The Importance of Being Jesse (Bernstein)
Documentary on poet/rocker casts new light on a dark scene.
By Paul Wilner
I Am Secretly An Important Man, a hard-edged but compassionate documentary about the life and death of songwriter, poet and performance artist Jesse Bernstein, dubbed the “godfather of grunge,’’ takes its title from a line in Bernstein’s most famous poem, “Come Out Tonight.’’
The film includes footage of a reading Bernstein gave at Seattle’s Moore Theater with William S. Burroughs in which he dedicates the poem to “Jacqueline Onassis,’’ to snickers from the hipster audience, before launching into an inspired rant about his imaginary romantic relationship with the former first lady.
It’s a riff on fame, contrasting a privileged picture of Jackie — one hand on the phone, while Bernstein, the very picture of boho scruffiness in his Coke bottle glasses and five o’clock shadow, makes himself at home in her “Park Avenue penthouse” — with a “picture of Marilyn Monroe in my back pocket.’’
“For a month the Luftwaffe lived on raisins, same with the French after the war,’’ he all but screams. “Jackie-O received fresh oranges from John Kennedy. Silly girl!’’
Director Peter Sillen is clearly drawn to the dark side. His previous work includes Speed Racer a documentary on alt/country songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who died in 2009, almost certainly by his own hand, after living for years with the aftermath of a paralyzing auto accident.
Unlike Chesnutt, though, Bernstein, who committed suicide in 1991 at 40, was no Southern charmer.
Born in Los Angeles and diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic when he was in his teens, he was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, escaped to the hippie scene of the Esalen Institute, hooking up with Ken Kesey’s magic bus and briefly working as a porn actor in San Francisco before migrating to the Seattle music scene just when it was taking off.
Sillen’s account of words, photography, interviews with the many women in Bernstein’s life captures the uncompromising appeal of someone who lived seemingly only for his art.
The director sees his character as a bridge figure from Beat icons like Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs to the Seattle sound, and portrays the artist offering a blank, unhelpful interview to a chipper anchor lady after being named “Seattle’s Best Local Poet’’ and giving poetry readings with a mouse stuffed in his mouth.
“The animal rights people were upset, but he was very nice to that mouse,’’ a friend recalls. “He gave it a co-writing credit.’’
Bernstein’s first book of poetry was published when he told a stripper friend that he was broke, and she went out to the parking lot and returned with the necessary finances in an hour.
But unlike his Beat friends, or later post-modern icons like Patti Smith and Tom Waits, Bernstein found the line between truth and fiction, artifice and reality, to be indivisible, and he was unable, as another friend observes, to separate his increasingly burdensome persona from the possibility of real life – and survival – on this lonely planet.
His antics grew ever more outrageous.
“I am the frog man,’’ he barks in footage shot outside a nightclub towards the end of his life. “I work the swamp. I am working the swamp now. I’m going to croak you out.’’
Asked what “Lilyville,’’ home of the frog, is like, he responds: “Well, it’s a smelly place.’’
Opening for the Chicago band Big Black, when he gets heckled in mid-poetic flight by some kid shouting, “We want music,’’ Bernstein doesn’t miss a beat before issuing his much-sampled response: “This IS music, asshole!’’
But it’s increasingly clear that despite his successes, opening for Nirvana and Soundgarden and being recorded by Sub Pop Records, the whole experiment – life as performance art – accompanied by the artist’s constant struggle with bi-polar mood swings, was taking a fearsome toll.
“You know, writing is very draining, and performing is very draining,’’ Bernstein confides on camera. “People think that these things feed you. In fact, those are things that you put out of yourself. Where do you get put in?’’
Footage of Bernstein’s ex-wives, charmed by the experience of joint collages, and disturbed by his occasional bouts of violence and constant struggles, is heartbreaking.
So are the interviews with his two sons, one of whom says his father’s greatest gift was “the presence of his absence’’ – abandonment was better than the burden of being forced to live with his pain.
The movie was 17 years in the making, and the director’s passion for his subject glows.
“For most documentary filmmakers, I think the idea that everything is constantly changing plays heavy on their work,’’ Sillen has said. “It certainly does for me. I see a person or a place that somehow to me represents this moment in time where everything comes together (usually against the odds). They’re really the ones that are documenting their experience. I’m just inspired by the work or the situation to try to help capture that moment.’’
It was Jesse Bernstein’s destiny to capture a moment that he could no longer sustain, or didn’t care to.
“You are gripping the phone, smiling, eating candy, crying, ‘I am with the important women now,’’’ he calls out to an imaginary Jackie. “I am secretly an important man. Hang up the phone, I can’t dance with you anymore.’’
By the time he slit his throat, in a trailer in the woods of Neah Bay, a Makah Indian reservation he’d visited with friends to escape the Seattle scene, the dance was over.
La vie boheme looks a lot better on the screen than it does on the streets.
Sillen lets Bernstein’s older brother have the last word.
“There’s a tendency to think about him like he was some kind of extraterrestrial or something, but he wasn’t,’’ Jeff Bernstein says, over the closing credits. “He was like Huckleberry Finn, with just a little bit of chili pepper on top. In another century, he would have just been the guy who rode out West who you’d never hear from again, until he came back with a bag of gold nuggets.’’
This piece was originally published in the online magazine Obit-Mag.com.