Culture

David Berman (1967–2019)

Three writers pay tribute to the poet and songwriter David Berman, who passed away last week. Berman was the inimitable force behind the bands the Silver Jews and, most recently, Purple Mountains. His book of poems, Actual Air, was published by the books arm of the legendary Open City in 1999, and remains a cult classic.

David Berman Cassie Berman

STATIONS OF THE CROSSOVER

By Christian Lorentzen

There’s long been an urge to believe that rock ’n’ roll is, or can, or could, or should, be poetry. It was the impulse behind the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2016 to Bob Dylan, and it’s the reason we’ve seen lines by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell printed in the New Yorker as “poems.” But if you put Allen Ginsberg’s poems to music or read Dylan’s lyrics out as verse—or do the same with Delmore Schwartz and his protege Lou Reed—it’s still easy to tell the difference. David Berman was both a poet and a songwriter, a dual genius with a pair of masterpieces, the album American Water and the book Actual Air. There’s no denying that he peaked in the late 1990s, and his nearest rivals among musicians in verbal invention were his friend Stephen Malkmus and the Wu-Tang Clan. The landscape of Berman’s America is the one we know from our national myths, but it’s littered with debris of a distinct late-twentieth-century vintage: infrared deer, digital snakes, trousers held up by extension cords, duct-tape shoes, mustaches caked with airplane glue. When he asks, “Can you summon honey from a telephone?” you know the phone sat on the table, was beige, had cords and a rotary dial. It’s all the junk of a century of excess, the kind of stuff we’ve been eliminating from our lives for the past couple of decades, because, for one thing, it didn’t make any sense to look at: scraps of dingy plastic technology for a country full of warped people. Gen X hipsters of the ’90s and ’00s inhabited the fragments of a disintegrating postwar imperial culture. There seems to have been plenty David Berman loved about America—its songwriting tradition, its language—but plenty he hated and hated purely and accurately. It was a destructive and tacky form of greed that was embodied by his father, the evil lobbyist Richard Berman (subject of a long-planned Oedipal documentary he never made), and this loathing comes through in my favorite of his poems, “CXXVI,” one I’ve been quoting inaccurately from memory for twenty years that describes a certain subspecies of the population like this:

those horrible hucksters, sickening adults/hyenas who seem to have had their proteges on every Main Street, the men with perms, tight gray curls erupting over the alcoholic topography of their oiled faces, a legion of salesmen ruined by bad translations of an already disastrous California ideal, their eyes stinking like boiled cocktail onions as they emerged from “sleek” 1980 Thunderbirds, all marinated teeth and snowplow mustaches, fresh from invigorating divorces, dragging tawny S-shaped girlfriends by the wrist to wooden gargoyle waterbeds where stereo systems built into the headboards played “Eye in the Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project endlessly through the night.

Berman couldn't purge the country of the things he hated (no writer or singer could) but he left us with a magnificent kit of spells and antidotes.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in New York.

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IL MIGLIOR ETCETERA

By Justin Taylor

These words are meant to mark this day on earth. On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 7th, my friend Peter called to tell me that David Berman had died. He’d seen it on Twitter and a minute later so did I. Peter remembered the moment we were turned on to David: fall 2000, our freshman year of college, the party at Alicia’s sister’s house. Peter and Alicia were talking Pavement and it came out that he’d never heard of the Silver Jews so she walked over to the stereo and switched whatever was on to American Water. “That was it for me,” he said. He didn’t remember whether I was actually at that party and neither do I (tell you the truth, I’m a little hazy on who Alicia was, to say nothing of her sister) but for all intents and purposes that was it for me, too. Before long we had between us all the Silver Jews records then extant, and a copy of Actual Air, Berman’s only book of poems, published by Open City in 1999. Actual Air turns twenty this year, by the way, and Starlite Walker—the first Silver Jews record—turns twenty-five. I’m thirty-seven now. David was fifty-two.

