Seattle-based poet and artist Steven Jesse Bernstein made a name for himself as a poet, performance artist, and writer. Informally dubbed “The Godfather of Grunge,” his street-smart, hard-edged work earned him a reputation that built upon his persona—a rough-voiced, tattooed elder spokesman of the darker side of life, a man who made one of Sub Pop’s best albums of the Grunge era—one, sadly, he did not live to see released; Bernstein would commit suicide on October 22, 1991, just as Seattle was dominating pop culture on a global level. He was a unique talent—any man who can write a poem from the point of view of a mouse living in his apartment and then subsequently performs said piece with said mouse in his mouth cannot be called anything but unique.
Director Peter Sillen is a man whose work has explored outré musicians and artists; his debut film, Speed Racer, was released in 1994 and examined the life of Vic Chesnutt; his critically acclaimed second documentary, Smoke, was released in 2000, and followed the life of musician Benjamin Smoke. In 2010, he released the equally acclaimed documentary, I Am Secretly An Important Man, which just this year is seeing its physical release, coupling the film with a vinyl LP of lo-fi folk songs Bernstein recorded. It’s been a labor of love years in the making; he began working on the film in 1993, shortly after hearing Bernstein’s album, Prison, and would work on it for the next seventeen years. We sat down with Sillen to discuss his work and the making I Am Secretly An Important Man.
Watch the trailer below:
This is your third documentary on an outsider musician and artist. What was your first experience with the art of Jesse Bernstein?
It was through the Sub Pop album Prison. This was quite a long time ago. I was finishing up my first major documentary, about Vic Chesnutt, so this would have been about 1993 or so. I stumbled upon it, and he seemed like a pretty great subject, but I didn’t realize he had just passed away. More than anything, the thing about Prison that caught my eye was the artwork. I was hanging out with a friend of mine who was a writer and a rock journalist. He had a stack of CD’s he was about to toss about, and he said I could help myself to anything I wanted. So I’m flipping through them, and Prison really stood out. Arthur Aubry’s cover photo is excellent; Jesse had a very distinct face, and something about him made me want to put the album on, and when I did, it was a pretty mind-blowing. That album’s visuals are really incredible, Aubry and Art Chantry really captured the mood of Jesse’s performance style.
Plus, it’s simply an amazing album.
It was really a combination of a lot of things coming together: graphic design, photography, Steve Fisk doing the mix-it was a pretty collaborative album. Jesse had laid down those tracks and had maybe heard a track or two that Steve had done, but then he died. He gave Steve a lot of leeway with his production, and from what I understand, he liked what he heard. Steve produced the bonus material that came with the physical release of the documentary, too.
Were you as surprised as I was to discover that he was not just a poet, but a regular singer?
Yeah, I was. But I very quickly learned that he did a lot of stuff, he worked in a lot of mediums. I knew he did drawings and paintings, but I hadn’t heard the singing right away. Then I met Pete Leinonen, who played with Jesse throughout the years. They had a project called Words And Music, which was really more of a jazz riff, and the stuff on their cassette really blew me away. There was some straight up singer/songwriter stuff on it, and I doubt many people had ever heard it. The whole idea behind the I Am Secretly An Important Man’s physical release was to highlight as much of his various forms of work as possible. Something for those who appreciated his work—be it his spoken word, his written works, or his music—something to give them a tangible view into his life. I view this DVD/LP release as another way of getting Jesse back out into the world.
From what I’ve read about Jesse, he was a man who was very fast and loose with his biography. Did you find it difficult to chase down and determine who the real Steven Jesse Bernstein was?
When I first sat down and started on this, I thought, “Oh, it’ll only take me a year or two; I’ll be able to come up with something engaging,” because he had so much material to work with. I didn’t think it would be a long project. It ended up being seventeen years, and with that seventeen years comes perspective. I changed so much while I made it, and with that, so too did the film. When I started working on it, I really wanted to make a film that dealt with his art and his work. I started the project looking as an unmarried twenty-something in awe of his subject, but then I got married, had kids, and by the time I finished the project, I had two kids in high school. I was his age, and I saw him from a different perspective, and the film changed a lot. It went from being about his art to being about him as a man and a person, not just as an artist or persona. I think that perspective improved it.
At the same time, it’s important to reiterate that I never met Jesse, so unlike my other work, I never had a connection. On one hand, that’s a burden, but on the other hand, it’s a freedom. If I had met him, it would certainly have been a different film; if friends of his had made it, it would have been a different film. But I didn’t have that opportunity, so I got to spend a lot of time with a lot of different people, all of whom had their experiences with him, good and bad. It gave me the chance to explore him in different ways, and better still, I could be objective. In the end, I really like the way it’s structured. It’s a little long, it’s a little rambling, but I think that works to its benefit. I see it as maybe like a conversation with Jesse’s spirit, it’s a late night and you can’t get out of the talk, you’re cornered, and you wind up having this amazing chat as a result.
All of the people I talked to, regardless of their opinion of him, they all seemed to feel the same way: that they only had a little piece of the overall Jesse picture, because he was extremely complex. Not many people I talked with saw the bigger picture. They’d had the dealings and they’d heard the stories, but their view of the greater picture was a little clouded. I didn’t want to totally pull back the veil, because I wanted to retain some of the mystique, because the danger and the legend of Steven Jesse Bernstein, that’s an important part of his story as well. At the same time, I wanted to show him as a person, to show him as he really was and how his life unfolded.
