"John Allyn Smith Sails" as written by and Will Robinson Sheff....
By the second verse, dear friends
My head will burst, my life will end
So I'd like to start this one off by saying
Live and love

I was young and at home in bed
And I was hanging on the words some poem said
And thirty-one
I was impressionable, I was upsettable

I tried to make my breathing stop, my heart beat slow
So when my mom and John came in I would be cold

From a bridge on Washington Avenue
The year of 1972
Broke my bones and skull
And it was memorable

It was half a second and I was halfway down
Do you think I wanted to turn back around
And teach a class
Where you kiss the ass that I've exposed to you

And at the funeral the university
Cried at three poems they'd present in place of a broken me

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
Other 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 whispering, come home
I'm sorry to go, I loved you all so
But this is the worst trip I've ever been on

So hoist up the John B. sail
(Hoist up the John B. sail)
See how the main sail sets
(See how the main sail sets)

I've folded my heart in my head
And I wanna go home
With a book in my hand
In the way I had planned
Well, this is the worst trip I've ever been on

Hoist up the John B. sail
(Hoist up the John B. sail)
See how the main sail sets
(See how the main sail sets)

I've folded my heart in my head
And I wanna go home
With a book in each hand
(With a book in each hand)
In the way I had planned
(In the way I had planned)

I feel so broke up
I wanna go home

Lyrics submitted by smileforthecamera

"John Allyn Smith Sails" as written by Will Robinson Sheff


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John Allyn Smith Sails song meanings
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  • +2
    General Commentvery touching retelling of John Berryman's (aka John Allyn Smith) death by suicide. the opening verse immediately got me interested. the next few verses reference the key moments leading up to his death - him imagining his own suicide when he was younger, perhaps traumatised after seeing his father's own suicide ("so when my mum and John came in, I would be cold") and his alcoholism ("breaking in a case of suds").

    you can read more about him here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…

    also, i like the throwback to Sloop John B. to me it's fitting both lyrically and melodically, especially since the ship (the John B.) and the subject of this song share the same initials. nice touch!
    jadedgypsyon June 30, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General CommentThis song is especially meaningful in light of John Berryman's poetry itself. The 6th stanza (I was breaking in a case of suds, etc.) is a direct allusion to several poems of Berryman's, and the line "stripped down to move on" is directly lifted from one of the last poems in 77 Dream Songs.

    The cover of Sloop John B. contains a few more references to those final poems in 77 Dream Songs (which wasn't Berryman's final work though they do heavily deal with suicide, he released over 300 poems after them). The line "I'm full in my heart and my head" is lifted almost verbatim, as well as the concept of carrying books in each hand.

    Finally, the way the song addresses the listener as "my friends" is a technique that is often used by Berryman in his poetry. The song itself if straightforward, the story of Berryman's death, but it also acts as an homage to his work by incorporating pieces of his poetry itself.
    TheAmazingRandoon September 23, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentOh, and also: this is some of the best songwriting and storytelling I've ever heard. Song after song, I can't even believe how amazing these lyrics are. This song doesn't have any hidden meaning. The character has lived past his prime and turned into something that he dislikes, so he jumps to his death. Love the reference to a childhood not-really-suicide attempt. And the very meta first verse. So good!

    Will Sheff astounds me.
    proposalson June 29, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General Comment[song]writers who read are a lovely thing indeed. amazing songmeanings input to jadedgypsy.
    wiredbirdson July 14, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentJust a minor correction. I believe it's "in 31" not "and thirty-one." That'd make our character, John, 17 years old at that point instead of 31. :)
    grrreon July 14, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthe brass rail is a bar here in champaign.
    mlincolnon September 08, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthis song hit me like a ton of brick the other day. it's such a heart-breaking story, and when it breaks into sloop john b it sounds so joyous but sad at the same time, like he was only waiting all that time just to escape from this world. beautiful beautiful song. okkervil river's probably one of my 5 favorite bands now because of this.
    ripelivejamon September 18, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthis is a great song by a great band, if you like this song you should also check out stuck between stations by the hold steady, also about john berryman's suicide
    jmoneylpon January 24, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song means a lot to me. John Berryman taught at the University of Minnesota (which is where I graduated from). I'm too young to have ever had him as a teacher, but my poetry professor was good friends with John and he was mentioned in our class frequently. The Washington Avenue Bridge runs from the West Bank of campus to the East Bank. He's one of many people who have jumped off of it. And The Brass Rail is a bar in downtown Minneapolis.
    RightOverThisMesson January 13, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI find it very interesting that this song makes allusion to the Dylan Thomas poem "Don't go gently into that good night." ..."wise men know when its time to go" almost suggests that Thomas had a strong influence on Berryman's suicide.
    mofloon April 27, 2010   Link

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