There are lines of his that have run through my head every single day for so many years that they’ve left preserved tracks like Oregon Trail wagon ruts:

“Oh Lord, please come down from the mountain / Some of us are broke and having problems”

“Hedges formed the long limousine a Tampa sky could die behind” “and there is a new benzodiazepine called Distance”

“I want to wander through the night / As a figure in the distance even to my own eye”

Their power over me is totemic and endlessly generative, matched in potency only by certain Bible verses, Zürau Aphorisms, and Simpsons bits. To slightly misquote his poem “Governors on Sominex,” they are the light by which I travel into this and that. I’ve taken more from David than I could possibly account for here.

I revered him. He was aware of this and was gracious about it, though I suspect that the intensity of his fans’ adoration was hardly an unalloyed comfort to him. I know that if I had people in my life who occupied a similarly worshipful position to the one that I and others occupied in his, I would be ambivalent about it, about them. Luckily, as a non-once-in-a-generation-visionary and also a non-rockstar, this is one problem I’ve been spared.

I first met David in 2005, when I interviewed him about the new Joos album, Tanglewood Numbers. I wrote an essay about Actual Air in 2009, on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, and he sent me a generous note about said essay and we were in infrequent touch thereafter. He said kind things to me about my work a couple of times but I’m not going to quote him here; it would feel too ghoulish, like I was running for class president of his death. We last talked in May, via email. I had written him to offer congratulations on the new record, Purple Mountains, and the upcoming tour. I told him that my wife and I were going to be at his concert in Nashville, on August 17th, because my mom lives there and we’d planned a trip to visit her around the show. He seemed happy about that, and I was planning to follow up with him this week, maybe the 11th or 12th, I thought, to see if there’d be time for us to say hello in person. Instead it’s August 9th, Ticketmaster just emailed a confirmation that the refund for the concert tickets has posted to my Amex, and I’ve spent the last two days writing this.

“The meaning of the world lies outside the world,” David sings on “People,” on American Water. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but he wanted to believe that it could be true and most days so do I. If nothing else, it was true for him when he sang it and it’s true for me when I listen to him sing it. Same goes for “There is a place past the blues I never want to see again,” or, for that matter, “Birds of Virginia are flying within ya / Like background singers they all come in threes.” I haven’t said enough about how funny he was, a prolific phrase coiner and platitude renovator, a Rembrandt of the thumbnail sketch and Picasso of the pun. I haven’t been clear enough that his music is best enjoyed at high volume and on repeat, because it fucking rules. There are seven stellar records’ worth of country ballads and indie-rock rockers and sly slacker anthems and surreal shaggy dog yarns. The work varies in the transparency and directness—but never the purity or depth—of its intention, and there’s not a bad song in the bunch. Whatever else may have changed on August 7th, that didn’t, and it won’t. These words are meant to mark this day on earth.

Justin Taylor is the author of the novel The Gospel of Anarchy (Harper Perennial, 2011) and the story collection Flings (Harper, 2014).

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INSIDE THE GOLDEN DAYS

By Ed Park

I remember in college suggesting to a literary friend that Toni Morrison would last as long as Shakespeare. He dismissed this out of hand. I’m not sure I even believed it myself. Thirty years later, I think, Why not?

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The morning after David Berman’s death at fifty-two, which comes a day after news of Toni Morrison’s death at eighty-eight, the sky is clear and the air is cool. I walk my kids to soccer camp in the park. We enter at 97th, near the back of a building where I used to live, a mid-1990s boardinghouse situation. My younger son is asking me to list all the places I’ve lived in New York. There’s 119th, I say, for one summer, then 105th, 112th, 98th for two years, then down to 83rd…

I sound about a million years old. Sometimes I miss those days. But then I remember, I spent so much time alone, reading weird books, playing guitar, listening to the radio. There wasn’t even the internet, at least not for me, though I did have a dial-up modem on 83rd, in the smallest apartment known to man. The rent was $600, up about $200 from the boardinghouse situation on 98th.

Which reminds me: The night before, after the news broke, I opened a cabinet where I knew some CDs were stashed, and the top one was The Natural Bridge. I no longer have a CD player, so I just read the lyrics like I would read a little book, singing them in my mind. The first song was “How to Rent a Room.”

