I’ve spent the last couple of days under a melancholic cloud, to the point where I’m writing this now hoping for a release, to move on past these feelings. There’s nothing I hate more than public mourning, particularly of a celebrity or cultural figure, as it so often become a bragging contest about the mourner’s own tastes. But I’ve been unable to get David Berman’s death out of my head; it’s occupying all of my thoughts, even mundane short-term ones; I am obsessed with the death of someone I never met. Perhaps the nature of this newsletter, being only ’semi’-public (I assume that everyone reading this knows me), will allow me to process this without violating my own codes.
I guess I understand how others felt when Bowie or Prince or Cobain or Michael Jackson died (and I can only imagine what will happen when Bob Dylan passes). It’s easy and factual to declare that Berman was my favourite songwriter ever, but what his death made me realise was something far deeper. The truth is, I can’t even imagine my own life without his work being a part of it. That sounds corny and clichéd, but his visions have been inextricably bound with my own experiences ever since I went to Mallorca as a strange 16-year old, with a dubbed cassette of Starlite Walker
I pay little attention to music these days, so the news that Berman was about to release Purple Mountains
, his first record in over a decade, was a pleasant shock-surprise last month. And, it’s great. This has become the summer of Berman, returned; beyond the new record, I found myself playing the classic Silver Jews records over and over, and Actual Air
is now permanently next to our bed. This reappearance turns a sad event into a full-blown tragedy, for I –– we –– all of us –– had just opened our lives up to welcome him back. Hello, my friend. Come in, have a seat.
I’d been keeping the space warm anyway, just in case he ever chose to return. Maybe it was the couch at the back of the bar, where the lonely people go and lie
Don’t you know that I never want this minute to end? And then it ends.
For all of my whining about celebrity death pieces, the steady flow of web essays and blogs about Berman since Wednesday have been beautifully written, never feeling obligatory or patronising. I’m certainly not alone in being affected like this, and for once I’m reading others trying to explain how much his work meant to them, and I understand it, for our experiences are parallel, though not identical, which amplifies and opens up this history. It’s probably because I keep reading these that I can’t get him out of my head.
Most of these memoriams have (understandably) quoted his lyrics and poetry –– you know, like I just did –– particularly the ineluctable focus on death in his music. As these songs burrow through my brain, unable to be flushed by other sounds, lines that I’ve spent ten to twenty-five years absorbing suddenly take on new and catastrophic resonance. And with each internal iteration, I stumble again, brought to my knees by the sadness of it all.
I haven’t listened to a note of his music since the news broke, as I don’t feel prepared for it, and my brain is doing a good enough job with its memory playlist. It’s been a few days now and I still feel deeply affected by it, which is a little bit embarrassing. I never met the man. Of course, I knew him. His genius wasn’t just in his words, but how he strung them together; the subtle hesitations and drawls of his voice, the melodies, and the inflections that could turn words as simple as 'Guard my bed
’ into an entire universe of meaning. Through my adolescent and adult life, there was always a refuge in the Silver Jews, where I learned what art could do. As I experienced love, loss, failure, divorce, confusion, and pain, I had reference points for all of these, always infused with generosity and honesty, where the tragic and comic were engaged in an endless tug-of-war.
I don’t think I’ve seen a web obituary yet that’s quoted ‘
The Wild Kindness’, which is a bit surprising given that the song is about absence and trying to disappear. It’s certainly on the more mystical end of the spectrum for David Berman, but maybe it’s the key to figuring this out. The first chorus states ‘I’m gonna shine out in the wild silence / and spurn the sin of giving in’
, a couplet that is absolutely devastating in the current circumstance. But the last time through, it becomes the titular ‘I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness / and hold the world to its word
’. I can only dream of being able to operate under such moral clarity myself; clearly, it wasn’t an easy weight to bear.
I don’t have the ability to gush too much about anything else this week. I was totally blown away after watching The Swimmer
(dir. Frank Perry, 1968), but then David Berman died, so I haven’t formulated any thoughts on it yet. Next time, eh?
The first thing that really cheered me up is Jeremy Deller’s Everybody In The Place - An Incomplete History of Britain 1984 -1992
, combining a lot of things I love into a beautiful package. You can watch it on YouTube
, and you should.
Sport, literature, politics, conspiracy, nature, cycling, food, sleep, skies, earth, leaves, soap, coffee, musical instruments… it’s all been in my thoughts and/or actions, but I don’t feel like going on too much more here at the moment.
I promise a return to form next time!
One last DCB quote:
Sometimes I feel like I'm watching the world
And the world isn't watching me back
But when I see you, I'm in it too
The waves come in and the waves go back
Thanks to everyone who wrote after the last issue; for those I haven’t answered I apologise, and will do so now.