One of the dangers when profiling a character like Jesse is that it’s easy to get caught getting stuck on one thing: in his case, it becomes all about the heroin or it becomes all about the suicide. I like how you dealt with these things: they’re mentioned, but they’re not things you dwell on. He made his art in spite of being a junkie, not because of it. He was a great musician and writer before he committed suicide, not because of it.
What many people don’t realize is that he was clean for many years. He fought very hard to stay clean. For most of the Eighties, he was clean and he was very productive. He and Pete Leinonen had their Words & Music project, and they would meet once a week at Pete’s loft downtown. Pete would play bass, Jesse would sing or read lyrics and poems, and it was a good, healthy, stable project for him—he did that every week for about eight years. When he got clean, he really became committed to his work. He’d wake up every morning and just start writing, working for hours and hours at a time.
When I was putting the film together, I didn’t want to give the story away too early, though I figured that most people who know about Jesse already knew it. In the extras, I open up with his friend Regina Hackett, and she says, “If a rose with blight can bloom, do you credit the blight for the bloom? No, it blooms in spite of it.” It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that Jesse was a junkie; it was something that’s easy to latch onto him, because it was there in his past, but it wasn’t the case. Seattle in the 1980s, it was a dark and depressing place, and Jesse’s work fit in so well. People want to romanticize that part of it, and in no way did I want to romanticize heroin or drug addiction or mental illness. His story contains those elements, but the greater story is that of the need to create art and the struggle to create art, that their work is a coping mechanism. Anyone who creates deeply personal art like his, they’re likely to tell you that their art is the way they cope with these negative things around them
That’s what make’s Jesse’s story so compelling; set aside those bad things, and you find the story of a man struggling and existing, yet thriving creatively. I was really fortunate to discover that he had this very loving and supporting creative community—his friends and his family, Jesse had this very loving community around him, and he thrived there.
As the film progressed, I sort of picked up on this very subtle, underlying feeling that Jesse’s career was on the rise, and it was only a matter of time before greater success came his way.
Although the whole Seattle music scene was starting to explode around him, he never lived to see it become what it was. He’s certainly a part of the story of Seattle; he’s part of the ramping up to greater success, but even though he was part of the Sub Pop label and performed with a lot of those bands, he never sought to capitalize on it—I don’t think he was aware of it being something to capitalize on, as he died before being from Seattle could be used as a ticket to commercial success.
That awkward television interview after winning the reader’s poll naming him Seattle’s best poet—that’s hilarious to watch!
Isn’t that wonderful? (Laughs) I have to give a big shout out to all the people who were willing to share with us all these different clips and videos and things, including that whole interview, because without their generosity, a film like this could never have been made. It also speaks to a time when there weren’t cell phones or cameras and there wasn’t an internet culture, where it’s assumed that things are documented. If one person filmed a performance, that’s all that exists. There weren’t a lot of clips that existed in their entirety; it was almost always scraps—a few minutes here, a few minutes there.
There’s a wonderful postscript to that story that didn’t make it into the film. In my research, I discovered a journal entry from that day, and Jesse described going into the bathroom after the interview, and how he really liked her, and how, in his mind, the two of them connected. (Laughs) So the rest of the story is that he sort of developed a crush on this reporter who had no idea who he was!
It’s that undercurrent of hope, that maybe things are starting to go Jesse’s way, that really makes his suicide seem so shocking and out of nowhere.
It’s out of nowhere, but from his perspective, he was really fighting something at that time in his life, and whether it’s a mental issue or a physical issue, it’s really hard to say, but he was getting help. He had a doctor who was really dedicated to trying to help him, and they worked rather tirelessly for several years to try and figure out what was going on, and I think by the fall of 1991, the testing had come full circle, and for all that years of work, there was no answer; they hadn’t solved the problem, there wasn’t a course of action for healing, and I believe he lost a lot of hope. When that happened, I think he started to use drugs again. He lost hope; he became really depressed and started self-medicating again. He spiraled and he just lost control. Certainly the reality of his situation—of being sick, of not having a stable job or any real stability—was weighing heavily on him.
But before that, up until 1991, he was working hard, he was clean, and something happened, something we’ll never quite understand. People told me that in that last year, he went from being that really great, fun guy into a really mean, nasty, difficult person. It was a really bleak time, and most people I talked to, they said they really weren’t surprised at how it ended; they didn’t picture his life ending well. It’s sad, but not surprising.
Your film was so enlightening, because Steven Jesse Bernstein’s been an enigmatic character for so long. Like you, I first heard Prison shortly after its release, and like you, I fell in love with the music, and the mystique of his life, though I knew nothing about him—it’s nice to finally see behind the curtain and see the man behind the art.
Prison is such a hard-edged record, and you know there’s a lot of personal pain wrapped up in his poems and his lyrics. One of his childhood friends called him a confabulator, and he was. He would take these real-life occurrences and take them way beyond the parameters of what really happened, but he kept the pain and the life experience. It’s hard to separate, and since he wrote in first person, it all reads as true, but it just seems so out there that it messes with your view of him, and that’s what’s brilliant. In the end, I don’t think people were really able to know Jesse Bernstein, and that’s what appealed to me. I wanted to know. I wanted to know what he was like as a kid, I wanted to know what hospital he was in and why, and where did he get his start in working as a public performer. So that required a lot of detective work on my part, but in the end, I have to say, it’s still a little bit cloudy. (Laughs) I was able to get the broad strokes. I just wanted to make sure his legacy was intact, that his struggle wasn’t forgotten, and that people would have something objective that gives a view of him that’s sympathetic yet as honest as possible.
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