The name David Berman may not mean much to most readers, but to a small subset of you he is a giant. Known best for his band The Silver Jews, he was enigmatic, notoriously prickly, and unwilling to tour or promote or play the game. He attended college and started a band with two future members of the band Pavement, and when The Silver Jews' first record was released, 1994’s Starlite Walker, the press incorrectly labeled the band a Pavement side-project. Berman rankled at this distinction, and for those who knew the music, it was clear that his songwriting and clear poetic voice was the epicenter around which the songs formed.
Over the next fourteen years the band released another five albums, including 1999’s resplendent American Water. In an attempt to declare himself distinct from Pavement, then riding high as indie rock celebrities, he swapped out members of his band with each release. It was during this period that the band performed their only tour, playing shows not only in America, but also in Israel. Berman had taken a deep interest in his faith and had immersed himself in rabbinical readings and Judaic mysticism.
After 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, he opened up about years of drug abuse, including a suicide attempt, and admitted that his father, Richard Berman, was a right-wing lobbyist with whom he had severed ties. He officially broke up the band in an open letter discussing his father, whom he called a “despicable man” and a “scoundrel.”
Then he disappeared. He lived in Nashville with his wife Cassie, and would occasionally post oblique updates online. Rumors would swell up about new music, but nothing ever came of them. Fans knew he had struggled and hoped that he was happy, wherever he was.
Ten years later, it was announced he had a new band. Purple Mountains, featuring backing tracks from the members of the band Woods, arrived unannounced in the summer of 2019. The songs were strong, competent, and especially bleak. Fans were happy to learn that he was being creative, but titles like “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Nights That Won’t Happen” gave them pause. By this point he was separated from his wife and living in an empty office above his record label. Whereas his lyrics were always suffused with poetic nuance and imagist turns of phrase, these new songs straightforwardly catalogued his depression, his divorce, the death of his mother, his anger at God, his unwillingness to go on.
Purple Mountains was set to begin a nationwide tour three days after news of his death broke. His art was one that deeply affected those who took to it, but his unwillingness to play shows never put him in contact with those to whom his music meant the most. Ultimately, he was a deeply flawed man whose creative gifts were a burden and who could never overcome his own demons. He left the world as he existed in it, on his own terms, but the future is a little darker in his absence.