The Enigma of David Berman

Music Matters

The Enigma of David Berman

Posted by on Aug 20, 2019

Jeff McCord / KUTX Music Director

“The end of all wanting / is all I’ve been wanting.”

Photo: D.C. Berman

These lines, typical of David Berman’s wit and humor, found him picking up right where he left off a decade earlier.

The publicity ramp up to the album, Purple Mountains, was startling for fans accustomed to nothing from him but silence. There were features, interviews, and an actual tour, set to begin on August 10th.

But on August 7th, David Berman, the indie rock icon, poet, and songwriter, was found dead in a Brooklyn apartment, an apparent suicide. He was 52 years old.

From 1992-2008, through six albums and various EP’s with his band the Silver Jews, Berman remained a conundrum. He seemed a reluctant traveler on his own career path. He shunned publicity, his band didn’t tour until 2005, and then only sporadically. Yet he would spill intimate details about his life. He was open about his problems with alcohol, his plunge into drug addiction, and a 2003 suicide attempt. And when he abruptly stepped away from music in 2009, he left his fans shell-shocked and hungry for answers.

Stephen Malkmus, David Berman, and Bob Nastanovich from early Silver Jews days.

Born in Virginia, Berman went to high school in Addison, Texas. He formed the Silver Jews with University of Virginia college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich (whose other venture, Pavement, proved to be much more in sync with 90’s slackerdom. Berman came up with the title for their debut, Slanted and Enchanted). After two messy DIY Silver Jews EP’s, Berman went to Amherst for his masters. It was there he assembled the material for the band’s first album, 1994’s Starlite Walker. He would also log some below-the-radar time as an Austin resident in the mid-90’s.

Though the lineup for the Silver Jews constantly shifted, their recordings remained consistent. The music could best be described as a kind of fractured electric country – loose, shambolic, with Berman’s deep vocals always sounding like he almost forgot to record them. There were no real melodies to speak of.

Instead, there was this:

“In 27 years / I drunk 50,000 beers / and they just wash against me / like the sea into a pier.”

“Is the problem that we can’t see or is it that the problem is beautiful to me?”

“Moments can be monuments to you.”

 

Sharing similar world views, Berman was mentioned alongside Townes Van Zandt, but he wasn’t that inward-looking. Though both he and his fans might have balked at the comparison, Berman resembled, lyrically at least, a Gen X version of Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen: the same affinity for flawed characters, and the same knack of finding humor in the darkest of corners.

David Berman in 1988. Photo courtesy of Aaron Margosis

In his songs, eccentrics tried to weather life’s many setbacks. Often, they failed, other times they found reasons for hope. And there were the rare moments of unbridled joy. “Punks In The Beerlights”’ discarded couple screaming “I love you to the max!” Peopleunearthing mundane pleasures of everyday city life – a rainbow from a garden hose, sparks from a low-hanging muffler, the way everyone gravitates towards one another. “It’s sunny and 75 / It feels so good be alive.”

He topped Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s yin/yang ode with a “Dallas” of his own: “O Dallas you shine with an evil light / don’t you know that God stays up all night? / And how’d you turn a billion steers / into buildings made of mirrors / And why am I drawn to you tonight?”

Words fussed over, the kind that makes disaffected English majors giddy. And they adored Berman. Even his 1999 book of poetry, Actual Air, became a minor hit.

Photo: DC Berman

Berman didn’t believe any of it. “I’m not convinced I have fans,” he told a recent interviewer. As a cult artist emerging from ten years of self-imposed exile, he seemed to struggle to find his new place in the world.

2009 marked one of Berman’s upbeat periods. He was sober, happily married, finding a renewed interest in his faith. He had just released an almost sunny set of songs, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. So his retirement announcement came without warning. At first, it seemed like a characteristic put-on. “If I continue to record,” he wrote, “I might accidentally write the answer song to ‘Shiny Happy People’.”

It got stranger. Berman revealed his father to be Rick Berman, the zealous lobbyist for tobacco, soft drinks and union busting, once profiled by 60 Minutes and given the nickname “Dr. Evil.” “My father is a despicable man,” he wrote. “I decided that the SJs were too small a force to come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused. I’ve always hid this terrible shame from you.”

