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David Berman Returns

The reclusive Silver Jews front man has reappeared after nearly 10 years in the wilderness with new songs and a vow to beat back the demons and defeat the man who has haunted him his entire life

David Berman, frontman for the Silver Jews Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It could have been a country song: On Valentine’s Day, David Berman said goodbye to his wife and left Nashville for the edge of the world. He drove to Miller Beach, Indiana, east of Gary on Lake Michigan. Nelson Algren, the famous chronicler of seediest midcentury Chicago, lived in Miller Beach once, and an alley and a small museum pay tribute to him now. That February, Berman could’ve passed for an Algren character: heartbroken and solitary in an offseason summer cottage, all his demons howling.

This was 2018, about 30 years since he inaugurated Silver Jews, a dorm-room band that was mostly a chance to display his plainspoken, imagistic poetry and mess around with a couple of college friends. And it was about 10 years since he’d ended that project, leaving a legacy of six increasingly professional-sounding albums that are as meaningful and closely cherished for certain indie rock fans as any music since the 1990s.

Berman was the sole continuous member of the “Joos,” as he often called them, and the group’s defining instrument was his half-spoken, adenoidal baritone. He wrote fractured, jangly songs using only cowboy chords—the basics at the end of the neck—but adorned them with couplet after couplet of bumper-sticker philosophy:

There’s a trapdoor in the country where we can disappear.
These giant evergreens are a promise redeemed
Let’s walk down the glassy top of a frozen pasture stream
Our minds can dream like soda machines

And strip-mall surrealism:

I’m drunk on a couch in Nashville
In a duplex near the reservoir
And every single thought is like a punch in the face
I’m like a rabbit freezing on a star

Silver Jews fans carry Berman lines in our heads like fond memories: “The dead do not improve.” “You’re a tower without the bell / You’re a negative wishing well.” “In 1984, / I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” Lately I’ve been thinking about “Trains Across the Sea,” from 1994: “In 27 years / I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers / And they just wash against me / Like the sea into a pier.”

The Jews’ disbandment was a surprise when Berman announced it in early 2009. For most of his public life, he had forgone interviews and refused to tour. But in 2004, after a period of drug addiction, he was newly sober, recently converted to Judaism, and buoyed by the support of his wife, Cassie, who was playing bass and singing on his records. Berman toured for the first time following his 2005 record, Tanglewood Numbers, then again after 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. One of indie rock’s most reclusive and inscrutable figures finally looked something like a traditional musician. Then, just as quickly, he was gone again.

In Miller Beach in 2018, he was separated from Cassie, isolated from the audience he’d only started to know, exiled from the city he’d called home since 1999. He had a batch of new songs but no band, and no permanent place to live.

Barely 18 months later, those struggles are seemingly behind him. Purple Mountains, the self-titled debut of his new project, comes out on July 12, and is the brightest-sounding, most accessible record David Berman has ever made. He’ll be touring again in the summer and fall. And despite a years-long writing process, his new lyrics are positively straightforward. That directness is the biggest difference between Silver Jews and Purple Mountains. His earlier band may have sounded like an art-school country group, but his new songs could have appeared on Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings records 40 years ago.

So, another comeback! Like the Pixies or Sebadoh, Berman is the latest middle-aged cult musician to reconnect with an audience who grew fonder of the artist in their absence. There’s a fair chance this will be the most successful year David Berman has ever lived. But look at those new song titles: “All My Happiness Is Gone,” “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me,” “Darkness and Cold.” Part of him always yearns, against his better judgment, for that freezing, empty beach town. Part of him always feels like a pier, battered by the sea.

The Drag City Records office occupies one half of a former Polish social hall in West Chicago, on a block that’s now mostly fast food and body shops. Modest property for one of the recent jewels in Chicago’s long history of independent music labels, from Chess to Trax to Thrill Jockey. Drag City’s purview is a strain of dry, defiantly anticommercial rock music with a foot in the city’s experimental scene. Their catalog is full of heady loners like Jim O’Rourke, Will Oldham, and Joanna Newsom, who are so thoroughly iconoclastic as writers and artists that it’s amazing a community could be built from such people. But it has been. Drag City, which turned 30 years old in 2019, is still independent and run by its cofounders, and still releasing records from artists who have been with the label the entire time.

David Berman is one of those artists. Berman’s musical college friends, the ones who made the first Silver Jews recordings, happen to be Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who went on to found Pavement. Drag City put out an early Pavement 7-inch and Malkmus passed the Berman demo to label co-owner Dan Koretzky, who offered to produce and release the sessions that became Starlite Walker, their debut. Drag City has released every note of Berman’s music ever since, and this spring the label reissued his acclaimed book of poetry, Actual Air, which was originally published in 1999 and sold more than 20,000 copies—a Marvel-like number in the world of indie poetry presses. Drag City owns the Miller Beach house and a small room above the office in Chicago, which has allowed Berman to live rent-free as he pieced together his artistic and personal life over the past year and a half.

