When David Berman ended his rock band Silver Jews, in 2009, he announced it on his record label’s website, writing, “I’ve got to move on. Can’t be like all the careerists doncha know,” and “I always said we would stop before we got bad.” It was painful, but not shocking. He sang of “chemical dependencies” and smoking “the gel off a fentanyl patch” years before the opioid crisis hit the front pages of newspapers. In speaking publicly about his 2003 suicide attempt, he also revealed his struggles with addiction and mental illness. Yet as much as he sang about addiction and depression, the humor in his lyrics gave the despair room to breathe. If listeners found succor in Berman’s testimonies from the wrong side of a Saturday night, they also found grace in his elegant observations. I dare you to hear the words “the jagged skyline of car keys” and see your city the same way again.
After posting about the end of Silver Jews, Berman also published a confession, titled “My Father, My Attack Dog,” revealing that he was Richard “Dr. Evil” Berman’s son. “I went off to hide in art and academia. I fled through this art portal for twenty years. In the mean time my Dad started a very very bad company called Berman and Company,” Berman wrote. He called his alcohol industry-lobbyist father “a despicable man.” With Silver Jews over, Berman vowed to bring his father’s exploits to light. He was reportedly in talks with HBO about his father, but ultimately declined the network’s offer, fearing it would turn his father into a likable antihero.
Berman was plagued with self-consciousness and an impulse to quit rather than risk mediocrity. Though Silver Jews released their first single in 1992, they didn’t tour until 2005. People compliment lyricists by comparing their lyrics to poetry, but Berman actually studied poetry under James Tate at the University of Massachusetts, and released a book of poetry, Actual Air (Open City), in 1999. Despite publishing a smattering of poems afterward, Berman soon walked away from poetry and never published a follow-up.
In 2014 Berman’s mother died and he wrote “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” the first song he’d completed in years. Ever since Berman disbanded Silver Jews, there had been rumors of a comeback, usually started by sometime Silver Jew and long-time friend of Berman’s, Bob Nastanovich—best known as Pavement’s percussionist and hype man. Asked why he started these rumors, Nastanovich said, “I do it to keep things bubbling like a refreshing spritz of seltzer. He’s not a good self-promoter. He’s a poet and songwriter, not a business man.”
Berman scrapped a 2017 attempt at making a record with Dan Bejar and Stephen Malkmus (his longtime friend and onetime Silver Jews member) because his lyrics at the time didn’t meet his exacting standards. By 2018 Berman had separated from his wife, the musician Cassie Berman; they’d been together since 1999.
In spring 2018, Berman contacted Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere of the band Woods about making a record. Over Labor Day weekend in 2018, Gate Pratt, another college friend of Berman’s, told me Berman was recording. He seemed hopeful, but unsure that Berman would pull it off. Gate had also been in Ectoslavia—Berman, Nastanovich, James McNew, and Stephen Malkmus’s college band. (Nastanovich described Ectoslavia as “putrid noise, like a lousy Einsturzende Neubaten.”)
The recordings Berman made with Earl and Taveniere in 2018 became Purple Mountains. With the record’s release, on July 12, 2019, the rumors were finally true. On “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” the first track on the record, Berman sang, “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion, day to day I’m neck and neck with giving in,” and further along in the song, “A setback can be a setup for a comeback if you don’t let up.” Though it’s foolish to read autobiography in lyrics or poetry, at the time of the initial record release, a listener could surmise that he’d clawed himself out of an abyss.
I first met Berman in New York City in 1997 when I was nineteen years old. We spent the day walking from the Meatpacking District, to Other Music, to the Strand, finally settling in for a formal tape-recorded interview in a hotel room he shared with people from his record label, Drag City. To paraphrase something he said about writing, “You have to let yourself be bad in order to get good.” Those words changed my life.
In August 2018 I asked Gate Pratt to put me in touch with Berman, eager to speak with him after his long absence from music and writing. We corresponded by email (his preference). During our correspondence, he was preoccupied with the artist’s prerogative to quit art making. He asked me to read Susan Sontag’s essay “The Aesthetics of Silence”; Bartelby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, a novel about quitting writing; and Renunciation by Ross Posnock, an academic study of artists and intellectuals who have renounced artistic and scholarly conventions. Like the darkness in his lyrics, though, this wasn’t the whole story. He spoke of looking forward to meeting fans; he shared memes; and he listed his favorite punk-band puns. Days or weeks might pass between emails, and they came with unconventional line breaks.
Born on January 4, 1967, David Berman died by suicide on August 7, 2019, in Brooklyn. He had been set to begin touring on August 10. He was fifty-two years old.
