Thanks to this whole sick crew for the sing along.
This one tore me up.
Thanks to this whole sick crew for the sing along.
This one tore me up.
I’ve been a big fan of the Vintage Contemporaries 1980s series for ages now. The books were easily available, cheap and used, in the nineties, and I first read Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney in VC editions, later adding novels by Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosinski to the burgeoning collection. I was thrilled to find a VC copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree years ago; I wasn’t looking for it in particular, but the spine of a Vintage Contemporaries edition is hard to miss in a used bookstore. I picked it up of course, and gave the Vintage International edition I’d read to a friend who’d just finished Blood Meridian. The dark, moody Vintage International covers strongly contrast the bright, vivid VC edition (with a surreal painting by Marc Tauss):
In time, I’d unshelve at least one or two VC editions when browsing a used bookstore, especially if it was an author I’d been meaning to read. I ended up reading and loving Joy Williams’ first collection, Taking Care, that way, as well as Charles Portis’s Norwood (which led to me reading every Portis novel I could get my hands on).
The one I really, really wanted though was the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Barry Hannah’s collection Airships. I must have seen it first–just the spine–in this great write up of VC designs at Talking Covers, and then added it to a mental list of titles to check for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Grove Press copy I have of Airships; indeed, I really dig its photorealistic cover by Hannah’s contemporary Glennray Tutor—but I guess at this point I have to admit I’m collector (of cheap eighties paperbacks).
I read them, books, too, of course. Here’s the intro to my 2011 review of Airships:
In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.
Well so and anyway:
Yesterday, browsing my beloved used bookstore, I found, while not really looking for it, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Airships. I was in the “H” section of General Fiction, looking for something by Chester Himes (which I found, but in the Mysteries section, which I really have never browsed before), and there it was, its spine singing to me from a low shelf. I was happy to note the cover is by Rick Lovell, who’s responsible for my favorite VC editions (along with, obviously, series designer Lorraine Louie). As a sort of cherry on top, my edition has a little gold sticker at the top of the inside cover, proclaiming “Square Books on the Square, Oxford Mississippi.” Hannah taught at Ole Miss for nearly three decades. Square Books is still there.
I was excited with my find and I’m a dork so I tweeted about it. The next tweet I saw in my timeline was this tweet by Christopher DeWeese (retweeted by the writer John Lingan):
(I love the blurb by Thomas Pynchon.)
David Berman was a poet, musician, and singer (and more) who died almost exactly a year ago. He was kind of a hero of mine, as far as these things go, and as such I never made an attempt to contact him, even when he linked to this blog on his blog, Menthol Mountains. I absolutely love the cover he made—or did he make it? I don’t actually know—but I know that he loved Vintage Contemporaries, that they were important to him. I recall John Lingan tweeting about having to cut some of his discussion about the series with Berman in his fantastic profile of the then-not-late artist. I couldn’t find the tweet, but I reached out to John, and he told me I remembered right; he also told me he recalled seeing a copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows in Berman’s room.
I wonder if Berman and I had the same VC edition of First Love and Other Sorrows? The one with the Rick Lovell cover of butterflies on a sandcastle? Or maybe he had the one with the purple cover? I gave my copy to a good friend years ago, and have never seen one with the Lovell cover since.
I also wonder if Berman read the VC edition of Airships. I know he met Hannah, who apparently read Berman’s work. I recall now too that both men show up in The Minus Times Collected, which I never picked up. I’m going to order it now.
Copies of Dmitry Samarov’s latest books, Soviet Stamps and Music to My Eyes showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters the other week. I started in on Music to My Eyes, a kind of fragmentary memoir told in sketches (both verbal and literal) of the Chicago music scene. The determiner “the” in the previous sentence is wrong, of course, as is the singular noun “scene” — Samarov’s book shows the diversity of the city’s music, even if fans will be able to connect the dots between bands like Eleventh Dream Day, Mekons, and Brokeback. There are stories that float around Nick Cave, Arto Lindsay, Neko Case, and many, many others. Samarov’s brief chapter on the Silver Jews ends with an anecdote about not getting to meet Berman in 2018. The final lines are heartbreaking: “Maybe there’ll be more songs. Then I could stop being mad at him for walking away too soon.”
