On August 7th, David Berman passed away at the age of fifty-two. The devastating news caused a wave of tributes from his peers and fans across social media and various online publications. He was fondly remembered as one of the finest songwriters and poets of his generation, someone who could juggle sadness and humour with great ease in his inimitable phrasing. Having formed Silver Jews in 1989, Berman’s lo-fi indie songs became a hugely unifying thread for outliers. More often than not, his lyrics grappled with death, his tumultuous relationship with his lobbyist father Richard Berman, love, and trying to get to the crux of the meaning of life. Always doing so with a wry wink.
Leading up to his untimely death, the songwriter and poet gave a glimpse into his life in a deeply moving interview on Vish Khanna’s Kreative Kontrol podcast. He had been living in the Chicago office of Drag City, his mother died and his marriage to former bandmate Cassie Berman ended. There was, however, glimmers of hope starting to come through for Berman as began writing songs again as Purple Mountains. He released his first album of new material in over a decade, a collection of songs that are simultaneously thrilling and devastating.
Purple Jews, a tribute night organised by Hugh McCabe and Danny Carroll, will celebrate the life and work of David Berman on October 17th in Dublin’s Sound House, with all proceeds raised will be donated to Aware. Across the evening, artists such as Adrian Crowley (who toured with Berman in 2008), Maija Sofia, Eileen Gogan of Microdisney and many more will sing from Berman’s Silver Jews and Purple Mountains songbooks. Elsewhere, broadcaster and writer John Kelly will read from Berman’s book of poetry, Actual Air.
Can you recall the first time you heard a Silver Jews song?
Hugh: I’m not entirely sure if this was the first time I’d heard a Silver Jews’ song, but it was certainly the first time I encountered the band. It was either 1997 or 1998, I was over in New York playing with a band and the CMJ showcase coincided with us being there. We had a night off and the record label Drag City were hosting a gig in a place called Tramps. Basically, everybody on their roster such as Smog, Will Oldham and Royal Trux were on the line-up. There was a house band that performed with everyone that featured Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs. When the time for Silver Jews’ set arrived a guy from the label came out and announced to the audience, ‘David Berman is here! He’s backstage, but he won’t come out!’
At the time, I wasn’t aware that they hadn’t done a show. Instead, some guy from the label came out and sang a bunch of Silver Jews songs. It was amazing because clearly everyone knew the score; Berman hadn’t really performed live before and was reluctant to do so. As I said, I’d heard of them but hadn’t paid much attention to their music until that night. While they played, I remember thinking, ‘This is great but I only vaguely know who this band is!’ There was instantly an aura of mystique about them because they were fronted by a guy who wouldn’t come out from backstage. I was excited to listen to their recorded material after that night. I think I picked up a copy of American Water or The Natural Bridge, afterwards.
Danny: A friend of mine, Ann Marie Duffin introduced me to Silver Jews. She sent me the song, ‘I’m Gonna Love The Hell Out Of You’, which is one of the songs I’m going to perform at the tribute gig. I loved the line from the first verse, “Sentimental as a cat’s grave.” That lyrics always stuck with me. You never forget the first Silver Jews song you hear!
My band, Shrug Life have been doing a cover of Joe Dolan’s ‘You’re Such A Good Looking Woman’ at our live shows where we extend the arrangement and stick the opening verse of that Silver Jews song into it. We’ve actually got a recorded version of it, too.
Would you say then that David Berman has had an influence on you as a lyricist?
Danny: Yeah, of course. It’s all in the words with him. Musically, I’ve come to recognise that there’s a lot going on in the arrangements having recently watched some of the rehearsals for the gig. In terms of Berman’s lyrics, there’s so much depth and humour and character in the songs. While he’s very specific, his words always feel direct and conversational. He does things with language and somehow manages to never stray into complete pretension despite his command of language. That’s what I really admire about his lyrics, and is something one can only aspire to.
Berman was often described as a combination of a peripheral and cultish figure, which I suppose, was due to an amalgamation of what we’ve touched on with his lyrical depth and elusiveness in terms of performing and engaging with media. What was it, in your opinion, about him that made him so beloved amongst his peers and fans?
Hugh: Apart from being brilliant, which is the obvious thing, I think he was a songwriter that people could make a real connection with. He’s very human and empathetic. Even though he clearly had an amazing faculty with language, he was also the kind of guy you could imagine having a conversation with down the pub. I think that’s a real gift that only a few people in music have; an ability to make you feel like you know them through their lyrics. There isn’t many artists that can do that. It’s a conversational aspect of songwriting which lends a real humanness to the work.
I suppose if we go back to that Drag City show in New York, you got a sense that everyone in the crowd was rooting for him. It’s like one of your friends who’s going through a rough patch and you want the best for them. You couldn’t help but feel that throughout the songs.
