Words, music, and wit: Indie rock icon David Berman touched local lives

Musician and poet David Cloud Berman died on August 7. Image: Bobbi Fabian Musician and poet David Cloud Berman died on August 7. Image: Bobbi Fabian

On Friday, July 12, a new David Berman record hit store shelves.

Recorded under the moniker Purple Mountains, it’s an eponymous 10-track offering that marked the end of a decade-long hiatus for Berman, whose Silver Jews lyrics made him an indie rock icon, admired by critics and music fans alike.

But just weeks after he returned, he was gone. Berman died Wednesday, August 7. He was 52.

Berman’s music—that Purple Mountains record; the EPs, singles, and six albums he made with Silver Jews between 1989 and 2009—and his published poetry collection, Actual Air, earned him a devoted following. In local indie rock and radio circles, both past and present, stories about Berman himself loom as large as the music he made.

It was in Charlottesville that Berman started writing songs, when he was a UVA undergraduate in the late 1980s and, legend has it, singing into friends’ answering machines, and creating music with fellow classmates and future indie rock idols Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich of Pavement.

At UVA, Berman was an Echols Scholar who worked hard on his poetry and, according to Nastanovich (who co-founded Silver Jews along with Berman and Malkmus in New York in 1989), garnered the attention of English department professors “who viewed him as a peer.” In addition to his coursework, Berman hosted a show on WTJU and washed dishes at Eastern Standard. “He played hard, too,” says Nastanovich.

Not only was Berman very handsome, he was usually the tallest person in the room, one of the easiest to spot, says his friend and classmate Sandra Wade, and one of the easiest (and most delightful) to talk to.

“He was sharp as a tack, and could really see things in a way nobody else could. Even simple things,” says Wade. It’s what made him a good writer, and it’s what made him a good friend.

“It’s what I’ll remember him most for, his kindness,” says Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone’s pop music critic who lived in Charlottesville in the 1990s and, like Berman, had a show on WTJU.

Berman once brought a magnetic, plastic, balancing bird to a show at Tokyo Rose. It was “the kind of toy grandmas buy at the craft store for a couple of bucks, but it was so cool” in its defiance of gravity, says Sheffield. “All night long, David let anyone take a turn holding this magic plastic bird. He said, ‘Think of all the time and money and energy you could spend on trying to impress somebody—but you could never do as good a job as this cheap little bird!’”

That  sums up “a lot of his extravagant, excessive, exhausting benevolence,” says Sheffield. “DCB was kind to me, in a way that seemed extreme and bizarre until I heard more stories about how kind he was to friends and strangers.”

“He was very generous with his time,” says Darius Van Arman, founder of Jagjaguwar Records who was in his young 20s when he met Berman, a few years his elder, here in Charlottesville. “I was trying to figure out my place in the world, and I really looked up to certain labels and artists—they all felt impenetrable to me. And David made me feel like I belonged in it. He was a mentor, and he gave me great confidence at a time when I was trying to figure out where I fit in in the world.”

Berman’s the one who encouraged Van Arman to send a copy of the first Drunk CD to a reviewer at Melody Maker magazine, which resulted in a slew of orders from music distributors. “That was one of the first moments Jagjaguwar got out in the world,” says Van Arman.

Berman was kind and generous, and he was also hilarious. “A wit, a provocateur, a savant, a wise guy and a good friend,” says Gate Pratt, who played noisy, staticky pop songs with Berman in a project called Ectoslavia, and continued collaborating with Berman for years afterward.

David Berman in 1988. Photo courtesy of Aaron Margosis

He doled out monikers like “Sheila Tackya” for fellow WTJU DJs (in this case, Nastanovich’s wife), was a rather talented cartoonist, and had running commentary on everything from bathroom bugs to rats and fornicating cats. Kylie Wright, Berman’s classmate, close friend, and Ectoslavia bandmate, remembers one night when a stray cat walked into the Red House on 14th Street, where Berman lived with Wright and some other friends. The cat “fucked his girlfriend cat,” says Wright, and Berman quipped, “We’re gonna see the results of that.” Weeks later, the cat returned with a litter of kittens behind him.

The Red House was a source of pride for Berman, says Nastanovich. Berman “felt like an outsider [at UVA], which he was,” and at the Red House, full of fellow outsiders, the strongly-opinionated Berman “became the fearless leader of a proper ‘freak scene,'” he adds. “People were drawn to him because he was often captivating.”