Grieving fans and friends posted warm and funny correspondences they had shared with Berman. It turned out that Berman had graced many with his words and drawings over the years. Berman’s father released a statement saying, “Despite his difficulties, he always remained my special son. I will miss him more than he was able to realize.” Filmmaker Lance Bangs organized a memorial for Berman, held on August 8, outside the Met Breuer, in the original location of the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Berman had been a security guard in the early 1990s. That month, while on tour in New York City, fellow Drag City musician Bill Callahan covered the Silver Jews songs “Trains across the Sea” and “I Remember Me.” In September 2019, Stephen Malkmus covered “Trains across the Sea” and “The Wild Kindness” on his solo tour in Europe. On November 16, 2019, Gate Pratt and other Berman friends staged a memorial concert for Berman at UVA’s radio station, WTJU. The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections library at UVA is collecting materials related to David Berman, including photographs, memorabilia, drawings, correspondence, and Berman-related ephemera. In its statement about Berman’s death, Drag City wrote: “If there is one thing David taught us, words = hope. And we hang onto his every word, even as he is no longer able to continue the conversation.”
From 1992 to 2012, Silver Jews released six albums, two EPs, four 7-inch singles, and a compilation record, Early Times. In 2009, Berman also published a book of cartoons through Drag City, The Portable February. Purple Mountains was released by Drag City on July 12, 2019, one month before Berman’s death.
What follows is my email correspondence with David Berman spanning from September 2018 through June 2019. I am grateful for every word.
THE BELIEVER: What are you reading these days? What’s got your ear?
DAVID BERMAN: Reading Charles Bukowski poems after spending most of my adulthood ignoring him b/c of his odious fans.
George Steiner’s Grammars of Creation.
Did you ever read Bartleby & Co.
by Enrique Vila-Matas? I think that
and Sontag’s essay “Aesthetics of Silence” would be something you’d want to read before we talked.
Music-wise I’ve been pretty fascinated by a group of hard-core bands that appeared in northwest Indiana from about 2009 to 2015 and then ended rather suddenly.
BLVR: There’s a huge Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney. Not sure what to think of his work. Any opinions?
DB: I read this week. Already wistful about ten years of being left alone… [Renunciation by Ross Posnock]
Andy Warhol? He’s important of course but I get no pleasure from his art. As a guard [at the Whitney] I felt little incentive to guard his stuff as closely as I would other paintings, in the knowledge that they were mimeographs. I remember enjoying reading his journal.
BLVR: I ordered Renunciation, would like to discuss it and the others with you, eventually. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the point of photography (aside from “beauty,” especially when it comes to women’s bodies). I think that’s a subset of the anxiety about the value of art but maybe more about ethics. Still thinking. I’d like to write about Anya Phillips, a woman who was Chinese and part of the New York No Wave scene (a scene I don’t care that much about specifically, except for obvious influences on bands I like). Anya died at 26 from cancer but people in that scene are still making money off their photographs of her (the latest being Chris Stein of Blondie). I wouldn’t say it’s wrong but something about it doesn’t sit right or seem fair, especially since she’s often uncredited, just a cool-looking anonymous Asian woman while people like Lydia Lunch get something close to glory (?) (Though I wouldn’t exactly call it that, either. I wouldn’t want to be Lydia Lunch.) It’s strange to be remembered but still unknown, which is a tangent of what you’ve been musing on—renunciation and silence.
DB: Lydia Lunch’s persona. Ugh. Just one person of whom it can be said “their name was the best thing about them.” I just realized the first three letters in punk are a pun ’cause I was going to say how much I love punny punk names. Just the other day it clicked with me that Dinah Cancer ([from the band] 45 Grave) was a pun after thirty years of thinking she had that other kind of punk rock name like Lydia Lunch or Sid Vicious. That was not a reverse mondegreen. Also I also admire the incredibly bland construction Lee Ving picked out for himself.
BLVR: Mailed Elisa’s book [Elisa Gabbert, The Word Pretty] today so Drag City should forward it to you in the next few weeks or so. Anything new going on? New books? I’m still waiting for Renunciation to arrive. I’m reading Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl because I requested suggestions for bitchy/funny books and this was recommended to me.
DB: Drag City doesn’t have to fwd to me b/c I live at Drag City.
Bitchy/funny, huh. There’s Thomas Bernhard. How do you feel about… blanking on name… Frederick Seidel?
BLVR: Are you living at Drag City as part of recording the record? I’ve been mulling over your question about Frederick Seidel. I’m not well-read in poetry but I know *of* Seidel. I did check out what work of his is on the Poetry Foundation’s site. I was surprised he worked in rhyme in his latest work. The surprise aspect made me think it was significant, like he was going against something by doing that.
What do you think of Seidel?
Someone else also suggested Bernhard to me.
There was something going around online because a news program was discussing generational characteristics and historical markers but completely forgot generation x—1965 to 1980.
What is it about punk/hardcore that drew you in, keeps you interested?
DB: I’m living here because it’s free. Having amiably separated from my wife, I don’t want to sell the house in Nashville we own together out from under her. Not working for ten years, subsisting on trickling royalties has me in a place where I can’t afford to resettle anywhere else. I spent last winter in Gary, Indiana. Drag City has a vacation cabin on the urban prairie. Since June  I’ve been in a spare room above the Drag City offices. So living here is a part of doing the record, as doing the record is all of me saving my neck.
