Reflections on the untimely passing of the Silver Jews' frontman.
A while ago I was at a party when I saw a stranger’s lock screen from across the room. It was a picture of a man with a receding hairline wearing aviator glasses and sitting, slouching, in a red chair. I asked, though just to confirm what I already knew, "who's that on your phone?" It was David Berman, mercurial frontman of the Silver Jews and then, for a short time, Purple Mountains. I've been a fan of Berman's work since 2008, when I was sixteen years old. I bought the Silver Jews’ CD Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea and listened to it endlessly for months. Then I went back and got all their other albums, and then I looked on in horror as David announced he was retiring from music to take up “muckraking.” There was a time when I would have told you the Jews were my favorite band, or maybe second favorite, after The Hold Steady, or third, after The Mountain Goats. But no, in the summer of 2008 they were my favorite. I loved them better than anyone else. This is the kind of thing you tell yourself when someone you loved dies.
"Someone you loved." Typing that phrase feels melodramatic, but it’s also true. The Silver Jews were one of those bands that inspired fanatic devotion. At that party, the stranger and I talked about David Berman for a long time, until, eventually, the conversation devolved into both of us just quoting our favorite lines back and forth, feeling good to be feeling his words in our mouths. Silver Jews songs got scratched into our souls, and it felt good to run our fingers over the grooves. David’s lyrics were weird, surreal, often intentionally dumb. David Foster Wallace wrote a lot, before his suicide, about how depression feels like being trapped in your own head. And Berman had a way of trapping you in there with him. This sounds very un-fun, but it wasn't. What I mean to say is something like this: David Berman wrote lyrics that sounded like the thoughts you think when no one's listening. I've read that he never quite believed he had fans, and I get this. How could you write like that if you knew you had an audience?
I had a friend, his name was Marc with a C. His sister was like the heat coming off the back of an old TV.
And I want to be like water, if I can, cause water doesn't give a damn.
Like like the the the death. Air, crickets, air, crickets, air crickets, air, crickets, air.
What kind of animal needs to smoke a cigarette?
And of course, the one, the line people talk about, the one they get tattoos of:
In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.
Why does that last line cut so deep for so many people? I think it has to do with its surreality. Berman took ordinary objects and experiences and made them weird in a way that felt true. This is what art is, some people say. "I was hospitalized," the passive voice never clearer. People don't say, "I was hospitalized," when it's kidney stones. But the last part, "for approaching perfection," captures a certain euphoria that characterizes suicidal ideation. If nothing else, suicide promises an end to pain (for you, at least, a distinction Berman was keenly aware of.).
If it's not clear by now, David Berman killed himself. I'm trying to figure out what this means for me, and what it means for his music. Is it possible to separate the artist from the art? If so, would we even want to? And if not, have these songs become suicide notes? Were they always that?
It also occurs to me, writing this, that this isn't the first time I've written about David Berman and depression. In 2018, Scott Hutchinson died, and I wrote a post on Facebook that included this:
It's also important to remember, though, that depression isn't a story with only one ending. Not everyone with depression will try to kill themselves, and not everyone who tries will die. One person who didn't die was David Berman.
I wrote about his song "There is a Place," in which he sings,
There is a place past the blues I never want to see again.
The context of the song is that David tried to kill himself in 2003. He didn't die, and the experience brought him closer to God. David became a serious practitioner of Judaism. In the song, he sings, “I saw God's shadow on this world" over and over again, like a prayer, like there are no words that more closely express what he's trying to say. He's trying to say that mystic experiences don't change the world, but they do change you. The scales fall from your eyes, and you see the world anew. You see, for the first time, God's shadow.
Part of what David Berman's music meant to me was that you could be severely depressed (David called it "treatment-resistant depression") and somehow still . . . not die. With the right combination of religion and art, you could beat depression. There was something bracing yet comforting in listening to lyrics about "smok(ing) the gel from a fentanyl patch" and knowing the guy who sang it was okay. Alive, at least. These stories were compelling to me because they let me get close to the void without getting sucked in. It took David's death to make me realize how selfish I had been. I had used someone else's pain to make myself feel safe. If he could make it, said I, dumbly, then obviously I can.
This would all be easier if David didn't release an album last year. The last Silver Jews album was in 2008, and if he'd then died eleven years later, there would be a certain plausible distance: a lot can happen in eleven years. But he didn’t just fade away. His album Purple Mountains, his first with a new band, came out on July 12th, 2019. His body was found on August 7th. I had tickets to see him on September 1st.
This album is, and I'm just going to stipulate this, his masterpiece. His lyrical skill is completely undiminished, but he's gone through a transformation common to many songwriters approaching middle age. He got simpler, more direct, less clever. It's the difference between Born to Run and Born in the USA, between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Or, if you will, and David was a poet, between The Waste Land and Four Quartets. At the same time, his rhyme schemes become knottier and more virtuosic, his singing better, his arrangements gorgeous and grand. It's also impossible to deny that this album was written by a man in pain.
The album starts like this:
Well I don't like talking to myself
But someone's gotta say it, hell,
I mean things have not been going well
This time I think I've finally fucked myself!
His voice jumps several steps on "fucked myself," and it’s funny, and you laugh, and then you stop laughing.
You see, the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day, I'm neck and neck with giving in
I’m the same old wreck I've always been.
