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The joys and heartbreak of my 20-year friendship with poet-songwriter David Berman

David Berman of the Silver Jews
The fragile life and inspiring art of poet/singer-songwriter David Berman, who died Aug. 7, are recalled by friend and author Thomas Beller.
(Drag City Records)

David Berman’s mind was always doing unexpected things, and this was what made him such a fascinating writer and also such a maddening person to know. In both his capacities as poet and leader of the rock bands Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, he was beloved for the couplets and stanzas that poured out like tiny Escher drawings, each a jewel in the crown of a song or poem that usually had many of them, each one surprisingly portable. “Half hours on earth, what are they worth? I don’t know.”

I came to know him in 1998 through Open City Magazine and Books, which I co-edited, where he published his one poetry collection, “Actual Air.” “Actual Air” was a huge seller by the standards of poetry collections. Berman’s appeal was never broad, but, as the outpouring of articles mourning his death at 52 on Wednesday — since ruled a suicide — has made clear, it was deep.

His imagery and voice were redolent of a child’s optimism at the outset of an adventure looking for treasure, and in his poems and lyrics one found all sorts of valuable gifts and amulets to ward off demons. You could carry them in your mind’s front pocket, touch them for strength.

Berman was generous, even regal, in his free associative poetry, but also fragile. When he came to New York to read his work at an Open City event he was confident, demure, an oracle in a Brooks Brothers shirt. The fragility came when you engaged with the work.

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“Souvenirs always remind you of buying them,” is one of my most prized Berman epigrams. I think of it often. When I apply the logic of the line to my experience of receiving that gift, you could say that I am always thinking of how I came to know David Berman — the work and then the man.

I WAS AT A BAR when I heard the news. I never spend time in bars anymore. But that is where I was when a friend texted saying, “Berman gone.”

“What?” I wrote back.

My friend sent a link. No need to click. It was all in the headline.

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I was shocked. Later this would seem like a silly response. The guy talked openly about suicide and depression. But, but, but … he had just made a record, his first in a decade! It was really good! He was about to go on tour. Days away from the first show. And then in the fall he would come to New Orleans — “New Orleans” being the title of one of his more evocative songs — and give a reading as part of a series of talks I helped organize at Tulane University through the environmental studies program. It was a bit of a reach to have him as part of the environmental studies program, but why not? What other poet drew such inspiration from the banalities of the built environment. We titled it, “American Water and Actual Air.”

Five minutes went by. I told my friends at the bar. Another five minutes. Then I took my phone downstairs to the bathroom. Before I even looked at the text again, a little rainstorm came over me. I got rid of it in the bathroom. The phone kept buzzing. Like watching people lifted up by a wave as it moves in real time through water, then lowered back down. “Have you heard the news …”

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David Berman, author Thomas Beller and Silver Jews member Cassie Berman in 2008.
(Courtesy Thomas Beller)

EARLIER THIS SUMMER, a guy walked by with a tote bag on which were the words, “All you wanted was everything.”

“Hey,” I said, “Is that tote bag a reference to the Stephen Malkmus lyric?”

It was. We had a happy moment of mutual recognition, and then we had a little ecclesiastical argument about the meaning of the words on his bag. They are from the chorus to the song “Church on White,” from Malkmus’ first solo record in 2001. The lyric: “All you really wanted was everything, plus everything. And the truth I only poured you half a line,” is how he sings it once, but then the next time around the phrasing veers into, “I only poured you half a life.”

The tote bag guy felt otherwise, went to the phone and produced a lyrics website attesting to, “I only poured you half alive.”

No need to be definitive.

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The lyrics and the song are referencing Robert Bingham, who lived in Manhattan at 38 White St., just off Church Street, in a loft that contained the office of Open City, which for the first nine years of its existence was a literary magazine. The books part came about when Bingham wanted to publish the debut poetry collection of his friend David Berman. I was against it. I loved the poems, was into Berman, but I felt it was enough of a production doing a magazine. Who needs the added hassle of a press?