I think all of Seidel’s work is rhyming. He goes against a LOT of things. It seems to me to flirt with evil. It’s closer to hip-hop (full of expensive things and broad self-satisfaction) than contemporary poetry (which nearly spells “contempt,” which is what so many people are prepared to feel about it).
Bernhard goes against his country and its people in the most fervent way. His hatred of Austria is enormous.
His scorching book of letters, all written to refuse literary awards he’d won, is a thing of wonder. The hilariousness of Bernhard’s negativity (its exaggerated repetitive relentlessness) reminds me of Dostoevsky’s underground man but also Brother Theodore, a bizarre comedian who used to perform Friday and Saturday nites at a little theatre on 13th street in the eighties. Here he is:
When I was in high school, X and the Replacements were the American bands I most cared about, and the Cure, New Order, and Echo and the Bunnymen were the English ones. The only punk I’ve been interested in was this past winter when I was in Gary and found a vein of it that was running between 2011 and 2015 in northwest Indiana. NWI punk. A little-covered phenomenon of some unrecognized importance. Hard to explain here.
BLVR: I was born in 1977, and I’ve taken to saying it’s better to be young gen x than an elder millennial, but I also say that non-ironically identifying with your generational group is like actually believing in astrology, as if blanket generalizations can apply to this many people within this narrow band to the exclusion of others.
DB: I give it [generational generalizations] more credence than astrology. Seems we share things with people of the same decade but not of the same month.
Astrology’s claim is supernatural.
Generational-typing seems like common sense (to a point).
I read https://www.amazon.com/Fourth-Turning-American-Prophecy-Rendezvous/dp/0767900464 [The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy—What the Cycles of History Tell Us about America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny] in the nineties.
It really influenced my picture of what 2020 would look like, and 25 years later it looks to me like it’s still on course.
It makes a really incredible claim, that four generational
types go round and round every hundred years. That one of these types shows up every 80 years: glorious rev —-> American revolution —-> Civil War —-> Depression —-> WWII —-> today (these are all roughly 80 years apart). In conjunction with a major crisis/meltdown to rebuild society on new terms. So generation Z, in this case, grow up in chaos and develop the characteristics that the WWII generation had—the world conquering abilities. The children of the WWII generation—the silent generation, the baby boomers—grew up coddled in the new regime, and started to tear it down, initiating another meltdown. Any serious person would laugh at this book. Take a look.
How do you feel about the MBTI [Myers-Briggs Type Indicator]? I take it every few years and always come out INFJ. It reads true to me.
Here is my horoscope with my time of birth taken into account.
BLVR: And let me say—I’m sorry to hear about you and Cassie. I think I understand what you mean when you say it’s an amicable separation, because that’s what I say to people about my divorce, and it’s true. Anyway, this is just to say that I know that even when a split is amicable (the best kind of separation you can hope for), there is usually still so much hurt and pain and resentment that are hidden in that word “amicable.”
Would you have gone into the studio if you didn’t have an economic need to do so? What was your drive to make records in the first place?
I took the MBTI test. Again, I’m ambivalent. I don’t know how honest I’m being or whether I’m able to be that self-aware. I scored ENFJ.
DB: Divorce has a deeper bite to it than any other choice. Those moments where you take it all in, all the gut-wrenching facets, sketching out implications. The third song [on Purple Mountains, “Darkness and Cold”] is about that, knowing Cassie would be going out with other men galled me. I wrote about it as a way of modeling the imminent experience, thinking slow exposure might make it less painful. When I’d be tormented by those thoughts I’d remind myself how much I like the song.
What rings true for me about INFJ is the trait
of appearing extroverted b/c of an interest in others but it’s a fake-out because they’re true introverts.
“[INFJs] find it easy to make connections with others, and have a talent for warm, sensitive language, speaking in human terms, rather than with pure logic and fact. It makes sense that their friends and colleagues will come to think of them as quiet Extraverted types. However, they would all do well to remember that [INFJs] need time alone to decompress and recharge, and not to become too alarmed when they suddenly withdraw. [INFJs] take great care of others’ feelings, and they expect the favor to be returned—sometimes that means giving them the space they need for a few days.”
I have been going down to the old filing cabinets in the basement and getting the press for the different Silver Jews albums out and comparing their critical reception with the press that contemporaneous albums by other artists on the label were getting.
BLVR: What have you discovered about the old press surrounding Silver Jews and other Drag City bands of that time period? Has the label changed much in your mind? Do you find it cohesive? Who are your favorite labelmates?
DB: The label is remarkably the same. I think Rian Murphy’s [Drag City’s sales director] writing voice, in the newsletter and the music descriptions, which to me is hilarious sparkling bullshit, is a key part of that. A number of times he introduced Pavement in the guise of “Rockin’ Rian Murphy,” a supposed alt-rock dj, and he would troll the crowd with astonishing ease.
