Sweet singers

San Francisco Bay Guardian | by Johnny Ray Huston

Devendra Banhart and Bill Berkson build a new alphabet

ONE FINE SPRING day three years ago, I went along with a friend when he read to Bill Berkson's poetry class at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was there I heard Devendra Banhart for the first time. Banhart wasn't bearded then, and the kinetic energy of his songwriting hadn't quite grown into the roving splendor found on his debut album, Oh Me Oh My ... The Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. Still, it was a first impression that lasted. This kid, I thought, is going places.

Since Oh Me Oh My's release, Banhart relocated to New York City and brought a vagabond's spirit to the touring life of a musician. His recent return to San Francisco – and the arrival of his new album, Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God) – seemed an excellent opportunity to reunite the truant but talented former student and a favorite teacher. Professor of liberal arts at SFAI, Berkson sharpened his verbal, poetic, critical, and stargazing skills with the late Frank O'Hara, and his latest collection of art essays, The Sweet Singer of Modernism (Small Press Distribution), and book of poetry, Fugue State (available from Small Press Distribution), prove they've only grown in command over time. The conversation, which took place amid the Philip Guston paintings in Berkson's kitchen, began and ended with matters of taste. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Devendra Banhart: It [betelnut] turns your teeth black.

Bill Berkson: Are your teeth black?

DB: Actually the crowns or insides have become a little red. This is what it does: it assuages hunger, it beautifies the mouth – if you like black or red teeth – and it kills worms, expels winds, and induces passion.

BB: Where do you get your betelnuts?

DB: I get them from Indian grocery stores. It's very fun because first of all they're confused that a Westerner, I guess, knows about it, and then the fact that I know about it must mean that I'm "us." So they're like, "OK, just give us a minute." It takes a while – to make a good quid you have to have a fresh leaf, because it's made out of the betel leaf and then the betelnut. You chop the betelnut, add a little lime paste, a little bit of sugar maybe. These days sometimes I roll tobacco, and you throw it on the leaf and roll it.

It's better than alcohol and cigarettes, although once I found myself with a betelnut, a cigarette, and a beer and thought, "What's the point?"

BB: Is Devendra an Indian name?

DB: Yes.

BB: Do you have Indian parentage?

DB: I don't. My parents listen to this man named Prem Rawat, Maharaji, who's a wonderful teacher along the lines of Kabir, Rumi. I was named by him; my mother gave him a photograph. I've heard many times that's not my name, but I've heard a lot of things about myself that aren't true.

Johnny Ray Huston: Like what?

DB: Devendra isn't my name, the person who released this record [Rejoicing] wrote all the songs, or I'm really a woman.

BB: We know that [laughs].

DB: That's my favorite. What does Bill mean? Is there a definition?

BB: I've been seeking one.

DB: Is it short for anything?

BB: William. How you get from William to Bill I have no idea.

DB: But Will is short from William too.

BB: And there's Guy, like Guillermo.

DB: Oh yeah, Guillermo is William in Spanish.

BB: But how do you go from Robert to Bob?

DB: Or Richard to Dick? That's the weirdest; how did that happen?

BB: The new album has a good, informal sound.

DB: It's scary to think that some records now try to extract any other sound, therefore making it not a collaboration with time. I was thinking that Oh Me Oh My was really a documentary – it was a document of everything that was happening at that moment in my mind, and the songs were being captured and being written at that moment [of recording]. Every good record has to have a sense of place and a sense of time. It would be such a travesty to get rid of all the other little elements and say, "Let's get rid of the buzz – a bee came in. A dog barked – let's get rid of that." Those parts are what make a record unique; [on Rejoicing] you can hear some of the trains and cicadas, and Michael [Gira, who coproduced the album] going, "Arggh, gimme another beer."

BB: The album has a morning-to-night feel. You go from breakfast to a kind of lullaby.

DB: That's exactly right. Every day the schedule was wake up, start recording at 11, and stop at 9, without a break. Then we'd have some beers and food and try to do something a little more intense.

JRH: Vashti Bunyan sings on the title song. When did you first hear her?

DB: I heard her music in Paris, and it was like [points] that Guston piece right there. I don't need to even see the shapes, I just – it's beautiful; I love it. There's an invisible vein that instantly shoots between me and it. Then all the other things come into place: "Oh, that's a Guston. Oh, I like those shapes." The minute her CD was [rereleased], I bought it, and I just started crying when "Diamond Day" came on. I'll buy you a copy, Bill; can I put it in your mailbox?

BB: Sure. You can ring the bell and bring it up.

DB: OK, I'll do that, and I'll close my eyes [laughs].

BB: Your songs aren't stories; they're more like situations, and the situation doesn't change. When you say, "This is" something – and you say that a lot – it's going to be the same way tomorrow, a definitive thing. So I made this little diagram.

First I started with – because you have the body in your lyrics – the body and pronouns, "I/you/me," sort of interchange along an axis. On another axis is sound. You have a lot of water; you have the river. Also sound acts as an element – I thought of the Gustons in this room: Air, Water, Matter. Then up the vertical axis from sound are your principal actors, sun and moon.

