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Blue Arrangements: Remembering David Berman

The Silver Jews and Purple Mountains frontman, who died Wednesday at 52, drew listeners in with his country-tinged blend of humor, poetry, and existentialism

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The temptation to eulogize David Berman with one of his own lines is immense. The musician and poet, who died at 52 on Wednesday, wrote songs about airport bars, towns in Texas, bodies of water, and broken glass, but he also, I realize now, wrote a lot about death. It wasn’t in every song, but it was present in many—obliquely, off-handedly, directly. It was a joke, an inevitability, a close friend, or sometimes all three, like in “Inside the Golden Days of Missing You”:

What if life is just some hard equation
On a chalkboard in a science class for ghosts?
You can live again,
But you’ll have to die twice in the end.

“In the end, oh yeah, we’ll meet again,” the stanza ends.

Death was overly present in his latest release, which came out just last month on Drag City, his longtime record label. Berman’s last Silver Jews release came out in 2008, and he formally ended the band the next year, in part because they “were too small of a force” to undo the harm caused by his father, lobbyist Richard Berman. Ten years later, his new band’s self-titled debut, Purple Mountains, seemed to emerge out of nowhere, but fans welcomed the release no matter the name; my ticket to see him this September still sits in my inbox.

The album, despite its strong comeback energy, is profoundly sad. The first single is called “All My Happiness Is Gone”; the next track is called “Darkness and Cold.” Both songs are bright, toe-tapping Berman classics. Their desolate titles make up the anthemic choruses, which are sung with the utmost conviction. And those are the major-chord songs.

He sings about losing his mother (“I Love Being My Mother’s Son”), and missing his wife (“She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”), and in “Nights That Won’t Happen,” he sings, unequivocally, about death. The last track, “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me,” conjures American Water’s “Honk If You’re Lonely”—a catchy closer that masks dejection in a twangy singalong. “If no one’s fond of fucking me,” he wagered, “maybe no one’s fucking fond of me!” Berman’s back, I thought when I heard that. But then, suddenly, he was gone.

Berman, who grew up in Texas and Ohio, began playing music after college with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who would go on to form Pavement. The six full-lengths from the “Joos,” from 1994’s Starlite Walker to 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, were country-inflected packages of poetry, written by Berman and featuring additional vocals from Malkmus (early on) and his wife, Cassie (later on). Each album had a canonical instrumental track.

Any given David Berman song has bit of gothic imagery next to a blunt pun next to some tragicomic truism that will take you out of the song for a second or two to reevaluate your life. His lyrics are at times enigmatic and impenetrable, other times clear and succinct as a story (“I’m drunk on a couch in Nashville / In a duplex near the reservoir” needs no divination). They were riddles of sadness and enlightenment that captured an internal struggle with the South, with God, and with himself. They were parables of reckonings and forgiveness, spiritual crises and personal failings. But they were just as often lovesick, funny, and human. (“Advice to the Graduate” is ageless.)

Berman was a writer outside of the studio, briefly attending UMass-Amherst’s MFA program and releasing a collection of poetry in 1999, Actual Air. (Read “Self-Portrait at 28” here.) He was a perfectionist in his writing—in a 2008 Pitchfork interview, he eagerly retells a last-minute, lightbulb moment of changing the line “he came at me with all he had” to “he came at me with some fist cuisine” on the rollicking “San Francisco B.C.,” still wishing he could tweak it once more. “What I would gladly do,” he goes on about his songwriting, “is give it all up for a few words that mean something and that don’t have language that looks like what you’re used to seeing in the realms of poetry. It looks like language you might just see in your lawnmower directions.”

Berman had an unpolished baritone drawl, often flat but always true, and the band would build around it. You couldn’t always tell with Stephen Malkmus and a slide guitar at his side, but his songs were deceptively simple. I used to visit a now-defunct website called The Corduroy Suit and look up Silver Jews tablature and would play, with a fluctuating degree of finesse, his three- or four-chord songs for whoever would listen.

When I read him say, in a 2009 Stop Smiling interview, “Anybody can play these songs. If you have two hands and you take a couple of hours to put those fingers on those dots and strum, you could figure it out,” it felt like he was talking to me. “Not only do I want people to take the recorded version of these songs into their lives, but I would love for people to take the songs into their instruments.”

They’re still just about the only thing I can play on the guitar. It’s why, in John Lingan’s recent profile of Berman for The Ringer, I was so heartbroken to read Berman say, “I’m not convinced I have fans. In my whole life, I’ve had maybe 10 people who have told me how much my music means to them.” I don’t know what he actually believed. I know that he didn’t like touring and always felt like an outsider—in poetry, music, society. But I also know, despite how intensely personal his music has always felt to me, that I couldn’t be the only one who had picked up a six-string because of him.

His cause of death hasn’t been reported, but my mind wanders toward the worst. Berman struggled with substance misuse and experienced depression throughout his life and has spoken openly about a 2003 suicide attempt. Hearing Wednesday’s news brought me back to the morning in March 2013 when I learned of Jason Molina’s death from organ failure due to alcohol consumption. These songwriters’ work has guided so many through the darkness; it’s unbearable to think they couldn’t make it out themselves.

We won’t get to see David Berman in September. But we still have the way he sang “mmm hmm mmm” on “Trains Across the Sea.” We still have the bass line to “People.” We still have this anecdote about getting fired from a Loews movie theater in Plano, Texas, from the last-ever Silver Jews show, which was in a cave. And we still have his words—inscrutable (“It’s a fox hunt / it’s an F stop”), evocative (“a jagged skyline of car keys”), or just plainly said (“When you know how I feel, I feel better”). I felt better listening to David Berman, and I’m gutted that he’s gone.