I’ve gotten to know some of the younger people on the label this last year: Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin Bajas), Haley Fohr (Circuit Des Yeux), and Bill MacKay are three people I’m especially fond of.
BLVR: What’s your current personal stance on god and religion?
DB: Of course i want to believe, but i can’t get myself to. I had belief from 2004 to 2010.
BLVR: With the precision and care you took with the lyrics sheet, I have to ask, are you writing poetry? (That’s a different question than, are you planning to publish poetry?)
DB: No, I haven’t written any poetry. I always take notes and in the past these notes were the stuff of which poetry was made, but I feel no drive to do the work. Partly I feel that younger poets are just better at it.
Recently ran across a New Zealand poet, Hera Lindsay Bird, who does a version of what I used to do, but does it 100x better. The poetic imagination of someone like Patricia Lockwood is massive; if there had been poets like those two in 1998, I wouldn’t have been able to compete.
BLVR: What was your collaborator’s reaction to a song like “Nights That Won’t Happen”?
DB: There’s never a point in the process where the musicians reflect on a song out loud for me to hear so I’m not sure. I can’t say for sure whether any of them even picked up on the title being a twist on “Knights in White Satin.”
BLVR: What approach is Drag City planning to take with Purple Mountains?
DB: I can hear them next door plotting away in Dan’s office. He has two-to-three-hour meetings with the five employees almost every day. I usually play pink noise to cancel out the murmur, but I have to switch to brown noise if Rian’s in the meeting. He has a very deep laugh and he’s always cracking himself up.
BLVR: Are they going to surprise the public with the record?
DB: That was plan A. It was going to come out in a very low-key way. Then Bob privately initiated plan B(ob).
BLVR: How much are you two [Berman and Malkmus] in touch, and how much do you share music, if you do?
DB: He was a part of my first attempt to make the record out west so I saw a lot of him in fall ’16 to spring ’17. “All My Happiness Is Gone” is addressed to him, I suppose.
We look at music totally differently. For him it’s all intuitive and he resists reflecting on the subject… There’s something he and Stevie Ray Vaughn have in common that I know nothing of.
I have a lot of suggestions for things he could do differently. He laughs them off. Music is closer to a sport for him. For me, it’s a game.
BLVR: What made you gain faith in 2004 and lose faith in 2010?
DB: That’s tough to answer.
BLVR: Why did you want the release to be low-key?
DB: Come on, Adalena. Do you not know why? I am nothing if not self-effacing.
BLVR: Do you think you’re too self-reflective?
DB: I’m too self-reflective to live well. But it’s gone on so long now, the only way out is through me.
BLVR: I saw on a message board that Dan Bejar was involved with that recording session. How did you get hooked into recording with him?
DB: I asked him. He had never produced before so he was a little trepidatious but he really put a lot of heart into it. It didn’t work because the songs weren’t done. I just couldn’t finish the words. So after nine months out west I had to go back to Nashville, rewrite everything for a year, and try again.
BLVR: Do you think Malkmus’s tendency to not be reflective on his music has helped his career? What might he gain from being more reflective?
DB: He might look into what kind of problems he faces as a man going into old age without any experience of personal failure or psychic crackup.
BLVR: Any particular reasons “All My Happiness Is Gone” is addressed to Malkmus?
DB: It could be to any old friend, but he was the old friend I was seeing around the time of its composition.
BLVR: Do you write the music first?
DB: It goes back and forth. You have a title or first line, you try to get something lit underneath it musically.
BLVR: I’m digging the album art. How much input do you have with that?
DB: All the input. I don’t do the actual graphic design layout per se but the design, the colors, the content. I like doing that. The middle photo is by Christian Patterson and the dog photos are by Cassie [Berman]. The pictures very loosely correspond to the songs. [Berman is referencing the grid of photographs on the album cover.] And the tenth song, “[Maybe I’m the] Only One for Me,” is the self-portrait on the back.
BLVR: Someone who’s never had a psychic crack-up or faced failure probably doesn’t realize he has an artistic problem. I’m guessing you’re thinking about the fact that Malkmus doesn’t incorporate much sentimentality in his music, that his songs lean on irony and humor (the silly, lighthearted kind that’s not rooted in pain). I am a fan and I appreciate that he works against the tyranny of sense-making but I also realize that can be a crutch. Then again wouldn’t it be worse if someone who’s never faced failure… contemplated it? What does a person like that have to say about that? It would take tremendous empathy to understand what existential despair feels like if you’ve never felt it!
DB: That’s the point! They’re about to feel the despair of aging. And they have no defense mechanisms to cushion their suffering, combined with no experience with seeking help of any kind, to the point of being intellectually incapable of taking a suggestion and acting on it.
The amount of times something happens that makes me think “(sad trombone) I’m old” per day at age 52 is far higher than I ever could have predicted from age 45 or even 47.