Here’s Samarov on U.S. Maple, who made some of the strangest music ever during that weird slice of time from the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts. U.S. Maple is by far the most confounding live band I’ve ever seen; it’s easy to throw around the word deconstruction, but their live performances were deconstructions of rocknroll:
This video was shot by Craig Giffen on January 4, 2020 (David Berman’s 53rd birthday).
“Secret Knowledge of Back Roads”
“Advice to the Graduate”
“Welcome To The House of the Bats”
“Trains Across the Sea”
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.
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.
A few hours ago, my best friend send me a text with a link to listen to “All My Happiness Is Gone,” the first single from David Berman’s new band Purple Mountains. We’d been excited to hear the tune since it was announced last week. It’s been over a decade since Berman’s last record, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea came out, and I’ve missed his voice. The six records the Silver Jews put out between 1994 and 2008 were formative to me. I remember each distinctly as evocations of time and place, the songs on each record emotional spaces different versions of me inhabited.
I’ve listened to “All My Happiness Is Gone” about half a dozen times now, and listened to the two remixes of it a couple of times too. I really like the song—it’s sad and moving, a song about aging and friendship and, uh, despair, a song that opens with, “Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old / And keeping them is harder than you might suppose.”
When we were 15, my best friend, the one who texted me a link to listen to “All My Happiness Is Gone” a few hours ago, we were between bands. Or really, we were calling the music we made together in our bedrooms a band. We’d soon hook up with a drummer, and then another drummer, other players, and so on, different iterations of an amateur psych art rock band that played shows in clubs and smaller clubs, houses, record stores, art galleries and you get the idea. Anyway, when we were 15, between bands, we recorded what we called an “album” (an album!) on my then-girlfriend’s older brother’s 4-track. The tape we made is and was awful, but we covered the Silver Jews’ song “Trains Across the Sea,” all two chords of it, with what I still think of as a kind of clumsy grace, my best friend delivering the lead vocal with an admirably faulty feigned maturity. We even adapted the line “In 27 years I’ve drunk 50, 000 beers” to better suit our own then slim duration, even though we had to stretch the syllables in “15” a bit too far for the meter. Over the past 25 years I’ve recorded hundreds of hours of music, a lot of it with this friend, and that cover of “Trains Across the Sea” is maybe my favorite thing we ever did.
Wait—didn’t I say that this was a blog about “All My Happiness Is Gone,” a new song by the band Purple Mountains? I did, I know—but I can’t write about music. Sorry. It’s better to just hear the song, right? Here it is:
The first two minutes of this video aren’t part of the single edit, but I like the way Berman’s plunky guitar meanders around the melody and rhythm of the song before the canned orchestra propels us into the sad sad sad lyric. The intro also balances out the end of the song, which doesn’t so much conclude as it slows into near-collapse, stretched thin like the spirit of the song itself: ” …the fear’s so strong it leaves you gasping / No way to last out here like this for long.”
Berman’s albums with the Silver Jews were always tinged with melancholy or even outright depression, but there was always, at least in my estimation, a leavening irony. Take “Honk If You’re Lonely,” from American Water, for instance, in which Berman celebrates and sends up classic country tunes, and, ultimately connects to his audience: “Honk if you’re lonely tonight / If you need a friend to get through the night.” Two decades later in “All My Happiness Is Gone,” Berman sounds like the one who needs a friend:
Mounting mileage on the dash
Double darkness falling fast
I keep stressing, pressing on
Way deep down at some substratum
Feels like something really wrong has happened
And I confess I’m barely hanging on
The music is simple and sweet, moving between two chords for the most part—the second chord lingering just a bit longer before the chorus hits, the same trick that Berman pulled off in “Trains Across the Sea.” The chorus, in which Berman repeats the titular line with a plaintive sadness that hurts me, hangs around a melody that reads like a country goth cribbing of Modern English’s “I Melt with You.” It’s a bit of an emotional apocalypse, which is kinda maybe what you want from a sad song, but the sadness seems so sincere, the despair so visceral, that again, it hurts. Maybe share it with a friend.