Berman’s poetic and songwriting prowess are well-documented, says Pratt, but “lesser known are his many other interests that made him a truly interesting and quixotic character. In true renaissance fashion, David had a deep interest in many other obscure topics: perfumery, food photography, classic country, bric-a-brac, collage, fantasy football, practical jokes, deep internet wormholes, and other incongruous arcana,” including presidential trivia.

“On his trip this week from Chicago, his car broke down on the highway in the middle of the night, the difficulty compounded thanks to his Bush Sr.-era flip phone and lack of the ubiquitous smart phone GPS that the rest of us take for granted,” says Pratt. “After a harrowing night of trekking the highway on foot, finally getting his car towed, finding a hotel and later renting a car, he finally made it to his intended destination of Brooklyn. When I quizzed him about the details, he recounted the hassles of the road, the curse of his flip phone and the guile of the tow truck driver who innocently delivered him to a muffler shop to have his clutch repaired (the nerve!). Despite the headaches and inconvenience, David was inexplicably pleased with the adventure to do the simple fact that he had broken down in the Ohio hometown of Rutherford B. Hayes.”

This week, Berman, backed by most of the band Woods, was to begin a North American Purple Mountains tour. Wade and Wright had tickets to see their friend play in Philadelphia on August 12, and when they told him as much, Berman wrote back in an email: “stick around after the show to say hi. i’ve sworn to / come out after the show and shake hands and say hello / instead of stealing away immediately after which is my wont.”

That was a big deal for him, says Wade, because the self-deprecating artist was also “so shy.” And yet, he spoke openly and candidly of his sadness, of his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, in so many interviews. “He just lays himself bare for the world to see. He was fearless about wrestling with his demons in his art, and his public conversations,” says Wade, who suspects that was part of Berman’s magnetism.

“As much as he put himself out there, he was a pretty insular guy,” says Chris Hlad, filmmaker, photographer, C&O cook, and longtime friend who occasionally served as Berman’s tour documentarian. Hlad believes that duality is part of why it may have been difficult for David Berman to be David Berman. “He was an individual who channeled true godhead, and that’s a rough place to be, because it’s not a common thing.”

Hlad was set to accompany Berman on a few Purple Mountains tour dates this month, his camera in tow. “The world is a fairly dark place these days,” he says, and in many ways, Berman was “an antidote to so much of what’s out there.” Maybe, says Hlad, because Berman experienced so much darkness—including depression—in his own life.

“His mile-wide frown and his mile-wide smile were coming from the same place and both could be heard in all those songs he wrote,” says Sheffield. “It was inspiring he came back to make his great Purple Mountains record, after so many years away.”

And of that Purple Mountains record, Hlad says, “I don’t think he could have made a greater artistic effort. He wasn’t burned out, in some flophouse, at the end of his rope. He was firing on all cylinders. It’s so personal, and so revealing. It’s like Blood on the Tracks, but a much better record. And I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and tell him that.” (But for the record, Hlad’s favorite is The Natural Bridge, Berman and Silver Jews’ “Virginia record,” released in 1996 and mostly written during Berman’s stay in Steve Keene’s house in Keswick, where Hlad once DJed a memorable Hanukkah party thrown by Berman.)

“I wish that, if he had had that better view of how much good he did in the world, and how much he lifted each of us up, and how important his words and music were, he’d be happier,” says Van Armen.

Charlottesville-based poet and songwriter Guion Pratt [no relation to Gate Pratt] of Nettles counts Berman among his influences.

“‘All my favorite singers couldn’t sing’ (from Silver Jews’ “We Are Real”) has long been some of the most crucial permission I’ve ever felt as a songwriter,” he says. “I never overlapped with David in Charlottesville. By my calculations, while he was graduating from UVA, I reckon I was just learning to speak. I was learning to speak and he was writing lines like, ‘There’s gonna be a truce / but first you gotta set your horses loose.’ What makes a good singer, anyway? And what does it matter when you can speak like that?”

“Through his creative output he led by example in inspiring us all to embrace and champion a punk rock DIY ethos masked in new wave cool, fearlessly pursuing deep artistic truths delivered in deceptively simple fashion,” says Berman’s onetime bandmate and steadfast friend Gate Pratt. “Despite making it seem effortless, David secretly labored over every note and line, reworking everything to conform to his impossibly exacting standards. And we’re all the better for it.”

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Gate Pratt

“He was a rebel Jew and he died for you, let him in”. Godspeed, David.

Zelda Fitzgerald
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Zelda Fitzgerald

We will always miss you, David.