CHICAGO — It was the middle of winter, two days after Barack Obama’s inauguration, when David Berman sat down at the computer in his Nashville home, typed out a post titled “Silver Jews End — Lead Singer Bids his Well-Wishers Adieu” and published it on his record label’s online message board. The decision to dissolve his band, which by that point had made Berman a cult figure in the world of underground music, was sudden and surprising, but Berman seemed in good spirits. “I always said we would stop before we got bad,” he wrote. “If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to Shiny Happy People.”
A few hours later, another post written by Berman appeared on the same message board. This one was titled “My Father, My Attack Dog” and gave additional context to his decision beyond simply wanting to avoid creating the sequel to R.E.M.’s most noxiously catchy hit. “Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret,” he wrote, claiming that this secret was “worse than suicide” (which he had attempted in 2003) and “worse than crack addiction” (the scourge of his life around that same time).
His gravest secret was the identity of his father.
“You might be surprised to know he is famous, for terrible reasons,” Berman wrote. “My father is a despicable man.”
It turns out that this poet laureate of indie rock was the son of one of the most notorious denizens of the Swamp — Richard Berman, a lobbyist who made millions and became D.C.-famous for his relentless tactics on behalf of clients including big tobacco, soft-drink companies and union-busting corporations. A “60 Minutes” segment about him dubbed Berman “Dr. Evil” and “the booze and food industries’ weapon of mass destruction.” The clip and quote are proudly featured on the bio page of his firm’s website.
“This winter I decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused. . . . I’ve always hid this terrible shame from you, the fan. Hopefully it won’t contaminate your feelings about the work.”
Logical or not — did the son really bear the supposed sins of the father? — there was no turning back. His band of nearly two decades couldn’t exist, or else his very own credibility would be destroyed. (For his part, Richard Berman, 76, wants none of the public dad-lad drama his son revels in, refusing multiple requests for comment. “Rick won’t discuss his family,” a spokeswoman at Berman and Co. told The Washington Post, but the father has been known to describe his son as someone who constructs his own life story.)
“I don’t remember anything except feeling like one of those Buddhist monks who throws gasoline on themselves,” David Berman says a decade later, thinking back on that decisive day. We’re in a small one-room apartment above his record label’s offices that feels like a cross between a dorm room and a thrift shop, and is serving as his temporary home. In his first extensive interviews since going dark, Berman is ready to talk: about where he’s been and what he’s been up to the past 10 years, what inspired his return, and why he made such a self-immolating exit.
“I think I wanted to take the option of slinking back to the constant affirmation from fans away from myself,” says Berman, who is releasing a new album under the name Purple Mountains in July. “I always loved bands with mystique.”
Talking to Berman alternately feels like basking in the erudition of a professor or the absurdity of a class clown. His eyeglasses are taped together over his right ear, his hair is long and a bit stringy. His beard is dark and a little bit patchy. He looked ragged in his 30s and now looks positively grizzled. He toggles from the virtues of silence as the most powerful artistic statement, as laid out by Susan Sontag in her 1967 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” (which he insisted I read before our first meeting), to the virtues of getting banned from websites for trolling (which he admits happened to him).
The 2009 breakup note was surprising; what wasn’t surprising was how it was delivered. Berman had always been one for grand gestures. When he attempted suicide by consuming a near-lethal combination of crack and pills, he did so in the same hotel suite where Al Gore and his team waited out the 2000 presidential election recount. “I want to die where the presidency died!” he infamously said at the time.
Ultimately, in trying to kill his own career, Berman was fleeing from a shadow that had shaped his adult life — the artist son rebuking a succeed-at-all costs father. The only son who found ways to sabotage whatever success might come his way. The 52-year-old son still smarting from the wounds of his parents’ decades-ago divorce, who has renounced any inheritance from his father.
Hung up on a single line
David Berman became a cult hero singer-songwriter largely because he never said much, making his public expiation all the more startling. Silver Jews did not tour. He did not grant interviews. He didn't even let his record label take out ads to promote Silver Jews albums. It was as a lyricist that Berman attained his status as something of an oracle.
“There was a certain feeling of wisdom handed down constantly line after line,” says Dan Bejar of Destroyer, one of the many songwriters who ranks Berman as an inspiration and influence. “Real wisdom or wisdom that came from something, you know, damaged or damaging.”
A quick survey of simply the first lines on his records showed how he could be heart-wrenchingly straightforward (“No I don’t really want to die/I only want to die in your eyes”) or darkly funny (“Where’s the paper bag that holds a liquor/Just in case I feel the need to puke”), while the opener of his most cherished album, “American Water,” splits the difference and has taken on a sort of Dickensian mythos in the world of indie rock (“In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”).
“It’s beautiful and serious, but it’s also a little bit funny,” says Kurt Vile, another one of Berman’s disciples. “Like a foreign perspective of human emotion.”
