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July 3, 2007

Note Books - Jon Bernson (Ray's Vast Basement)

The Note Books series features musicians discuss their literary side. Past contributors have included John Darnielle, John Vanderslice, and others.

Inspired by John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and commissioned by the Actors Theatre of San Francisco, Ray's Vast Basement's new album Starvation Under Orange Trees is as ambitious a project as it is well-executed.

In its review of Starvation Under Orange Trees, Stylus wrote,

"Jon Bernson has the uncanny talent of having a voice like Jeff Tweedy—a smoother Leonard Cohen, warm in its narrative speakability. Starvation Under Orange Trees is a lengthy, at times bold collection of soundtrack and rumination. It contains the recorded renditions of music for the Actors Theatre of San Francisco’s Of Mice and Men and later arrangements grown out of a studio flood and, following that, a year’s productive hiatus. Bernson is helped by a small army of musicians including Nate Query of the Decemberists and songwriter Enzo Garcia, who has also played with Jolie Holland. Together, they create deep contexts in soft interludes and proper songs, most of which hearken back to 'the refugees of Steinbeck’s shanty towns.'"

Two tracks from the album:

Ray's Vast Basement: "California's Gone" [mp3]
Ray's Vast Basement: "How Through Sacrifice Danny's Friends Gave a Party" [mp3]

In his own words, here is the Note Books entry of Jon Bernson from Ray's Vast Basement:

I grew up with a hardback copy of 'East of Eden' in my bookcase, but never took it off the shelf. My parents kept the spine in plain site, but didn’t push it on me. The title felt biblical, classical, tiring. I made it through my education without being forced to read any Steinbeck, but was lucky enough to move to California and have friends pass me paperbacks like mixtapes. Literary peer pressure: "Check this out man.” Now he’s one of my favorite musicians. I don't always get the lyrics, but Steinbeck melodies are gold, and there’s a consciousness that never let's humanity off the hook.

When I got the chance to score 'Of Mice and Men,' the possibilities were easy. The difficult part was making personal contact with his characters. Easy to connect as a reader, but constant tension between making a record that was true to me, and true to Steinbeck. In a few cases, I found plot turns that matched my own. Other times, I sang in first person plural, with dozens of multi-tracked vocals. That allowed me to represent half the population of Tortilla Flat, or to exhale the collective smoke of Cannery Row.

One last thing. A warning. Somewhere along the line, The Man got a hold of Steinbeck and sanitized his revolutionary thoughts, brought pieces of his stories to Hollywood, fed excerpts to school kids, turned him into an All-American. I’m not into the brand of Steinbeck. It gets in the way of what’s really there.

I love how he uses the same river to symbolize central, but entirely different themes in different books.

> 'Of Mice and Men' - river of death.

> 'East of Eden' - faucet of agricultural wealth and drain of poverty.

> 'Grapes of Wrath' - current of human fertility.

I wanted the album to begin at the Salinas River, and for the music to capture it's wide, mutable qualities.

We all know the ancient connection between music and driving. My latest pass at 'The Grapes of Wrath,' discovered what Kerouac loved about Steinbeck and why 'On the Road' sounds like it was serviced by the same mechanic.

I read an article about Ennio Morricone last year. He said that the music for 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' employed three main instruments, one for each of those qualities.

Lee's song seemed like a good place to try that kind of a thing. The bells are from the opium den. I asked Colin to lie on the floor of our studio and play the bells while pretending to be on opium (not a stretch). I asked Ann to pretend she was Lee's dead mother (big stretch). I pretended to pretend to be Lee (bigger stretch).

One critic complemented me for writing a song full of generic phrases. What a relief: you can't fool all the people all the time, but the time is here and we will always be together, cause I woke up this morning and then I got myself a beer, woke up this morning and dragged a comb across my head, woke up this morning and got myself a gun, got myself a gun.

A musical attempt at method acting. Scott rallied a ragtag bunch of musicians and we just went ballistic. Wish I could have included the entire 45-minute horn and string freakout. We emulated the exact arc of the climactic ending to 'Tortilla Flat' (greatest party novella ever written). Like Steinbeck, we are drawn to the sadness and tragedy behind all parties.

This is the same song as Danny's Party. I split them up so Clear Channel stations wouldn't have to write corporate headquarters to request permission to play a five-minute song. We have a friend who took his own life while we were working on this play. Why do people do this? Why did Danny do this? Another friend reminded me that when standing at the edge of a cliff, the only reason we don't jump is because the urge not to jump is slightly stronger.

In general, my favorite books have no real plot. How do you get away with that? How do you write a good song without a melody? Cannery Row is a pure tribute to place. I need place. I'm absorbant. I have porous qualities.

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.... It's inhabitants are as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole, he might have said 'Saints, angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing."
- J. Steinbeck 1945

Curley from 'Of Mice and Men' was a boxer. I've never won a fight. This song is for you Curley. This song is my personal revenge anthem. Curley's wife didn't have a name. Although Steinbeck is a god in human form, his female characters have a tendency to come up short. Some might even say that they adhere to certain cliches. To such people I might say, you can't fool all the people all the time, but now we've seen the light, you've got to stand up for your right.

My favorite part of the play was when every actor in the show came out during a scene change to build the bunkhouse. They worked fast, but it usually took about 5 minutes. This song was more jubilant during the show, but on the first recorded version it sounded hokey without the 15 builders. Don't get me wrong, I love the version on the record, but it ended up focusing on different elements, more about the dark delirium of repetitive physical labor.

Google 'Tia Ignacia'. It's good reading.

When you google 'Tall Bob Smoke,' the first thing that pops up is: "wants to be admired, is laughed at". There's a guy worth writing a song about. One thing about Steinbeck is that he has great tangents, until you find out they aren't tangents. I know Largehearted Boy don't dig spoilers, so that's all I'm going to say about Tall Bob Smoke.

As we've discussed, certain substances are habit-forming. The same lyrics appear elsewhere on the record. I've read the first chapter of 'The Grapes of Wrath' over a hundred times. I'm not boasting. It's a chemical thing. Possibly genetic. The pages remind me that my place in the world could be swept away at any time. It's impossible to watch nature's traffic signals on a day-to-day basis, but that's how accidents occur.

In Cannery Row, Chong 'inherits' a dilapidated fish warehouse, which he 'rents' to a group of drifters. Reminds me of places I've lived: "Mack, with a piece of chalk, drew five oblongs on the floor, each seven feet long and four feet wide, an in each square he wrote a name. These were the simulated beds. Each man had property rights inviolable in his space. He could legally fight a man who encroached on his square. The rest of the room was property common to all." - J. Steinbeck 1945

We opened the show every night for sixteen weeks with this song. I wanted to set the tone and take our audience immediately to the Central Valley. I had an actual woman in mind, and a character from the play who I thought might like her, but they're still not on speaking terms. Real people and fictional people are doomed to lives of forbidden love.

East of Eden . Chapter 13 . 1952

I don't know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves, but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on the preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

Ray's Vast Basement links:

the band's website
the band's' MySpace page

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Note Books submissions (musicians discuss literature)
Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)


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