I arrived in late afternoon, having told the label that Berman could call the shots: He could take me anywhere, show me anything, as personal or as benign as he preferred. All I wanted was for him to feel comfortable, and to tell me about these new songs. I was led through the small, merch-strewn offices and into a narrowing hallway around back, up some winding stairs, and to a white door in a white corridor with a hazy skylight.

He welcomed me into an apartment that was barely big enough for him to stand upright. It was only a tiny bedroom and a separate bathroom, but he had filled the walls with dollar-store junk—a plastic lobster, bead kits, a toy gun that shoots a “BANG” flag. The sole window had been covered up with a cardboard Drag City sign. Next to a small desk stood a music stand with Berman’s lyrics in a binder, and a three-quarter-size acoustic guitar. He offered me a seat in a chair at the foot of his bed, then laid down on the magenta blanket and bright-red husband pillow. The wallpaper behind his head showed an endless ocean horizon.

He was nervous, he said. It was only 50 days until the tour started, 40 until rehearsals. He had to pick Joos songs to play and couldn’t decide which.

“What do you think?” he asked. On the music stand were the lyrics to “How to Rent a Room,” a sort of contemporary murder ballad from 1996 that climaxes with a man leaving town after a crime, shouting “Read the Metro section / See my name.”

Berman said said he’ll be performing eight of the new album’s 10 tracks, which got him talking about the new songs, his new approach, the openness. And somehow a minute later he was talking passionately about Johnny Paycheck, the ne’er-do-well belter most famous for “Take This Job and Shove It.”

“It’s unbelievable how disrespected he is,” he said. “And it’s because of ‘Take This Job,’ which became like the country-music ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’ I love him.”

Why?

“I don’t know. He wasn’t much of a writer. He’s a dumb fuck, as anti-intellectual as it gets. There’s not much to like about him as a person. But there’s 10 or 15 songs of his that I put above all other music. I relate to him as an outsider. His voice is so moving. The tear in his voice.”

Paycheck did write his final single, “The Old Violin,” released in 1986. It charted while he was appealing a murder charge that would land him in jail for two years. The kind of rock bottom few come back from.

Berman, still supine, pulled up the lyrics on his laptop and read them aloud. The narrator is unmoored, wracked, regretful, and spots a battered fiddle. He admires its withered beauty.

Berman paused and apologized for choking up. He laughed, then read the song’s climactic verse: “And just like that, it hit me / That old violin and I were just alike / We’d give our all to music / And soon, we’ll give our life.”

“There’s never been a song with such self-pity,” David said. “It’s silly and moving at the same time.”

Photo of David BERMAN and SILVER JEWS
David Berman
Photo by Yani Yordanova/Redferns

When his parents got divorced, David was 7 years old and living in Reston, Virginia. His dad was a labor lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and his mother was a housewife. After they split, mom returned to her hometown, Wooster, Ohio, to become a teacher, and dad moved to Dallas, where he became a lobbyist for the corporate restaurant industry.

Ten years between those two poles: a fading Rust Belt rubber town, and an ascendant, steel-ribbed city on the make, flush with oil money and ecstasy. It seemed to set David’s mind on dichotomies: Ohio/Texas, Mom/Dad, warmth/cold. His father made the distinction as emphatic as possible: Throughout David’s adolescence, his father became the Richard Berman, pioneer of a new type of lobbying, excelling at creating shell-company nonprofits and think tanks to discredit organizations that opposed his clients. And as a creature of the corporate food-service industry, his targets were typically human- and animal-rights organizations.

“Richard Berman is a professional antagonist, trying to discredit people who are doing good in the world,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, one of Berman’s recurring victims. “He does not seek sensible discourse … This guy has developed a cottage industry attacking public interest organizations.”

In 2014, The New York Times was given audio of remarks Berman delivered during a closed-door meeting of oil and gas execs. He was seeking $3 million for a project called Big Green Radicals, through which his firm would dig up unsavory and humiliating information on environmental activists.

“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions—that’s my offense,” he said. “I am just trying to figure out how I am going to reduce their brand.”

David’s adolescence didn’t suffer for this work. He was a gentle, privileged guy, in love with modern poetry and often very stoned.

“That’s where I came online,” he told me about Dallas. “It was a city where New Wave music fit perfectly.” He had a friend who owned an ultra-rare Fairlight keyboard, one of the defining instruments of ’80s British synth-pop, and David became fascinated with it. In Dallas at that time, country was absolutely everywhere, but David cherished bands like Art of Noise and Prefab Sprout.

