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

The Cure For Festival Phobia

Music Matters

The Cure For Festival Phobia

Posted by on Jul 29, 2019

Jeff McCord / KUTX Music Director

ACL Fest 2014 / Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon for KUTX

One of the nation’s largest music festivals, the Austin City Limits Fest, returns to Zilker Park in a few months. This year they’ve got Mumford and Sons, Tame Impala, Guns N’ Roses, and Cardi B among the headliners. Big names, sure, but there’s not much synergy among them. For some seasoned festivalgoers, the thought of enduring the huge crowds, obstacle courses of folding chairs and overworked porta-potties is not appealing. You want to see Thom Yorke, but in bright daylight from hundreds of yards back, all while Billie Eilish reverberates nearby?

There’s no doubt the all-things-to-all-people model provides much excitement and fills a huge space for multiple weekends. Founded in 2002, and expanding to two weekends in 2012, ACL Fest has shown no signs of slowing down. But moments of unity like Paul McCartney’s adored sets last year are rare. You need to focus and move around a lot to find your moments.

ACL Fest is staged by Austin’s C3, as is Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park (estimated annual attendance at 450,000 and 400,000 respectively). California’s Coachella is even larger (est. 600,000). But not every festival aspires to these numbers. As the mega-fests have proliferated, so have smaller niche events. Events of this kind have always been around. With a lack of headliner budgets, they’re targeted and developing artist-centric. And hand-to-mouth; some make it, some don’t.

Utopia Fest 2016 / Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon for KUTX

Austinites have always had a lot of these choices – every few weeks there’s one popping up on the calendar. There’s the long-running Americana-themed Old Settlers, nearby camping-heavy alternatives like the Kerrville Folk Festival and Utopia Fest. And those that have come and gone – Aqua Fest, which in its early days featured speedboat races, and brought a lot of star acts to the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The alt-rock heavy Fun Fun Fun Fest took over the same site for its last few years, 2011-2015.

Music fans have options like this wherever they live, festivals that offer a sense of unity and purpose. Everyone is there because they like the same things – you can roam and enjoy without fear of culture shock, in a much more chill environment.

Of Montreal at Psych Fest 2013 / Mary Kang for KUTX

A communal experience I will never forget was attending Austin Psych Fest. Psych Fest was started by Austin’s Black Angels, and has since morphed into Levitation. Levitation holds not only an annual 4-day event in Austin clubs In November (this year will feature the Flaming Lips and John Cale among its headliners), but also stages a festival in France.

For their first couple of years, though, Psych Fest was shoestring. In 2011, they took a big leap, moving from the Mohawk into the then empty downtown Seaholm Power Plant, and greatly expanding the lineup of bands. The cavernous structure created an otherworldly environment. Wild lights and weird projections strobed everywhere, as each band tried to outdo the strangeness of the one that came before them. Everyone there had a “can you believe this?’ look on their face. It was as if we’d all been dropped on another planet.

Most music festivals work alike. One price to get in, watch what you want, stay as long as you want, leave. But when artist curation and unique settings work closely together, it can create a kind of magic. Take in point two festivals I attended this year.

Big Ears Festival 2019

The Big Ears Festival, which celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 2019, is held in sleepy Knoxville Tennessee’s clubs and theaters. I’d been meaning to go for years, but the event is held immediately after SXSW – not ideal in my book. This year’s event featured the likes of Nils Frahm, Nik Bartsch, Makaya McCraven, Meredith Monk, Thumbscrew, Harold Budd, David Torn and Sons Of Kemet. Haven’t heard of them? That’s kind of the point. But for curious fans of brave, experimental music, Big Ears is nirvana. If you’re lucky, live in the right place (or happen have a brave promoter like Austin’s Epistrophy Arts), you might catch a handful of these kinds of shows a year. Big Ears features four days of them, plus art exhibits, panels, and a smattering of better-known acts (Richard Thompson, Spiritualized, Bill Frisell and Carla Bley were also on the 2019 bill). There was also an overnight 13-hour drone concert. I expected a small throng of effete snobs wandering from one dive bar to another. Instead, the large, diverse crowds (est, 15,000 to 20,000 a year) spread over the revitalized city were electric with excitement. Where else can you find a line stretched around the block for the Art Ensemble Of Chicago?

If artist-curated playlists are your thing, there’s a festival for that, too. Put together by Wilco, Solid Sound takes place in early summer. From the start, the founders played it smart. Set in the picturesque small town of North Adams MA, the museum whose grounds host the festival, Mass MoCA, is worth going to see on its own. Housed in a sprawling, refurbished 19th century mill, it’s a premier modern art facility (Stunning exhibits from James Turrell and Laurie Anderson were up during the fest). Wilco keeps Solid Sound small and manageable, only a few outdoor stages and museum shows. (Attendance figures for 2019 haven’t been released, but estimates ranged as high as 10,000. North Adams’ population is only 17,000). The closest thing this year to another headliner was Courtney Barnett. The fervent church of Wilco fans is there en masse, enjoying Jeff Tweedy’s band and their eclectic side-project offspring. But they’re also checking out fringe acts like Lithics, Wand, Mdou Moctar and Lonnie Holley. Musicians intermingle: Barnett sat in with Wilco, the Minus 5 were joined by Pete Buck, Mike Mills and Steve Wynn, Jeff Tweedy sang with the Feelies. And because everyone there made some effort to get to an out-of-the-way festival that only happens every other year, it feels exclusive and joyous.

Themed gatherings like this exist virtually everywhere, for every kind of music. (In Europe, many are publically funded). While many are drawing large crowds, they’re still only a fraction of what the mega-fests need to survive. If you’re thinking you’re done with the outdoor music experience, take some time to shop around. The alternate universes these events create, if only for few days, can be intoxicating, and just the thing for festival burnout.