So people who’ve never experienced misfortune are incredibly vulnerable. They never developed coping skills for healing from your setbacks.
Defense mechanisms. I always think of the pastry, the bear claw. That’s what defense mechs look like in my scheme.
BLVR: I dig the photos. Besides the dogs by Cassie and the center photo, who took the others? They’re quite good.
DB: I took the photos, except the red room and the graveyard, which are public domain.
BLVR: Do you regularly take photos? What makes you stop to take a photo?
DB: I take a lot of pictures. When I took the picture of the sunset
behind the glass doors it was a low point in my life. I was driving back to Nashville after failing in Vancouver, coming home as a fifty-year-old who had just wasted 10s of thousands of dollars failing to make my first work in ten years after completely sitting out my forties. Coming out of the men’s room—it was not not noticeable. I knew I needed to take one picture of that and jump back in the truck. I didn’t notice at the time but I’m glad I got the exit sign because it’s such a good headline to set above a sunset.
[The following are images Berman sent with the above message.]
BLVR: I like that—the exit sign is a good headline over a sunset. Why do your songs flirt with country music? Is it the Nashville connection? Why that form?
DB: Why do I flirt with country music? My skills are rudimentary, vocally and musically. The vocals are recitative, pretty close to common speech. The music is simple, consisting of the chords you might learn in beginner’s guitar lessons. The subject matter can be sentimental and/or funny in ways that would be disqualitative in other art forms.
It’s also a position in the field that is relatively empty. Few of country music’s practitioners are willing to unashamedly experiment with content that is explicitly uncountry. I am completely unconstrained by questions about authenticity. I just don’t care.
BLVR: I took my mom to Nashville in 2003 because she used to love country music. Being in Nashville with her, I realized that the majority of people who make contemporary country don’t envision an audience of people like her. She used to listen to country music in the garment factory while her coworkers listened to Chinese opera or pop music. Then again my mother never seemed to think she was outside of a country song or that it wasn’t for her. I admire that about her. Makes me think she has a good imagination.
DB: It makes sense that an immigrant seeking to understand the natives would go to country music. Music that keeps to the Top 1,000 ESL [English as Second Language] words and audibly enunciates them in miniature soap operas, underscoring traditional values.
The times I’ve been made aware of outliers in the audience for what I do—the moment of discovery by whatever means: a dentist, a heavy metal musician, a high school principal who is a fan of The Natural Bridge [the second Silver Jews album] (there’s two kinds of Silver Jews fans, the ones who favor The Natural Bridge and the others)—I get delight spikes when that happens.
For the first fourteen years of the band’s existence I’d played live hardly at all. Four songs at the Drag City invitational at Lounge Axe [in Chicago] in 1993. Three songs at Tramps in Manhattan in 1997. That was about it till 2006.
I don’t think people understand how different my experience has been compared to the 99% of musicians who come up the normal way. All the bonds and connections I would’ve made with fans and other musicians in those first fourteen years aren’t there.
I’ve played no all-star jams.
There’s zero heroes I’ve gotten to know.
BLVR: Did you want those bonds and connections with musicians?
DB: I only noticed it the last couple years, trying to make this record. It was difficult to find people interested in signing on.
BLVR: What kind of career did you want when you first started making records?
DB: I never thought this would still be going. I remember, in 1992, trying to envision 1999 and finding it quite foggy. I never let my mind consider 2019.
BLVR: My old bandmate romanticized “cult” artists and authenticity too much, maybe as a way to make himself feel better for always shooting himself in the foot anytime he was in danger of having some success.
DB: I know a little bit about own-foot shooting. Start with a band name that precludes word-of-mouth because it makes people nervous. Don’t write a song until age 27. Don’t play a live show until age 38. Play exactly 100 shows between 38 and 41. Take eleven years off. Don’t practice for years. Never get better at guitar. Be a shitty singer. Don’t buy a single ad. Never have a lawyer, manager, assistant, or intern. Wait years after everyone has started streaming to join in.
BLVR: Do you have any anxiety of influence? I wonder what you’d get out of meeting heroes. Who are your heroes? Alive or dead, I suppose.
DB: My last hero was Steve McNair [NFL quarterback for the Tennessee Titans]. I cannot watch his final Super Bowl drive against the Rams without weeping. I saw him drinking alone a couple of times in 1999 and really regret not approaching him. He was an idol.
BLVR: Any plans to tour with this record? Why did it get pushed back? [The record was originally slated for a June 2019 release, but was pushed back to July 2019.]
DB: Yes. Normal touring. It got pushed back so Drag City could have more time.
BLVR: What’s happening in Chicago? Is it spring there yet?
DB: It’s spring today!
BLVR: Who were your dream players for the record?
DB: It wasn’t any person in particular, really. It was a kind of person. Someone who, upon hearing the demos, would insist on being a part of the proceedings.