No one was sure what to make of this, but true to his word, the music came to a stop. Berman simply went away, and the ensuing silence made his cultivated myth grow even larger.

Only many years later, following a serendipitous email exchange with the Brooklyn band Woods, did the new Purple Mountains sessions begin. When word began to leak out that David Berman was back with a new album, there was palpable excitement.

Photo: DC Berman

On first listen, Purple Mountains seemed more musically focused, Berman’s vocals more urgent. But the anticipation obscured troubling signs. In the layoff, Berman’s long marriage had ended. His mother had passed away. There were rumors of mounting credit card debt.

And there were the songs – “Maybe I’m The Only One for Me,” “Darkness and Cold,” “All My Happiness Is Gone,” “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son.” While unmistakably his work, they were visceral, the hurt raw and on the surface. His strained faith in such a “subtle god” was impossible to miss. Berman’s ability to step outside his head and view life with a bemused detachment was always key to his appeal. Suddenly, he seemed surrounded.

And now he’s gone. The loss is tragic, and we are, once again, left with no answers. Only his words.

“I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion / Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in.”

Cover photo: Bobbi Fabian

Riders Against the Storm (RAS) Day 2019 8.13.19

Studio 1A Sessions

Riders Against the Storm (RAS) Day 2019 8.13.19

Posted by on Aug 15, 2019

Photo by Michael Minasi

Back for its 5th year is the one and only RAS Day Festival. Bringing together black musicians from all over the world for a day of community, consciousness, and a full-on CELEBRATION, Chaka and Qi Dada curate a unique line-up each year to match the very soul of the RAS movement. This year’s line-up includes Lavelle White, Eimaral Sol, Leikeli47, Madison McFerrin, the APX, M3cca, and more. RAS Day is THIS SATURDAY, AUGUST 17TH AT EMPIRE CONTROL ROOM AND GARAGE. Learn more about RAS Day in the full session below, check out some videos from the line-up, and get your tickets right here.

 

Dressy-est Your Bessy-est

Austin Music Minute

Dressy-est Your Bessy-est

Posted by on Aug 1, 2019

Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Hotel Vegas has become Austin’s reliable dive bar for touring cult-music stars (Thee Oh Sees and Mark Sultan AKA BBQ most recently), and their latest bill to bear this distinction happens TONIGHT as the East Side mainstay welcomes Denver’s Dressy Bessy bringing their bessiest-brand of indie rock. Joining them are Austin’s Lola Tried, Sailor Poon solo project Whit, and Poly Action. Let your rock n’ roll feathers fly loud and proud tonight at Hotel Vegas on East 6th. Get a bit o’ rock ‘n’ roll kick from the rest of tonight’s bill below!

-Taylor Wallace, Weeknight Host

Dinner Time with Creatures, Chaos…and the Ladies

Austin Music Minute

Dinner Time with Creatures, Chaos…and the Ladies

Posted by on Jul 31, 2019

If you’re looking for a little musical dopamine to pick you up from the midweek slump, Cheer Up Charlie’s has a blend of sounds tonight to help get you through. Stopping for their Austin date on tour are Atlanta indie rockers Dinner Time, joined by Austin’s Indoor Creature, Cosmic Chaos, and Sadie and the Ladies serving-up everything from synthpop to garage rock and more. Doors open at 9 for this show tonight at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Red River. Get a little bill sampling below!

-Taylor Wallace, Weeknight Host

Do you Fux With the Tux?

Austin Music Minute

Do you Fux With the Tux?

Posted by on Jul 30, 2019

It’s only Tuesday, but it’s time to party like it’s the weekend–and to be fair, maybe Tuesday is your weekend….The dynamic duo of Mayer Hawthorne and producer Jake One return to Austin tonight as the slick dance duo Tuxedo. They bring their disco-funk sounds to Empire Control Room & Garage tonight on Red River at 7th. Doors open at 6 for this night of sweaty-but-formal fun. No pressure, though! Tuxedos not required, but boogies shows encouraged! Shuffle-step-ball-change and Charleston all the over there.