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In the room I rented on 98th, WFMU’s signal came in pretty clearly, and I listened to it obsessively. I heard a lot of great things for the first time, songs where I couldn’t wait till the DJ got on so I could write down the name of the artist. One of these was “Old New York,” a lounge song that was perpetually on the brink of falling apart, a word-picture at once sardonic and sincere. I paid attention right from the start, when Joe Namath has a cameo, and listened spellbound as two drowsy yet ecstatic crooners sang a love letter to the city, seemingly making it up as they went along.

You can get your big chestnuts on Times Square

Take your lady back to your midtown lair

I was sputtering with laughter, as lines were bleated, abandoned. The volume was all over the place, but there were no mistakes, as in a dream. It was a perfect evocation of my current spatial-temporal-emotional coordinates, Gotham in winter, “when the snow is pouring down,” a jolly, jolly place indeed.

It made me feel really good. The song was attributed to “Silver Jews and Nico,” which made me laugh. On a lunch break the next week, I stopped by Other Music and found the record, a split single. I didn’t have a turntable, but I still needed to have the physical object. In those days it was important to have a record of something you might never hear or see again otherwise.

Chrysler Building will never fall down

As long as you frequent the bars in this town…

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In the years following the publication of Berman’s Actual Air, I’ve periodically declared it my favorite book of poetry. This doesn’t generate controversy on the order of Morrison/Shakespeare. It’s just a declaration of love. At any time in the past twenty years, I could have said this and meant it: I want to write like David Berman.

The night before, I couldn’t find my copy of Actual Air. Then my sister texts me that I lent it to her years ago. (This might have been after writing about his book of drawings, The Portable February.) The sign of a favorite book is its absence from your shelf. I’ve gone long spells without Speedboat and The Names and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

I have this plan to drive up to my sister’s place later that night, one of my kids in tow, and have him go up and get Actual Air while I wait in the car.

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Walking north, I email back and forth with my friend Ryan Walsh as I move through the cool reaches of the park. Seemingly every person I know, and even many I don’t, had a deep connection to Berman’s work, but none more so than Ryan. (I’ll leave it to him to tell that story.) Ryan wrote the best piece on Van Morrison that I’d ever read, which excited me so much I hounded him to write a book, called Astral Weeks. While writing Astral Weeks, Ryan wrote the best article on the Silver Jews I’d ever read, which, if I could have cloned myself, I would have begged him to turn into another book. (That’s some free advice for you book editors out there.)

Years ago, Ryan’s first band recorded a song-for-song cover of The Natural Bridge, just to feel what it was like. It makes me think of Hunter S. Thompson retyping The Great Gatsby.

A few days before David Berman died, Ryan had sent me the files for the new album he finished with his band, Hallelujah the Hills. It’s called I’m You. Berman had a new album too. He was planning a tour, and Ryan and his band were all planning to drive from Boston to Kingston to see their friend and mentor kick off his great return to music.

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The park feels especially beautiful and so does the street. It feels timeless. Back on Broadway, I walk by my old place on 105th, my old place on 112th. Lost in my thoughts and my emails, I overshoot the bookstore that is my aim this morning. (I need a birthday card for my mom.) I go back to 113th, but though the sign says it opens at nine, there’s no one inside. I go to a different store one block down. The music makes my heart sink: It’s David Berman. I don’t recognize the song, but the voice nails me to the floor. One clerk says to the other, “Did you hear about David Berman?”

The other clerk, no older than twenty-five, says, “I hate to be mean, but I’m surprised he lasted that long.”

I spend fifteen minutes at the card carousel, as if some of the mediocre offerings will transform into good ones. My mom is turning seventy-five and most of the cards look like they’re for kids.

I basically never talk to strangers, but I said, “It’s so sad about David Berman.” I ask if they have Berman’s Actual Air. He looks it up. I know that the Open City edition is out of print, but maybe if the Drag City reissue is there, I’ll just buy it.

“No,” he says, “but we ordered a whole bunch this morning.”

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When I first saw a picture of Berman in the run-up to the Purple Mountains release, I thought it was Jarvis Cocker.

