Redemptive Chaos: artist David Berman’s pensive life and legacy

When we think of David Berman, most imagine a troubled yet talented individual. His successes and his struggles seem to be inextricably intertwined, and it is this fact that has contributed to his somewhat mythical status within the music community. In other words, we cannot have one side of Berman without the other. Frontman of lo-fi folk group Silver Jews, Berman led a prolific and somewhat fraught career before his death by suicide in August. He grappled with addiction at various points throughout his adult life and often incorporated these experiences into his own work. As if his talents in music production and songwriting were not impressive enough, Berman also was an accomplished poet and released a book of his own poetry titled “Actual Air in 1999. 

Berman played a significant role in ushering in the golden era of DIY lo-fi rock. While at the University of Virginia, Berman befriended fellow musicians Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastonovich. Some may be previously familiar with Malkmus as the founder and frontman of Pavement, a group equally deserving of recognition for its contributions to the underground garage rock scene. After the trio moved to Hoboken, New Jersey in the late 1990s, the group began recording and releasing music under the name Silver Jews, a fitting alias that embodied the group’s contentment in avoiding the limelight for most of their career. Although, as the epithet “Silver” would suggest, their residence on the fringes of the music scene would not diminish their artistic wealth or rich ingenuity.

Although “Starlite Walker” was the band’s first studio album, perhaps their most influential LP is the unassuming and poignant “American Water.” Berman avoided wallowing in self-pity and despair. Despite bouts of depression and addiction that defined much of his time spent as a musician, Berman never wanted this characteristic to limit or ultimately categorize his music. In “American Water” Berman reflects on impermanence, chaos and morality without making his music seem like an extended sermon. He preaches as a sinner himself with enough experience of hardship to make his lyrics valid in the truest sense. But at a certain level, Berman must have realized that existential meaning is inaccessible even to the most persistent of us. Perhaps Berman most clearly articulated this inability to reconcile his desire for unattainable truth with the irrational joy that arises when pursuing this knowledge in the song “We Are Real,” in which he writes “Is the problem that we can’t see, or is it that the problem is / beautiful to me?”

When the Silver Jews disbanded in 2009, Berman withdrew himself from the music scene to spend more time reading and writing, as well as to escape the legacy of his corrupt father Richard Berman. David Berman believed that he could never do enough in his music to outbalance the damage that his father had exacted through his work as head of a public affairs firm. Throughout his career, Richard Berman has advocated against regulations enforced by consumer and environmental conservation groups. This all changed, however, when in July of this year Berman released an album titled “Purple Mountains” under the same name. It received widespread critical acclaim and was cited as proof that Berman had made a tangible, and worthwhile, comeback since his decade-long hiatus. It reflected much of the signature sound of Silver Jews with perhaps more of a sense of detachment and cynicism that was absent from his earlier work. A month later he hung himself in Brooklyn. 

Ultimately, Berman’s vision could not help but lend itself to chaos. I find it comforting to consider that Berman, despite his insular nature, really wanted to inspire others through his art. In describing sadness in his music in a not-so-sad way, Berman distanced himself from the thoughts that plagued him and thus imparted his music simultaneously with a pensive melancholy and a serious hope. And I mean hope in the sense that we may never know what makes the world spin, but that it does not matter so long as we are trying. Berman’s presence will not so easily dissipate. He will remain in the words, sentences, lyrics and poems that keep our curiosity suspended and our despair at bay. Berman’s song “Smith and Jones Forever,” in which at one point he describes a fictitious execution, takes on a painfully reassuring note in the context of this recent tragedy: “And when they turn on the chair / Something’s added to the air / When they turn on the chair / Something’s added to the air forever.”

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