Remembering Mike Beresh of the Country Devils

Mike Beresh died on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. His final album, "Wives Tales," was released posthumously on April 6 on RatHawk Records. The album is maybe Mike's 40th record including cassette tapes he made as a student at North Harford High School, tapes that feature the playing of young musicians like Abby Mott, Wes Mattheu, Tom Boram, and Chris Pumphrey. Mike once showed me some of those old tapes.

"You are one prolific motherfucker," I told him.

"It's ridiculous," he said, "I need an editor."

The news of Mike's death stung like an expected slap. There was no surprise to it, but the pain was sharp and it left an empty sadness in its red-faced wake. I got whiskey drunk with a mutual buddy until we could barely stand. It was an unintended ironic send-off for a relapsed alcoholic. We listened to Mike's records and we talked about how gentle he was, how funny and hapless he could be. We talked about what an asshole he was some of the time. Mike Beresh was as sweet and gentle of an asshole as the world has ever seen. Now, the stories of Mike's prodigious drunken shenanigans could fill volumes, and we told them to each other with relish that night. At his core, though, Mike was a sweet-hearted, achingly sensitive man, a true sweetheart. But we eulogized him in the only way we knew how, and it was messy like living is.

"Wives Tales" is a grief-stained album. It is profane and full of jokes, trash talking, and tossed-off asides. It is the record of a fighter who jabs and mocks and dances but who sometimes connects with a hard left that leaves your head ringing. It is also a strange and sad story of a songwriter whose need to tell sometimes overrode his good sense, his sense of propriety, and his kindness.

The record starts with these lines:

"That was my ass you saw bouncing next to Ludacris.
I was only on screen for a second but it's kinda hard to miss.
And all those other hootchie skanks, they ain't got shit on me."

It starts like a joke album and it's tempting to immediately turn it off. But it reveals itself to be a work of raw-boned sensitivity and startling compassion. We look down on the narrator of 'Ballad of Bitter Honey,' the girl whose ass makes the music video, but as the song continues, Mike reveals his compassion for her when he sings, of us, in her voice:

"They all think I'm stupid. I can see it in their eyes.
But I know what's inside their hearts. I penetrate their lies.
Sometimes it drives me crazy but I keep my feelings hid.
Cause I know deep inside they're only frightened little kids."

'Nervous Widows' is Beresh at his conversational best, his lonesome tenor sails easily over the sweetness of a couple fingerpicked chords:

"Nervous Widow sighs, feels the sun on her skin, smiles to her baby boy.
He's 40 now, going through a divorce some way somehow . . .
He's having a hard time. To say the least, he's doing just fine."

'Rebounds (F the pain away)' starts again like a gag song, extolling the virtues of an anonymous rebound lay:

"She is beautiful and funny. She is currently employed.
She does not want my money; never seems to get annoyed.
And them legs go on forever, for miles and miles
And I guess I forgot to mention she just smiles and smiles.
So, there's only one thing left I have to do . . ."

Mike's high voice arches like the curve of a woman’s back and the dirty angel sings, "Fuck the pain away."

It's a gut laugh on the first listen, a profane joke busted for the benefit of truckers, toughs, and construction workers to snicker about over coffee or beer. But like life does for the rest of us, the song continues and the second time the angel sings "There's only one thing left I have to do," anybody on the planet who has fucked somebody out of a twisted sense of duty is going to feel that twist of regret in their stomachs. Maybe you'll find yourself laughing again but your throat'll be dry.

By the time the song reaches its doleful conclusion, the angel has left the dirty delight of sex behind completely. He's doing a goddamn job now, fucking with all the romance of getting back on the truck to deliver more packages.

"There's only one thing left to do . . . and that's fall out of love with you."

The message shrinks to the head of the needle and the dirty angel tells you the thing you knew all along. The song isn't about winning a new piece of ass; it's about losing the love of your life. It's a reveal that leaves you cold-cocked. Fuck. The. Pain. Away. It's a song that makes you want to go to bed in the afternoon and stay there.

