David Berman has died at the age of 52 and his death leaves a hole. David Berman has died and the view we have of the world has lost some of its light and shade.
With his bands – the Silver Jews and, most recently, Purple Mountains – and in his 1999 anthology of poetry, Actual Air, Berman wrote and sang words both funny and sad, words that could skim across the surface and plunge down into the deep.
Often, from bar to bar or line-to-line, they were all of these things at the same time. Berman could write about a boy who was dedicating a song to his girl because “she was the light by which he travelled into this and that” and then move seamlessly to describing that boy’s brother, who was “missing that part of the brain that allows you to make out with your pillow”.
He could conjure up a whole culture in one image and then immediately skewer its tragedy. “Her doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster”, Berman sings in Silver Jews song “Tennessee”, referencing the 19th-century songwriter, before continuing: “Her sister never left and look what it cost her”.
The same song contains this: “Punk rock died when the first kid said, ‘punk’s not dead, punk’s not dead’”. Even on the page, Berman’s laconic Virginia accent came through, deep and musical, wry and weary. Observations that other writers would strain to come up with seemed to come to Berman almost as afterthoughts: "All this new technology / will eventually give us new feelings / that will never completely displace the old ones / leaving everyone feeling quite nervous / and split in two". He wrote that more than 20 years ago.
Silver Jews formed as the 1980s turned into the 1990s and in a sense, David Berman was very much a product of that decade’s indie rock scene, the one most obviously represented by Pavement, as fronted by his friend and collaborator Stephen Malkmus. Berman was ironic. He was self-effacing. Yet David Berman did something more with his art than offer up an artfully disinterested pose, in line with a 'slacker generation' mentality. The pain was shot through with wit. The wit was deepened by pain. He didn’t preach, but nor did he say that nothing meant anything.
In his grandest – and perhaps best – poem, the flawless “Self Portrait at 28” Berman addresses this struggle with meaning. “I am trying to get at something / and I want to talk very plainly to you / so that we are both comforted by the honesty”, he writes, and the rest of the poem is full of so many startlingly true observations and images that all I can do is tell you to read it, because if I don’t do that, I’ll just type out the whole of the poem and be done with it.
There was an ongoing dialogue in Berman’s art between the light and the heavy. If there is a fundamental critique of the scene from which he came, that loosely sutured Pavement scene, it’s that it floated in a world where nothing seemed to mean anything. The Silver Jews and the poems of David Berman weren’t like that. Berman himself carried a deep depression with him. His father, Richard Berman, was a lobbyist notorious even by Washington’s low standards for working with some of the worst people in the world: big oil, big tobacco. Berman had felt like he could craft a world in art that would release him from this inheritance but when he wound up Silver Jews in 2009 he said that this hadn’t been possible.
What he gave us was rich. Underneath the ironic distance and wry humour lay the deepest command of language and allusion, a poet of the American south clearing away the mist to reveal people and places as they truly are.
In 2006 I finally saw the Silver Jews play at the Scala in London. Afterwards we stayed out front as Berman moved among the crowd. He signed my ticket stub. My friend Jo was with me. She had brought a copy of a Cormac McCarthy novel with her for Berman to sign. It was appropriate, we thought: two American masters, two exponents of the Southern Gothic style, two artists who could see to the heart of things.
If he was nonplussed by the comparison, he didn’t show it. Jo managed to find her way backstage to talk to Harmony Korine. I sat on the now empty space and thought about how David Berman had been everything I expected him to be, with his tucked-in shirt, slender frame, ragged beard, wispy hair and glasses. He had stayed true to his vision. It was one of the reasons we loved him.
David Berman has died and we are left with his words and his music. We are left with the ability to see the world in myriad shades of light and dark, to find humour in our pain and pain in our humour, to see this world at a distance and to see it up close, so that it reaches far into you, so far that it hurts you as it lifts you up.