All my previous work had been done with close friends. There’s a certain kind of band energy you lose as a solo artist. It looks something like this:
BLVR: Going back to our earlier exchange, what do you think the difference is between a fan whose favorite record is The Natural Bridge, as opposed to any of the others? What makes that special to you?
DB: It was the most difficult to make. And the reviews were very harsh.
Liking The Natural Bridge is liking me at my ostensible worst.
BLVR: Why change the name from Silver Jews and try a new one, Purple Mountains? Seems a little like shooting yourself in the foot from a pure name-recognition POV. What were Drag City’s thoughts on it? And why those words, Purple Mountains?
DB: I understand that a lot, even most SJ fans will never realize I’ve changed the name. We’re booking shows now and it’s much harder to get good guarantees under the new name. So yes, it’s a case of “leaving money on the table” but I consider those kinds of losses as cosmic investments that pay off in unexpected ways.
Drag City has been through this before with Will Oldham and Bill Callahan, and in both cases it took an album or two to recover. There’s no other label that is so supportive of the quixotic schemes of its artists.
There are a lot of reasons for changing the band name. Why Purple Mountains? There is the feeling out there that America is over and being sold for parts.
Back around Bush v. Gore I tried to write a song called “Purple Mountain Travesty.”
When I looked it up I found the few bands with “purple” in the name existed fifty years back, Deep Purple, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and an obscure sixties band called the Purple Gang.
BLVR: What can your audience expect from the upcoming shows. Silver Jews songs? Special guests? Will there be encores?
DB: There will be Silver Jews songs. A minimum of five, I’d guess. Of course, encores. Rituals don’t make sense.
BLVR: Have you had any false epiphanies?
DB: Faith came at me little by little. I think I’m too levelheaded for such an incident.
BLVR: As for the touring, would you do it if you didn’t need the money?
DB: Yes. I’m terribly isolated and I look forward to meeting new people. Though I don’t know many, I feel very close to people born between 1975 and 1985. I’m suspicious of people my age or older and bored by the very young.
BLVR: Just wanted to let you know: yesterday an ice cream slinger saw my Silver Jews pin and said, “‘Silver Jews!” After I established that he was a fan, he asked me if I knew of a local Silver Jews community he could join. The people are waiting!
DB: A Silver Jews community! I can see it from an airplane now… now the plane has landed and I am being arrested for code violations!
BLVR: Justin Taylor has an essay today in Harper’s Magazine from a forthcoming memoir, and he tells me the corresponding chapter in the book is titled “Death of an Heir of Sorrows” after your song. A line from the song plays an important part in the narrative.
DB: I’m honored to be in that conversation. If he doesn’t know, the song title comes from the New York Post headline when my friend Rob Bingham died.
BLVR: Justin and I discussed how Open City wouldn’t have existed without Bingham. Would Actual Air have been published without Open City? What was the publishing landscape like for you back then, in 1999 or so?
DB: No. No one wanted it. There was no milieu for it anywhere. Individually the poems weren’t knocking anyone out. James Tate put in a good word for me at The American Poetry Review. Told me to send them to Arthur Vogelsang. Vogelsang thought they were jejune. Rob encouraged me to submit the book to Grove. Rob’s mom was an editor at Grove. (You’d think that would be an in!)
When their poetry imprint turned it down, Rob decided to make Open City Books.
BLVR: I saw the new video for “All My Happiness Is Gone.” How much input did you have? Was that footage of the last Silver Jews show in the cave? Why include that? Are you happy with the rollout so far?
DB: They had asked me whether I was okay with them putting a movie of the last show together. It would take a while so I thought this could inaugurate their re-immersion in the footage they recorded back then. I proposed that it all be cave footage. They asked me to film myself lip-synching on a tripod a couple times. After I send it it’s all hands-off. The still pictures are all self-portraits like the video.
BLVR: I’ve always cynically said the best thing a band can do is break up and get back together.
DB: There’s always a tail-between-the-legs aspect to it though. When you’re totally broke in your forties and you know you solve all your problems by doing something lucrative and fun, it takes restraint to say no.
This is the course, the one I’m taking, that usually doesn’t work out. It’s a new band by an old artist. The guarantees are much lower and ticket sales much slower than they would be if I’d stayed with the name Silver Jews.
(To a degree that choice was off the table for me after the Paris nightclub [shooting]. It wouldn’t be possible to tour the world as the Silver Jews in 2019.) [The German government has advised Jewish men not to wear yarmulkes outdoors for their own safety.]
You have to start over. Usually people go with their names. But that takes all the mystique out for me as a fan. I don’t want to celebrate another flawed individual. Wear a shirt with their name on it?
Right now I’m wearing a “Winnipeg” T-shirt. I’m thinking, Can I wear a T-shirt onstage? After age fifty a man’s nipples become 4 mm pointy spires. I just noticed
this last week and researched it and learned about male nipple chafing—a runner’s problem. I haven’t broken into a trot in 5 years and ordered these stickers meant to tamp them down. I put one on and left the other alone. Then turned the a/c on blast to see if I could tell a difference.
