bernstein: tears and tailspin

by Art Chantry (

cheer yourself up and go listen to (steven) jesse bernstein’s “party balloon.” when he put out that record, he made it a point of using his full name. dunno why. nobody ever called him anything but “jesse.” it was just some tweak of his.

i designed the cover for that sub pop record by jesse and steve fisk (it was published after his death). the funny thing was that it wasn’t he record that jesse actually recorded for the label. his original record – nearly 4 years earlier – was produced by bruce pavitt and was recorded live in monroe state penitentiary (a maximum security prison near seattle). i think bruce thought it would turn out to be johnny cash at folsom. in fact, it DID turn out to be exactly that – jesse got along famously with the inmates (he’d been there before) and he sang country western tunes!! when bruce got the tapes, he didn’t know what to do with it because he thought he’d get these crazy rants by jesse in front of a hostile crowd. instead he got a down home hootenanny. so, that record got shelved and then jesse went into one of his tailspins for a while. it wasn’t until after he died that bruce and steve fisk were able to take a set of spoken word pieces jesse had later recorded and put music to them.


photographer art aubry went along with him and took amazing photos of the prison and the audience and jesse performing. that’s why the record was called “prison.” the music and the concept went away, but he title stayed. wish i still had that tape. he was a really great bluesy singer. he used to play in garage bands in his youth, so his poetry tended to fall into dynamics and rhythms that were suited to lyrics. steve fisk pointed out how easy it was to actually structure music to his already recorded verbiage. that’s also why wm. burroughs didn’t work very well in the same formula – his phrasing wasn’t musical a all, so it didn’t fit into music structure as well. just anther little weird tidbit about jesse people didn’t know.

of course. everybody knew jesse. for all his weirdness and fuckupedness, he was a real social gadfly. he was everywhere always all the time. i distinctly remember the first time i ever met him – i was sitting in the western coffee shop (a hipster dive) and he spotted me and came right up into my face, nose to nose. he started shouting (his only vocal level) into my eyes with his spit flying and his wretched broken teeth and snarling words, “chantry! i wanna talk to you!!!” then he went into some sort of harrang that didn’t seem to have any point to it. i began to realize this was a little bit of theater he was doing for me, so i just calmly chatted with him and he cooled down and then we had a conversation. he was an extremely intelligent and insightful and even wise man. but utterly crazy, really broken fucked up man, too.

at the end he was spinning in several directions. he was going through one of his periodic religious phases and joined a black gospel choir (the only white face in the choir). he was spending time with a shaman friend up on the olympic peninsula. he was leaving bits and pieces of himself all over the place (an old junky technique – leaving possessions around to retrieve when you need help). some say he was back on dope. most of his friends and support were turning away in frustration. he never really had a solid diagnosis of his mental situation, so treatment was sorta scattershot. he generally knew more than his doctors. in fact he knew enough medical lore to become a lay physician. so, the last year or two were pretty miserable for him and he was churning harshly all over the place. everybody just hoped the ‘phase’ would end (like it had so many times before) and he’d just be jesse again.

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