Danny: There’s also that rudimentary element to the music which makes it so accessible. It doesn’t sound a million miles away from you playing in your bedroom. I know that’s really reductive but you have something like The Natural Bridge and you’re never intimidated by his voice. David Berman obviously had an amazing gravelly and broken timbre but not necessarily in a technically good way, yet there was something really endearing about it.
Hugh: It’s like he said, “All my favourite singers couldn’t sing.”
Let’s talk about the tribute gig taking place this month to celebrate David Berman’s songs and poetry. What inspired you to organise the event?
Hugh: I have to give credit to my friend, Kirstie McDermott because it was her idea. About a week after Berman died, Kirstie tweeted Dudley Colley suggesting that someone should organise a tribute night for him. With that, Dudley texted Mark Jordan who was sitting beside me in MVP and asked if I wanted to be in the houseband for it, which I immediately agreed to.
So, we have a five-piece band, who have been rehearsing ever since we decided to do the gig, that’ll be performing around twenty or so songs across the night. We decided to ask lots of people to sing over the course of the night. That was inspired by that Drag City night; having a house band idea with a rotation of artists singing. We’d seen an out-pour of empathy online after he died and knew people such as Adrian Crowley and Maija Sofia who’re big fans and thought it would be way more interesting to get as many people as possible involved. On top of his songs being performed, John Kelly will be reading some of Berman’s poetry, also.
In recent years, there’s been a startling increase of suicides amongst musicians, particularly males. In his lyrics, Berman was always candid about death so when the news of his passing broke, the weight of sadness expressed felt significantly and substantially heavy. This past September, Stephen Malkmus and Bill Callahan played Dublin and both included Silver Jews covers in the setlist of their respective tours. What do you think it was about Berman’s death that had such a profound affect on people who loved his work?
Hugh: I think maybe one of the many reasons was his age; he was only fifty-two. This could be naive of me to think, but you tend to think that if you suffer from some of the things he had that maybe by the time you reach fifty you would have reconciled with yourself. Naturally, you’ll never be free from certain feelings and thoughts, but if you’ve made it that far you would hope that there’s a way of living your life with it. That’s what was so sad for me, anyway. Combined with the fact that he’d disappeared for so long, made a comeback as Purple Mountains and the album was so good. In spite of its lyrical themes, which are darker than anything he had done previously, it seemed to be a case that Berman was doing ok. Also, it was so exciting that he was backed by Woods on the Purple Mountains album. It was like a dream come true to have David Berman and Woods together.
In a strange way, apart from the circumstances, it reminded me of Bowie and his death. He was on the cusp of a triumphant comeback with the release of Blackstar and it was just taken away.
Danny: There was a sense of rooting for him, as well. Given how open he was about his depression and that being such a cathartic thing for him to express through his music gave a lot of other people comfort.
For me, he was kind of omnipresent throughout the summer. As much as I would have listened to Silver Jews, Berman was always present in conversations I had with friends. One friend had tickets to see him in Chicago and he talked about how excited he was to see him live. I saw Maija Soifa perform and she covered ‘Random Rules’, which completely knocked me out. There was maybe one interview he did for a podcast called Kreative Kontrol which showed that perhaps he wasn’t in a very good place, yet I still hoped that he was going to play an Irish show.
I think there was really a collective sense of people wishing that he’d held on for a bit longer because people got something from his music.
I’ve been thinking about how The Silver Jews rarely toured, which led me to consider that there are so many expectations and demands on artists such as completing album cycles, press and touring. This way of life has the potential to greatly compromise many aspects of their wellbeing. How do you think the music industry can change to make a career as a songwriter and musician more feasible?
Danny: I know that there’s Help Musicians U.K., but that’s a U.K. body. Unfortunately, there isn’t something like that in Ireland. There’s SelfMade, though. They held Music and The Mind which was a series of mental health seminars in Dublin at the start of the summer. That was a really positive thing. I don’t know if they have any funding or support but it’s a really nice initiative. They host events that are geared at musicians talking about mental health and how to negotiate touring or other challenges of being a performer or musician and the precariousness of that career.
Hopefully, something from what SelfMade are doing will help people and you’d certainly welcome more of that kind of initiative because it’s not an easy career.
Finally, what do you think David Berman’s legacy will be?
Danny: It’s a funny one. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, somebody that’s influenced lots of artists that I greatly admire. I don’t know if his music will extend outside of his immediate peers, but I would like to think it would. Death has a funny way of immortalising people within the music industry.
Hugh: Yeah, like Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, or Jeff Buckley. I don’t think any of them achieved the same level of widespread recognition during their lifetimes that they did in death. Similar to what Danny said, I wonder if Berman will reach that or will be perpetually consigned to indie types and songwriters.
Words: Zara Hedderman