R.I.P. David Berman

An homage from Dowsers founder Sam Chennault: 

I’ve never written an obituary, and I’m not entirely sure where to begin, but I’ll start with what I know is true: David Berman is dead. Berman was a poet and the leader of the band the Silver Jews and, more recently, Purple Mountains. I’ve spent thousands of hours over the past 25 years listening to his songs and reading his poems. To say that his words and voice were beautiful, poignant, clever, funny, or any of the usual adjectives that I’ve used over the years to describe music feels wholly inadequate. More than anything, they were unflinchingly human and startling honest. They provided a window into a journey and a life that was difficult, and oftentimes incomprehensible and cruel.

Maybe he described it best: “Songs build little rooms in time/ housed within the songs design/ is the ghost the host has left behind/ to greet and sweep the guest inside.”

Berman was born in Virginia, not far from where I lived for a period of my life when I was younger. He was the son of an infamous Republican lobbyist, and he began making music in the early ‘90s. His first songs felt like a lark — the music equally appropriated noise rock and country, and they were ramshackle, disheveled, and sometimes formless. They oftentimes sputtered out without warning. But it was clear that he had a gift for conjuring images of liminal, ancient spaces. An early jewel: “Sin and gravity/ drag me down to sleep/ to dream of trains across the sea.”

Over the years, his songs took on more concrete forms. The track “Pretty Eyes” from the 1996 Natural Bridge was a turning point where he first understood the power he wielded. The song is a surrealistic, trickster slice of Americana that tells of  “little forest scenes and high school Halloweens.” In it, Berman declares “one of these days these days will end,” and relays a story of hosing down elephants in his backyard. These elephants are “ashamed of their size,” so he comforts them by telling them that they have “pretty eyes.” It’s a silly image on some levels, but there’s also an underlying tenderness to it, as there is with so much of his work. The last verse begins: “I believe the stars are the headlights of angels/ Driving from heaven to save us/ to save us/ Look in the sky/ They’re driving from heaven into our eyes.”

Berman was also a deeply troubled person. He spent many years addicted to crack cocaine, and, in 2003, he tried to kill himself in the same hotel room in Tennessee where Al Gore was holed up on election night 2000. He declared he wanted to die where the presidency died. In 2009, he temporarily quit music, saying that his father (the Republican lobbyist) was “a despicable man … a human molester … an exploiter…I thought that through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world…There needs to be something more.”

He would return from his self-imposed exile in 2019, recording under the moniker Purple Mountains. His work had become progressively darker — his voice grew warbly and broken, and he conceded that he’d been “humbled by the void.”  Even more alarmingly, was his line that “the dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.

It’s all very bleak, but there was always a hardwon hope. One of my personal favorite songs of his is “The Wild Kindness.” To an extent, the song is about entropy and decay. He relays that “Grass grows in the icebox/ and the year ends in the next room/ It is autumn and my camouflage is dying.” But the song ends with this image: “Four dogs in the distance/ Each stands for a silence/ Bluebirds lodged in an evergreen altar/ I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness…/And hold the world to its word.”

He was always fighting, trying to find an escape route from his family’s history, from his own addictions and mental issues, and from a world that was, at turns, absurd and cruel. I identified with this, as did many of the people whom I love and care deeply about. I thought that if Berman could negotiate these dark alleyways, and still produce works of such startling beauty, maybe there was hope for the rest of us. When I met him, I told him as much. I hope that meant something to him.

On August 7th, 2019, we found out that the worst had happened. Berman, in his own words, had been “playing chicken with oblivion,” and, this time, no one flinched. His last video was for a song called “All My Happiness is Gone.”  It’s lonely and ecstatic, and begins with Berman and his friends entering a cave. The last verse of the track will always be devastating:

It’s not the purple hills
It’s not the silver lakes
It’s not the snowcloud shadowed interstates
It’s not the icy bike chain rain of Portland, Oregon
Where nothing’s wrong and no one’s asking
But the fear is so strong, it leaves you gasping
No way to last out here like this for long

My friend texted me to let me know the news at 7:52 EST. Four minutes later, another person, someone who is one of the most important people in my life, also texted me, “I’m having such a hard time. Life is painful.” She’d never heard of Berman or the Silver Jews; life doesn’t always require a specific tragedy or death to be crushing.

I called her partner and found out that she was curled up, crying, mumbling that she wanted to “meet Jesus.” I asked to speak to her, and told her that she should get professional help, that a therapist would help her unpack and understand her past. She replied that her past — consumed with a dead child and lost dreams — was too heavy, and that she had no desire to revisit it. I asked to speak to her partner, and told him to hide the sleeping pills. Sometimes, this is the best advice you can give.

As I mentioned when I first began writing this, I’ve never written an obituary. You tell me, but maybe they should have a happy ending, or at least some nod toward redemption or celebration. I’ll try to provide that here. About a month ago, I lost someone whom I cared deeply about. They didn’t pass away, or disappear into drugs or alcohol; they simply stopped caring about our relationship and exited my life. I consoled myself with the knowledge that there was a new David Berman album, and this album contained more than just new songs from a master. It held 10 new friends, friends who would help carry the weight of mass shootings, dead children, failed relationships, and lonely bars, and they would go on and on and on. They will live forever.