Berman famously obsessed over his lyrics — “I’ve seen him get hung up on a single line for literally months,” says Dan Koretzky, president of Drag City — and privately obsessed over his public image and narrative.
When Silver Jews were labeled a “Pavement side project” after their first album because of the presence of his college pals Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, Berman kicked his friends out of the band and recorded the follow-up without them.
Berman hit rock bottom around the time of 2001’s “Bright Flight,” lost in a haze of drug addiction that resulted in the bleakest album of his career. He sobered up in rehab (paid for by his father), made a rousing return with 2005’s “Tanglewood Numbers,” and by the time of 2008’s “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea,” Berman was against all odds leading what passed as a normal musician life. Silver Jews started touring in 2006, with his wife, Cassie (together since 1999), now a full-time member and bassist. She was a stabilizing force, particularly in concert, where her calm professionalism served as the perfect counter to his endearingly shambolic presence, and their duets served as nightly highlights.
Then, a few months after wrapping the band’s most triumphant tour, Berman bailed. He chose private solitude over a public partnership with Cassie and the band, stopping at the moment it was shaping up as an actual career for both him and his wife.
“I knew it was coming, and we did talk about it,” Koretzky says. “My feeling was that the very complicated emotions and motivations he had for ending the band felt in some ways like 100 percent the right thing to do and felt in some ways like complete madness.”
His father's foil
The Flats at Dupont Circle. It had to be the Flats.
Berman’s first order of business after dissolving the Silver Jews was to return to the exact D.C. street corner that was seared into his brain as a child, renting an apartment temporarily to gather his thoughts and take on his dad.
When David was 6, his parents split up, and Rick Berman moved out of the family’s Reston, Va., home and into an apartment in the District. David would shuttle between the two locations — weekdays in the suburbs with his mom and weekends in his dad’s new downtown apartment. He remembers the usual minutiae of everyday life (“We would feed pigeons up at the circle, keeping a safe distance from hippies and homeless”); the first signs of his dad’s win-at-all-costs behavior (“When we played Sorry! he loved to send you back to the start. And he wasn’t the least bit sorry!”); and he remembers seeing his dad with other women.
When David was growing up, Richard Berman was not yet the major power broker he would later become, an ascension that started when he worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and became an executive for the Steak and Ale restaurant chain. In the mid-’80s, Richard Berman started Berman and Co., when David was a student at the University of Virginia.
Rick wasn’t big into music or literature, passions that David developed on his own. One movie David says his dad loved was “Animal House,” which he says explains his worldview. “When Belushi smashes the guitar over the folk singer’s head, he’s owning the libs,” David says. “There was a way in which it cast bullies as rebels.”
The specific apartment David subletted from February through June in 2009 allowed him to see the building his father lived in for those years in the 1970s. He would look out his window and use that sight as inspiration while writing an “exposé” of his father, portraying him as a union-busting, mercenary instrument of corporate behemoths.
Berman says he was in talks with HBO but balked when the network offered him $150,000 for simply the rights to his story, without any of his input. He was convinced they were going to make his father into an appealing, Tony Soprano-like antihero. (An HBO spokeswoman could not confirm these details.)
Even the way David shaped his career came in response to his father’s actions, he says.
Rick became a pioneer of astroturfing, a new form of fake-grassroots messaging; David wrote poetry. (In 2005, a former U.S. poet laureate told the New York Times of Berman’s poems in his 1999 collection, “Actual Air”: “They are full of complex turns and tricks and conceptual hijinks, and yet there’s this surface clarity. You’re welcomed into the poem.”)
Rick’s clients included the biggest industries in all of business; David actively fought against mainstream success.
“In a way I enjoyed showing him that he had to go to so much effort to get people to follow him, and I didn’t have to do anything,” he says.
Even as David set out to “take down” his father, they remained in touch over email once in a while. “The time that he got the most furious was when I said, well, this is the ultimate for you. This is your guy,” Berman says of an email he sent his dad after Donald Trump’s win in November 2016. “You’re just like this guy. He didn’t like that at all. But it’s true.”
Mike Elk is a labor reporter for PaydayReport.com and the Guardian who has covered Rick Berman extensively over the past five years. He doesn’t see him as a Trump-like figure but more of an old-school Republican.
“I think he sees himself as this scrappy Everyman,” Elk says of the powerful lobbyist. They may be diametrically opposed when it comes to labor issues — Elk is a staunch union advocate — but Elk describes him as someone whom you’d like to have as a neighbor. When Elk left his job at Politico in the wake of a labor dispute with the publication, Rick Berman was one of the first people to call and see how he was doing.
“Rick is a competitor; he’s a guy who prides himself on being a good businessman,” Elk says. “He sees defeating unions as the ultimate way of proving you are a good businessman.”
