Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

Much of what David Berman wrote and performed throughout his life was country music: songs about the sadness and difficulty of trying to get by in the world, along with descriptions of that world. “When God was young, he made the wind and the sun,” Berman sang on the opening song of Bright Flight. “And since then, it’s been a slow education.” When country songs are successful, it is because their outward simplicity, their plain-spokenness, their colloquialisms emerge out of enormous and delicate efforts of emotional compression. You can tell when a country song is just simple—when the necessary effort hasn’t been made—and you can tell when a songwriter hasn’t pulled off the compression, because then the song sounds mannered. But when both elements are working, a country song can shimmer, throb, or glare at you with an uncomfortable intensity.

On David Berman

Image via Drag City.

At the end of “Pet Politics,” one of David Berman’s greatest and most mysterious songs, there is a verse that, every time I hear it, floats in and out of my mind for days after:

Adam was not the first man,
though the Bible tells us so
There was one created before him,
whose name we do not know
He also lived in the garden,
but he had no mouth or eyes
One day Adam came to kill him,
and he died beneath these skies

I think about what this man, lacking sight and speech, would have been like—careful, shy, angry, skittish, hoping to keep out of trouble. He is put to death by someone who, able both to see the world clearly and to tell people what he thinks of it, can move through life with much less hesitation. As the leader of Silver Jews, Berman made six albums in fourteen years, a thoughtful if not quite slow pace of production by the standards of popular music. Then he disbanded the group and released no music for a decade. In the opening scene of a 2007 documentary about the band, Berman recalled wondering whether to go on tour for the first time, after years of confining his public statements to the albums themselves (he didn’t give interviews, either). “Is that the right thing to do?” he wondered. “Would harm come to me?” Earlier this year, he released a new album under the name Purple Mountains, and last week he hanged himself in a Brooklyn apartment. Adam came to kill him.

Or his father did. When Berman announced the end of Silver Jews in 2008, he also revealed that he was the son of Richard Berman, a lobbyist, policy consultant, and founder of nonprofit organizations opposed to, among other things, the regulation of tobacco products, campaigns to fight childhood obesity, efforts to prevent cruelty to animals, the raising of the minimum wage, and the existence of labor unions. “My father is a despicable man,” Berman wrote, “a sort of human molestor.” Berman had devoted himself to Judaism several years prior, which intensified his feelings of horror toward his father’s work. “My heart was constantly on fire for justice,” he wrote. “I could find no relief.” Watching his father’s business prosper even as the national press began to criticize its practices, Berman “decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused.” He had failed to insulate himself from his father with “poems and songs” and would now seek a more direct route to restitution. “In a way I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage.” What Berman didn’t know, to his detriment, is that no one can ever do anything about their father.

Berman was close friends with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich and lived with the pair in Hoboken, New Jersey. Both of them performed on Silver Jews’ first album, Starlite Walker, as well as on later records. Because of this, because Silver Jews were initially considered a Pavement side project, and because Berman recorded for Drag City, he was known throughout his career as an indie musician. But it could be more accurate to say that Berman hung out and played with indie rockers without making indie rock as such. What sounds like indie rock in Silver Jews’ music usually boils down to Stephen Malkmus’s guitar playing, a sound with which the genre as a whole became identified. And Berman had no interest in the genre’s more baroque tendencies, the intricate arrangements, the backing sounds of antique instruments, the painstaking emotional swells. This discrepancy between where you might find Silver Jews albums categorized in a record store and the music those albums turned out to contain became especially pronounced around the turn of the century, as indie rock devolved into a music of self-soothing, a belief that personal fulfillment and small-scale community building among well-read white people could not only insulate you from the larger world but make that world disappear. Berman never attempted that sleight of hand. He loathed his father but never tried to hide from him; the symbolism of Berman the Elder’s cartoonish villainy—he attended Transylvania University—continually threw the wider world back in the son’s face. “If it ever gets really really bad,” Berman’s then-wife Cassie sang on “Punks in the Beerlight,” from the album Tanglewood Numbers, and Berman’s reply cut her off: “Let’s not kid ourselves, it gets really, really bad.”

Much of what Berman wrote and performed throughout his life was country music: songs about the sadness and difficulty of trying to get by in the world, along with descriptions of that world. “When God was young, he made the wind and the sun,” Berman sang on the opening song of Bright Flight. “And since then, it’s been a slow education.” When country songs are successful, it is because their outward simplicity, their plain-spokenness, their colloquialisms emerge out of enormous and delicate efforts of emotional compression. You can tell when a country song is just simple—when the necessary effort hasn’t been made—and you can tell when a songwriter hasn’t pulled off the compression, because then the song sounds mannered. But when both elements are working, a country song can shimmer, throb, or glare at you with an uncomfortable intensity. And when all that intensity builds up, country songs use humor as a release valve to ease the pressure. Sometimes the intensity and the humor occur simultaneously. “The light of my life is going out tonight,” Berman sang in “Darkness and Cold,” as in: she’s going out to have some fun for once, with someone else.