BLVR: I read Susan Sontag’s “The Aesthetics of Silence.” Why did you ask me to read it?
DB: So you could explore reasons for quitting deeper than my claimed reason. So you wouldn’t ask silly questions like your second one! There are many good reasons to go silent. My father wasn’t even 33% of why I quit. But it was a reason that alarmed people and made them leave me alone. No one tried to tempt me into any reappearance b/c they weren’t really sure what the facts were. If I had just retired, I would have been asked to contribute to shit, but the way I did it spooked my colleagues and associates.
BLVR: If you quit making music nearly 10 years ago because of your father, why make a comeback in the age of Trump?
DB: Uh. They’re good songs. They came out after seven years of failing to get anything off the ground. What am I supposed to feel? Committed forever to silence as long as assholes run organizations?
There were more reasons to quit than I can list. After seven years should I refuse to finish songs that will save my neck and allow me to? ’Cause I had some songs emerge after seven years of not playing and I wanted to accomplish something or I was going to perish. Because I have no other form of income other than song royalties. Because I sat out my entire forties and have massive debt to take care of. Because my father and his allies are everybody else’s problem now.
BLVR: How much input has Cassie had in the music videos, and what images have been used so far? Can you discuss the collaborative nature of the videos? Do you ever see making music with Cassie again?
DB: I usually get a director, have him over to my house, and improvise on the spot. I come up with the video content on the spot for the benefit of whoever’s filming. I don’t have much respect for the form i guess. I guess most of the content is stuff I have lying around.
I do see making music with Cassie again. Cassie never finished a song in the twenty years we were together. Now she has seven and they are amazing. And she is almost ready to make an album. When I was home last month she played a writer’s night and I was all teared up with pride. Even tho the sets will be 40% Silver Jews songs I’m not doing Cassie ones with a different woman singing, out of respect for her. Yes we will sing together again.
BLVR: You had me read Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. and one of the figures was Pessoa. His Book of Disquiet was published after his death. Do you have any wishes for your archive after your death?
DB: I keep a tight leash on what’s released. Once you’re dead that discretion is gone so I’d like to arrange things so that there will be no archives to be discovered.
BLVR: It’s funny that you asked me to read a book about the “writers of the No” [Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas], especially while I’m writing a book. And there are these quotes from writers in the book:
“I can say now that art is an idiocy,” Rimbaud
“Poetry unwritten, but lived in the mind: a beautiful ending for someone who ceases to write,” Vila-Matas
“My finest work is to have repented of my work,” Juan Ramón
But one character contradicts the narrator and quotes Kafka saying, “A writer who does not write is a monster who invites madness.”
DB: I like Otto Rank’s schemata:
Jesus’s quote from the [Gospel of] Thomas about releasing that which is inside you. I go years without writing. At the same time, I’ve had to write to save my life at other times. There is no general answer.
It’s all relative to the experience of the writer. It wasn’t like Kafka wasn’t mad. Kafka is talking about this
Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you…” I had that quote printed backward on the side-two label of The Natural Bridge. You had to read it in the mirror, and then of course you’re looking at yourself.
The other men had their reasons. Some artists retire reasonably. Or run out of things to say. Seems a lot saner than the desperate overproduction, the fear of being forgotten that turns artists toward the 100% vocational mind-set.
BLVR: Going back to Bartleby & Co., there’s this quote:
“I opened Pessoa’s anguished diary, it had to be less painful than the horrible experience of waking up. This system of visiting others’ anguish in order to reduce the intensity of my own has always worked well for me.”
It makes me think of the relationship many of your fans have with your work, and with the lyrics. You describe the existential crisis, over and over, and the way you deliver it, it’s funny until it’s not (but that’s its power). From talking to fans…
DB: I don’t know any fans, and can’t prove they exist.
BLVR: I know sharing in that particular anguish does help them. So what’s kept you going these last ten years?
DB: Cassie and my mom. It was unthinkable that I do that to them again. Now those obstacles to eternal rest are gone. So I have to go aggressively at the depression. I’ll be private, as seems to be the preference, and not share the steps I’m taking to insure I don’t die by my own hand. Shhhh!!!
BLVR: Maybe my perception of the reaction is skewed, but I got the sense that fans had a hard time with the public revelation of your suicide attempt in 2003. Some thought the magazine that ran the story was exploiting you, and I think part of that is because the idea of someone’s hero in that much pain was too difficult to contemplate so they blamed the messenger for how they felt. Was it your choice to make that public? If so, why?
DB: Of course it was my choice. I am very private for years until I’m not, then I am very open and honest. Anyone who would have been disturbed by it would be some normie who has never been there. What kind of fool would object to someone telling a story of how they passed thru a period of suffering. Those are the silencers. Why talk about it? Because I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of.