So while country was in the foreground for most around him, for David, it was “just the background. It wasn’t until Silver Jews that I saw there were tropes in country that I could use.” One trope he used was to write songs about places, like “Dallas,” in which he asks, “How’d you turn a billion steers / Into buildings made of mirrors?” The storybook rhymes, the overt metaphors, the hangdog gallows humor—in many ways, Silver Jews more closely resembled classic, hard-core country than some of the famed twang-rockers of the time. Humor and approachability defined his poetry, as well. Of Actual Air, still Berman’s only book, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins said the poems “are full of complex turns and tricks and conceptual hijinks, and yet there’s this surface clarity. You’re welcomed into the poem.” Berman’s songs worked the same way, so unadorned and emotionally intimate that every listen felt like a rediscovery.

It wasn’t until he announced the end of Silver Jews, in a post on the Drag City message board titled “My Father, My Attack Dog,” that David revealed just how much psychic pain had informed those nonsensical turns of phrase and those relatable depictions of isolation.

“My father is a despicable man,” the note started. “My father is a sort of human molestor.” Since David’s adolescence, his father “has just gotten worse. More evil. More powerful. We’ve been ‘estranged’ for over three years.”

The note went on, encompassing David’s recent commitment to Judaism, which helped him face “the shame and the shanda … The worst part for me as a writer is what he does with the English language. Though vicious he is a doltish thinker.”

According to this note, David ended his band because they were “too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused. To you and everyone you know … In a way I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage … There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.”

In Chicago, David told me a story: Many years ago, the journalist Piotr Orlov met him in Dallas to write a profile. David was going back to his high school for a reading and a talk about Actual Air, so Piotr picked him up in a rental car and they set out to find the monuments of his youth. On the way, David asked to pull over so he could talk with a gay prostitute about scoring crack. The man jumped in and Piotr drove to the spot so David could get roaringly high with total strangers before going out to dinner with his high school teacher. When the sun rose, David was in a homeless encampment. A few hours later he smoked his last rocks in the same parking lot where he used to smoke weed as a 15-year-old, then spent all day in front of teens talking about meter and enjambment and emotional meaning. The next day he couldn’t remember a thing he’d said.

A few days later, Piotr received an email: David asked him to keep the drug stuff out, for fear Cassie would leave him. Please. Piotr agreed.

The hard drugs started in New York in 1998, while David was recording American Water. A friend of a friend showed up with a briefcase full of heroin, cocaine, painkillers, everything. The music on this record—the Jews’ third and the closest to a consensus favorite among fans—is particularly loose, the lyrics even more impressionistic:

Back then I had a Buckingham rabbit
I’d been lonely since she found Christ
Now is the time to depend on the law
The nights of my professional life

Drugs ruled him for five years, but in many ways those were his good years. They overlapped with his new romance and his new city. He had steady friends, he was social. He saw people all the time to get high, people like Robert Bingham, the rebellious Kentucky dynast who’d thrown his money into poetry publishing. That was how Open City Press, Bingham’s baby, acquired David’s manuscript, which it published right before Bingham died of a heroin overdose in 1999. That was one of many dead friends David listed for me in Chicago, counting on his fingers. Nearly two full hands of close casualties, all during the good years.

It took a suicide attempt of his own—crack cocaine and pills—to get him off hard drugs. In 2009, around the time he ended the band, he told another interviewer, “I think suicide worked for me … I do know that on the other side of the experience I feel a clear purpose where I lacked any before.” That’s what inspired him to finally tour. The shows went well, but he’d hustle with Cassie out the back of every venue to avoid even the possibility of some stranger offering drugs. His sobriety was too fragile for that kind of test.

“I’m not convinced I have fans,” David told me, still on his back in bed. He was nervous about the tour. “In my whole life, I’ve had maybe 10 people who have told me how much my music means to them.”

This seemed impossible, but consider: After giving him the notion to make his poems into songs, “Steve and Bob went off and made friends all over the world,” David explained. “I was so isolated, the way I came up. No gigs, no tours, no camaraderie. I stayed in … and made these poems and songs that were like dollhouse miniatures.”

That was how Silver Jews proceeded for more than a decade: David made just enough royalties to live while composing the next batch of wry singalongs and confessionals. Eventually Dan Koretzky at Drag City compelled him to record. They’d assemble a band, book studio time, and the group would learn the songs. Every other album, Stephen Malkmus came back to play guitar. David was bitterly hard on himself, competing in his mind with every other songwriter in the world and in his orbit. He compulsively rewrote lyrics on legal pads in the studio. Tremendous pressure and effort, then a week later it was over, at least for David.

Following “My Father, My Attack Dog,” David didn’t make music for years. Didn’t strum a guitar, didn’t write a rhyme. He read, mostly Judaic studies and political philosophy. He lived online, on Reddit, obsessed with the fuming hatred directed at Barack Obama. He lurked. Cassie wasn’t so insular. She started going out and enjoying herself without him. On “Darkness and Cold,” the last song he wrote for Purple Mountains, he turned this situation into a perfect little honky-tonk double entendre: “The light of my life is going out tonight / As the sun sinks in the west / The light of my life is going out tonight / With someone she just met.”