DB: Yeah, the Golden Negress, the Golden Empress –

BB: That's all I could sketch out.

DB: It's really weird because you made me stutter something. You see, I'm writing a book called Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Negress.

JRH: Can you tell us about it?

DB: It was definitely inspired by Mulatta, by Rajo Historias. He actually won the Nobel Prize for a more political book, The President. Mulatta is actually the birth of magic realism, and it's made it impossible for me to dive into magic realism in my crazy psychedelic writing because it's so good I don't even know where to go next. That's why I kind of got into American Indian writing – Black Elk Speaks, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, and all that. This book is also influenced by that, and also by Amos Tutuola, who wrote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Terrible record, by the way.

BB: I don't know about that –

DB: Well, a great title, anyway – better than the record. The main character of my book is Onward, and he's an Indian. It's just people – these Indians – and hands. The hands are their own thing, without arms. They are a really obvious metaphor of creation – for me anyway, because I'm making them. The hands are where things come from, so if you want something – "I really want a pen, Mr. Hand. And some children. And some salt" – you trade with the hand, and the hand will become pregnant with it.

Therefore, because the power of creation is in the hands, feet are constantly jealous. The guardians of the town are claws. The claws are watching, and it's all pretty peaceful until one day Onward the Indian is at the beach, strolling, and he sees a snail sitting on the sand. He just walks by it. The next day he goes for another walk and thinks, "Why the hell is the snail sitting in the same spot?" He gets closer and realizes that the snail is sitting in the sand bleeding. Since sand is sand, this blood is going through it to the bottom. Power of creation is in the hands, and blood, the main life force, is going to the bottom, suddenly feet are going to have power. This is all a plot by the feet to get blood to be at the bottom of the earth.

JRH: Snails appear often within your songs as well, and it seems like, within the book, the snail is at the center, between the hands and the feet.

DB: Yeah, and it has neither of them, which I like. I really like mysterious things. I really like not knowing exactly why I like something. Snails I think are so beautiful.

BB: Do you like to eat them?

DB: No. Though I did once and I felt so bad. The last time I stepped on one, misery just shot up my spine.

JRH: Both of you have used "Oh me, oh my" in your work. It appears in your book Blue Is the Hero, Bill.

BB: Oh yes, in "Topaz."

DB: I hate to say this, especially in the present company, but I always think of it as almost like a Beat thing. "Oh-me-oh-my" – it's surrendering but way more optimistic than just saying, "I'm beat."

BB: My "Oh me, oh my" came out of the soundtrack of the Hitchcock movie [Topaz].

JRH: Both of you also have back-and-forth relationships with New York City and San Francisco.

DB: Goddamn, well this is funny –

BB: – you lived in New York?

DB: I lived in Brooklyn for two years.

BB: But you hadn't lived there before –

DB: No. Before that I'd been there once, and it did everything that it will do to you when you don't know what you're dealing with. I got in a fight five minutes after arriving.

BB: Then you got New York manners.

DB: That's right. New York manners are "I'm going to beat the shit out of you, and then I'm gonna give you a kiss."

BB: You can reverse that.

DB: Do you know any of those cats like Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg?

BB: Sure. I don't know Tuli Kupferberg well, but Sanders I knew starting from when he was doing the Fugs. He also came to Bolinas. He was the one who dubbed Bolinas "the psychedelic Peyton Place."

DB: How long did you live in Bolinas?

BB: Twenty-three years.

DB: I didn't realize how magical it was until I played there, at Smiley's. They have their own money – Smiley's money.

JRH: Bill, was Joanne Kyger still living where she is now in Bolinas when you were there?

BB: Yes. We were next-street neighbors. She was on Evergreen; we were on Fern. But she and I also shared a big house, eventually called the Grand Hotel. It became a kind of flophouse. That was in '70 and '71.

DB: Did Joe Brainard ever visit?

BB: In '71. He wrote the notorious Bolinas Journal. That was a lovely visit.

DB: I went there with Joanna Newsom and Vetiver and this band called Bright Black, and we just sat by the water, and Joanna saved a starfish.

BB: There's a feeling in your music – you get it with Dylan too, and the Incredible String Band – that comes from melodies that seem almost traditional; they're like a stream you float your words along.

DB: Some songwriters approach music like, "I've got tomatoes here, cucumbers here, all the ingredients." And some go, "I'm gonna invent this vegetable called the berbegul." I'm very aware that I'm using ingredients. I always think of that interview with Dylan where they ask, "Are you a poet or a songwriter?" And he says, "I'm a song-and-dance man." I love that –

JRH: – that sss-boom-bah!

DB: Yeah. I think it's fun and funny. But I never listen to a song and think, "I'm gonna put new lyrics on it," which happened a lot in the '60s.

BB: Still, the chords may have been rearranged, but they're so familiar you know how to dance to it already.

DB: That's the exact word I would use, familiar. Something that is familiar to you and therefore just about everybody.

BB: On "Poughkeepsie," before that Elvis burble you make it sound like the CD has a piece of gum on it – having that familiar base allows you to make quick shifts and take off.