I am intimate with failure in all its forms. I have been doomed to work in a field where over 50% of random listeners would say I am completely unqualified to do what I do. (To sing and play guitar.) If a little kid comes up to me and says, “You’re a bad singer,” there is no recourse for my ego. I must respect the opinions of those who think I suck. I’m never modeling mastery! I stir up disgust just going about my business. It’s a constant cause of shame.
BLVR: Steve Malkmus told me, “I want [you] to get a nice person to fall in love. I want [you] to find peace.” As the days to the album release approach and you go out on tour, what would bring you peace as you enter your middle age, as you attempt your second act?
DB: I just hope I can handle the touring, that it doesn’t cause problems for me. For my other 100 shows [he’s referring to the one hundred Silver Jews shows he did with Cassie Berman], I had Cassie, and we were totally symbiotic. We’d leave right after every show, she communicated for me and we were able to create a quiet pocket in the band.
I haven’t even met the band. I asked Jarvis to be the bandleader and pick the players from people he knows in LA.
As for the future, I would like to live in a hotel like an old Victorian bachelor. I have needed a vocational assistant for 20 years now. I could produce so much faster if I had assistants like visual artists have assistants.
BLVR: Come on, man. Of course you have fans. I’ve never met such devoted fans as yours.
DB: Well, I don’t experience that. I know we have sold a lot of records in Portland. But I lived there for three months and didn’t meet a single fan.
I never was in a band growing up that played live and developed relationships with others in the music world.
Any popular local band has a sense of a fan base that I know nothing of.
BLVR: And I know it’s unfair to ask for your formula for living—beware those with a quick answer! I was curious what you’d say.
DB: It would be criminally negligent for me to offer advice for living to anyone else. I will say this: having a child today, when no one can vouch for the safety of the future, is tantamount to evil.
BLVR: In “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Sontag says, “Language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made.” Do you think this is true? I wonder if she said this because she herself was a writer. I wonder if visual artists wish they could write, that if they could, they’d finally be understood (if that’s their aim, they might not care if they’re understood).
DB: Here’s an article about visual artists using language in their art.
I’m doing a show with Friedrich Kunath, a painter who has used my words in his paintings in the past. October 10, here at the art gallery, the Soccer Club Club at Drag City.
BLVR: What role would a vocational assistant have in your work? What’s stopped you (other than money) from finding one?
DB: I have a large amount of unprocessed writing (and artwork) that I’d like to work with, but there’s so much of it and it’s so riddled with bad stuff, I’d rather not look at it, so it stays in crates in my basement.
BLVR: What forms would you work in going forward?
DB: I have a memoir about high school I’d like to finish. I have a screenplay for a movie that I’d need experienced help to finish.
BLVR: You can’t answer this definitively, of course, but why do you think Cassie didn’t finish a song until the end of your marriage? If you two work together in the future, what do you think it will look like? Would you be able to take a supporting role in Cassie’s work?
DB: I’d love to take the supporting role in another artist’s work. I’d like to produce other people’s music, or even manage another’s career.
What happened with Cassie and I was sort of a bipolar trap where I became the artist and she became the citizen. I became more and more inward and she became more and more outward. Since our house is essentially two apartments, we were able to retreat to our corners.
BLVR: I remember being 19 and naive and not quite understanding what you meant when you told me New York had too many negative temptations. Have you considered having a friend go on tour with you?
DB: The tour manager, Sabrina, is a friend and Jarvis has become a friend. The only thing is they are both younger and I could easily hoodwink either one.
BLVR: I suppose your fan base is invisible to you. What are your markers or measures for success these days?
DB: Royalties and ticket sales + hearing my aunt Jayne praise my “wonderful voice.”
BLVR: Recently I said maybe the question shouldn’t be “How do you bring a child into this world NOW?” but rather “How do we not try to stop fascism? How do we not try to stop climate change?”
DB: I’m thinking about the distance b/t children born today and the gene-edited children of the coming decades. If that science goes forward, as it will, giving birth in the years preceding such a technological advance is just selfish stupidity. You’re undoubtedly consigning your child to a subhuman caste. Now add fascism and climate change. That’s how you get to genocide twice as fast.
BLVR: Speaking of words and art, what’s your relationship to the internet these days? Malkmus has implied that you’re a bit of a troll, working the Darknet, getting yourself banned.
DB: That’s his dad shorthand for saying I spend time on Reddit.
BLVR: Sounds like you can’t stand to look at your work critically. Do you think that if you had an assistant you’d trust them enough to help you sort through the good and bad? Would you be able to get out of your own way?
DB: Yes. I’m very accommodating.
BLVR: Why a memoir about high school?
DB: That’s when things get interesting. In any biography I skip ahead to ages 16 to 18 and go back and read the childhood later.
BLVR: What’s the screenplay about?
DB: I shouldn’t mention it. It’s a “psychological thriller.”
BLVR: What would it take for someone to call you out on your bullshit?
DB: Tough talk won’t do it. But I’m a reasonable person, and I narc on myself all the time.