(David Berman, courtesy Drag City records.)
David Berman passed yesterday at 52 – if you don't know who he is, imagine a richer baritone-d, off-kilter Leonard Cohen who softened his all-encompassing darkness with acid-country wit. Imagine Leonard disappeared near the height of his powers, occasionally sighted in the Internet's bowels, only to reappear after a decade with arguably the best record of his career and a slew of self-effacing, brutally honest interviews – only to pass away less than a week before hitting the road for his first performances in 10+ years.
I have to use a terrible comparison of two completely different artist in a weak attempt to express the simple fact – Berman had no peers. Very few songwriters of his (my? our? I'm 17 years younger, but grew up playing with many bands who out-aged us by a decade) generation can measure up – and certainly, his style and wordplay made him singular, even amongst aging indie demigods whose very existence in 2019 are challenged by the realities of the music industry. "Icon" doesn't feel right, but good friend Pete said it best today: "I've never read so many eulogies."
To hear him was to love him – to know him. Probably why I left a bar record night yesterday to go cry quietly in my car, feeling exactly like and completely different from the 19-year-old who did the same in his dorm after Elliott Smith. Maybe it's the additional generation that's passed since then, or just 16 years of sleeping, driving, drinking, and worrying – all that living formed callouses that yesterday's news sloughed straight through.
Vienna, Austria has an amazing fast, modern train whose terminal is just down a few escalators from the international airport – for 10 euro or so, you can jet right to the city center on one of the smoothest, quietest, most comfortable airport transit systems I've ever ridden on. In May, Tyler and I flew in together and had settled into said train, when I connected to WiFi to get that first news drip after hours spent on international flights.
In a tumultuous spring, I had publically asked for – then received! – news of a new Bill Callahan record. Thought I'd try my manifestation luck again in April by asking the Gods for Dave Berman to return. The first thing I saw upon turning on my phone was the Purple Mountains news. I'd done it! Manifested another record out of the ether – I put my phone in Tyler's face, we high-fived, then bounded out of the train into a sunny Vienna, late afternoon, basking in the Stadtpark while watching toddlers scoot over a pedestrian bridge and summer revelers sip wine and chat in earshot of a quiet city stream.
2019 was looking up, ripe with the return of possibility – right as we overcame the bland vagaries of adulthood to take a group ride down the Danube.
It's Spring 2006 and Everything, Now! is touring in a disused airport shuttle bus with handicap lift built into the rear door – most of us are in school at Ball State, so we've called the tour SPRING BAKED. Not only is the band a 6-piece at this point, but we've also got two good friends and roommates along for the ride. It's basically a rolling party bus – one overnight drive, I hear screaming and nervous laughter and it's because one of the guitarists is pissing out the window while driving through Georgia's foothills so fast that the pee is just streaming back the side of the bus in warm rivulets, losing additional flow in each gap between the cheap sliding windows like a leaky irrigation channel.
At the close of this tour, we made a 2-night stop in Athens, GA (our lead singer/songwriter's hometown) to play one of our favorite DIY spots – a multi-story-tall basement set into a hillside beneath street-level commercial storefronts. Because it was a weekend, the show was scheduled early-ish, 7pm, so as not to compete with all the other venues in town.
(Everything, Now! circa Spring 2006, on a beach in St. Pete, FL.)
We'd begun making friends in Nashville with a bunch of angel-voiced, bearded dudes who played multiple instruments and had a shit-ton of great rock-n-roll bands: Hands Down Eugene, The Carter Administration, and some others I can't remember. Through one of these connects (God knows how any of these super-talented Nashville folks dug our shit-gear, longhair, psych-punk-junk-prog jams...) we met a brilliant slide guitar player. That night in Athens, he was sitting in with a band opening for the Silver Jews at the 40 Watt.
[Note: I'm realizing with some research tonight that this was the first Silver Jews show ever. Previously...I was only aware that it was their first tour.]
I was 3 or so years into a deep Pavement obsession that started the second I heard S&E – Silver Jews ambled into my ears via a burnt CD from some friend and the laconic sounds of what I first thought were Pavement gone honky-tonk eventually seeped into my veins. When Tanglewood Numbers came out in 2005, I was Music Director at WCRD – and songs from that LP that should be goddam standards today ("Punks in the Beerlight", "Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed", "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You") rapidly made their way onto our automated playlist and my regular show.
Back to Athens – slide guitar guy gets ahold of Jon and asks if 2 of us want on the guestlist for the Silver Jews show. We figure we can make it straight out of our set, and agree. I'm not sure how we decided it was us who could go out of the 8 other than...we were the biggest fans? It was Jon's band? Regardless, I remember squeezing into the packed club and hearing the Joos rip through a great set, Dave dressed in a maroon blazer and towering over the stage and band. Once he started singing, all felt right.
This was a musician's dream – the best night of my life! I was pretty sure – I remember coming down from the basement keg beer, thanking Slide Guitar, and leaving 40 Watt on cloud nine, a completely different person than the shy, uncultured nerd who nervously moved into a dorm 3 years earlier. We decamped back to the DIY space and drank through a 3rd show of the night – some fast-as-fuck punk via Guyana Punch Line that jackhammered thankfulness into my skull.
As I sit and stare at my wall of records, I suppose that the reason my shelves are always overflowing (besides an addictive personality) is that music affords you a workingman's way to connecting with a higher power – 5, 10, 15 bucks to see or experience art created from some body/soul/sweat/tears – art that takes you places, bridges divides between strangers, and attaches itself, barnacle-style, to events in your life, accentuating and colouring in the meaning of life events and decisions that you don't recognize the Power, Importance, or Heft of when you are in them.
Only later. The gift of hindsight is a weird drug for self-analysis. In some ways, a curse: it's hindsight and our need to shape stories in order to make sense of the World that forces Berman's existence into an arc, when, like our own, it was more likely a squiggly line, frayed here, grayed there. We wanted to see Purple Mountains as a redemption, as someone defeating something inside themselves, for a moment or a hundred moments, and emerging the victor.
Upon his passing, the arc shifts: the album becomes a presage; and who but ourselves can parse the two-sided coin of self-lacerating wit and darkness? Sometimes we don't even know what side of our own coin is heads up.
I'm deeply sad that DCB won't be able to look back at the outpouring of love inspired by Purple Mountains and his passing. I hope he found peace.