On the Last Day of Your Life, Don’t Forget to Die: Remembering David Berman | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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On the Last Day of Your Life, Don’t Forget to Die: Remembering David Berman

The Silver Jews and Purple Mountains Singer and Songwriter Died This Week at Age 52

Aug 09, 2019 Purple Mountains Bookmark and Share

America lost one of its greatest contemporary songwriters on Wednesday. It also lost its most aberrant, bizarre, and beautiful writer. Would it have gone any other way? For an artist so obsessed with mythologizing the self, I don’t think so. The driving force behind ‘90s indie favorites Silver Jews and an esteemed poet equally versed in the dark underbelly of Frank Stanford’s American South as he was Wallace Stevens’ graceful, elongated verse concerning the absurd in everyday going-ons, David Berman died at 52 years old after a decade of silence and obscurity. Berman put the Jews to rest after a 2009 tour, stating that the force of Silver Jews was no match to the dark, menacing force of his father, conservative lawyer and lobbyist Richard Berman, whom labor union activist Richard Bensinger once nicknamed “Dr. Evil.” This could have been a perfect endingthe brilliant artist who disappears into his own shadow, only his distant work behind him. Instead, Berman emerged from the depths of Nashville, Tennessee broke, separated from his wife of 20-plus years, and ready to record new material. The end result of this emergence was a new moniker, Purple Mountains, and a brilliant, heartbreaking self-titled debut album released only last month on Drag City.

An outlaw poet, a cartoonist who mastered surrealist-minimalism, the hands-down greatest lyrical mastermind of the last few decades; David Berman was all of these things and more. His twisted vision of American life, often existing on intellectual planes which read like intergalactic fables, was so simple and plain spoken that with each read or listen, the million little details of life in, say, water pouring out of a spout, could leave you slack jawed.

Berman’s body of work wasn’t an issue of high-brow/low-brow cultural polemicsBerman existed on both ends. On the one hand, he was a trained poet in the classical, academic sense: he received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying under the late James Tate, one of America’s finest contemporary poets. He published his proper debut collection of poetry and prose, Actual Air, in 1999. On the other hand: he was a dark, quiet spirit who lurked in busted watering holes across the South, slipping absurdly elegant verse into jagged, often simplistic country-oriented rock music. I imagine at some point in his life, you could probably find Berman in a pair of worn cowboy boots and a thrifted ski vest, sipping a cheap bottle of beer while surrounded by the cultural elitethe establishment of writers and visual artists. All the while, Berman was leaning against the wall, thinking of hysterical (but most likely one-the-nose and heart wrenching) bits and couplets.

This is how Berman succeeded as an artistanybody could relate to him. There is a reason that, following his death, emotional outpourings came from all sides of liferegular listeners, pop-culture media, poets, and academics. His music with Silver Jews, which occasionally found longtime friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, both also of Pavement, somewhere in the mixa guitar solo, backing harmonieswas cool enough to please your local record shop clerk, and ordinary enough to enjoy with your father (I have never sang along to so many songs with my father as I did with David Berman’s). Berman’s voice, which was baritone, relaxed, and not particularly great, possessed a unique power which could draw you into a corner of your brain you didn’t know existed. And it stayed there. Like his poetry and lyricism, Berman delivered such absurdly on-point observations in a matter-of-fact way, that it’s disquieting the first few times you hear it.

I could sit here all day and list off his greatest one-liners; his finest moments in written verse; his goofiest cartoons and stray ramblings. But that would diminish the singularity found within each of these. If you know, you know. It’s hard then, listening to his entire discography since his passing, reading between the lines of his misery, humor, and wit. Every song alludes to death, darkness, the unknown. His decades-long battle with depression and addiction is the black cloud that hangs over every word he sang into a microphone; now David Berman is more a mystery than he already was. The loss of Berman is the loss of a hero, but more importantly, it is the loss of somebody who was on your side. Berman’s voice was, without a single doubt, my go-to voice when I was feeling any mix of emotions. I fell in love to his music, I grieved to his music, I laughed to his music. I got very, very drunk to his music. Berman’s baritone is the old friend you never grew apart from, the one that, after years of distance, vibrates in a way that you do not grow out of. That’s not reliabilitythat’s pure artistry.

As far as mythologizing goes, Berman nailed it. His reputation as the psychedelic-cowboy prophet has never rang more true. There is uniqueness; there is even “legendary” status. Berman’s art reaches far beyond either of those. He was a maverick, an artist so unbelievably singular, twisted, and uncorrupted, it feels like blasphemy to even attempt to articulate his legacy in a few thousand words or less. That obsession of his with the South, the dark legacies of poets such as Frank StanfordBerman has become what he worked so hard to become. He tapped into something so dark, so mysterious, yet so honest-to-god ordinary that it feels like a piece of our reality has vanished into thin air. I just wish it didn’t have to come so soon.

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