David Berman once wrote that Paul Simon got it all wrong — there’s really only two ways to leave your lover. “You can up and leave, Steve. Or you can go to your grave, Dave.” Berman spent much of his existence leaving his lives behind, pulling up stakes and starting a new life somewhere else, until the horrible news of his death yesterday at 52. He was beloved for his Silver Jews albums and his 1999 classic book of poetry, Actual Air. He had just returned to release an excellent new album under the name Purple Mountains. If he loved the world, and his music makes it plain he did, the world got to love him back before he left. But as he sang in his most famous song, “Random Rules,” that’s why the highways are painted black. Steve, it’s because people leave.
David Berman’s kindness was even wilder than the rest of him, and his kindness is what I will remember best. We were friends in Charlottesville, back in the Nineties. (He was better friends with my wife Renee Crist, and wrote me an incredibly beautiful note when she died in 1997.) I figured years ago, I’d heard the last from him, as a person or as a musician, and I was already thinking of him in the past tense. I found it difficult this year to gear myself up to listen to the Purple Mountains record because I didn’t know if I was ready to re-engage with him emotionally. It was weird this year to start thinking of him in the present and even the future. Now it’s weird to think of him as heading back into the past already. It’s too late, and it’s too soon.
His warmth was powerful; if you did something that made him break out that grin, you very much wanted to do the same thing tomorrow. The first time Pavement ever played Charlottesville — August 1991 — David was there and Stephen Malkmus kept slipping Silver Jews references into the songs. “In The Mouth a Desert,” the second time the hook rolls around he sings “don’tcha knooow,” he sang it as, “Silver Jeeewwws.” He had that effect on people.
A fond memory from Charlottesville, one night at Tokyo Rose, the strip-mall sushi joint our valiant friend Darius Van Arman turned into a homegrown rock sanctuary. DCB was making his rounds with a plastic balancing-bird perched on his fingertip — the kind of toy a Southern Baptist grandma would get for three bucks at a craft store. The bird had a magnet hidden in its beak, so it hovered on his finger miraculously. He stretched out his hand, inviting everyone to give it a try. “How about that?” he asked me. “You’re amazed, right? Think of all the time and money and effort you could put into trying to impress people — but you wouldn’t come close to this cheap bird.”
Berman was one of rock’s great songwriters of the past 30 years — American Water and The Natural Bridge are perfect albums saturated in the Southern boho small-town slackularity that was the American water in which we swam, crooning his poetry in his Lee Marvin baritone. He co-wrote one of Pavement’s greatest songs, “The Secret Knowledge of Backroads.” His UVA buddies in Pavement, Bob Nastanovich and Malkmus, remained loyal lifelong comrades. Malkmus sang about their friendship in “Lariat,” celebrating a “Mudhoney summer.” “Charlottesville was a great place to be for that time,” Malkmus told me in 2013. “David Berman peroxided his hair and wore Mardi Gras beads all the time. That’s a Mudhoney summer.”
I met him when I did an afternoon rock show on WTJU in 1990; he’d come in (often wearing a red bandana) and sigh sorrowfully about how whatever band I was spinning wasn’t quite good enough. He taught me a ton about music, teaching me about favorites like the Red Krayola’s Parable of Arable Land. But also I remember a party at his house where he cleared the room by putting on an Oasis 12-inch — “Talk Tonight.” People didn’t know it — a Noel-sung B-side— and its rock gaucheness horrified a few of his guests. But he sat cross-legged on the floor in his favorite Maker’s Mark rugby shirt, with a big innocent boyish grin on his face. I’d never heard the song, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is beautiful, creepily beautiful, but that’s no excuse for him playing it now.” He was on his cloud and didn’t notice.
I’ll never forget that letter he wrote, not a word of it. (“I will always remember Renee. She was like no other.”) In that scrawl of his — you know it from the records. He put it in an envelope, added a stamp, and put it in the mail. Nineties indie wolfboys, we did our best, we did, but we didn’t write letters like that — we’d always talk ourselves out of it. He liked her—she was blunt and excessive and emotionally incautious, as he was and I wasn’t. I got less so with grief. (In the words of a song he wrote that I sang to myself constantly as a young widower, “I got more in common with who I was than who I am becoming.”) But he was enough like her to keep checking up on me. It wasn’t a “nice” thing to do, it was a bizarrely brave one. From what I hear, it was totally typical of him.
Side note: He told her a great story — I have no idea if it’s true — about hosting Will Oldham (of Palace) and Bill Callahan (Smog) at his house when they played in town, circa ‘95. They got bored and sent him out to rent a movie. He came back proudly with National Lampoon’s Vacation. They made him go back and rent something in French.
In the summer of 1996, he gave us a tape of an album called The Natural Bridge, with the guys from New Radiant Storm King. It was classic songwriting on par with Randy Newman’s 12 Songs or Neil Young’s On the Beach — one of the all-time great Virginia winter-woods albums. “Pretty Eyes,” damn. It seemed impossible he could top it (thought it had seemed that way when he made Starlite Walker in 1994.) It seemed impossible this music was being made in our midst, in our lifetimes. I raved about its brilliance in a glossy fashion mag, hoping and assuming he wouldn’t read it; he called to thank me and said it was the only review of his career that didn’t mention Pavement. Seriously, “Pretty Eyes.”
Berman designed a WTJU T-shirt, with a joke based on the sign you saw on highway trucks: a 1-800 number and “How’s My Walking?” It was my travel shirt — I wore it whenever I left Cville, to rep my home. It died, like so much else, at Woodstock ’99; it got caked in three days worth of toxic sludge that never came out in the wash. Berman loved to argue rock history and canons. He once silenced the bar announcing it was time to start re-appreciating Lindsey Buckingham’s solo gem Go Insane. He thought it was a crime Gram Parsons got better press than Dolly Parton. (He was fond of quoting her line, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”) He wished Rolling Stone would revive the “black box” rating from the old 1970s album guides — less than one star. He felt “black box” badness was a feat history should recognize.
American Water was his breakthrough in 1998, his best, his calling card to the rest of the world. It was also his goodbye record in many ways — to the Pavement connection, to non-addict life, to his twenties, to Charlottesville, to the whole idea of making music that tried to win people over. It was a welcome-to-my-world record that was also a leaving-home record. (“Home is surrounded by places to go,” as he sang.) Malkmus and Berman teamed up like Ghostface and Raekwon, while the band created the ramshackle boho hideaway vibe of Music From Big Pink or American Beauty. If you’re a fan of S.M. and D.C.B., check out the 1996 comp Hotel Massachusetts, featuring their ridiculous acoustic destruction of R.E.M.’s “Good Advices.”
He roamed the country; his albums got grim and erratic, but with moments of excruciating beauty. His label Drag City stood by him heroically. From a distance, it was tough to tell if he knew how much his music meant to strangers who looked up to him as a wise elder. He retired from music with a 2009 blog post about his estranged father. He vanished for years, then returned this summer as Purple Mountains. It should have been the beginning of a new story; it should have been what we’re all talking about today.
His kindness was wiser than his darkness, and he seemed to know that. The music he left behind was his kindness, or at least the version he put his heart and soul into sharing with the world. The world was lucky to have him for a while, holding us to our word. Thanks for your life, DCB.