David Berman was a kind, sensitive artist with many formidable talents — a poet, cartoonist and musician who was often regarded as the best songwriter of his generation. He died at the age of 52 on Aug. 7, after a lifetime of struggling with depression and addiction.
Berman left behind a substantial body of work that includes six studio albums recorded with his longtime band the Silver Jews, two acclaimed books of poetry and an eponymous album by Purple Mountains, his latest recording project.
Purple Mountains retains everything that made the Silver Jews great — a keen sense of melody, biting humor, absurdity — while stripping away all other extraneous elements.
“How does it go — ‘there is a time for every season’? I’m interested in direct communication about domestic life,” Berman told me. “Guess it’s my mid-late style. Fewer jokes, misdirection, irony and ornamentation.”
When he agreed to an interview about his upcoming performance in Iowa City, Berman was preparing a national tour that was to start later that week, with bandmates who, he said, he was only just getting to know. “Jarvis Taveniere, who produced the record, is the bandleader and bassist. He assembled the other players,” Berman said while taking a break from the intense rehearsals.
It wasn’t possible to talk, but he generously carved out the time to answer my questions via email, which arrived on the day before he hanged himself in a Brooklyn apartment. I learned the news of his death just minutes after completing a draft of this column, like an all-too-real plot twist from one of his darkly comic songs.
Pithy and poetic, Berman made his wordplay seem so effortless — like anyone could do it — but that was just another one of Berman’s magic tricks. His wit and lyrical sleights-of-hand also obscured very real mental health issues that sometimes led him down paths of self-destruction.
In 2003, Berman attempted suicide with a mixture of alcohol, prescription pills and crack cocaine. This episode took place in the very same hotel suite where Al Gore waited for the results of the 2000 presidential election in Nashville; Berman reportedly told the bellboy, “I want to die where the presidency died!”
Back in 1989, Berman formed the Silver Jews with his college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, well before their more famous group, Pavement, got off the ground (the title of their breakthrough album, Slanted and Enchanted, was named after one of Berman’s cartoons).
It is unlikely he would have played many classic Silver Jews songs on the scheduled tour, even though Berman really wanted to. “It’s hard because many of the songs make me weep uncontrollably to sing,” he said. “We are practicing now and it’s unfortunate some great songs won’t make it because I get so choked up.”
Despite being considered a writer’s writer by the underground rock gritterati, that acclaim mattered little to Berman, and he eschewed the spotlight. He didn’t play live throughout most of the band’s existence, and he booted his friends out of the band (temporarily, at least) to avoid being perceived as merely a Pavement side-project.
Berman then shocked his fans in 2005 by launching the Silver Jews’ first-ever tour. The band line-up included his wife, bassist and vocalist Cassie Berman, who started playing with the band on their 2001 record, Bright Flight.
Silver Jews continued to tour and released yet another great record — 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea — leaving fans with a sense of optimism about what would be next. But then came another left turn: Berman’s surprise announcement, posted to the Drag City website in 2009, that he was ending the band.
This was followed by another post later that day: “Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret,” he said. “Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father.”
Rick Berman, who 60 Minutes dubbed “Dr. Evil” in 2007, built a career as a lobbyist for big oil and tobacco who made millions undermining workplace safety and environmental protections, among other things.
“In a way I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage,” that final post continued. “Previously I thought, through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world.” He came to realize that this was fruitless, and what followed was a decade of musical silence.
That ended in the summer of 2019 with Purple Mountains, an album that is haunted by absence — from the 2016 death of his beloved mother, Mimi Berman, to his painful separation from Cassie.
Berman is at his most vulnerable on “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” his voice cracking: “She helped me walk, she watched me run, she got where I was coming from, and when I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb I loved her to the maximum.”
That song, he told me, unlocked something in him that led to the recording of Purple Mountains. “The music fell out of me over the next two years. It took two more to install the words.”
It all began with Berman “simply strumming the guitar as a meditative practice after my mom’s death, sitting in her little house, flabbergasted at how quickly she was gone. Thirty days from diagnosis to death. I never imagined it could happen to us.”
“On her headstone I wrote ‘her friendship was the dearest gift,’” he added. “Funny, lovely and just. She was a social worker in a small town in Ohio. For so many, a bridge over troubled water.”
Mimi was the nurturing yin to his father’s vampiric yang, a warm buoy he held onto during a childhood fractured by divorce, living with each parent in two different cities.
“Little Wooster, Ohio and gargantuan Dallas, Texas formed the municipal cocktail of my life up till age 18,” Berman said. “That drab, weird little town and the glitzy big one shaped me for sure.”
At the time of his death, he was living in a small apartment above the Chicago offices of his longtime label, Drag City, one of the many ways that his friends have tried to look after him over the years.
“It’s not much bigger than a walk-in closet with a bathroom attached,” he said, “but it’s free and until I do some touring I won’t be able to resettle elsewhere, as I plan to do.”
Relocating to the Midwest also influenced some Purple Mountains songs, such as “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” the album’s opening track. “I met failure in Australia, I feel ill in Illinois,” he sang, “I nearly lost my genitalia to an anthill in Des Moines.”
He admitted to mischievously adding one of his old bandmates as a character with that last line. “My friend Bob Nastanovich lives in Des Moines,” Berman said, “and I liked putting him in a song passed out while fucking an anthill ’cause I love him so much.”
A bereft Nastanovich succinctly summed his good friend’s gifts, messaging me after Berman’s death, “David loved words.”
Berman’s lyrics resonated because he found sad and hilarious ways to communicate something meaningful about the human condition in these depressing times. He was still alive when I began writing this column and within a day the man was dead — a jarring reminder of the precariousness of life — but at least we still have his work.
That still stands. Berman may have been writing something specific about his mother in “Nights That Won’t Happen,” but he also managed to convey a far more universal sentiment:
And as much as we might like to seize the reel and hit rewind
Or quicken our pursuit of what we’re guaranteed to find
When the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). CommUnity (formerly the Crisis Center) also offers free and confidential support at IowaCrisisChat.org, and the 24/7 chatline, 1-855-325-4296. Browse a list of local and national resources, and CommUnity’s suicide safety planning guides.
Kembrew McLeod is sad. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 269.