September 13, 2019 | Arts and Culture
how to rent a room
on the death of indie rock icon david berman
Trigger Warning: Suicide, depression
The afternoon that David Berman killed himself found me hastily throwing unfolded clothes into a duffel bag for a trip down to the Blue Ridge Mountains by way of Williamsburg, VA. The day before, I’d finally gotten around to putting an ear on the self-titled release from his newest band, Purple Mountains. Later that day, I was rocketing down the 95 Corridor, running through his lyrics in my head as though remembering a conversation with an old friend.
The poet and Silver Jews frontman has been an idol of mine for years now, exacting enormous influence on the music and poetry I write in my spare time. Fueled by beer and a discontent with life under late capitalism, Berman’s brand of indie rock is quietly melancholic, masking its defeatism in slipshod do-it-yourself musical compositions (often contributed by fellow indie rock luminaries Pavement) and the languorous comfort of his baritone voice. Rife with lyrics like, “in 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” Berman’s compositions access a distinctive hopelessness while also offering up a wink and nudge. As a student struggling with the fact that, even armed with my Ivy League degree and supposedly above-average Ivy League intellect (reports vary on this one), it will be astronomically difficult to exact enough influence on the world to reverse or at least hard-left-turn its charted course for self-destruction, I was instantly enamored with what Berman had to say, held totally fast by his style of presentation.
My first Silver Jews song was an accident, randomly shuffled into a friend’s queue as we sat in his beat-up, late-90s Accord. The song was “Pretty Eyes,” the closing track on The Natural Bridge, and its bleak poesy instantly threw my world out of orbit. I’ll never forget the pins-and-needles sensation I felt when I first heard Berman drawl, “One of these days, these days will end.” Arriving home, I immediately listened to the entire album, ran back to my car, put it on again, and spent the rest of the day fruitlessly hopping from record store to record store in an attempt to find a press of it. From there I discovered favorites on his other records: “Trains Across the Sea” from Starlite Walker, “Random Rules” from American Water, and “Time Will Break the World” from Bright Flight—a song whose title alone I’ve turned over in my head at least once a day since first hearing it. In a way, Berman became a friend of mine, at a time in my life that I often found cruelly friendless, an artist whose voice, while known to others, felt entirely mine. Even learning that his poem “Self-Portrait at 28” was a favorite of a close friend couldn’t change this feeling. Berman’s words and ideas were so close to my heart that he felt like my conscience. For the first time in my life, I felt as though I were really seeing the world.
If you’ll permit me to whine selfishly for a moment about the untimely death of a real human being: Berman’s death took Berman away, but it also took his art with it. Music it had felt safe to live inside instantly lost its comfort. Instead, I felt a strange paralysis. A person whose life and mind and verse I had so venerated and attempted to emulate, a person I had thought for a long time might be the smartest person in the world, had reached the end without any more answers. His lyrics, which had once sounded so wise, now sounded like calls for help (“No, I don’t really want to die / I only want to die in your eyes” or “And since then it’s been a slow education / and you got that one idea again / the one about dying,” to say nothing of the content on the new Purple Mountains release, which reads unsettlingly like a parting message). When I first discovered his writing, I often felt as though Berman’s words were a kind of mirror to my soul, one reflecting a clearer image than the one I was able to see by myself. He was a person who had felt all the same things I felt, and continue to feel—the same doubts, the same fears—but had managed to conquer all of that, or at least transfigure it into something beautiful. Losing him marked the death of a prolific artist, yes, but it also felt to me like the death of an idol, a friend, and a part of me.
There was no fanfare on the day that Berman died. Scattered obits cropped up around the internet. A few musically inclined friends sent me messages or posted goodbyes in forums. My mom thought he was “the guy from Talking Heads” (that’s how she put it). But for most of the world, David Berman passed on quietly, unknown to them, another body in an endless history of bodies. Berman’s restless lassitude stemmed, at times, from his frustration at how transitory our world is, how impermanent. It was hard to see him proved correct.
I grieved harder for David Berman than I have for anyone—family members and friends who have left me included. I’m still grieving. Imagine you were a priest and the Bible committed suicide. Imagine you were lost in a terrible labyrinth of corporate highrises, condo complexes, and “Jesus saves” billboards, and your only map decided to self-destruct. Then you might understand how I could possibly mourn a person I never met. I would also recommend listening to The Natural Bridge if you relate even slightly to any of the feelings of alienation and distress I’ve outlined here.
Speaking from experience, I think it’ll do you good.
“I asked a painter,” Berman relays with a terrible sigh on “Random Rules,” “why the roads are colored black. He said, Steve, it’s because people leave, and no highway will bring them back.”
And on the drive to Williamsburg, where Berman was born, I stared dry-eyed at the yellow lines in the rearview, following their bending path to the vanishing point before the sun set pink and burning on David Berman’s final day.