Bingham was very keen to do it. Somehow the big publishing houses had passed on Berman’s manuscript, and here we were. “Actual Air” was the first title from Open City Books. (“Venus Drive,” by Sam Lipsyte, was the second book, also brought in by Bingham, the guy had style.)

I was always proud of Open City’s parties. Many of the really memorable ones, to the extent I remember them, took place at Bingham’s loft. The last one held there was Berman’s book party. Bingham died suddenly later that year, in November of 1999, from a drug overdose. Berman wrote a song about him, too, “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.” I can’t quite see the lyrics on a bag.

“When I was summoned to the phone / I knew in my bones that you had died alone.”

But listening to the song again, I hear plenty of those lines you can pocket, among them, “We’d never been promised there would be a tomorrow.’’

BERMAN TO ME, and who knows how many others, by email, on May 2017, verbatim:

“im trying to write an album and its hard.
ive always wondered about this......why people who write songs lose it so early
in life. im finding out, and trying to see if i can beat it.”

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He sent me the Purple Mountains record in advance, attached to an email. I listened to the first song, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel.” I thought, he beat it! He made a great record. It sounded like he never left.

But I listened only once, and didn’t listen to the rest of the record. After a few weeks I realized it might be rude to not respond.

I wrote him, explaining that having looked forward to the record for so long I couldn’t bring myself to listen to it.

He replied:

“have you not listened yet?
i would do that. wait for a while.”

BERMAN GAVE A TALK at a writers’ conference Open City put on in 2010. It turned out to be the last hurrah of the magazine, which closed up at the end of that year after 20 years, a good number, a good run. He spoke extemporaneously for about 90 minutes. It made an enormous impact on the audience and impressed me as being brilliant. It was at this talk that Berman spoke most articulately and passionately about his project to document the sins of his father, the lobbyist Rick Berman.

He wrote me in 2017:

“I sat on the sidelines for my entire forties. What man does that?”

The answer might be: a man who wants to take down his father.

A heroic, if Oedipal task, especially if your father is Rick Berman, a professional sower of doubt and confusion on behalf of industries like alcohol, tobacco, etc.

I want to tell you of one Berman moment that always stayed with me, an example of the way his mind worked:

I was on the phone with him sometime around 2014 or so. The book about his father was progressing fitfully, if at all, but HBO had expressed interest in adapting it as a series. There had been meetings and so forth. Contracts drawn up. It was happening.

But then he had decided against it. Scuttled the project.

I paced back and forth, getting more and more agitated, while he explained to me the problem. I could hardly hear what he was saying because I was moaning and groaning and saying, “You killed the deal? You killed the deal? Why did you kill the deal?”

I was saying, in essence, “Oh my God, all that money!”

But he finally got to the point and it shut me up. “I realized they would have made him an antihero. That is what they do.” He referenced “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men.” I saw his point. He wanted to take down his father, but HBO was going to make a show that made his father the Tony Soprano of Washington, D.C., lobbying. And that was not the truth that Berman was trying to get at.

“BERMAN GONE.”

I was shocked. Shocked!

But this is what happens when you know artists, said a friend, a kind remark that elides drugs and I don’t know what else. The William Maxwell novel “So Long, See You Tomorrow” turns on someone who meant to say, “I couldn’t bear it,” but instead says, “I can’t bear it.” It gets better. It never gets better.

On the first day of the post-Berman era, there was an impromptu gathering at the former Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue, where Berman and Malkmus had once worked as museum guards after college. Various people read Berman’s work into a tiny bullhorn. The building, a brutalist slate gray cube, never looked more like a tomb. Little jewels from David Berman’s mind emanated from the tiny bullhorn, drifting like bubbles. I glimpsed them here and there above the avenue. They felt different now. “If Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways or wear little golden hallways around our necks,” floated by. I watched it drift up the side of the museum, carried by an invisible current of air.

Thomas Beller’s books include “Seduction Theory: Stories,” “How to Be a Man” and “J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist,” which won the New York City Book Award for biography/memoir. He is the director of creative writing at Tulane University.


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