How do you write an introduction to something that never happened? I’ve been pondering how to approach this “interview” and debating whether or not I should even bother publishing it. Yet my instincts tell me I should go ahead and present this as is, because it tells a story—a story that did not get told.
When David Berman released “All My Happiness Is Gone,” his debut single for his new project Purple Mountains,I instantly fell in love with it. I downloaded it as soon as it was available and I watched the video countless times. At first I didn’t get the odd intro, not realizing it was taken from the final Silver Jews show a decade ago, but now that I understand that, it makes so much sense that it was incorporated into the video of his unexpected return. I think I watched the video at least twenty times in a row after it debuted, taking it all in.
Naturally, I wrote about it. I didn’t just write about it, I gushed over it. I fawned over it. I welcomed it into my life as a conquering hero and I wanted nothing more to share my newfound love for his new music—odd, considering that Silver Jews never quite registered with me; I liked American Water but there was something about them that just never quite clicked—in the aftermath of last week, I think I came to the realization why—it was too linked to Pavement for my liking–a band I aggressively do not care for, and the stigma that SJ carried around for years as being a Pavement “side project” kept me away.
That, of course, means nothing now—if it ever really meant anything.
I soon heard through official and trusted sources that David found favor with my summation. I soon heard from him via a mutual acquaintance that he wanted me to know he felt like I “got” it. I didn’t necessarily feel I’d done anything special or cracked his secret code; I simply reacted to it naturally and I shared my thoughts. The second single, “Darkness & Cold” soon follows, I share it as well, and I gush over it. I soon hear back that he likes what I said about it, too. Then came the third, “Margaritas At The Mall.” Lather, rinse, repeat; gush about it, then get told thanks by the man himself.
So after three receptive comments, I start thinking it might be the right time to pop the question: could we have a conversation?
In the documentary Silver Jew, he makes a very convincing case about why he preferred email interviews to in-person or telephone conversations. I understood his reasoning and agreed with him (interviews in person are hard; you’re tempted to give pat answers, and don’t have time to reflect, whilst having that distance between interviewer and subject offers the interviewee the ability to really think about the answer), so I proposed just that. He told me that at that time he was somewhat backed up and wanted to take a little bit of a break as he was getting ready to go on the road. He suggested I contact his label on this Monday, tell them who I was, and that we could “converse” electronically so that he could have something to do to kill the time on the road.
Last Wednesday, I was out running errands, and thinking about getting that set up when I suddenly started getting messages saying that word was going around that he had taken his life.
Eventually, that proved true.
I took his passing quite hard—which was something I just didn’t expect I would, as aside from Purple Mountains, I didn’t really have much invested in anything called “fandom.” I did, however, have a very intense and visceral reaction to his debut album—it was a pill of pure bitterness, hurt, depression, and loss—yet it made the pain go away. No schadenfreude, though; it was the recognition of the wisdom of a fellow traveler who had perfectly encapsulated the misery of the chronic, lifelong depressive. In its own way, it offered hope and a form of understanding you simply couldn’t begin to understand if you’d never been down the road of crippling darkness, addiction, and wanton self-medication guising itself as self-destruction.
But mostly, I was angry. It felt like a betrayal. His death felt like a revocation of all the hope he had given—to me, and to a world that was amazingly receptive about the new record and who felt like I did—that he understood.
He was not my friend; I was not one of his devoted followers. Yet through this new album and venture, I felt a certain closeness to his work, and he felt like a war buddy, someone who had gone through the same valley of the shadow of death and had lived to tell the tale. I would sing along to “People” because it’s a fun song to sing. But I wouldn’t sing along to Purple Mountains songs, because I’d already known them for most of my life. I didn’t need to sing them.
I was hoping to talk to you, David Cloud Berman. I never will. If anything upsets me most, it’s that I didn’t get the chance to tell you how I appreciated your new creation. I wanted to tell him how it struck a chord in me in a way that no new music has, and that I respected and loved and admired him for tearing his hurt psyche open and giving it to the world to see.
I have no idea how the conversation I had planned would go. Would he give great, insightful answers? Would he give short, to-the-point responses? Would he even answer them at all? I have no way of knowing, nor do I have an interest in speculating.
These questions I present are merely what I had hoped to be building blocks for a deeper conversation. I had written these in the days before his death. I have chosen to leave them as-is, unedited, to preserve that moment in time, and though I could easily have added questions I’d love to have asked him after the fact, I’ve opted not to do that, so these are the raw questions I’ll never get raw answers for.
And that is a fucking tragedy.
When you brought Silver Jews to an end, the retirement seemed both definite and logical. While you’ve discussed coming back elsewhere—and probably ad nauseum by this point—as you reflect on the ending of the band, did you ever feel as if you had some unfinished business, or is the starting over as Purple Mountains sign that the SJ saga was indeed a closed book?
To that end, are you performing Silver Jews material on this tour? Are you purposefully avoiding that part of your career and letting people know straight ahead, or are you going to take a more casual approach?
It’s common for musicians to be torn between having their songs being 100% personal and about who they are, and songs that have nothing to do with their personal lives. Parts of Purple Mountains are extremely dark and deal directly and upfront about death—but from my interpretation (and having read other interviews with you) some of the most explicit ones are dealing with your feeling the loss of your mother. Do you worry that people will think you’re singing about yourself when you might not be? Or does their interpretation not concern you?
At the same time of returning with the new band and record, you’ve also released an upscale new edition of your book Actual Air. Having just revisited it myself, I’m curious—are there more books in you? How do you relate to the guy who wrote that in his twenties and thirties, who might be in a completely different headspace in his fifties?
One thing I love about your style is your rhythm and flow. Would it be wrong to say you have a definite hip-hop/rap influence? Considering the controversy, what do you think of Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road?” Because, frankly, I can’t help noticing there are similarities between you and him.
I have to break professional form and pitch you a concept for a video for “Margaritas At The Mall.” I’m envisioning a bleak, dark, trashy bar in a strip mall, and there’s a karaoke night. And as you come in, Neil Hamburger is singing the song. In a scenario quite similar to the Joe Cocker/John Belushi Saturday Night Live performance, you discover he’s dressed like you and looking like your doppelgänger, and so you join him onstage, singing the song together, coordinated in your performance moves. I think that’d look cool, don’t you?