“Of, loosely, my generation of songwriters, the best of us,” John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats tweeted about Berman shortly after the news of his death. “I could sit here all day and quote memorable David Berman couplets and never grow tired. He had no competition.”
True enough, when I was writing a profile of Berman a few months ago, one of the most difficult parts of the process was something that should have taken no more than a few minutes — deciding which lyrics to use as examples of his work. He didn’t have just one mode; his songs were generous with moments of wisdom, humor, sadness, anger, silliness, tenderness, mystery. If a human being was capable of feeling it, David could write it and render it profound. His voice was a barrier to entry for some — “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing” was one of his most quotable lines, and it was often tossed back in his direction as a form of praise for his rumbling manner of speak-sing — but was the perfect delivery system for oracle-like transmissions that would materialize every few years.
Berman’s death is all the more shocking because his reemergence was one of 2019’s most unlikely and genuinely inspiring comeback stories. For the past decade he lived in creative silence after dissolving Silver Jews suddenly and decisively at the beginning of 2009. “I always loved bands with mystique,” he told me as part of his reasoning for going dark and staying that way. Much of that mystique grew out of his longtime refusal to adhere to the standard protocols of being in a rock band — up through 2005 he rarely granted interviews and didn’t perform live. His recorded songs were his lone form of communication to the masses.
But he was also something of a perfect tragic figure. There was an almost absurdly cinematic suicide attempt in the specific Nashville hotel suite where Al Gore’s team holed up during the 2000 recount; a Shakespearean feud with his father, Richard Berman, a famous (or notorious, depending on your political leanings) millionaire lobbyist who represented right-wing causes; a litany of almost-comebacks and collaborations that as soon as they came close to reality were squashed by Berman.
It’s a minor miracle that “Purple Mountains,” the self-titled album under his new moniker that came out just four weeks ago, exists at all, let alone that it meets the high standards of his previous work. Lyrically, it’s the testament of someone mired in the deepest depths of down-and-out summoning the strength to claw his way back.
“I wanted to prove that someone over 50 could still make a good album,” he told me, which was both a good line (his specialty) and an obvious lowering of expectations. The album was met with universal praise and a new generation was introduced to one of music’s true characters. He recruited a group of properly worshipful millennials to serve as his new traveling backing band. “Our fearless leader,” band member Cyrus Gengras captioned an Instagram photo of Berman on Monday in New York, where they were rehearsing. The tour was scheduled to start Saturday. Berman died on Wednesday.
So “Purple Mountains” is the comeback that’s now a poignant farewell. The 1998 Silver Jews album “American Water” is fully deserving of its status as Berman’s classic. The opening line alone — “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” — unfurls an entire universe of possibilities in just eight words. Dylan comparisons often came his way, but he swatted them away every time. (“I came up with an explosive comment to lay on the right person: No matter how great his greatest hits, Dylan never wrote a song as great as American Pie,” he emailed me, unprompted, one evening during our running correspondence over the past year.)
Though less canonically revered, 2005’s “Tanglewood Numbers” is the album that has always felt like his definitive statement. It’s the most cathartic Silver Jews album, recorded after attempted suicide and during a period of newly found sobriety. “To be quite honest I think it’s a record that a man made,” Berman told me in a 2008 interview. “I felt assertive and I was tired of apologizing for, in my own mind, being a non-musician. Or being not a beautiful singer.”
“Tanglewood Numbers” is when his laid-back drawl became a serious growl. The album starts with him looking for a paper bag to puke in and ends with him chanting “I saw God’s shadow on this world!’” It is the sound of pure catharsis, of being proudly alive after so being perilously close to death. He addressed his addiction, singing about wanting to “smoke the gel off a fentanyl patch” a solid decade before anybody except junkies and doctors knew what fentanyl was.
“There is a place past the blues I never want to see again,” he sang later on the album. If most lyrics come from the brain or from the heart, on this album Berman was most in touch with his gut.
“Talking about drugs and rehab and stuff, nobody wants me to do that,” he told me in 2008. “It’s not something that I can’t not talk about. I honestly feel like you have to talk about it to be a model for somebody else. Because I didn’t have any models of artists getting sober and still doing well. I had models like Paul Westerberg.”
That dig at the work of the former Replacements frontman seemingly comes out of nowhere but gets to an important part of who Berman was — an often hilarious dude. When I spent time with him in his temporary home of Chicago last fall and again this past spring, there was no doubt that his life was not exactly in great shape, but his humor remained. He loved to talk trash to his friends and his enemies, real and perceived, of which he claimed many.
But as the tributes to him rolled in Wednesday and Thursday, it was truly a tender portrait of Berman that came into fuller picture. So many people who had reached out, particularly during his public absence, who always received a thoughtful reply. Fans who stayed after a concert to get a record signed, always with a personalized note. And the lyrics — of course everyone had a different favorite lyric to share, how that one line captured their own life’s depths or heights or mystery. And that is the greatest tribute: art melding into life, itself, and continuing past death.