In Memoriam: David Berman We pay tribute to the Silver Jews and Purple Mountains artist

“People ask people to watch their scotch
People send people up to the moon
When they come back, well there isn’t much
People be careful not to crest too soon”

– Silver Jews, “People”

It’s hard to write about David Berman. Should I start with the music itself, or should I begin with him as a figure, a man who had depressive tendencies, who lived a life of public despair, but who also saw light in the world? Whose honesty, humor, and gloom were fortifying to many, but whose simultaneous awe of the beauty of this country was equally compelling? It’s hard, because, unlike most musicians, Berman felt synonymous with what he created, as if his songs and his poetry were him. I don’t remember ever thinking, “This is a good David Berman song” or “That is a particularly bad David Berman song,” although there were certainly ones I liked more than others. He was reflected throughout the totality of his work, which made it particularly hard to think about one without the other. Which isn’t to say that there wouldn’t be a distinction if we were to take a critical microscope to his music; there would, but that’s not what I’m interested in doing here. I think his work meant a lot of different things. Here are a few collected thoughts and feelings I’ve had over the past two days.

I. On Wednesday, August 7, 2019, David Berman died at 52. One might be tempted to point out how his new album as Purple Mountains is even more beautiful and meaningful now, how we will hear it with new ears, how we’ll see the photos of an exit sign, two dogs, and a graveyard on its cover differently. That’s true, of course. It’s different now in the same way that David Bowie’s Blackstar took on a new meaning after he died from the cancer that we didn’t know he had when he recorded that album. But Bowie knew he was dying. Did Berman know he was going to? Between the upbeat dread of “All My Happiness is Gone,” the melancholy cadence of “Snow is Falling in Manhattan,” and the unbearable longing of “Darkness and Cold,” we’re left to wonder. To tell you the truth, I had been saving Purple Mountains for a quiet hour at the end of a hectic summer of travel and work, so I had barely listened to it when Berman passed away. I figured I would know when the right time was. Unfortunately, I now know.

II. Berman had struggles throughout his life. He had what he called “treatment-resistant depression,” he consumed all kinds of drugs, and he had significant issues with his estranged father. But Berman took that deep pain and somehow made it not only relatable, but weirdly soothing. It was clear throughout his work that he did experience joy sometimes, and that he kept incredible track of the small and spectacular moments that made his life meaningful. His imagery was staggeringly potent. In his songs, he conjured people, places, and interactions to communicate his feelings in abstract ways; sometimes, though, it seemed like he was singing directly about himself, especially on Purple Mountains. Other times, it wasn’t clear. In “Random Rules,” for example, it seems like the song is about him until he refers to himself as Steve. Little twists like this just brought further into the focus the question of where Berman’s songs ended and the songwriter began.

Formally, as “rock music” or “alt-country” or simply “indie rock,” Berman’s music didn’t really break the rules or push boundaries, but that’s probably not what was important to someone who loved Silver Jews or Purple Mountains. There’s a reason that David Berman the man transcends those bands — they’re functions of him, attempts to grasp and channel himself. He wasn’t trying to be avant-garde; he was simply trying to be, and it felt real to me. It was never really the notes of his music that were being consumed, but his love of American life, including its discontents. At least that’s how I felt. We all want to think that we’ll live long enough to make total sense of our lives, to look back with clarity, grace, maybe even some levity. Berman gave it his best shot, first as Silver Jews, and then, in a different way, as Purple Mountains. And the legend of indie rock is richer for it.

III. One of my favorite moments in all of Berman’s work is the guitar solo in “Buckingham Rabbit.” I’m talking about the one around 2:20. It’s arresting every time I hear it. It’s one of my all-time favorite guitar solos, and I don’t even know who plays it. Sometimes I think it’s Stephen Malkmus, who plays guitar and sings on the album; other times I think it’s Berman. In a weird way, it reminds me of Jeff Tweedy’s solo in “Hell Is Chrome,” the second song on Wilco’s A Ghost is Born. It’s similar in how minimal it is, the amount of sound channeled into just a few pitches, the act of sitting still with overwhelming feelings. The “Buckingham Rabbit” solo is 20 seconds of expansive, twangy outcry that at the same time captures the staticity of Berman’s musical style and the distinctly American yawp of his whole project. Maybe Malkmus played the guitar solo on “Buckingham Rabbit,” but it feels like Berman’s voice. It doesn’t really matter to me, and I honestly don’t care to find out.

IV. Here’s a short thing: Sometimes, I’ll hear Berman in my ear when I’m out with a woman I’m seeing. It’s a line from Bright Flight’s “Tennessee.” He’ll say, “Marry me and leave Kentucky/ Come to Tennessee/ ‘Cause you’re the only ten I see.” I’ve never actually said that to anybody, though.

Cartoon by David Berman. Find more of his cartoons in his 2009 book, The Portable February (Drag City)

V. It was difficult to pick the most appropriate lyrics for the epitaph of this piece. There are so many lyrics to parse through. The first words of “How To Rent a Room,” which opened 1996’s The Natural Bridge, are “No, I don’t really want to die/ I only want to die in your eyes.” Those words are profound, but not completely right for this occasion. Further in the song, he sings, “Now there’s a lot of things that I’m gonna miss/ Like thunder down country and the way water drips.” I love that. Later in the album, on “Dallas,” which has graced countless playlists I’ve made for friends, romantic partners, and myself, Berman starts off with, “I passed out on the 14th floor/ The CPR was so erotic.” In the song, he gets expansive and existential in his ode to the city: “How’d you turn a billion steers/ into buildings made of mirrors/ And why am I drawn to you tonight?” It’s such a dazzling track, one that somehow makes me feel the wonder of a city I’ve never been to.

I could recite Silver Jews lyrics all day, and I probably will in text messages and social media posts, but perhaps the most appropriate self-eulogization Berman wrote was in American Water’s “People,” where he sang, “People ask people to watch their scotch/ People send people up to the moon/ When they return, well there isn’t much/ People be careful not to crest too soon.” I’ve thought about those words for over a decade, not because they’re particularly meaningful, but because there’s just a good, sad ring to them. But as I think about them in light of Berman’s death, I can’t help but project his resurrection as Purple Mountains onto the words, wondering whether he felt that, when he returned, there wasn’t much. I hope he didn’t feel like he crested too soon. He hadn’t then, but he has now. And he will be missed.

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