On “Black and Brown Shoes,” from The Natural Bridge, Berman sang:

When I go downtown
I always wear a corduroy suit
’cause it’s made of a hundred gutters
that the rain can run right through

Country music has done much to dignify self-pity as a register, in part because the humor with which it is communicated creates a bridge to its corollary, anger. In 2003, Berman attempted suicide with Xanax and crack, and then refused hospitalization and demanded to be taken to the specific hotel suite where Al Gore had spent two weeks during the 2000 recount. “I want to die where the presidency died!” he said, sounding maudlin and reasonable all at the same time. Berman didn’t name names in his songs, but the world he describes is unmistakably the United States of the past twenty years.

How does an animal see once the sun has set?
Bandits in the capital, limited civilian unrest
—“Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed”1

Oh Dallas, you shine with an evil light
Oh Dallas, you shine with an evil light
How’d you turn a billion steers
into buildings made of mirrors?
—“Dallas”

I have no idea what drives you, mister
Tanning beds explode with rich women inside
—“Time Will Break the World”

Why can’t monsters get along with other monsters?
—“Send In the Clouds”

We’re just drinking margaritas at the mall
That’s what this stuff adds up to after all
Magenta, orange, acid green,
Peacock blue and burgundy
—“Margaritas at the Mall”

The way to cope with this kind of world is to wring pleasures out of the everyday, or, even better, to find an everydayness where the pleasures don’t require so much wringing. “We’re gonna live in Nashville, I’ll make a career,” Berman sang on “Tennessee,” “by writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear.” That’s what Berman did for a long time, living with Cassie and attending as many Titans home games as he could, while also recording the only album for which he described himself as “completely sober,” Tanglewood Numbers. This slightly mawkish, content, openly sentimental vein of songwriting comprises maybe 40 percent of all the country music ever made, and it’s a major presence in Berman’s albums.

In country music at large, the specific small pleasures are usually coded rural: drinking on a porch, driving in a truck, looking at a dog. Berman’s songs lack this coding but do the same emotional work. Watching snow seemed to have been important to him. There’s a whole song devoted to it on the Purple Mountains album, and Tanglewood Numbers included these lines about looking out on Charlotte Avenue in Nashville: “From a corner window, I watch the falling white flakes / God must be carving the clouds into animal shapes.” What keeps these pleasures within the realm of country is that even their loveliness rests on an emotional knife-edge. Berman’s cover of George Strait’s “Friday Night Fever” is a slow, loping number about a man who loves to go out to the bars but loves his woman just as much. “I’ve got that Friday night fever / Sometimes a man just needs a breather / She knows I love her and I need her / And I’m no cheater.” A nice sentiment, but he repeats it a few times, and in the verses, too, without ever saying much else. It could just as easily be a self-justifying monologue delivered by a man who never goes home at all, a possibility reinforced by the fact that Berman leaves out a line from the original about the woman at home taking down her hair in anticipation of her man’s arrival, “to give her the love she needs tonight.” In Berman’s cover, does the narrator even really have a woman to go home to? Each interpretation of the song hovers in the background of the other.

David and Cassie had separated by the time Purple Mountains came out, though they remained close (she’s in the low-budget music video Berman made for one of the record’s singles). Berman was living in Chicago, staying rent-free above the Drag City offices. Reviewers and culture reporters treated the record more or less as a triumphant comeback for Berman, evidence that his worst times were behind him. A tour was mapped out, and while Berman told an interviewer that its primary purpose was to pay down debt, he also said he was committed to staying after the shows to talk to any fan who wanted to say hello. And there is a sense in which the music on Purple Mountains seemed well suited to connecting with listeners; the songwriting was more direct than anything Berman had previously released. Instead of allusiveness, surrealism, and mystery, there are just statements about the author’s life. There is another sense, though, in which the new songs are more legible now that their author has ended his life shortly after their release.

Way down deep in some substratum
Feels like something really wrong has happened
And I confess I’m barely hanging on
All my happiness is gone . . .

It shouldn’t even take the benefit of hindsight to find much of what’s on Purple Mountains alarming, and it’s the only one of Berman’s records I haven’t been able to listen to since his death. The opening line of one song, “Nights That Won’t Happen,” is “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” Another, “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” is titled in the past tense.

“Pet Politics” ends with the same line repeated four times, the first three sung with a little rising melody, so that they almost sound like questions: “Please guard my bed.” What Berman needed, and couldn’t get, was rest.

  1. Due to an editorial error, an earlier version of this piece listed this song title as “Punks in the Beerlight.” 

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