The press photos that accompanied news of Purple Mountains’ wondrous debut album offered a grim visage of David Berman: Tinted sunglasses covered a set of weary, stricken eyes, his neck-length hair was thinning and reedy, and a pursed, lifeless expression graced the face of the 52-year-old poet and musician.
No doubt that Berman personally selected those photos. He was a man who endured decades of crippling drug and alcohol addictions, harrowing bouts of depression, personal strife and an utterly debilitating relationship with his father. Berman knew that those daily battles chipped away at his soul, drained his sinew and irradiated his marrow, leaving him weakened and exposed. Whatever doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. It just doesn’t kill you.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Berman often wrote in a manner that reflected this macabre vision—that life was something to be endured. From his earliest days as the creative force behind Silver Jews—the offbeat, towering Americana project he started with Pavement founder Stephen Malkmus—all the way to his final album, a masterful coda released under his new moniker, Purple Mountains, Berman mused ponderously upon mortality. Those observations could be wry (“On the last day of your life/Don’t Forget to Die,”) surreal (“Like like the the the Death,”), buoyant (“Well, I think I’d die, see/If you just said hi to me”), and devastating (“We’re gonna take a ride in the dirt/We’re gonna die ’til it doesn’t hurt.”)
Maybe Berman was fixated on death, because he didn’t think he had much to offer in this life. That is tragic thinking. Berman could be mordant, but he was also a life-affirming, love-bruised and brilliant poet whose mastery of words and prose was nothing short of dazzling. He was a lyrical Loki, cheekily wielding wordplays to magisterial effects (“And I wanna be like water if I can/Cause water doesn’t give a damn.”)
He was the voice of record for such a disparate collection of lost souls. He spoke with lived authority on countless lives—the privileged kid dealing with the ennui and desultoriness of suburban shopping malls and gated communities; the afternoon bar sot reflecting upon the dread and possibility of city living; the nomadic raconteur wistfully pining for desiccated arroyos and distant flat-topped mesas.
And when he spoke of beauty — of life’s boundless offerings — he delivered his message with such clarity that even the greatest skeptics would melt upon his embrace. Berman encountered difficulty upon difficulty in his pained life, but he also loved—his friends, his wife, his bandmates, his fans—and he had a peerless ability to convey the joys of opening one’s heart. It would be a useless endeavor to document his every lyric that contained pearls of ecstasy, but know that for every mention of death in his records, were lines like this, “I’m gonna love you for a hundred years/Through suffering and celebration, dear.”
No need for a façade there. Just a naked statement of devotion.
On August 7, we lost David Berman. No cause of death has been announced yet, but one can speculate.
Berman’s death is tragic for countless reasons. After years battling with drugs and alcohol, he had proudly avowed his decade-plus of clean living. His return to music, 11 years after the last Silver Jews album and subsequent dissolution of that band, was an improbable success, as Purple Mountains maintained and even built upon the lofty artistic standards established by his pioneering early work. He was set to start his tour August 10, which included a stop at the Chapel on September 18 and 19 (the shows were sold out.) Most importantly, Berman still had so much more love to offer, and we had so much love to give back in return.
For many individuals suffering from depression it is impossible to realize how much you are loved. His life was fraught and fragile and perilous and punitive, but he taught me to embrace those blissful, rare moments of utter happiness, because they could extend into a lifetime or be lost by the end of the cigarette, ash dropping to the floor.
Berman once mused about “Half hours on Earth/What are they worth?”
I, for one, am eternally grateful that he stuck around for as long as he did, offering to eat his pain to provide us with his gifts — to sacrifice his happiness so we could indulge us in his brilliance — one half hour at a time.
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