From a DMZ at the back of the universe
Here is my email interview with David Berman, of/aka The Silver Jews. He was writing (for the first time, he said) from within a moving van, so his answers are uncharacteristically brief, but there's plenty of detail I didn't get in to the Globe profile.
CW: There aren't that many precedents for your position in popular music: A "serious" poet - not a poetaster, not a light-verse guy, not a Rod McKuen or Jewel - who is (or becomes) a similarly respected songwriter. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, a few more-obscure figures. I'm curious how you experience and regard the aesthetic divide between those worlds. And why isn't it crossed more often?
DB: It's definitely not a case of dual citizenship, as the gatekeepers of neither poetry nor rock have tried to claim me as one of their own. I live somewhat uneasily, in a little noticed DMZ at the back of the universe.
I wanted poetry's intensity of language poured into a larger vessel than academia can provide. Perhaps I now need to be pouring into an ever bigger vessel, i.e., a screenplay.
Is literary writing something you continue to do or intend to return to?
The labor is thankless, the rewards are small, and frankly there are many great talents in the language arts. I want to be working in a field where the high marks are low enough as to make real-world historical songwriting victories entirely achievable. I don't see painting or fiction or poetry within miles of its masters. I'm working in a field whose commonly acknowledged greatest practitioners - Dylan, Springsteen, etc. - have so little control over their supposed mastery.
And that small distance between the greatest practitioners and the novice musician is what keeps it folk. In practice though it seems songwriters hide the fact of this, pulling up the ladder behind them. Almost every interview has asked why I included the chords. [Note: The liner notes for Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea include chord charts for every song.] Isn't anybody interested in what it means that almost no one does? Why is it mentioned so often that punk or country is rudimentary, yet there are no simple directions available to the novice?
How have your feelings about live performance changed, and do you think now that it was a mistake not to tour before?
I'm new out here. I'm like an 18-year-old compared to my peers who are jaded and have been touring for years. I enjoy playing the role of the rube in rock. Touring wouldn't have worked when I was younger. I would have done bad things and taken advantage of some of the privileges that I gladly pass up as a 41-year-old.
Those years of isolation also kept me away from the ridiculous kind of "can do no wrong" adoration offered musicians. The poor guys never get a chance to develop writing skills because so little is expected. Everything in rock seems under-imagined from here, riding the asymptote of good enough.
I'd like to ask what the Stephen Bush painting on the cover signifies to you. The image suits the mood of the album instinctively to me but I wonder if there's a thematic reason for the choice - and whether/in what way you were attracted to Bush's continued repetition of that image year by year.
It's as you say, intuitively complimentary. To unpack it all, you have to think about the mock-heroic aspect of what I am doing. And about my countrymen, who are as oblivious to their peril as stuffed animals in a storm.
You've said that this album is you talking to people who were born after 1980. I find that really interesting, as someone nearly your own age. We're no longer the young people. So three questions: (a) What do you think now about the ideas that prevailed among that '90s youth cohort, that "slacker" identity with which you were often identified? (b) What is it that you wanted to say to or address about people in their 20s now, and (c) why them rather than your own generation?
a) The slacker attitude, which is really just the pure product of a seventies childhood, probably hasn't served its historical purpose yet. Soon we may know why slacker 50-year-olds had to be so cynical and independent to fulfill its role. Some generations move history as young people; others, like FDR's, later in life.
My generation doesn't have 'following' skills. The younger generations, growing up in a more enlightened world perhaps, are team thinkers. My belief is that the next twenty years will be the story of what the adults (us) and the young adults (people born after 1980) do to recover from the damage that this exceptionally stupid and selfish generation of Republicans, businessmen and God-botherers has inflicted.
There is no doubt in my mind that the 40-year-old guys out there who think life has passed them by, the slackers who kept slacking while their peers sold out, will have a very active second half of their lives.
Do you feel this album is looking towards a post-George Bush era, or has a relation to the zeitgeist in that sense? It seems to carry some kind of on-the-upswing charge compared to the rawness of Tanglewood Numbers, and I wonder how much that has to do with external social context as much as the personal one. (I won't ask whom you're voting for, but feel free to expound.)
My anger at the 40 million Americans who voted for Bush in 2000 and the 52 who did in '04 has been a terrible poison I've fed myself every day for eight years. I have no doubt about who is to blame for what we have going on here. No politician can tell the truth to the American people. Who is going to tell them that they are the problem?
Does your adoption in recent years (as I understand it) of a more serious Judaism and Talmudic study alter what you are going after in your writing? There's certainly a Talmudic quality to the first song on Lookout Mountain... (or perhaps a meta-Talmudic, Edmond Jabes kind of tone). But then on "San Francisco BC," for instance, you sound just as comfortable as ever in indulging in nonsense and whimsy...
It's profoundly affected the way I write. It's a repository of story and wisdom that really has no bottom to it. It's made me excited as a reader again.
I don't want to ask you to rehash the story of your drug problems, but I am curious why you chose to put the story out so publicly in such detail at the time. It came as a surprise coming from someone who'd seemed quite private. Was there a moral choice involved in that - perhaps a debt being repaid to fans, or a kind of atonement - or was it a more personal need or strategy?
Getting sober is the end of many different privacies. You're exhausted with privacy.
It feels good to talk about hard times when they are over.
It felt like a way to put some space between me and the Drag City m.o. which marks so many of the label's releases: Agressiver Mysteriousing.
People who go through hell like to let it be known that they are available to help another.
And subsequently has it been difficult to see your work all being interpreted now in the light of those events, or do you somehow feel it's appropriate to be subject to those kinds of biographical readings/hearings?
It's not difficult. My problem is people knowing too little about me and what I'm trying for.