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From Berman’s Reddit AMA, done just twenty-four days ago:

jackkoral13: What’s your biggest lyrical regret, and what will your gravestone say? Thank you, I’ve missed your music all these years!

dcberman: So many. It hit me just recently that in the first 4 lines i rhyme myself with myself! That was not something i intended to do! I FUCKED up on the opening lyric of the opening song though i had pored over it for months- I had to laugh. I was “crestfallen” until i thought of the mirroring themes mentioned elsewhere, and was able to rationalize it as a great mistake.

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I’m not very social these days but I’m meeting my friend Ed for lunch. That’s not a literary device. (“An evening train is a literary device.” —Actual Air) I really am friends with a writer named Ed, with whom I share a writing office. We’re never there at the same time—it’s too small—and thus we rarely see each other.

We meet at an Indian restaurant that claims it’s the oldest Indian restaurant in the city. There’s a mirror behind Ed.

I’m you.

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At dinner, one of my kids asks me: “Would you rather live forever or have a normal life?”

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After dinner, the sky turns confusing, one huge dark boulder of a cloud in a sky still orange at the edges, like a study for a Magritte. The plan to retrieve Actual Air gets modified as I walk to my car. My sister and her boyfriend, it turns out, are going to drive down to my neighborhood for dinner, and they’ll bring the book. While we’re talking, it starts to rain.

“I’m wrapping it in a bag,” she says.

“OK, I’ll wait inside my building.”

By the time they pull up, there’s a two-foot river at the curb. I take off my socks and shoes to step across. To the casual observer it would look like some sort of larcenous exchange, with one party delicate about his footwear.

“It’s just poems,” I’d say, as the cops lead me away. “It’s just the best poems I’ve ever read.”

The cops would read the poems, and—I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

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I read Actual Air deep into the night. I remember who I was as a reader back in 1999. I remember reading “Self-Portrait at 28” at twenty-nine. The effortless mystery, like he had pulled out all the things I liked from Richard Brautigan’s poems and funneled them through everything I liked about Ashbery’s, to come up with something I liked better than either.

Finding the absurd grandeur in the charm of 5:30, the community college in the rain.

There were cryptic mythologies at play that rhymed with the other big book for me at the time, Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. And there were stretches of beauty that he punctured perfectly, like the poem that ends with a junebug landing on a curtain: “The purple curtains on her right. My left, her right.” The pop culture found within was wonderfully democratic—Isaac Asimov, James Michener, “Eye in the Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project—and the epigrams took your breath away: Souvenirs only remind you of buying them.

Poems only remind you of reading them.

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In the same cabinet as The Natural Bridge, I find some old 7”s, including “Old New York.” The receipt is still inside. It looks like I bought the Spinanes album Manos on the same day. The total came to $11.94.

I laugh because my memory is off: I did not hear the song on some winter’s day, but in October. It couldn’t have been snowing as I listened to the Silver Jews for the first time, in that boardinghouse situation on 98th Street. The music had cast a spell, conjured an entirely different weather, a portable February.

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I remember that when I worked at The Believer, we ran a half dozen poems by Berman, sometime in the first couple years of its existence. I think the idea was to have one poet write for every issue. Anne Carson was the first, and then Berman, and then maybe the idea was finished. (Apologies if there was a third or fourth poet to be so regularly featured.) I’d totally forgotten.

My old issues are all in my writing office that I share with the Other Ed, but recently the archives have moved online. I look them up and I like them all. They make me laugh, like this definition from “A Parkersburg Vocabulary”:

Galsworthy Rideout (gals-wurthy rye-dout) n. A locally-built electronic circuit that allows pinball machines to speak in contractions.

Has there been a great artist as funny?

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Now it’s the next day. My young son is singing something in the other room as he prepares to do combat with his older brother. I’m immediately suspicious. I strain to catch the words: Every time I’m legally high / I see myself in the moonlight.

It turns out to be a lyric from a parody song on YouTube about the soccer player Raheem Sterling, but for a moment I think it’s a Berman lyric.

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I make some oatmeal and read the Times. (I realize I sound older than my mom.) There’s a David Berman checklist, capsules capturing what’s so great about a handful of his songs. Below the fold is an article on a trove of Kafka papers.

I say to myself: David Berman will last as long as Kafka.

Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days (Random House, 2008).