A Place I Wouldn’t Mind Dying, Alone or With You

Saying goodbye to the Silver Jew, David Berman.
A Place I Wouldn’t Mind Dying, Alone or With You

Saying goodbye to the Silver Jew, David Berman.

Words: Mike Spry

photo courtesy of Drag City

August 08, 2019

I haven’t slept yet. I keep hoping it’s a dream. My eyes are bled dry by exhaustion. My fingers are stained in nicotine. I quit smoking four years ago, but dug into one of those packs I keep for guests and bad days and boredom. My apartment is populated by empty near-beer cans and sweet potato chips, the indulgences of recovery, of my forties. I keep hoping it’s a nightmare. Kirk called at 7:11 p.m. last night. “I wanted you to hear it from a friend.” I didn’t really want to hear it at all. I keep hoping it’s a lie. 

David Berman—writer, poet, cartoonist, musician, Silver Jew—is dead. Berman saved my life and part of me—that narcissistic, solipsistic part—thinks that maybe, given a few more days, I could’ve returned the favor. I was supposed to interview him this week, with the piece to be printed Monday in FLOOD after seeing him live for the first time in eleven years (or anyone seeing him live in eleven years) in Kingston, NY on Saturday. Maybe I could’ve given him a fraction of what he had given me. Last month in The Ringer he said, “I’m not convinced I have fans… In my whole life, I’ve had maybe ten people who have told me how much my music means to them.” Never has an artist meant more to me. I had hoped to tell him. And now I’m writing this instead. I mean…fuck.

Where to begin? Where did it begin? Why is it over?

In 1998, I was living in a basement apartment in Vancouver. My bedroom wasn’t so much a room as a vacant space created by the geography of the furnace. The only furnishings were a stained futon and a coffee table with a glass top displaying a losing poker hand and a revolver. My roommate was a recovering alcoholic, newly addicted to crossword lottery cards, and whose emphysemic coughing would wake me up every morning. He was a peculiar man, but the rent was cheap and location average. He was an anglophile; drank tea, called chips “crisps,” read Irvine Welsh, saved every dollar he no longer spent on whiskey for a forever distant trip to the UK, and subscribed to every Brit music mag. The apartment was filled with back issues of Mojo, NME, and Uncut, which always came with a sampler CD. One October morning, craving the smell of coffee and rattled by ominous hacking echoing from the bathroom, I put one of the CDs on to attempt to drown out the day. I pressed random on Sounds of the New West (The Best of Alternative Country), and the fifteenth track came on. A deific voice filled the room and sang, “No I don’t really want to die, I only want to die in your eyes.” And I fell in love.

From that moment on I wanted to be a writer. That’s a lie. I’m a fucking liar. And if there’s anything I learned from David Berman’s work it’s that honesty is ravishing and funny and absolute. So, truthfully: From that moment on I wanted to be Berman. I wanted to be at once wistful and funny and intelligent and melodic and beautiful and honest and uncompromising and esoteric and sibylline, and use sibylline in a sentence without seeming like an asshole. I didn’t quite make it, though I stole shamelessly from him—his aesthetic, his reading voice, his virtuous commodification of emotion. On my best day, I am at most an average David Berman cover band. I’m a suburban kid with a Biblical name

His truest gift—and he was blessed with many—was that he could offer comfort in his sadness. Sometimes I feel like he held the weight of mine, a lyrical proxy.

That Uncut album boasted songs from many who, along with Berman, would come to represent  alt country’s golden years; Willard Grant Conspiracy, Vic Chesnutt, Lambchop, Will Oldham, The Handsome Family, and The Pernice Brothers, among others. It was that fledgling genre that I most associated with the Silver Jews, not the ambiguous “indie” label that was hung on them. I didn’t even know what Pavement was. But, indie, alt, beardfolk—it didn’t matter. Berman was in a class of his own. His lyrics were absurdist daydreams, masterfully crafted compositions that were fearlessly honest. He struggled with addiction, with depression, with love, with infamy, and elements of those struggles informed the folk tales of his songs. But somehow, in all his darkness, his work was bereft of cynicism. There was hope in sadness. 

Berman really did save my life. I struggle with addiction, with depression, with love. His truest gift—and he was blessed with many—was that he could offer comfort in his sadness. Sometimes I feel like he held the weight of mine, a lyrical proxy. I don’t think I’d still be here if Berman hadn’t inspired me to turn that sadness into writing, to trade cynicism for promise. While the Silver Jews albums will be most prominent in his legacy, it is his poetry collection, Actual Air, that I feel closest to. “Self-Portrait at 28,” to me, is the perfect poem; conversational, honest, funny, nostalgic, hopeful, caustic, narrative, participatory, existential. I have owned the collection at least seven times, finding myself giving it away in the charm of 5:30, “The Wild Kindness” in the background, hoping to have found love—for a minute, for a while—using his writing to say what I couldn’t, using his music to be what I wasn’t. “Nights that won’t happen, never ever again.”

