David Berman (musician)
Berman performing at All Tomorrow's Parties in 2008
David Craig Berman
January 4, 1967
|Died||August 7, 2019 (aged 52)|
Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.
|Alma mater||University of Virginia|
University of Massachusetts Amherst
David Cloud Berman (born David Craig Berman; January 4, 1967 – August 7, 2019) was an American musician, singer, poet and cartoonist best known for his work founding and fronting the indie-rock band the Silver Jews. Although the band primarily existed as a recording project for most of its existence, the Silver Jews toured regularly from 2005 until 2009. In January 2009, Berman announced his retirement from music in hopes of finding a meaningful way of undoing the damage that his estranged father Richard Berman, a lobbyist and public relations executive for the alcohol and tobacco industries among others, had brought upon society.
In addition to the six full-length albums that Berman wrote and recorded with the Silver Jews, he released two books: Actual Air (1999) and The Portable February (2009). In early 2019, Berman returned to music under the new band name Purple Mountains, releasing a self-titled debut album in July 2019 which would be his last before his death from suicide.
Berman was born January 4, 1967, in Williamsburg, Virginia. His father was Richard Berman, a lobbyist who represents firearm, alcohol and other industries. He attended high school at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, before matriculating at the University of Virginia. While in Charlottesville, Virginia, Berman began writing and performing songs (often left on friends' voice message machines) with his loose band, Ectoslavia, primarily composed of UVA classmates Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich.
Upon graduation from the University of Virginia, the trio moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, where they shared an apartment and adopted the moniker Silver Jews recording discordant tapes in their living room. At this time Berman was a security guard at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Working in this environment influenced him artistically; Berman spoke about this time saying "We were working at the Whitney with all this conceptual art, and we were learning about it … and so I thought, 'Well let's just make this record that looks like a record, and has song titles and everything, but the songs would be the ones we make at home that sound terrible.'"
Before moving to Hoboken, Malkmus had also founded another band, Pavement, with his childhood friend Scott Kannberg. As Pavement's acclaim and visibility grew, the notion arose that the Silver Jews were a "Pavement side-project," despite the fact that the Silver Jews preceded Pavement, and Berman's writing, singing, and guitar playing led the Silver Jews' music. On the band's early recordings, Berman even tried to protect the Jews' individuality by listing Malkmus and Nastanovich under aliases, but it backfired when people learned who "Hazel Figurine" and "Bobby N." really were.
Not long after the success of Pavement's debut album, Slanted and Enchanted (which was named after a cartoon Berman had created), Dan Koretzky, founder of the Chicago-based indie label Drag City, met Berman at a Pavement show. When he heard of the Jews' tapes, Koretzky offered to release them. On their first single and EP for the label, 1992's "Dime Map of the Reef" and 1993's The Arizona Record, respectively, the band held to their ultra lo-fi aesthetic in these albums.
After the release of the EPs, Berman entered a graduate-level writing program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and met like-minded members of local bands—the indie-rock/alt-country hybrid Scud Mountain Boys and New Radiant Storm King. Writing at the university allowed Berman time for songwriting. Soon, he had enough material for an album, which became 1994's Starlite Walker. The album reunited Berman with Malkmus and Nastanovich (this time credited under their real names).
Along with writing and working with other performers like the War Comet, Berman recorded the Jews' second album, The Natural Bridge, in the summer of 1996 with members of New Radiant Storm King and Drag City artist/producer Rian Murphy.The Natural Bridge continued to streamline the Silver Jews' sound and let Berman's rich, abstract lyrics and reflective vocals take center stage. Malkmus returned for 1998's American Water, and his guitar and vocal interplay with Berman places it among the Silver Jews' strongest efforts.
In 1999, Berman's first collection of poetry, Actual Air, was published by Open City Books. The Silver Jews returned in 2001 with Bright Flight and the EP Tennessee, which also features Berman's wife Cassie Berman on a few tracks. In early 2003, The Houston, Tx.-based theater group Infernal Bridegroom Productions staged a theatrical interpretation of Actual Air, which featured selected poems from Berman's book, as well as three live covers of Silver Jews songs, with Berman's blessing.
Following the release of Tennessee, Berman struggled through an intense period of depression and substance abuse. In 2003, he attempted suicide by using crack-cocaine, alcohol, and the prescription drug Xanax. Berman would later refer to this time as "an incredible blessing", because he became more deeply involved with Judaism.
