Friday, 9 August 2019

nights that won't happen

David Berman (photo by Cassie Berman)

Silver Jews are a band that I liked and admired for many years. When they first came out, I was very much a fan of Pavement, with whom they (sporadically) shared band members and a similarly fairly loosey-goosey approach to instrumentation and recording.

But gradually the lyrics got to me. David Berman - who has died suddenly aged 52 - was a poet who wrote songs, rather than a songwriter whose songs came to be seen as poetry.

It was obvious that Berman was a man who struggled with depression and addiction. Yet the words were darkly funny, beautiful, heart-wrenching.

So Silver Jews became a band that I loved, eventually providing an unofficial soundtrack to my 2017 relapse. Long time and eagle-eyed visitors might remember the many posts from this period with titles taken from their songs.

They split up in 2009 in bizarre circumstances. And Berman disappeared from view, aside from a few sightings and rumours of recording sessions.

He resurfaced this year under a new name, Purple Mountains. In the intervening years his battles remained constant and he'd split up from his wife and former band mate Cassie. But the wit was undimmed.

The Purple Mountains album is up there with the best of his work, melodic, mordant, melancholy. But despite the journey the songs travel - through divorce, depression, addiction and grief - it seems to end on a level of acceptance and hope. He even talked in interviews about going on tour.

When I read the news of his passing on Thursday morning it was still a shock. I honestly haven't been as devastated by the death of a stranger since the other DB.

No cause of death has been announced yet. But it's hard not to surmise from the details we "know" about him (who can really know what goes on inside another person?) that - intentionally or otherwise - he ended his life.

I know that I and many other people have taken comfort from the way he would report from his front line with courage, clarity, dark humour and endless empathy.

The tragedy is, it appears that his words weren't enough to save him as well.

One particular lyric which has been going round my head since Thursday morning is from Pretty Eyes, the last track from Silver Jews' second album, The Natural Bridge:
I believe the stars are the headlights of angels
Driving from heaven to save us
To save us
Look in the sky
They're driving from heaven into our eyes
That's how he sings it, anyway.

On the lyric sheet it reads, "Won't you look at the sky?", not "Look in the sky". I guess it just sounds rhythmically neater.

But in the written lyric, he's pointing to the sky, imploring us to look showing us that it'll be ok. That salvation - of whatever sort you might need - is coming.

I wish he had been looking too.

I hope there are enough links in this post for you to explore David Berman's work.

There is a brilliant article about the recording of "The Natural Bridge" on Stereogum.

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