River of Berman
A tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews, whose work has flowed in and out of my life
Putting it that way sexualizes the creative act in a weird way, but it’s fair to say that a fan acts like a jilted lover when the artist goes through a radical change. Dylan’s electric conversion being an example.
Berman’s career as Chief Silver Jew has been divided into curiously counterintuitive chapters. First came the phase of only putting out records but never playing live. Berman’s singing is declarative and no frills. He can carry a tune, but only barely. The music is given a kind of melodic ballast by the occasional appearance of Stephen Malkmus’ voice and guitar, so distinct and recognizable and yet so odd in the context of Berman’s spooky, dazed, darkly associative world.
Berman and Malkmus—classmates at the University of Virginia—belong to the curious genre of artists who seem to have glimpsed the engine room of society in all its mundane horror. Theirs is the poetry of arbitrage, playing the spread between the mythological and the mundane. They are fluent in the banal platitudes of corporate-speak and its ancillary, sports talk. It’s not so much a subject as a tool and a preoccupation. Sample lyric from Berman: “Girl in a special economic zone. Girl in a special economic zone. Closed sign swinging in the window of the liquor store. Better get inside the kingdom and close the door.” (Franzen has a bit of this. DFW has a lot of it. I nominate the Late Robert Bingham as the poet laureate of arbitrage, especially the stories in Pure Slaughter Value.)
I don’t think you can name either a poet or a rock star for whom the words “Federal,” “Municipal,” and “Civic,” play a larger role than in Berman’s work—both the lyrics and the poems. Malkmus’ language is more veiled by make-believe, more coded, and yet his lyrics also suggest a traumatizing glimpse into the way things work. Samples: “Open Call For Prison Architects.” And, “I was dressed for success/ but success it never comes.” And “Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault.” And my personal favorite: “There is … no … castration fear.”
Berman’s poems and lyrics sometimes sound as though his muse is a bedraggled confederate soldier moving through a modern world with which he is on familiar terms, trying to reconcile disappointment with a gratitude for being alive.
I once heard a story about the two of them working through the process of recording one of the Silver Jews’ most memorable and rocking songs, “Send in the Clouds.” Apparently they were stuck on the pronunciation of the word “Game” in the song. They did take after take and finally got it right when Malkmus suggested that Berman channel Mick Jagger when saying the word. Once you know this it adds a layer to the song. The song has a Stones swagger. But one had to picture it being performed because The Jews didn’t tour.
Berman did make one deeply weird public appearance during the first eight or so years of the Silver Jews. In 2000 word got out that he would be playing an unannounced show in an East Village bar with Stephen Malkmus. The two men appeared at the appointed hour in a bar on Stanton Street with guitars, amps. They set up. They stood facing each other, tuning up, or doing some kind of pre-song noodling as though in preparation for a song. For about 40 or so minutes they did this—and nothing else. Their body language was that of two guitarists turning to each other as though to say, “Are you ready?” Yes. And no. Not yet. Not now. Maybe never.
He lives in Nashville with his wife and collaborator Cassie. He has a dog. His neighbor is filmmaker Harmony Korine, who tells stories about his adventures in show business. I learned this when I gave a reading with Berman at Indiana University. It was fall of 2004. We walked through Bloomington’s autumn leaves while he repeated an outrageously smutty story Korine had told him about an actress. I was mortified for some reason. Maybe because my fiancée was there with me. He called us “Lord and Lady Beller.” I loved that. It was like a benediction. That smutty story, about the proclivities of a starlet, was so outrageous that I have always wondered if Berman made it up. Not that it matters. The reading was fine. There was a radio interview, and the next morning we spoke to a class of creative-writing students. You know what goes a long way toward making you impressed with a person? When they surprise you. I watched a young man’s hand tremble as he asked Berman a question. This was clearly a momentous experience for him. He kept it together, got the gist across. (How to live? How to write?) What did Berman say in response? I have no idea, alas. I was too lost in the watching. I only remember the feeling—being exhilarated by his honesty. The no-bullshit honesty and also the truth of it. Which gives you nothing. But I offer it because it was so surprising how unvarnished it felt. You don’t even realize how much bullshit you allow for in your day-to-day life, just the pleasantries of it, until you get something straight like that.
Was it before or after he publicly announced a suicide attempt that Berman decided to take the show on the road and perform live? I cannot recall. I read about his suicide attempt in a magazine. He was pictured with his dog on a leash. I remember thinking, “What about the dog?”
I met Berman for the first time in 1998 at a reading sponsored by the literary magazine I co-founded in 1990, Open City. Berman was the headline attraction. We had set up chairs in a gallery space. These gallery spaces, with their wood floors, the emptied, barren karma emanating from the fresh coat of white paint on their walls, the often lewdly provocative art on the wall, were the magazine’s staging area. The very first Open City party was at a defunct gallery on Mercer Street where the freelance curator Kenny Schachter had put together a show: used tampons in plastic sandwich bags piled in one corner, a microphone set up beside a pair of bicycles propped on kickstands, innocent enough until you noticed that the seats had been replaced with dildos and other such gear. It was a wild party. My old friend Daniel—co-founder of the magazine—and I were very proud of it, though this was long before everything was always photographed, so there are no pictures. Still, a fundamental pattern was set—we chose good work for the magazine, and we promoted it by having great parties that were also readings, and we took equal pleasure in both.
Berman appeared on our scene about seven years after that first party and reading. By then Robert Bingham had joined us, using what in hindsight I see was his M.O.: a kind of radical candor in which he comes up to a person and says, “You! I like you!” And then explains why, whether it be the band’s music, or the person’s writing, or just the person’s face.
The Rankin-Bass animated specials are yuletide staples, so why do they look Jewish and sound gay?