I’ve been haunted by the ghost of David Berman for the past year. David Berman was haunted by the ghost of David Berman his entire life.
My brother and I have this running competition about bands we’ve seen that the other hasn’t. For years, my trump card was always Elliott Smith – I’d seen him, and my brother never would. Last year, after Berman took his own life, my brother said that now he had one on me. I’d never see the Silver Jews.
Shortly before his suicide, Berman put out a new album under the moniker Purple Mountains in July of 2019, his first in over a decade. It’s fucking good, nearly a perfect album. I remember reading reviews, all overwhelmingly positive, when I gave it the first few listens. They all spoke of renewal and hope. A representative interview in The Ringer concludes with, “He’s really going to try, to make and honour new connections with people. To do better.” I remember being confused; had they listened to the same album? The lyrics were bleak, even for Berman. Still, the positive slant was understandable. An artist hadn’t done anything for ages, and here he was, creating something wonderful, giving interviews, gearing up to go on tour again. The interview also contains the retroactively ominous quote, “I’m tired. I need to take a few risks. I can’t keep living like this.”
He died on August 7th.
It’s weird to consider the death of an artist a personal loss. It doesn’t have the same irrevocable impact that losing a loved one has, and there’s hubris in believing that you had some personal connection to an artist you’ve never met. But that’s the effect Berman’s music has on its listeners. Even if he isn’t singing in a way that speaks to your specific experience – it’s often hard to imagine with his absurdist and fabulist lyrics – but it always felt like he was singing to you.
Anyone who has experienced depression, real “the-walls-are-closing-in-and-things-are-incapable-of-getting-better” depression, understands that one of its worst characteristics is that it renders the sufferer unable to articulate that depression. Beyond a wordless yowl of impotence and pain, depression is genuinely hard to convey in a way that doesn’t smack of cliché. That was perhaps Berman’s incomparable gift: to give voice depression in a manner that felt concrete, both musically and lyrically. I heard someone on a podcast describe his lyrics as “hilarious and dire,” and that precisely captures what they were. That capacity to laugh at the absurdity of your situation, even as the devils of misery poke at you relentlessly with their pitchforks. I’m tempted to reproduce his lyrics in their entirety, but these few snippets will have to do.
I had always been a fan of the Jews, though I didn’t fully get into them until late in the game. My friend Zack initiated me into their deeper mysteries, and he was always baffled by why they weren’t more popular. Zack was convinced that Berman should have been an heir to Hank Williams, and a contemporary country pop-crossover success. While I agreed with the core of this sentiment, that Berman was deeply underappreciated, the answer seemed obvious: his music was too sad, his personality too unstable, his work too inaccessible. No one boot-scootin to “Achy Breaky Heart” was going to give Starlite Walker a listen in the early 90s. Of course, the idea of a wildly popular Berman is anathema and amusing at the same time.
A thought that has nagged me for the past year: was this part of Berman’s plan all along, to end his life after a final artistic hurrah, or was his death the result of a terrifying final despairing impulse, jumping out of the window to escape the perceived flames? Which answer is worse? Another David, Bowie, died not too long before, and his last album seemed littered with hints that the entire effort was a grand memento mori. Was this Berman’s equivalent, or was he simply a man who was “really going to try” who finally decided he couldn’t “keep living like this?”
I think of Tanglewood Numbers. Berman had tried his hand at suicide before, in 2003. The attempt, best recounted in this 2005 Fader interview, had some vaguely political overtones, with David saying he wanted “I want to die where the presidency died,” before collapsing in the Al Gore suite at the Loews Vanderbilt hotel. Tanglewood Numbers came out a few years later, sort of emerging from that experience. It sounds exuberant. “Punks in the Beerlight” expresses a relish for life, even when it “gets really, really bad.” When I compare it to Purple Mountains, that hope is completely absent, though Berman has disguised it impeccably with his wry humour.
Berman wrote a lot about America, the banal everyday evils we perpetuate, and the gnawing emptiness experienced by a people that have convinced themselves they have everything. Given his father’s political “professional antagonism,” and Berman’s disaffection for our current political situation, I can’t help but wonder how much the current situation resembled his earlier despair about democracy’s death. If the lyrics to “Margaritas at the Mall” are any indication, he’s ashamed to be here.
His mother died in 2016. He separated from his wife in 2019. Three years where, I imagine, “every single thought (was) like a punch in the face” for him. If Tanglewood Numbers was a comeback, Purple Mountains is a farewell. “A setback can be a setup, if you don’t let up, but this kinda hurtin won’t heal. The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting.”
Berman was spent. His actions spoke to me, and probably all of his fans, in the same way his music did. There’s a forlorn part of me that’s maybe a little jealous of him, or at least somewhat comforted that he’s not here to see our current strange days, with hundreds of thousands dead from a global pandemic, economic downturn, and galling anomie. It’s enough to break even the sternest soul.
David Berman shouldn’t be remembered just for the despair he faced in his final moments. He should be remembered for cultivating an incredible oeuvre in spite of that despair. When faced with the icy indifference, even hostility, of a hopeless universe, he wrote dozens of captivating, self-effacing and moving songs. With any luck, those songs will go on to inspire thousands of others to do the same. That’s what it means to be haunted by David Berman. I hope he continues to haunt me for years to come.
There are a million Silver Jews lyrics I could close this rambling thing out with: “failure’s got you in its grasp, And you’re reaching for your very last, It’s just beginning,” “On the last day of your life, don’t forget to die,” pretty much the entirety of “How to Rent a Room” and “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.” The email exchange mentioned in this miniature eulogy given by Jeffrey Lewis does a pretty excellent job of saying what needs to be said. So, go out there. Write a song. Kiss someone. Have a drink with a friend. Put on a Silver Jews album, and go haunt the world, and be haunted by the memory of David Berman.