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Silver Jews' David Berman Dies At 52

Aug 8, 2019
Originally published on August 12, 2019 9:07 pm

David Berman, the frontman and lyricist for the acclaimed indie rock band Silver Jews, died Wednesday at the age of 52. His record label, Drag City, announced his death via Twitter.

No cause of death was announced, but the New York Times reported Friday that Berman hanged himself in a Brooklyn apartment.

In July, Berman released a new album under the moniker Purple Mountains. The project appeared to be a remarkable comeback for an artist who dealt with substance abuse and depression for much of the 21st century and attempted suicide in 2003. Packed with poignant lyrics about self-destruction and lost love, the self-titled album follows six albums he recorded under the moniker Silver Jews, an indie rock band that came to embody the genre's literate strain in the 1990s, alongside frequent collaborators Pavement and labelmates Bill Callahan and Will Oldham.

"When it's done I want there to be something for the listener to interpret," Berman told The Washington Post in 2008. "When I write I want there to be more than one level of meaning. I want just a few words to be able to carry lots of different thoughts and ideas."

"Depression is crippling," Berman's friend and collaborator Stephen Malkmus wrote on Twitter Wednesday night, after news of Berman's death was announced. "He was a one of a kinder the songs he wrote were his main passion esp at the end. Hope death equals peace cuz he could sure use it."

Berman was also a published poet, who released the collection Actual Air in 1999. When he spoke with the Poetry Foundation last month, after the book was given a hardcover rerelease, the self-deprecating humor of his work in Purple Mountains carried over to the interview.

When asked how he hoped his new music would be received, Berman said, "Before I can think of any other hope I have to hope the music will not bother or disgust other people who are in earshot when it's played. I'm not complaining. Some people like my singing. But it sounds like bad singing to a lot of other people."

Berman's voice didn't sound bad to the cult following he developed during the 1990s as the leader of Silver Jews, the band he formed in 1989 with future Pavement stars Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. Pavement would quickly became indie darlings with the single "Summer Babe" in 1991, so by the time Berman released the first Silver Jews album, Starlite Walker, in 1994, the group was known more as a Pavement side project than a legitimate band. It didn't help that Starlite Walker's closest thing to a hit, "Advice To The Graduate," featured Malkmus on the chorus.

Berman established himself as a world-class rock lyricist on the following Silver Jews record, 1996's The Natural Bridge, which did not feature his friends in Pavement. The album includes dozens of lines that flout literal interpretation, yet resonate with wisdom. On the song "The Frontier Index," Berman sings: "When I was younger I was a cobra, in every case I wanted to be cool. / Now that I'm older and sub-space is colder, I just want to say something true."

Two years later, Berman reunited with Malkmus for American Water, which became known as Silver Jews' finest album. Its opening lyric epitomized the poignant pithiness that earned Berman that cult following: "In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection."

Berman and Silver Jews continued in fits and starts through 2008, releasing three well-received albums with a band that included his wife, Cassie Berman. He dissolved the band in 2009, saying at the time that he was motivated to right the wrongs of his conservative lobbyist father, Richard Berman.

While the lack of a relationship with his father may have caused the end of Silver Jews, Berman's comeback as Purple Mountains was fueled by the disintegration of his marriage. Many of the songs on Purple Mountains allude to Berman's wife, Cassie, and the shame that accompanied their separation. On the album's foreboding first single, "All My Happiness Is Gone," Berman sings, "Ten thousand afternoons ago, all my happiness just overflowed. That was life at first and goal to go." Purple Mountains was slated to begin a six-week, nationwide tour on Aug. 10.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Musician and poet David Berman has died. He was the songwriter and frontman for the indie rock band Silver Jews. They garnered a cult following and critical praise, mostly for Berman's dry, funny and honest lyrics. He was 52 years old. No cause of death was given. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: David Berman had an almost lackadaisical, plainspoken way of delivering lines that were equal parts funny and devastating.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANDOM RULES")

SILVER JEWS: (Singing) In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.

LIMBONG: In probably the most well-known Silver Jews song, "Random Rules," he ruminates on navigating a life filled with chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANDOM RULES")

SILVER JEWS: (Singing) I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men's room walls. Maybe I've crossed the wrong rivers and walked down all the wrong halls.

LIMBONG: David Berman formed Silver Jews in 1989 with friends of his who'd go on to form the indie band Pavement. The following for Silver Jews in the world of '90s indie rock was never as big as some of Berman's peers, but the people who did follow loved his work intensely.

Mac McCaughan is the frontman for the band Superchunk, which came up around the same time as Silver Jews. He's also the co-founder of the indie label Merge Records. They're the same age, but McCaughan recalled meeting Berman for the first time and thinking Berman had to be older, wiser.

MAC MCCAUGHAN: Because he just - he's doing something different than what us dumb people in bands are doing. Like, he's doing something more serious because the words were so crafted but not in a way that felt crafted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND BROWN BLUES")

SILVER JEWS: (Singing) Well, the water looks like jewelry when it's coming out the spout. Nothing could make me feel better than a wet kiss on the mouth.

LIMBONG: Berman wrote poetry, too. He was committed to translating the world truthfully, says Amy Rose Speigel, an author and friend. She calls his poems containers for a full feeling.

AMY ROSE SPEIGEL: They're beautiful and scenic and correct.

LIMBONG: She read a bit from a poem called "Cassette County."

SPEIGEL: (Reading) Then let the consequent misunderstandings. Let the changer love the changed. Wobble on heartbreakingly nu (ph) legs into this street-legal nonfiction, into this good world, this warm place that I love with all my heart - anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship.

LIMBONG: David Berman was a bit of a recluse. Silver Jews never really toured. And he was open about his struggles with addiction and depression. He attempted suicide in 2003. Berman disbanded Silver Jews six years later. In a blog post explaining why, he blamed the work of his father, a conservative high-powered D.C. lobbyist, and his inability to do anything about it.

But David Berman was just beginning to enter public life again. He put out an album a month ago under a different band named Purple Mountains and was getting ready to start a tour on Saturday. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARKNESS AND COLD")

PURPLE MOUNTAINS: (Singing) The light of my life is going out tonight as the sun sinks in the west. The light of my life is going out tonight with someone she just met. She kept it burning longer than... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.