River of Berman
A tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews, whose work has flowed in and out of my life
The person who handled this antagonism most gracefully and usefully, I thought, was David Berman.
As Tom Bissell summarized in his essay on the subject, “Grief and the Outsider,” which appears in his collection Magic Hours:
The Open City poet (and lead singer and songwriter for the Silver Jews) David Berman … sent a lacerating letter to Wenclas, challenging the ULA [Underground Literary Alliance, which Wenclas had founded] to a “relevance read-off.” Upon receiving Wenclas’s sharp though polite reply, Berman shot back, “Look King, if you’re going to be so civil about this then disregard my first letter. I thought you were hot-headed assholes looking for a fight. … Obviously I’m talking to the wrong guy. Who’s the head asshole over there? Tell him to call me.”
A couple of years later Berman broke the no-performing clause in his contract with himself and took the Silver Jews on the road. I think the motivations were largely financial. It went well. After two successful world tours with the Silver Jews, and their most successful record yet, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea—success, it does come, as long as you don’t define it as making millions of dollars—Berman did the natural thing to do, if you are David Berman, which is break up the Silver Jews. He did so to write a book. It would be a book of political muckraking, and also an act of patricide. There is castration fear, it turns out.
That Berman’s father was a hard-charging D.C. lobbyist with unsavory political inclinations was something I was aware of, vaguely, for some time. It was hard to resist the feeling that this was, in some way, an embarrassment to Berman. Being an artist, he went to the embarrassment, to the difficulty, and devoted himself to pushing the details to the surface. The details were so dark they are almost comic—Berman’s father, Rick Berman, was the go-to lobbyist for almost every unsympathetic industry—cigarettes, alcohol, soft drinks—who wanted to influence a national discussion without leaving fingerprints. Rick Berman’s method was to create fake grassroots groups to confuse the discussion. (He is sufficiently prominent among the activist community that there is a website devoted to exposing his activities.)
That his father was working on behalf of booze, cigarettes, sugar, and against unions, and food labeling, etc., etc., could be seen as distasteful, upsetting, infuriating, or even kind of rock ’n’ roll. But I think the issue for Berman wasn’t only, or even primarily, that his father was advocating for unsavory causes—it was the method. Berman the truth-teller was sire of a kind of genius of sophistry. Faced with this he could either be paralyzed by this irony or expose it in order to undermine both the literal and figurative power of his father. He did both.
On Sunday July 25, 2010, David Berman spoke at the Open City Summer Writers Conference at the NYU writing Center on 10th Street off Sixth Avenue. The weekend had gone well, filled with readings and workshops. Now it was Sunday evening. David’s talk was the capstone event.
I introduced him as having a genius for not doing the most obvious thing. He was a poet of aphorism, I said. You could never step into the same Berman twice. I spoke of how vexing this was, how one wished to have him keep doing what he does well. I was referring to how he had a popular band that he never took out on tour, where he might enjoy himself, make money, and expand the band’s profile. And how he then finally went on tour, and how it went well. And so he then breaks up the band. I was referring to the fact that after the huge success of Actual Air he seemed to turn his attention away from writing poems.
He came to the podium wearing a seersucker jacket, white shirt with no tie, khaki pants, and sneakers. He was slender to the point of being gaunt. His hair was neatly trimmed. He could have been a Young Republican. A Jehovah’s Witness. A recently released inmate of a psychiatric ward. All of the above.
In the corner stood a man with a professional video camera. A documentary was being made about David.
It was a warm summer day, and the air-conditioning was already conceding to the packed room. David began to speak, his body swaying like a reed, bending a bit at the waist, davening. He spoke of his need to address his father, to expose him. Of the book he had tried to write. How in trying he had to eat, daily, “the cold cheeseburger of failure.”
Then something strange happened that speaks to the weird life of ideas in the culture. Once he began writing the book, even if he had not written it and had to eat the cold cheeseburger of failure every day, it was a project, an entity. And somehow HBO had gotten hold of it. They wanted to turn it into an HBO drama. A scriptwriter had been assigned to write a pilot. The project gathered steam. HBO would take David Berman’s book about his father and turn it into an hourlong dramatic series.
And then David had an epiphany. HBO’s secret sauce, common across almost all their shows, is the anti-hero. It struck him that his attempt to unmask the diabolical nature of his father, to strike a blow against his father, would result in his father being turned into the Tony Soprano of D.C. lobbyists. It would glorify his father. He pulled the plug. HBO wanted to shoot the pilot. He said no.
I don’t know the details but from limited experience I feel safe in saying he walked away from a boatload of money. Many boatloads. His friends thought he was crazy. Harmony Korine castigated him. An hourlong HBO dramatic series is close to the pinnacle of cultural prestige. What was he thinking?
He told me the whole story when we first spoke of his coming to speak at the Open City Conference. I had the same feeling as, I imagine, everyone else. Really? I thought. Wouldn’t it be better to take the cash, to let them at least shoot the pilot, to be in the game?
The room was getting warmer. No one seemed uncomfortable. David’s monologue was reminiscent of Spalding Gray in that it was a talk that was a performance. It was improvised, associative. Sweat was coming through his shirt. A pinch of Noam Chomsky. A dash of Oedipus. Pauses that held long enough to make you think it would all collapse. Then he kept going. I remember thinking, Thank God someone is filming this!
What does an anti-careerist genius of free association do after the band, the book, the HBO project, and the documentary have all been sent packing? In Berman’s case the next move was—wait for it—a blog. It’s called Menthol Mountains. The subhead, lowercase: arc of a boulder. The title is cool; the subhead provokes a feeling in me that I think many Berman readers and fans have, a mixture of appreciation and a kind of forehead slapping: Why didn’t I think of that?
The blog is an amalgam of literary quotations, eclectic linkage, music, Judaism, politics, geography, folklore, all of the preoccupations are present, all stemming from the strange, associative sensibility of David Berman. It is without any obvious purpose other than to give form to the author’s interests. It’s pretty great.
The Rankin-Bass animated specials are yuletide staples, so why do they look Jewish and sound gay?