Steven Jesse Bernstein

  • Steven Jesse Bernstein
  • Prison (Sub Pop) 1992 

Seattle performance poet Steven Jesse Bernstein brought his own despairing misery and emotional violence to the grimy disgust of William Burroughs’ familiar vistas; the landscape of his personal experience and vision produced a hellish text of sex, drugs, shit, disease, decadence, shame, incarceration, noise and crushing alienation. When the 40-year-old committed suicide in 1991, he was in the early stages of a project to pair his recorded readings with musical accompaniment by local composer/producer Steve Fisk.

Prison is the posthumously completed result of that collaboration, a masterful match of prose and the music it inspired. As Bernstein recites his gruesome fantasies (?) and sardonic treatises, Fisk responds to both mood and content, latching onto and enfolding the words in diverse music and concrete sounds-screeching saw noises and techno beats for “The Sport (Part One),” a ’60s super-agent soundtrack that gives way to a merry jingle and then an unsettling roil in “No No Man (Part One)”; a soulful groove for “Party Balloon”; boho bongo jazz for “This Clouded Heart.” At times, the album manages the illusion of Bernstein-who spoke these pieces alone — fighting to be heard above the din, yet Fisk has the artistic insight and control to add nothing more than distant thunder to sanctify the traumatic “Face,” an epic and appalling “fictional” reminiscence. “At two, my face already looked like the face of a convict…” Bernstein was a compelling, tormented poet, but Fisk is every bit the master of this Prison.

[Ira Robbins]

See also: Pell Mell