David Berman, poet and musician, has died. An obsessive teller of musical truths—harsh, grim, and otherwise—Berman was a fixture of the indie music scene over the last 20-odd years, first as the sole stable presence in the Silver Jews, and, more recently, as the central driving force of his new project, Purple Mountains. (The band just put out its first album back in July; Berman was set to go out on tour with them in service of it this weekend.) Berman was 52; per Pitchfork, no cause of death has been announced.
Born in Virginia (to a father whose work as a corporate lobbyist he openly disdained), Berman started making music early and enthusiastically, initially teaming up with future Pavement co-founders Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. Embracing a lo-fi aesthetic—including, famously, recording the better part of an early album on a Walkman—Silver Jews was a lyricist’s band first and foremost, serving as a platform for some of the most inventively weird lyrics ever to grace a jangly, fuzzy-sounding guitar lick. His songs are full of lines like “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” and “Are you honest when no one’s looking? Can you summon honey from a telephone?”—sentence-long puzzles and punchlines designed to worm their way permanently into a listener’s brain. Berman was, among other things, a longtime subject of fandom and appreciation around these parts; there’s a reason one of our formerly regular features was called Random Rules (and why Berman was its very first subject).
When Pavement took off, Silver Jews was occasionally forced into the public perception of a Malkmus side-project; Berman typically responded to the shift by, true to form, not responding very much at all. (Besides occasionally crediting his collaborators under aliases.) Although he’d continue to work off and on with Malkmus and Nastanovich over the years, Silver Jews continued on as an expression of his interests and obsessions, swapping in and out members, indulging in long, fascinating tangents about Teddy Roosevelt and the curdled optimism of 1913, and staying most and especially true to itself. Listening to Berman sing could sometimes feel like dipping into the world’s most well-thought-out stream of consciousness; his vocals are filled with odd word choices and turns of phrases that seem laser-aimed to trip up the tongue, while still conveying a heady sense of misery, anxiety, and, occasionally, hope.
Utterly resistant to modern trends or commercial interests—the band didn’t even tour until 2006, more than a decade into its existence—Berman ended up closing up shop on Silver Jews in 2009, noting in a public statement that “I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to ‘Shiny Happy People’” (Fittingly, the band’s final concert was held in a literal cave.) He spent the next decade or so working as a poet and writer—including a long-form attempt to bring more attention to the various evils committed by his father—but eventually returned to the world of music (as a producer) in 2017, and then with Purple Mountains earlier this year.
In reading interviews with him—including our own, in support of the last Silver Jews record, Lookout Mountains, Lookout Sea—Berman exposes himself as the possessor of an utterly tireless mind, one that thought obsessively about the topics of his songs, his sentences, and his life. Often insecure about his place in the music landscape—and frequently incapable of grasping just how widely beloved Silver Jews was among the indie rock faithful—he talked about the rare sense of connecting with people when he finally did go out on tour:
I saw these kids in the audience, and they’re so open-faced and open-hearted, I couldn’t go back to my garret and forget those faces. I also didn’t quite realize they existed. Generational lines take a long time to see. And I had been locked away for several years. So coming out and seeing these—you know, the other night, we went to a show at Spring Water, always a place that I fear going to now, because I fear who I’ll see. And to a large degree, it’s a whole new generation. It’s been four years of fuck-ups. But these fuck-ups are—they’re better fuck-ups. They’re sweet, they dance with each other. They don’t have a lot of egomaniacs running around.
Berman was also open about his struggles with substance abuse; in 2006, Fader ran a piece titled “Dying In The Al Gore Suite,” about his attempt to fatally overdose in the same Nashville hotel room where the former vice president waited out his 2000 recount crisis. His death was reported by his long-time label, Drag City Records, earlier today. He leaves a long line of sweeter, better fuck-ups in his wake.