DB: My lyrics and guitar playing are matched; they're cyclical, going in circles. But not blindly – my work is so much about getting stuck in the pinhole view of things and describing everything inside.

JRH: There's a shift between your cover art for the two albums.

DB: [Points to Oh Me Oh My's cover] This art, arc – I like arc; that's a nice word for art – I was making when I had Bill for a teacher. It was definitely architecture; they were called structures, or monuments. And this was done to size, in watercolor, with a little brush that has maybe four hairs. My favorite art when I go to a classical museum is the devotional art, for just that word: devotion.

BB: You should read Nick Dorsky's book, Devotional Cinema. On the cover of the new album, the owl – did you draft it from another image?

DB: I did it from a picture. I wanted to integrate it into my way of drawing. It has a structure body and the hands covering the eye, but it still can see. It has wisdom shining through from the center of its eye, this broken little moment, an entrance. I find that I start drawings and end them as songs, or start songs and end them as drawings, and they've been getting entwined. I can't unravel it in my mind, but I do know that everything in here encapsulates the record, lyrically. Same thing with the first song – it's a sort of preface. [Points to Oh Me Oh My's cover] With this, I like the idea that it takes so much time for me to do each line.

BB: Like this drawing you gave me.

DB: Ah! That's this American Indian symbol for warding off evil spirits – the two arrows meeting and the circle in the center. Has there ever been a band of poets?

BB: In Bolinas we had the Poets Orchestra, which was an improvisational group put together by Tom Veitch. The lineup changed every time. A guy named Darrell DeVore, who invents instruments, gave me a C-melody saxophone, which I tried to play.

DB: How did that go down?

BB: We would get together – about 10 people, including David Meltzer, Tom Clark, and Joanne [Kyger]. We performed in Diana Fuller's gallery in San Francisco. She said she'd never forget it, she hated it so much [laughs]. It was the kind of thing you could do in the early '70s.

DB: But I love that. If someone starts to do that now, it feels good again, because for so long all I saw as a general attitude in my generation was absolute cynicism. Something you once said has always stayed with me. For rich people, back in the day, it used to be hip to say, "Hey, I'm supporting a local poetry press." "That's really cool, Foofoo LeFehh." Now people are just spending their money on electronics and going to restaurants.

BB: Rich people used to give great parties for artists.

DB: Something has to happen. The minute I moved to San Francisco it was, "Hey, we're having an eviction party." I saw people disappear, and then I moved to New York. My dad described New York in a funny way. He said it's like having a huge houseguest. You notice that when people from New York are anywhere else, all they can do is talk about it. "How've you been?" "Oh, you know, New York, the weather's ..."

JRH: Are you living alone right now?

DB: I live with Vetiver, the band.

BB: That's who you mean when you say "Vetiver" in your song ["When the Sun Shines on Vetiver"]?

DB: Vetiver really is Andy Cabic. He works at Aardvark Books, and he's probably turned me on to the most literature and music of anyone in my life. He's a musicologist, bookworm person. And he's my best male friend for sure. I live with him, and the house is just covered with books and records – kind of like heaven.

BB: Where do you live?

DB: In the Richmond. In a very ugly house. It's strikingly ugly. In May [of last year] I came to San Francisco to record demos for this album. There were 54 songs. Every day I'd just wake up and record. And one day I thought I'd go to the [S.F.] Art Institute and see how it felt. I wanted to go on a relaxed day, so it would just be me and the architecture. Of course, I went on the graduation day of everyone who I would've been graduating with. They all were there, and I was the dropout.

BB: You dropped out?

DB: The minute you told me to.

BB: How long did you go there?

DB: About two years. Probably one where I went to school steadily. The other I'd go to your [poetry] class, and then I'd ditch.

BB: What do you think you got out of the Art Institute?

DB: Three things. One was that library – I could get John and Yoko's bed-in, so-and-so's films. I got a girlfriend there – great, fantastic. And your class, really. Because you were the first person to ever support my writing. I remember there was this cat who was all, "Well, you know, the pentameter and duh-de-duh ...," and you were just, "Screw the pentameter. It's important, but don't focus on it." That was so good for me. And you were the first person to actually ask me to read somewhere.

BB: Did you meet any other students who were writing or drawing or painting who helped spark you?

DB: I met a few people. Mary George –

BB: Alicia [McCarthy].

DB: Definitely Alicia. Her work has that familiar thing. It's silencing and beautiful. Very humbling work because it is so humble – what good art should be. Chris Johanson and Xylor [Jane] and Z, the Luggage Store scene.

JRH: When did you first hear Devendra's music, Bill?

BB: I think it was when he brought it to class.

DB: I walked in, and you were playing it, and I freaked out and asked you to stop. I'd gotten to class late.

BB: You were a terrible student [laughs]. You were there and then you weren't, and I don't think you did any of the assignments. I'd say, "Well, let's hear everyone's sestina or sonnet." We'd go around the table, and Devendra would give me this broad grin and pull up his guitar and sing a song. It had nothing to do with the assignment. Everyone else at the table would be sitting there thinking, "There goes this guy again." What could I say? "A+."

Thanks to Cedar Sigo for the idea.