I wish David Berman were still alive.
That’s the thing that I want to say.
I’m sitting here on a black leather couch with scratched arms—the couch’s arms are scratched not mine, scratched by a cat named Remy who ran away years ago—I’m sitting here typing these dumb words while my daughter is a few feet off at the kitchen table working on a summer reading essay she should have started ages ago. The essay is on The Outsiders. She’s letting me help her, for once, but she’s complaining about the help, which is mostly in the form of questions by me—Why does it matter that they hide in a church? What does Frost’s poem mean? How does Johnny interpret the poem? What does it mean to save someone at great cost to yourself? She’d rather have answers.
I have a lot of tabs open on my browser, too. I’m looking through recent posts on Menthol Mountains, the blog of the late David Berman, who died yesterday way too young at 52, David Berman the singer-songwriter, the poet, the author of six Silver Jews albums and the slim poetry collection Actual Air and most recently an album called Purple Mountains by a band called Purple Mountains; David Berman, who died yesterday way too young at 52, was a voice in my ear and in my head from the time I was 15.
The last post on Menthol Mountains is a bunch of quotes from the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. The first quote is:
Q: Why are you so allergic to interviews?
A: Try to picture yourself being shackled hand and foot to a tree, and someone firing a machine gun at you. Don’t you think that would make you a bit tense?
Was Berman allergic to interviews himself? He did a surprising number for the release of the Purple Mountains record. (John Lingan’s profile in The Ringer is particularly outstanding.) Most of the interviews and profiles told a sad story, a man living in a one-room apartment in the back of his record label Drag City’s offices, trying to stay sober. A man whose wife and ally and bandmate Cassie had left him; a man whose mother, an anchor in his life, had died in 2016. A man still estranged from his evil father.
These sad details are expressed in every lyric and chord of the Purple Mountains record. It opens with “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” an unusually plain and plaintive title for Berman. The song begins thus:
Well, I don’t like talkin’ to myself
But someone’s gotta say it, hell
I mean, things have not been going well
This time I think I finally fucked myself
(The opener “Well, I don’t” echoes the opening of “How to Rent a Room,” the first track of my favorite Silver Jews record, The Natural Bridge: “No I don’t really want to die
/ I only want to die in your eyes.”)
“This time I think I finally fucked myself.” Purple Mountains returns to this idea of fucking oneself in the last song, “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me”:
If no one’s fond of fucking me
Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me
Yeah, maybe I’m the only one for me
I could pick through the record more, pull line after line out—I’ve been listening to the thing almost every day for a month—but the titles alone signal Berman’s deep pain: “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”; “Darkness and Cold”; “Nights that Won’t Happen”; the song “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is heartbreaking and I’ve found myself getting up to skip it because it’s too painful. Berman channeled all that pain into something beautiful; Purple Mountains is probably his best, most sincere, cohesive record. I hate that it was his last one, and I hate that its opening lines seemed to warn us—here’s the next set of lines from “That’s Just the Way That I Feel”:
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
I’m not sure if I can listen to the record any time soon.
I was thrilled when Berman made new music. I wrote about hearing “All My Happiness Is Gone” for the first time, although I was really writing about myself, like I am here, and a friend, the friend who texted me three months ago to tell me that there was new music by David Berman and the friend who texted me last night to tell me that David Berman died. I was making dinner and my nephew and niece were over for the night and I was cooking angel hair pasta and I cried and I overcooked the angel hair pasta.
I wish David Berman were still alive.
(I’ve gotten up from the black leather cat-scratched couch a few times to look in on my daughter’s essay, which seems to be focusing on saving people and trying to stay golden and all that jazz.)
Back on Menthol Mountains, Berman’s blog, scrolling through more Thomas Bernhard quotes, and I see this one, from my favorite Bernhard novel Gargoyles:
Everyone, he went on, speaks a language he does not understand, but which now and then is understood by others. That is enough to permit one to exist and at least to be misunderstood.
Did Berman understand his own language? I felt like I understood him, even at his most cryptic, in the poems of Actual Air or the lyrics of some of the weirder Silver Jews songs. Again, I felt like this was someone talking to me. I took “Advice to the Graduate” personally:
Sleep on your back and ash in your shoes
And always use the old sense of the words
Your third drink will lead you astray
Wandering down the backstreets of the world
I’m thinking now of the lines after those, too
On the last day of your life, don’t forget to die
The things that you do will always make your mama cry
It’s a little past noon now and my daughter is still writing, and I’m still writing, and I know she’s managed to say more than I have—that’s she’s over there spelling out what it means to sacrifice for others, what it means to stay gold and care about sunsets, and etc. But I think she might need me to make her a sandwich now.
I wish David Berman had forgotten to die.