The backing band is doing a sort of Stones-in-'68 country stomp, and there it is again: depression and euphoria, both at the same time. It's thrilling to hear writing that good, to get hit with unexpected mid-line rhymes. "Sicken" is rhymed with "chicken" and then almost with "oblivion," which makes you think he's paid off the rhyme, but then he brings it back again, playing off the "eck” sound in "neck and neck" and "same old wreck" while returning to the "sickening/oblivion" slant rhyme for "giving in" and "always been." It's the kind of verse that would sound good to someone who doesn't know a word of English, the rhythmic density reminding me more of The Notorious B.I.G. than, like, Bonnie Prince Billie.
This combination of lyrical virtuosity and soul-baring confessionalism characterizes the whole album. Formally, its a rebuke to the idea that honesty has to mean long shapeless lines that eschew rhyme, enjambment, assonance, or metaphor in an attempt to make a song sound like a monologue (looking at you, Mark Kozelek). On a song called "Margaritas at the Mall," he sings:
How long can a world go on under such a subtle God?
How long can the world go on with no new word from God?
See the plod of the flawed individual looking for a nod from God
Trodding the sod of the visible with no new word from God.
It reminds me of San Juan de la Cruz, who wrote:
¡Oh noche que me guiaste!
¡oh noche amable mas que el aluorada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!
In both, the same delight in technique, the same over-powering darkness. Juan's "night more lovable than the dawn" would have been familiar to David Berman. But so would his "lover and beloved, beloved in love transformed."
The thread of love runs through Purple Mountains. There are a few songs that seem to be about his disintegrating marriage. Some have complained that his wife Carrie comes off one-dimensional in these songs, and maybe that's true, but I prefer to think of these songs as intentionally iconographic, the "beloved" of de la Cruz rather than Carrie Berman specifically. Maybe I'm fooling myself. David sings:
The light of my life is going out tonight,
as the sun sinks in the west.
The light of my life is going out tonight,
with someone she just met.
Berman guides you toward the double meaning of "light of my life," both an expression of inner happiness and a cliché term of endearment. Upon his death, I heard a third meaning, not the light that illuminates my life, but the light that is my life. In this reading, "going out" can only mean one thing.
There's one song in particular on the album that encourages you to read it as a suicide note. On "Nights that Won't Happen," he sings:
This world is like a roadside inn and we're the guests inside
And death is a black camel that kneels down so we can ride
And when the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.
The second time he sings that last line, he hits the words particularly hard, like he's trying to shake his listener off of him; like he's trying to insist, a little cruelly, that you let him go. When I heard the news of his death, I immediately thought of this song. "He told us," I said.
But in an interview before his death, Berman explained the song another way:
Vish Khanna: I view this as your philosophical take on death. “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind / All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” This song is related, I assume, to the loss of your mother.
David Berman: Yeah, yeah, her and a few friends. It’s a burn-the-bridges-type song, and there’s probably some anger in it too. But it’s like the early years of your marriage, when you have all of these hopes and dreams, and then thinking about what won’t happen with someone because they’re dead or you’re separated.
So, at least in Berman's telling, it's a song about his own grief, not his depression. When he says, "The suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind," he's comforting not us but himself, telling himself that wherever his beloved mother is now, she isn't in pain. But then, why does he mention his marriage (clearly his, not "your" marriage)? The darkest reading of this song is that it's written specifically to Carrie Berman, telling her that he's not long for this world. Even this reading, though, opens the possibility of some compassion along with the admitted anger. After all, he's telling whoever the song is addressed to that, as he says elsewhere in the song, "the dead will be all right." If it's a suicide note, it reminds me of Virginia Woolf's note to her husband Leonard. She writes:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer.
To live with severe depression is to live in constant fear of yourself. Appearances to the contrary, most depressed people, even the ones who die by suicide, don't want to die. They just don't want to live in pain. It shouldn't take suicide to make us realize that someone is suffering, especially when they tell us, time and time again, for decades. When I was in high school I kept a morbid mental list of which of my favorite songwriters had killed themselves and how: Kurt, gunshot to the head, Elliott, knife wounds to the chest, Nick, overdose of antidepressants (that last one, I mean, dude). All of these people wrote songs that sounded different to people after they died, but they really shouldn't have. It was all there: the pain, the despair, the rage. We should have listened. And not because it's our duty as fans to save our favorite rock stars, but because it's unhealthy as depressed people to pin our hopes for recovery on musicians we don't, in the end, actually know. David Berman's death shocked me, but only because I had come to rely on his survival as a sort of talisman. As long as David Berman was alive, I could believe that depression wasn't a death sentence. Berman's music encouraged this sort of too-close identification. I felt like I was inside his head, but I wasn't. Art is only ever a third thing, an artifact placed between two people. It's never actually what we want it to be, a way for two people to become one.
Did David write the songs on Purple Mountains knowing he was about to die? I don't know. We can't know. But we can know this: those songs were written by someone struggling mightily against despair. That was as clear on July 12th as it was on August 7th.
Andy Boyd is a playwright based in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of the playwriting MFA program at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Arizona School for the Arts. His plays have been produced, developed or presented at IRT, Pipeline Theatre Company, The Gingold Group, Dixon Place, Roundabout Theatre, Epic Theatre Company, Out Loud Theatre, Naked Theatre Company, Contemporary Theatre of Rhode Island and The Trunk Space. Andy is the primary host of the New Books in Performing Arts podcast, and his essays have been published in HowlRound, US History Scene and Canyon Voices. His website is AndyJBoyd.com.
Milicent Fambrough is a contemporary artist and writer from San Antonio, Texas. You can see more of her work @milicent210.