“I grew up the son of a businessman,” David told The Post. “And I didn’t get into music to be a businessman.”
A new partnership
When Harmony Korine, who directed the movie “Spring Breakers,” hosted a Hanukkah party in Nashville several years ago, it was the start of a partnership between an ascendant rock star and a cult hero in hiding — and another opportunity Berman sabotaged.
Korine was a friend and Nashville neighbor of Berman’s. Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach was new to town — not yet at the arena-filling status he’d find in a couple of years, but well on his way — and their families gathered to celebrate the festival of lights.
Berman says they bonded over jokes made at the expense of a fellow Nashville resident, Jack White. “That really brought us together,” Berman remembers. “He liked it when I called Jack White ‘Sir Edgar Scissor Blues.’ ”
“I don’t remember that,” Auerbach says, diplomatically. “But I remember him constantly being funny. It almost felt like when we would hang out, he was almost doing stand-up for me.”
The parameters of the partnership they struck up were pretty simple — Dan would write some music, David would write some words, and maybe they could make something work. But eventually Berman backed out as Auerbach focused on other projects.
“I was definitely honored to be able to write with him,” Auerbach says of the experience. “I feel like I learned a lot from David, whether he knows it or not.”
Nastanovich, one of Berman’s oldest friends, puts it this way: “If things don’t feel right to him, then he’s going to pull the plug.”
“I hope this message finds you well. I’m a Nashville native and a longtime fan. To get to the point I’ve got a bunch of Silver Jews records and a big-ass soundsystem. I wondered if you’d be interested in coming by and having a listen . . .”
It’s April 2019 and David Berman is finally getting around to reading his emails from January 2017. Back in Chicago, the musician is going through the inbox of an abandoned email address that still gets a trickle of emails from some mixture of curious superfans and aspiring poets, everyone looking for a brief interaction with a mysterious figure.
Berman was on the other end of this kind of exchange when he reached out to the jammy indie band Woods last spring via his preferred method of communication — the 3 a.m. email.
“Is this Jeremy from Woods?”
When Jeremy Earl woke up and saw the message in his inbox, he was puzzled and intrigued, and texted his bandmate Jarvis Taveniere about the mysterious correspondence. “I was like, what?! That’s amazing. Write him back ASAP!” Taveniere recalls.
Soon enough they were in Chicago, and after three days of rehearsals and four days of recording, the album was basically done. Songs that Berman had been working on for years were closer than ever to being released, although it was hard to stop himself from continuing to tweak them.
“He’d have pages of alternate lyrics for each song. All amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Earl says.
As fast as the final “Purple Mountains” sessions with Woods came together, the coulda-been sessions of almost-collaborators read like an impressive indie festival lineup, including Dan Bejar of Destroyer, Stephen Malkmus, Black Mountain (that grouping recorded an entire album in Vancouver, but Berman scrapped it) and Jeff Tweedy (who did spec production work on a couple of songs, but Berman decided to go in a different direction for the full album).
Outside of “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” — as straightforward as its title indicates — there are no cathartic takedowns of his father. But from opening track, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” you can also tell that this is going to be a different version of Berman in terms of how much more of himself is laid bare on the lyric sheet:
You see the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day I’m neck and neck with giving in
I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been.
Then it’s on to “All My Happiness Is Gone,” which surprisingly sounds like the Silver Jews’ take on Modern English’s “I Melt With You.” But in terms of where it lands emotionally, the song couldn’t be further from the new-wave classic; whereas Modern English depicted lovers literally stopping time to liquefy into each other, Berman’s song addresses a relationship in ruins.
By the time things end with a song called “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” (featuring Auerbach with a co-writing credit), it’s obvious there’s a new fractured relationship at the center of Berman’s life: his separation from his wife, Cassie.
“We’ve been together 20 years, and the first decade we lived in town and had parties and were always together as a couple,” Berman says later in an email. “After the [last Silver Jews show] I completely retreated into our house and buried myself in books. I saw no one and did nothing. Cassie continued to make friends, to play music, to go on vacations and be with family and I Bartlebied my way out of all of it.” (Cassie Berman declined to comment for this story.)
So now Berman has come full circle, one family member sending him into hiding and another serving as the bittersweet muse for his reemergence. Whether he’s ready to fully emerge, though, is a fair question. He rarely leaves his Chicago apartment, to the point where even the video for his comeback single was filmed in that tiny room.
Footage of present-day Berman is interspersed with scenes of the final Silver Jews show. The sepia-toned flashbacks, shot in elegant 16mm, show a smiling Berman surrounded by fans and his bandmates (including Cassie), exalting in their warm embrace, the subject a hero’s send-off.
By contrast, the 2019 Berman sits alone in his room, singing “All My Happiness Is Gone” to a stationary camera, melting into an ineffable sadness.
Richard Leiby contributed to this story.