by carl wilson

'A web of sewer, pipe, and wire connects each house to the others'

berman.jpg
David Berman aka the Silver Jews, as photographed by John Vanderslice.

He set out to take 300 orange Xanax, ten at a time, between house chores. He brushed his teeth, took ten pills. He made the bed, took ten pills. He showered. He walked Miles. He got the mail. Then he stopped remembering. What must've happened in the next few minutes or hours was that Berman grew incredibly romantic. Like the most honest but self-consciously histrionic moments of his writing, he stumbled to his closet and put on his wedding suit. He tried to scribble some final words. "Cassie I'm sorry. I can't take it anymore. I love you." Then he called his crack dealer.

That's the money-shot paragraph from the recent Fader magazine story about David Berman, the voice of the on-and-off-and-now-we-realize-why indie band the Silver Jews, and also the writer of Actual Air, a terrific book of poetry published in 1999. It's a strange story, of Berman's deliberate overdose two years ago and his recovery and rehabilitation, his deepening relationship to Judaism. It's not so much the events described, although the notion of Berman as a crack addict is a shocking displacement of one's image of him (which just goes to show how much at-a-distance images of artists are worth). It's the tone in which the article is written, which seems to affect an inappropriate level of intimacy, trying so hard to be "inside Berman's head" that it actually casts doubt on the truth of what it's saying, making one wonder if the whole story is some kind of hoax the writer and Berman have concocted. But that seems even more out of sync with what (we think) we know about Berman's character, so I think it is the Stockholm Syndromatic writing style that is really to blame - not so much in the above paragraph as in ones like this: "There is a fine line between selfishness and solipsism, the latter more pathological than malicious. And Berman is solipsistic to the bone - someone who cannot comprehend a world outside of the self. This may be the real reason he doesn't tour." It's overreaching.

The story does end well - Berman seems to be cleaned up, happily married and making an inspiring effort at "trying to be a better person and not being such a fucking nightmare for everyone." His upcoming album, Tanglewood Numbers, logically enough is reported to be a shift in direction (and you can find out for yourself on Soulseek), more direct, more confident, and snarling rather than whimpering. Berman always had one of the most melodious whimpers in songwriting - I often think of lines like, "Day after day on the beautiful stage/ We are playing tambourine for minimum wage/ But we are real," on the American Water album - but it did seem like an eternal adolescent voice at times. I'm eager to hear what a grownup Silver Jews record will be like. I'm sure it will simply channel the sensibility through newly opened channels - the sensibility itself seems to be sewn into his skin, as evidenced by the fact that before going to the hospital with his overdose, Berman checked himself into the same Florida hotel room where Al Gore holed up waiting for the 2000 election results to come through, saying, "I want to die where the presidency died!" That could so easily be a line from one of his songs or poems. (Also: For you Pavement addicts out there, yes, the new album does feature guitar throughout by Steve Malkmus, and they may tour together.)

It's uncomfortable to be told such secrets about someone so private that, before he started trying to be more cooperative, he seldom performed or gave interviews, and on some level I wish I didn't know, and wouldn't end up filtering my interpretations of the new songs through this story, as I will. Berman always seemed like an abstainer from celebrity culture, and here he is starring in that towering celebrity trope, the rehab story. Yet it's a lesson - what your demons want is exactly to turn you into a cliche. (What could be more "done" than dying?) And the insight into his life is at least an experience of what he was describing in the first line of his poem The Moon, which I have taken for the title of this post.

The other bittersweet moment in Fader was a short piece on Margaret Kilgallen, a visual artist I wish I'd known of before now - she died in 2001 of breast cancer at age 31. There's a retrospective of her work at the Redcat gallery in Los Angeles this summer, if you're in the vicinity. Something of the piquant humour and vulnerability in her art reminds me of Berman's writing and singing - the anti-nostalgic nostalgia of her use of circus-style typefaces blown up to monumental size parallelling his affectionate appropriation of country music gestures, and the tender vandalism of painting friendly new characters into lonely old photographs mirroring the way he pulls cliches inside-out and delights in non-sequitur juxtapositions of lines and phrases. But here is a difference: It's unfortunately a shock when a gifted artist's youthful death wasn't due to self-destruction, and Kilgallen's loss, retrospectively, only throws into relief just how fucked-up it would have been had Berman's suicide attempt succeeded.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, July 15 at 03:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson