Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: David Berman

Richard King | 9th August 2019

A Dream Home Under A Permanent Storm: Richard King pays tribute to the Silver Jews and Purple Mountains singer, who died on Wednesday aged 52.

Brent Stewart

In interviews for the recently released Purple Mountains album David Berman had spoken of a desire to write more directly, even plainly.  Some of the record’s songs bear this intention out: ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’ and ‘Margaritas At The Mall’ could conceivably become standards, the kind sung in the twilit world of workmanlike country music with which Berman felt an affinity, a genre to which he first turned his hand on Silver Jews’ ‘Honk If You’re Lonely’.

Yet there is a verse on the debut Purple Mountains single ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’ that sounds singular to the imagination of David Berman:

‘It’s not the purple hills
It’s not the silver lake
It’s not the snowcloud shadowed interstates
It’s not the icy bike chain rain of Portland, Oregon’

Portland is now a landmark of twenty first century culture, but American towns and cities – along with their government institutions and their weather – are a continual feature of Berman’s writing. He sang of Kansas City and South Dakota, of Albermale Station and of the state bird falling from its branch. The second official Silver Jews recording was named ‘The Arizona Record’ and around the time of its release Berman often wore a t-shirt that bore the message ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’. Berman wrote about places and the lives they contain in a similar manner to the way in which country singers place their faith in the next town on the horizon. As if to mock his own writing process he wrote a deeply romantic song called ‘Tennesse’ that stretched all these impulses in several, contradictory, absurdist directions.   

Although prone to a slight social awkwardness, Berman’s gift for language extended to conversation. I once heard him explain the absence of his friends and Silver Jews cofounders Bob Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus from The Natural Bridge to a confused Belgian radio presenter. Where other musicians might have explained the difficulties of making disparate schedules align, Berman stated he ‘wanted to work with people who would be worried about money whenever we were in the studio’. At the time of American Water he claimed to have invented a new form of bar room philosophy called The New Openness.  He had also worked out a ridiculous but convincing-when-drunk theory of how most babies born to parents working within the milieu of Indie Rock were the result of artificial insemination.

In the earliest Silver Jews records Berman’s voice imparted an old before its time wisdom. The lines ‘In twenty seven years I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers / and they just wash against me like a sea into the pier’ from ‘Trains Across The Sea’ suggested a rare self-knowledge at a confusing stage in life, one that was also the subject of what may have been Berman’s greatest poem ‘Self-portrait at 28’.

In his lyrics wry observations frequently turned morbid. The songs that open The Natural Bridge and Bright Flight both mention death or dying. ‘Punks In the Beerlight’, the first song on Tanglewood Numbers, makes explicit reference to his health and his bad habits. Thanks to the media round that accompanied the release of Purple Mountains, the decade that followed his dissolution of the Silver Jews and the demons he endured are now well documented. His experiences sounded worse than the rumours that circulated at the time.  

Beyond his career arc as a musician, Actual Air, Berman’s only published volume of poetry, was highly regarded by people for whom names such as Pitchfork and Drag City represent only a passing interest rather than a way of life. Berman had studied under the Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate and their admiration for each other’s verse was mutual. Tate’s final collection The Government Lake took its title from a phrase in Berman’s poem ‘Classic Water’; that Berman was a great poet who had published agonisingly little was in no doubt, rereading ‘Self Portrait at 28’, a poem published two decades ago, I found myself stumbling over this verse:

‘All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.’

They sum up our age and how those of us of Berman’s generation, whose formative experiences predated the Internet, frequently find ourselves so perplexed, so ‘split in two’.  Berman himself went through intermittent periods of being highly agitated and active online, but the Actual Air poems, ‘Classic Water’ in particular, evoke a life from the end of another century; a life spent not caring about your next, microscopic move, of instead anticipating the years ahead in a prairie cabin of the mind, in the company of a prairie dog and of shining out in the wild kindness.

If you find yourself listening back to David Berman’s canon of albums, perhaps you might also consider reading his poetry, such as these verses from ‘Classic Water’:

‘I remember Kitty saying we shared a deep longing for
the consolation prize, laughing as we rinsed the stagecoach.

I remember the night we camped out
and I heard her whisper
“think of me as a place” from her sleeping bag
with the centaur print.

I remember being in her father’s basement workshop
when we picked up an unknown man sobbing over the shortwave radio

and the night we got so high we convinced ourselves
that the road was a hologram projected by the headlight beams’

In a poem titled ‘The Definition of Gardening’, James Tate, Berman’s friend and mentor, wrote ‘and the dream home under a permanent storm / is also a factor to keep in mind’. 

David Berman lived in a dream home under a permanent storm. And now that storm has passed.

David Berman, 4 January, 1967 – 7 August, 2019