The beloved poet, songwriter and leader of indie rock institution The Silver Jews was 52
Every David Berman song verse is a fully-imagined scene, a vivid still photograph, or a joke you wish you’d dreamed up first. Every Berman poem engages readers, at first, from odd angles. Every Berman cartoon is the sort of cryptic doodle that should’ve graced the margins of alternative weekly newspapers everywhere. But alt-weeklies are a dying medium, and Berman himself is gone now – he passed away on Wednesday, departing this cruel, crumbling world for what we can only pray is a better one.
This is, resolutely, our loss – the Internet erupted in stunned disbelief in the hours after Drag City, his longtime label, announced the news on Twitter – even if the man himself might not have believed it. “I’m not convinced I have fans,” he confided to The Ringer in a July interview. “In my whole life, I’ve had maybe 10 people who have told me how much my music means to them.”
I could have met him; I could have told him how essential his writing was to me. This was 2006 and his longtime band, the Silver Jews, had just concluded a strong set at Baltimore’s Ottobar. But I hung back while my friend, Doug Mowbray, moseyed over to have his copy of Actual Air signed. (Inscription: “To Doug, Love DCB, better shit on the way.”) In concert, Berman had seemed sweaty, remote, and so, so fragile – overcome, perhaps, by the vociferousness of an audience who never thought they’d have a chance to shout “Punks in the Beerlight” or “Random Rules” back at him as he sang it on stage. To approach seemed profoundly inappropriate. Forget about us breaking before his gaze; what if, accidentally, we broke him?
VIDEO: “All My Happiness is Gone” (Official Music Video)
His biography is canon. You know it all already and if you don’t, you will tomorrow, or next week. The upbringing in Williamsburg, VA, son of a soulless Republican lobbyist. The obsession with New Wave. The University of Virginia education alongside future members of Pavement and Yo La Tengo. The Silver Jews taking flight and garnering a diverse, grateful cult. The pop-country bliss strung with lyricism heartbreaking, picayune, gently uber-literate. The drugs, the depression, the random acts of generosity. The mugging that permanently messed up his hearing. The falling in love on acetate, the writing instruction, the budding career as a producer. The team-ups with The Avalanches. The end of the Silver Jews and, a decade later, the birth of Purple Mountains, the last bleak breakup gift of Purple Mountains with its intimations of suicide, despair, and desolation.
His music – realized with support from members of Pavement, New Radiant Storm King, Palace Brothers, Lambchop, Woods, and so many other bands – was an intoxicating vehicle for couplets destined to outlive him, and you, and me. Berman workshopped verses tirelessly but when it came time to show and prove, made writing seem so deeply effortless, as though anyone could capture the world in such obvious, absurdist terms if only they could find and conjoin the right words and muster up the perfect laconic drawl.
VIDEO: “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You”
My mind leaps almost involuntarily to a stray line on “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You,” from 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers: “Like a brown bird nesting in a Texaco sign, I’ve got a point of view.” Rewind to 1994, to Starlite Walker, to “New Orleans,” to a restless perspective – the young Berman, like so many fledgling writers, skirted the identifiably personal at first – that nonetheless conjures and sustains an ineffable sense of dread and mysticism. (“The Farmer’s Hotel” is more frightening than most horror movies because it leaves the very worst to our imaginations.)
He could be deadpan: think “Introduction II,” think “People.” He could be so damn funny, almost beyond the point of corniness: think “Party Barge,” think “Honk If You’re Lonely Tonight”. He could elevate heartbreak to the level of high art: think “That’s Just The Way That I Feel,” think “How to Rent a Room,” think “Suffering Jukebox”. “Blue Arrangements,” a dreamy duet with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus from 1998’s American Water, unfurls as a sultry, four-and-a-half pull quote – sly, louche, falsely careless and precise in its intentionality; if it’s new to you, prepare for it to choogle eternally in your mind’s ear.
Back in the 00s, when Doug and I sought Berman out for a literary magazine we wanted to start, he wrote us back, apologetic, scrawling with a Sharpie on a postcard that’s buried in a box of old correspondence. Silver Jews records never left my rotation, though, even when their architect slipped out of public view, even when his Menthol Mountains blog resisted my attempts to engage with it, inscrutable, impenetrable, oppressively formatted. Remnants remain, and through them, he survives – his expressions of creativity and courage in the face of the world’s adversities a fuel for all of us who turned to him for artistic guidance to carry on, and on, and on.
AUDIO: Silver Jews Starlite Walker, Drag City 1994
AUDIO: Silver Jews The Natural Bridge, Drag City 1996
AUDIO: Silver Jews American Water, Drag City 1998
AUDIO: The Silver Jews Tanglewood Numbers, Drag City 2005
AUDIO: Silver Jews Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Drag City 2008
AUDIO: Purple Mountains Purple Mountains, Drag City 2019