David Berman meant a lot to me. Means a lot to me. “Advice to the Graduate” hit me right around when I graduated college, and its advice hums in my veins at regular intervals: always use the old sense of the word; the things that you do will always make your mother cry; don’t believe in people who say it’s all been done, they have time to talk because their race is run. Not that long ago I got snagged on that last bit, convinced that my race was one that had been run. This fear sent me back to therapy, to renegotiate my relationship with writing and with art. Berman held his art close to his chest, guarded it like a fragile thing, fragile as his own sobriety and sanity and happiness. But he knew it had the potential for great power. At one point he announced the end of his long-running musical project, Silver Jews, because it was “too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm [his father, an infamous lobbyist] 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.”
What it appears to have been was a decade’s hiatus followed by a new project and now, on the eve of a tour, the end of his life. He was 52, five years my senior. Cause of death has not yet been announced.
According to an interview from last month, he was nearly paralyzed by fear but resigned to do the things he’d never done: be plain in his lyrics, hang around after the show to meet the fans he was convinced he didn’t have. He existed in two places, turned on a dime. The intimacy between death and humor, that tension of the bleak and the clever in his poetry and lyrics was not for everyone. I once hooked up at a New Year’s party with an Iowa Writers Workshop alum who derided Berman’s poetry as “all punchlines.” But for someone like myself who had abandoned writing (and, for the most part, reading) poetry around the time she abandoned daily marijuana use, punchlines were just fine. Here are some from my favorite poem of his, “Self-Portrait at 28.”
“As a way of getting in touch with my origins
every night I set the alarm clock
for the time I was born so that waking up
becomes a historical reenactment and the first thing I do
is take a reading of the day and try to flow with it like
when you’re riding a mechanical bull and you strain to learn
the pattern quickly so you don’t inadvertantly resist it.”
I still read that poem on most birthdays. It is a way of getting in touch with my own origins, or at least one of them: that shining time when I reached beyond the indie-rock gold standard band of my college years, Pavement — my favorite for much of that time — and discovered their sister act, the one that gets mistakenly called a side project, Silver Jews. When I was moving away from the stoned racket of eight-track bedroom fuzz for its own sake and moving into a worship of the word, Berman was there for me, not as sexy as Stephen Malkmus but seemingly fathoms deeper (and way funnier).
Just last week my husband and I were having the latest of our frequent debates about music, which started with “Sympathy for the Devil,” a song which he pointed out is actually boring, musically, but still somehow perfect. It doesn’t go anywhere, really, which is weird for a top-ten hit. I wasn’t always a completely lyrics-focused music-lover — my first favorite band, after all, was Duran Duran, and I dare you to give those lyrics a close read and not laugh — but around the time of the Silver Jews entering my life I became so. (I was surprised to find out in my early 30s that not everyone knew the words to songs by their favorite bands.) And I suggested to my husband that the instrumentation for “Sympathy for the Devil,” having that then-so-blasphemous lyrical bent, was devised as a careful, well-done but unobtrusive backdrop for the words. From there spun a conversation about how good lyrics have to be to transcend “bad” music.
“Bad” is in quotes here because it always is in these conversations we have: our musical knowledge is far and wide but the Venn diagram where it meets is narrow in comparison. The fact that I married someone who didn’t particularly like the Silver Jews or Pavement surprised some people. But I had scared off many indie rockers with my volume and flash — and failed at dating fellow writers due to competing egos — and so was happy to marry a punk who played music because it was fun. He went to see the Jews with me when they belatedly, finally, toured. He’s a good dude. But he challenged me during this recent argument on how highly I value lyrics. He bagged on the first Hold Steady record — as he has repeatedly throughout our 13-year relationship — and I defended its blowsy bar rock as perfect for the biblical-epic lyrics and beer-glass delivery of Craig Finn.
And what about Silver Jews, he asked?
I never really noticed the music, I answered. It’s true. When Malkmus came back every other album, the guitar-playing was interesting. And the keys on American Water — as played by then-Oakland-based Chris Stroffolino — always catch my ear. But the lyrics. The words. The turns of phrase, the darkness and laughter spinning on a dime, the convenient rhymes belying fresh truths: these were the things Berman gave me, gave us. The heart shivering inside his crappy baritone. The depth stashed in the punchlines. The heart-shredding, fine-lined, tragic portraiture of “I Remember Me.”
I had always hoped he would write a novel. I had always hoped that we would grow old together, which I guess is what you always wish of your artistic favorites, the ones around your age. You don’t know them but they seem to know you. You’re trying to figure life out as you go along out and they’re helping. You wish you could help them, but you don’t want to impose and don’t know how to even if you did. And then I guess one day they’re gone, and the one-sided relationship gets thinner, its tone grayed out out by grief and made finite by the end of their work.
“I wish I had a thousand bucks
I wish I was the Royal Trux
But mostly I wish
I wish I was with you
When I was summoned to the phone
I knew in my bones that you had died alone
We’d never been promised there will be a tomorrow
So let’s just call it the death of an heir of sorrows
The death of an heir of sorrows”
These are lyrics from “Death of an Heir of Sorrows,” which he wrote about a poet friend of his. I’m grieving for Cassie, his wife. For Malkmus, who I used to joke (but, like, a lot) that I wanted to marry. And for the fragility of art and its makers. “There were no new ways to understand the world,” Berman wrote in the poem “Governors on Sominex.” “only new days to set our understandings against. … Each page was a new chance to understand the last.” I don’t know how he died. But I am afraid that he ended those pages himself. And I’m afraid for all the art-makers I love, and how fear makes us all so goddamn fragile.