In 2005, Berman reunited the Silver Jews—with a lineup including his wife, Malkmus, Nastanovich, Will Oldham, and Azita Youseffi among many others—for a new album. Tanglewood Numbers was recorded in Nashville and narrowly avoided being destroyed in the electrical fire that engulfed Memphis' historic Easley-McCain studio, where it was supposed to be mastered. Drag City released the album that fall.
Berman surprised fans in 2005 by announcing the group's first ever tour.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, the Silver Jews sixth studio album, was released June 17, 2008. It was recorded at Marble Valley (band) of Lexington, Virginia and Lake Fever Productions of Nashville, Tennessee. It was followed by an American tour. The band toured the UK and Ireland in May prior to the release of the album.
Hiatus from music: 2009–2017
On January 22, 2009, Berman announced via the official Drag City message board that he would be retiring from making music (along with the Silver Jews moniker), and would play a final show at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee on January 31, 2009. The caverns are located 333 feet underground, and only 300 general admission tickets were made available. The concert aired on Nashville's famed WSM AM radio station, and was also available via a streaming format on their website. Berman stated that he would play his 15 favorite Silver Jews songs. He also wrote that his intentions were to move to "screenwriting or muckraking." He closed the entry by saying, "I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to 'Shiny Happy People'."
On the same day, he made another post on the message board revealing that he is the son of lobbyist Richard Berman. The two have been estranged since about 2006, when the younger Berman demanded that his father halt his work supporting guns, alcohol, union-busting and other industries of the like, or else he would sever their relationship. Richard Berman refused, and the two have not spoken since. In the message board entry, he called his father "evil," a "human molestor," an "exploiter," a "scoundrel," and "a world historical motherfucking son of a bitch." Berman ended his post by saying, "I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage."
In 2010, Berman spoke at the Open City Summer Writer's Conference. In his talk he discussed his difficulties with a book he had been attempting to write about his father. He also revealed that HBO had expressed interest in turning the book into a one-hour series. A screenwriter was hired, a pilot scripted. HBO wanted to begin production but Berman canceled it, saying he did not want to glamorize his father.
In January 2011, Berman launched his blog Menthol Mountains, on which he posted poetry, essays, and photos/collages.
Berman has collaborated with The Avalanches on two songs: 2012's "A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart" (released online as a standalone track) and "Saturday Night Inside Out", which was featured on the band's 2016 Wildflower album.
Purple Mountains and return to recording: 2018–2019
Berman returned to music in 2018, co-producing Yonatan Gat's critically acclaimed album Universalists. In May 2019 Berman released his first music in over a decade, a single entitled "All My Happiness Is Gone", using the moniker Purple Mountains. An eponymous debut album was released in July 2019, and an accompanying tour was scheduled at the time of Berman's death.
Personal life and death
At the time of his death, Berman lived in Chicago, Illinois. He was separated from his wife Cassie Berman, but the two still owned a house together in Nashville, Tennessee and remained very close and supportive of each other. Berman described their separation as a slow process with "no inciting incident."
Berman dealt with substance abuse through the 1990s and early 2000s, using crack, heroin and methamphetamine. He unintentionally overdosed twice, including one occasion in Manhattan on an unspecified drug following the album release party for Bright Flight.
On November 19, 2003, Berman attempted suicide in Nashville by attempting to consume 300 Xanax pills combined with crack cocaine. When he was discovered by his wife Cassie, he refused hospitalization, and instead demanded to be brought to the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel (the location where Vice President Al Gore had stayed for two weeks during the 2000 election recounts). At the front desk, Berman demanded (and received) the "Al Gore suite"; while riding the elevator up to the room, told the bellhop, "I want to die where the presidency died!" He was eventually taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Around a year later, he checked in for drug rehab at the Hazelden Foundation. The episode was later detailed at length by Nick Weidenfeld in an article for Fader titled "Dying in the Al Gore Suite". When asked about his sobriety during a 2019 interview, Berman stated, "I was only 100% sober for Tanglewood Numbers. Touring made me a daily pot smoker. It was the only way I could cordon myself off from the fuss, and endure the boredom. I was a daily smoker from 2006 to 2009." However, he never again used hard drugs following his recovery. He also noted that "Alcohol on its own doesn't appeal to me much."
In 2019, Berman revealed he had amassed over $100,000 of loan and credit card debt, which he said was always over his head and "draining to worry about". However, in a eulogy, Drag City wrote that Berman expected to be debt-free soon.