The record is naked like that: a twisted yowl at a dead father, a broken marriage, at the blue-collar grind of working for a living, failing sometimes as a man, and wrestling with an addiction that is straight-up whipping your ass. It cuts like grief, and like grief, it talks too much, says things it regrets, laughs inappropriately, makes fun of itself, and sometimes just seems to meander around, feeling stupid.

And speaking of work, Mike was a proud union man, a teamster with UPS. Unlike the folk classicists that dick around with songs about trains and gunfights and unions from the sanctuary of upper-middle-class lives, Mike sang only what he knew. 'The Local,' in the rolling cadence of a Woody Guthrie tune, joins the canon of tough union songs written by true union men:

"Stick close to the boys, keep your chin to the sky
And whatever you do, don't you cross that picket line."

I can't help but feel that some of the songs, such as 'What Kind of Woman' and 'Monsters and Vultures,' are unfair and cruel, and I don't think Mike gets a pass for putting that kind of shit out into the ether. He was a compulsive writer. "Wives Tales," he told me, originally contained 30 songs. He had a completely different set of lyrics for the songs as well, lyrics that revolved around the customers on his Roland Park UPS delivery route. Of the hundreds of songs he wrote, not all of them were masterworks and some were ill-conceived. The final song on the album, 'What's Your Favorite Way To Say Goodbye,' is a sucker punch, a cheap farewell sung by Mike and his young son and nephew that brings to mind Johnny Cash's wheezing final sad train wreck of an album. Listening to it, I can't help but feel Mike planned the whole thing, the Gene Autry farewell tune, with a gimlet eye on the maudlin future like some kind of asshole.

He told me that he wanted to die. He said it so simply and with such frankness that it was impossible to argue with. He knew his liver was failing and he kept drinking.

"I lose weight every month," he told me, "no matter how much I eat."

Recently, he'd been calling me and I hadn't picked up in over a month. In December, he got us kicked out of two bars in suburban Hunt Valley before 2 p.m. I'd talked to him since that debacle, but his drunken morning phone calls were hard to take. The truth about the kind of ravaging addiction that killed Mike is that it subsumes even the strongest personality. People take on the aspects of the drug. Mike's drug was booze and talking to him could be like talking to a bottle of vodka. He called me Wednesday, two days before his death, and I didn't pick up. I'm not guilty or self-important enough to feel I could have saved him had I answered, but I do wish I'd picked up to hear him talk shit just one last time.

The day after Mike died, I lay in bed until three in the afternoon. Then I walked down by the water. I drank a cold drink out of a tall glass. I stood on the cobblestones and slurped down oysters in the sun. I watched the bodies of the women walking by, watched how they moved beneath their clothes. I felt the salt of the bay on my tongue. I broke the news to a mutual friend of ours. She cried on the phone and I drove to her; we hugged and kissed, sat on the couch, and played with her baby, a soft new beautiful thing.

Mike loved his children. They meant the world to him and I am certain that they were the only thing that kept him with us as long as he stayed. I'm listening now to 'What's Your Favorite Way To Say Goodbye' and I'm remembering how happy Mike was the day he recorded it. He sent me photos of the kids in the studio wearing headphones standing in front of a microphone. Maybe I'm wrong about that song. Maybe I've said too much. Maybe I'll regret something I've written here. Maybe I should shut the fuck up and listen to the record and feel grateful, alive, and thankful. Like Mike on his final record, I'm grieving.

"What’s your favorite way to say goodbye? Is it au revoir, so long for a while?
Is it I will miss you so much honey when your gone?
Is it say goodbye or say hello and get out of my way, baby
Leave me alone because my heart can't take no more no loss this time."

The author is a friend and collaborator of Beresh's. He read some of Beresh's uncles letters for the live recording of "Letters To Baltimore From the War" and wrote a piece on the follow-up album, "Letters Vol. 2," for the Huffington Post.

Copyright © 2018, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
43°