“I’ve never heard of them,” was an invitation to credibility, to caché. The Silver Jews were my move. But, there was no them. Oh sure, there was Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, his wife Cassie Berman, William Tyler, and others. But the Silver Jews (and this year’s goodbye letter, Purple Mountains) were David Berman. He was at times introduced as the “Silver Jews frontman” as if in his absence Adam Lambert & the Joos might one day play the Avalon Ballroom Theatre at Niagara Fallsview Casino. Rolling Stone, SPIN, Pitchfork, and the other Condé Naste clique self-crowned purveyors of cool can’t get through five sentences of Berman content without mentioning Malkmus and Pavement. And, quite frankly, fuck Pavement. 

I’m sorry. I’m angry. Pavement is OK. Look, “I am trying to get at something and I want to talk very plainly to you so that we are both comforted by the honesty.” I’ve been in love three times in my life. Once unrequited; once is in question; and once with the work of David Berman. And those iterations of love have been my everything. They are why I write, why I smile, why I hope, why I am able to disrupt the callous brutality that is life. This is not hyperbole. From that dreary Vancouver autumn onwards, the one consistent in my life has been Berman. Friends and lovers, locations and ambitions all came and went, but American Water, Actual Air, Bright Flight, Starlite Walker, The Natural Bridge, Tanglewood Numbers, and Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea never left me, and that’s true love—just like the refrain of “Tennessee.”  

Purple Mountains were supposed to be the next phase of David Berman’s life. Over a decade after the end of the Silver Jews, estranged from Cassie, the self-titled album is a document of a man beginning his fifties in pain, without love but maintaining faith. Released eleven years after Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Purple Mountains had all the markings of a Jews album, but more overtly personal and narrative. He had a new band: Jeremy Earl, Jarvis Taveniere, and Aaron Neveu of Woods and songwriter Anna St. Louis. A noted recluse, he was going on tour with twenty-five dates booked. The lead singles “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Darkness and Cold” are heartbroken lyrically, and yet the accompaniment is upbeat, hopeful. The album contains some of his best work, and in many ways is a spiritual follow-up to 2001’s seminal Joos, Bright Flight. It’s filled with what made me fall in love with Berman two decades ago: The idea that life is disappointment, heartache, and terror. But, fuck if you can’t dance to it. 

Two weeks ago, Drag City set-up correspondence. I’d interview Berman via email. I was sure that I could convince him to have tea with me in Kingston before the show. We’re both poets. We’re both in recovery. We both endured Amherst, Massachusetts. We both have beards and western shirts. We’re both turning stranger. I re-immersed myself in his canon. I re-read Actual Air. He was the soundtrack to my every movement for a fortnight, as he had been the soundtrack to my twenties and thirties. I agonized over the questions, finally settling on using (read: stealing) Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood as a creative framework. I spoke at length with my buddy about how to word the questions, how to word the first email. I finally sent them off, ending the note with, “David: Thanks, truly and gratefully, for ‘Tennessee.’” Now they are just twenty questions lingering a forever incomplete essay, “The Return of the Silver Jew.” They—and I and it—are left dancing in the ether.

Purple Mountains contains some of his best work. It’s filled with what made me fall in love with Berman two decades ago: The idea that life is disappointment, heartache, and terror. But, fuck if you can’t dance to it. 

Does a nameless horse make you more or less nervous than a named horse? Have you had words stolen? Have you given them away? Does integrity lie in failure? Is this a tragedy or a comedy? Do human beings generally surprise or disappoint you? What about dogs? Is/are Purple Mountains the place after the blues? When did Minnie Pearl die? Are there songs you regret? How have you gotten stranger? Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance? Are you pleased with your life so far? Are you given to wonder if others are so pleased? Has anyone written the answer song to “Shiny Happy People”? Does any part of your character remind you of Mr. Rogers? Has someone you cared about ever said they “luff” you? Where are Smith and Jones today? Which year do you miss the most? If you’d known what it’d take to get where you are now, would you have chosen to? Does sobriety inspire as much as the romance of addiction suggests that substance inspires? Is there somewhere you’ve never been that feels like home? Are you still getting paid by the tear? What causes you to struggle, to writhe and twist and bend? Have we gone on like this long enough?

There’s one question I took out at the last second. I had asked, “Do you regret dying?” in reference to his suicide attempt in 2003. His interviews leading up this tour, this new album…he seemed OK. He seemed resigned to life, in all of its flaws and failings. But it was too personal, and who the fuck was I to ask something so severe? I’m glad I removed it.

I wish he could answer it today. I wish he could come back. It’s not a dream. It’s not even a nightmare. It’s the cruel reality of the world Berman so deftly captured in his work. There’s a stanza from “Self-Portrait at 28” that perfectly encapsulates this idea and the subtlety of his genius.

Do you remember the way the girls
would call out “love you!”
conveniently leaving out the “I”
as if they didn’t want to commit
to their own declarations.

I think about this stanza every day. Literally every, fucking, day—about how “love” is corrupted by its careless usage. And I resolve not to further adulterate the word with apathy. 

I love David Berman. And I miss him. FL