- Starlite Walker (1994) LP/CD
- The Natural Bridge (1996) LP/CD
- American Water (1998) LP/CD
- Bright Flight (2001) LP/CD
- Tanglewood Numbers (2005) LP/CD
- Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008) LP/CD
- Actual Air. Open City Books. 1999. ISBN 978-1-890447-04-5.
- The Portable February. Drag City. 2009. ISBN 978-0-9820480-1-6.
- "Purple Mountains: Any Way You Hear It". Americansongwriter.com. July 10, 2019.
- "Silver Jews End-Lead Singer Bids his Well-Wishers Adieu". Archived from the original on May 6, 2009. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
- Shteamer, Hank; Newman, Jason (August 7, 2019). "Silver Jews' David Berman Dead at 52". Rolling Stone.
- "Silver Jews' 'American Water' Turns 20". Stereogum.com. October 19, 2018. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
- Kaya Oakes (June 9, 2009). Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture. Henry Holt and Company. p. 140. ISBN 978-1-4299-3572-2.
- "Silver Jews: Early Times". Pitchfork. Retrieved August 10, 2019.
- Larson, Sarah (August 8, 2019). "David Berman Made Us Feel Less Alone". The New Yorker. Retrieved August 10, 2019.
- "Silver Jews: American Water". Pitchfork. Retrieved August 10, 2019.
- "Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers". Pitchfork. Retrieved August 10, 2019.
- Williams, Lee (February 20, 2003). "Rock Poet". Houston Press. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
- Blume, Karla S. (September 7, 2006). "Silver Jews Singer Polishes Up Dirty Past | Arts". Jewish Journal. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007.
- "Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers Album Review". austinchronicle.com. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
- "Upcoming CD Releases". Metacritic. Retrieved March 7, 2008.
- "Silver Jews' David Berman Calls It Quits". Pitchfork. January 23, 2009. Retrieved August 18, 2014.
- "Home :: WSM 650AM "The Legend"". WSM Online. Retrieved August 18, 2014.
- "A Tribute to David Berman, The Silver Jews' Genius of Free Association". Tablet Magazine. December 13, 2012. Archived from the original on December 15, 2012.
- "BlogSpot page: Menthol Mountains by David Berman.
- "The Avalanches: Wildflower Album Review – Pitchfork". Pitchfork.
- "New Music: The Avalanches – "A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart" (Demo)". consequenceofsound.net. August 21, 2012.
- "Yonatan Gat Universalists Review on PopMatters". PopMatters.
- "Yonatan Gat Interview for Relix". relix.com.
- "Silver Jews' David Berman to Release New Album in 2019 says Bob Nastanovich – Pitchfork". Pitchfork. December 12, 2018.
- Pitchfork article: "Silver Jews’ David Berman Returns With First New Music in 11 Years".
- Poetry Foundation article: "Actual Air in the Purple Mountains: An Interview With David Berman."
- Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006: "Dying in the Al Gore Suite" by Nick Weidenfeld, pp. 109–114."
- Slate article: "The Greatest Songwriter You’ve Never Heard of Is Back."
- Jenkins, Dafydd (August 6, 2019). "Purple Mountains – the eventual return of Silver Jews' David Berman". Loud and Quiet. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
- Coscarelli, Joe; Sisario, Ben (August 7, 2019). "David Berman, Silver Jews Leader and Indie-Rock Poet, Dies at 52". The New York Times.
- Aniftos, Rania (August 9, 2019). "David Berman's Cause of Death Revealed". Billboard.
- Matthew Ismael Ruiz; Quinn Moreland (August 9, 2019). "Silver Jews' David Berman Died by Suicide, Medical Examiner Rules". Pitchfork. Retrieved September 11, 2019.
- Drag City (August 7, 2019). "We couldn't be more sorry to tell you this. David Berman passed away earlier today. A great friend and one of the most inspiring individuals we've ever known is gone. Rest easy, David.pic.twitter.com/5n5bctcu4j". @dragcityrecords. Retrieved August 9, 2019.[non-primary source needed]
- Minsker, Evan (May 17, 2019). "Silver Jews' David Berman Announces First New Album in 11 Years, Shares Song: Listen". Pitchfork. Retrieved May 21, 2019.
- "Purple Mountains". discogs. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
- "Actual Air". Open City. Retrieved August 9, 2019.
- The Portable February on Drag City