct post-script to the life of a man who poured himself so entirely into channeling himself into his work. For those looking for evidence that outsider stories have as much vitality as any stories that make the rounds through everyone’s ears, Bernstein’s only record, which he never saw released, is a great fix.