When David’s mother died in 2016, he picked up a guitar and slowly wrote the most plaintive, unaffected song he’s ever made: “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son.” Others were just as frankly autobiographical but not personally specific. Songs that tell the whole story in the title: “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me,” “That’s Just the Way I Feel.”

He tried recording them with Dan Bejar, of Destroyer and the New Pornographers, in a studio on a little dot of U.S. territory on a peninsula near Vancouver. They worked for weeks, had full tracks ready to go, then David scrapped them, just as he’d scrapped whole albums with other collaborators earlier in his career. As usual, it had nothing to do with the collaborators. He couldn’t finish his lyrics.

“My goal this record was to write more like standards,” he explained to me. “That’s what took so long. I consider all my lines problems, and I look for solutions. The older I get, the harder it is.” He sat up, still hunched over. Touched the strings of his little practice guitar. “But I don’t have time for language poetry anymore. I don’t want to throw people off anymore. I don’t want to bullshit. I want to mean.”

After he moved into the Drag City apartment, the search for a new band led to Woods, a group of Brooklyn psych-rock guys about 15 years younger than David. They had never produced another person’s record before but they liked Silver Jews, and that was David’s only prerequisite. He didn’t want to have to explain himself—his poor singing, his mood swings, his perfectionism. The younger band went right along with him, and the sessions were almost effortless.

Silver Jews
Berman in 2008
Photo by Edd Westmacott/Photoshot/Getty Images

Koretzky’s office is directly next to David’s room, so every morning he knocks on the door to stir his friend. “Wellness checks,” in David’s words. He still experiences “treatment-resistant depression,” a phrase he repeats often. In Chicago, in bed, in good spirits, he warned me: “It’s good you came today. For the last four days, I was flat on my back. Last night I called a friend, a younger friend, and begged him to get me heroin. I wanted an exit. He didn’t; he’s a good friend.”

It’s hard to explain how a person can sound as optimistic as David sounded when he told me this. The vulnerability and oddness of those early songs is no accident: He can make those odd linguistic connections and find those sad-awful metaphors because, in real life, he’s capable of calm clarity and good humor mere hours after a suicidal episode. He’s made a life out of that territory, and bears the scars. The mile-marker relationships that defined the different parts of his life have almost all fallen away for different reasons—Cassie, his parents, the Pavement guys, his drug friends. He still has Dan Koretzky. He still has Drag City. And supposedly there are people out there in the world who want to see him, sing along with him, take a selfie.

He told me that he’s only touring to pay down credit-card debt. But this time he was planning to embrace it. This tour, he’s committed to staying to talk to anyone who wants to, Willie Nelson style. “It’s distressing to do this, but if I’m to grow, I have to do things that I didn’t do a long time ago,” he said. “I’m tired. I need to take a few risks. I can’t keep living like this.”

A few years ago, when he was still attempting the work with Bejar, David stopped in Olympia, Washington, on the drive up to Canada. He checked into a hotel and walked to a nearby bar, entering to the sight of a young, jangly rock band, almost R.E.M.-ish, playing to a literally empty room.

David watched their set from a stool at the bar, the sole audience member. When they ended, he clapped and they joined him for beers. They didn’t know him or his songs. They were a little down about the audience and David was feeling generous. He tried a pep talk.

“On paper, what I have is what you want,” he told them. “I made records for 20 years, I lived off it. But people would say I made so many mistakes, I did so many things you’re not supposed to do. I had a band name nobody could say. I didn’t play live. I never practiced, I never got better at my instrument. All my songs were made at the end of the neck, ‘farmer’s corner’ chords. I’m not a good singer. My label doesn’t stream, at least they didn’t then.”

He laughed about all of this in Chicago.

“Only as I was saying this to them did I realize that this is something to be proud of.”

I asked what he meant.

“I take pride in the fact that I can walk away from things. My willingness to walk away has protected me, I realize that now. Being able to walk away from sessions, from poetry, from dreams of being a poetry professor.”

A pause.

“It’s the way I defeated my father. This is a man who can never stop talking, but now he doesn’t know what to say. I found the power in not composing. I found a shadow side that I can be in dialogue with. ‘No’ is always on the table. There’s some magic in working with the negative.”

We finished talking after the label office had closed but before the sun had gone down. David wouldn’t be going out that night. He had songs to re-learn, lyrics to remember, only 39 days until rehearsals. Just more than a month before he will try out this new life to see how it feels. He’s really going to try, to make and honor new connections with people. To do better. But that night he had no plans.

John Lingan is the author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk. He lives in Maryland and is writing a biography of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

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