David Berman and the Re-Enchantment of Life

On his life, work, and existential longing in late capitalism.

David Berman, date unknown. Drag City / Twitter

Every human being is adrift. No matter how rooted we tell ourselves we may be, we inevitably come up against those moments that remind us how little we know, how little we belong, how isolated we are and very likely will always be.

And so we create. We write, we paint, we apply our minds to equations or scientific conundrums, we dream idly or pluck away at a guitar. Not ultimately because we are lost, but because we are human, and we want to not be lost. And even if we never find our way out of the morass — late capitalism is adept at burying us in it — the hope that we might is enough to keep shuffling on.

That hope was what David Berman’s work was. You could say it about so many other poets or songwriters, but there was something about him that exemplified it. His languid, sloppy singing and guitar-playing, his detached-yet-playful use of words, his ability to paint landscapes and scenarios that ached to be more than they were.

Now he’s dead, at the age of fifty-two. It’s been ruled a suicide. As always happens when such a unique artist dies, he’s left a hole that we never fully expected to gaze into.

For many of my age group — positioned awkwardly as either the younger Gen-X’ers or the older Millennials — Berman’s work with Silver Jews represents that time when “indie rock” was still at least nominally indie. The lo-fi sounds and enthralled dissections of everyday life were as much a nose thumbed at the crisis in musical overproduction as they were simple expressions of where our heads were at.

In the culture at large, the nineties’ structure of feeling was a kind of triumphalist optimism — clumsily packaged in so much twaddle about “the end of history.” It delivered almost none of what it promised, and even when we didn’t quite know how analytically to pick out its quasi-authoritarian manipulations, some part of us felt it.

Silver Jews and similar acts — Sebadoh, Built to Spill, collaborators like Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who went on to form Pavement — sounded like a more truthful reality being whispered to us. The messiness of their songs, regardless of whether it was “rehearsed,” allowed you to insert yourself in between the notes, to imagine a participation in them.

In that vaguely DIY regard, the music wasn’t all that unlike what we had always heard about an earlier era of punk. But in Berman’s case it trained its focus in a different, more introspective direction — to an almost meditative degree. None of it felt indulgent. For it was in the most ordinary (and therefore most alienating) elements of life that he was able to find those ambivalences and confusions, the bitter laughter and dark little empties.

Listen to those first few albums to get the most vivid examples: Starlite Walker, The Natural Bridge, American Water. They are folk, country, and garage rock unraveled and tangled back together. Some of the songs are hope and optimism deflected: “Advice to the Graduate,” “Albemarle Station,” “Honk If You’re Lonely.” Still others — “Federal Dust,” “Ballad of Reverend War Character,” “Pan-American Blues” — sound like being lost in history itself, as one still can be in a geography so large. The version of America on these albums is one of wide-open spaces rediscovered by claustrophobic minds, witnessing a freedom they can’t quite grasp through the boredom and disappointment.

These are songs that find weirdness in sadness and vice versa. That’s what gave them meaning beyond postmodern nineties cynicism. To be off-kilter and disaffected wasn’t merely a pose; it was a defiant response to a world that demanded we smile mindlessly at abundant pointlessness. It was to be ironically and impishly in harmony with a timeline we were told didn’t exist anymore.

There is a similar feel to Berman’s book of poetry Actual Air, released in 1999. These are understated stories that tarry with the not-so-easily labeled, skating a subtle line between surrealism and confession. “Snow,” a poem frequently cited as as a favorite by readers, contemplates the contradiction between the mundane and the sublime, a dismally puckish propensity for violence emerging from the friction:

Walking through a field with my little brother Seth

I pointed to a place where kids had made angles in the snow.
For some reason, I told him that a troop of angels
had been shot and dissolved when they hit the ground.

He asked who had shot them and I said a farmer.

Berman would claim later that most of these narratives were made up rather than pulled from personal experience. According to him, his work only became “true” around 2001. In an interview with Poetry Magazine this past July he would tell Travis Nichols that “The first three records and the book, those were make-believe. That was world building by a young romantic artist trying to do his part of the necessary re-enchantment of the world.”

As we found out right after the breakup of Silver Jews, Berman may have been more preoccupied than most with playing a role in this re-enchantment; like many who had been exposed to the idea that life should be a more rewarding and democratic experience, he fell victim to drug addiction, depression, a suicide attempt.

In early 2009 he went public with what he called his “gravest secret.” As it turned out, Berman was the son of Richard Berman, a Washington insider and lobbyist notorious for right-wing causes that are as shameless as they are shit-eating. Pro-gun, anti-regulation, corporate pollution, union-busting; the elder Berman unapologetically defended some of the most execrable interests out there. In his son’s words, “He helped ensure the minimum wage did not move a penny from 1997–2007!”

It was in this same statement that we learned of Silver Jews’ disbandment:

Previously I thought that through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world. But there is the matter of Justice. And I’ll tell you it’s not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns. It hurts. There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.

Nobody should be held responsible for their family members’ actions. But for Berman the poet and artist, it was a source of sorrow and shame. It’s understandable. Alienation is both pervasive and unrelenting. To have your own parent embody so many of the values that make the world cruel and unforgiving can compound it, can make you feel even more rootless and alone.

There is something to be said here for the ways he attempted to cope spiritually, in particular his relationship with his Jewish faith. It was tumultuous and complicated; at its strongest moments animated by Judaism’s dimensions of community and social justice, at its weakest weighed down by what he saw as conservatism and hollow ritual. In some ways, and ironically like much of his music and poetry, he was attempting to find a place in a tradition eroded by history that still had yet to be rebuilt.

As Arielle Angel and Nathan Goldman put it in Jewish Currents, “Berman’s distance from Jewish community fixes him in Jewish tradition. His work is redolent with the stranger’s intimate distance from the world; this yearning separation was the source of its poetry.”

Maybe that’s why Berman wasn’t ultimately finished with music, why he had one more album in him, released barely a month ago. The album is tighter than is typical of the fare to which we’ve become accustomed with Silver Jews; Purple Mountains is after all a different band under a different mandate. There is a larger band, a fuller and more precise production, almost as if Berman is now attempting to re-enchant the open air itself with a layered beauty.

Still, it is difficult to listen to his rough, lonesome voice sing “All My Happiness Is Gone” without taking him at his word. Or to “Darkness and Cold” without hearing a sincere belief that he’ll be utterly forgotten in the end.

Darkness and cold, darkness and cold
Rolled in through the holes in the stories I told
Conditions I’m wishing weren’t taking control
Darkness and cold, darkness and cold

And so, suicide. The admission to the void that it wins. That all the affronts to our desire to live free — be they great or small, real or perceived — are too great to hold out hope anymore.

If Berman’s last act was to give his devotees a chance to mourn, then it is strangely appropriate. Mourning is a necessary part of putting something to rest before moving on. His work and writing always seemed ready to mourn, but unable for some reason. As if he was stuck between two worlds: the real and the imagined, the oppressively prosaic and the possibility of transcendence, of liberation. It’s a feeling to which most of us, at our most honest and sensitive, can relate.