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David Berman of the Silver Jews and Purple Mountains

Am very saddened to learn of the passing of accomplished poet and indie musician David Berman, author of the book Actual Air and frontman of beloved bands Silver Jews and, more recently, Purple Mountains. The latter were slated to tour this year for the first time, on the heels of their critically revered self-titled album that was only released last month on Drag City, the loyal record label Berman called home, even in the literal sense during his final years. A large and readable book could be written about D.B.—on his life, true, but perhaps more importantly, on the unique creative universe he realized through various mediums. To try to sum it all up in a brief eulogy, in the middle of the night, wouldn’t do it justice, especially since I didn’t know him. I will say that I enjoyed the wry, often-imitated poetry of Actual Air and have long been a fan of his music. The Silver Jews full-length The Natural Bridge in particular remains one of my favorite albums of the 1990s—just a nice, concise, sorta laid back late-night indie rock record with light Southern/country music influences. The number of times I’ve sang along to the opening track “How to Rent a Room” must be in the hundreds! And I’ve known plenty of other people who’ve been just as smitten with his songs and their poetic edge, that was no doubt informed by Berman’s huge, discerning appetite for books and his penchant for observing life with a keen eye toward compelling details. Though he was troubled by various things, to me there’s always been a clarity of wit, and oftentimes humor, even during the darkest of times, running through Berman’s work, be it poetry, or songs, or comics he drew. This has made it seem like he was approachable as an artist and that somehow he always had the upper hand. For instance, while his singing voice has always been endearing in my book, not to mention instantly recognizable, Berman once remarked “All my favorite singers can’t sing” in a song. This was perhaps a defensive gesture toward his “critics” or a commentary against people upholding rigid standards of what constitutes “talent” in art, how those who possess it in spades can be often seem to be operating in some sort of contradictory manner in relation to the norms of their medium.

I only got to see Silver Jews once, with my good friend Will at the High Noon Saloon in Madison in April of 2006. Berman had a large band behind him, comprised of his wife Cassie on bass, two guitarists (one of them William Tyler), a keyboardist, and a drummer. Being newly assembled, Berman remarked that, in a sense, they were “younger than the Arctic Monkeys,” which of course drew laughs, especially when he started talking in a U.K. accent. And to be honest, some of the older Silver Jews songs did sound a little flat. But when the band played the tracks from their new album Tanglewood Numbers, especially “There is a Place” and “Punks in the Beerlight,” they were a force to be reckoned with, and the room was teeming with life. The records and books will remain, and always draw people in–the new song “Darkness and Cold” alone has been haunting my mind this week, and the rest of Purple Mountains is moving from start to finish. But it’s a major loss. Rest in peace, D.B.

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