David Berman, the American songwriter, musician and poet known for fronting indie-rock band Silver Jews, passed away yesterday. The cause of his death has not yet been confirmed. He was 52 years of age.
I had the immense pleasure and privilege of catching Silver Jews live. I remember that one occasion well. It was a Sunday, the 18th of May 2008 to be precise, when Silver Jews appeared at Butlin’s Holiday Resort in Minehead as part of that weekend’s ATP Festival curated by Explosions In The Sky.
Silver Jews played on the resort’s main Skyline Pavilion stage late that afternoon surrounded by whirring slot machines, artificial trees, a pizza restaurant as well as Burger King and Costa coffee outlets. An incongruous enough setting in itself, though perhaps on reflection an ideal location for David Berman who with his spectacular combover hair, crumpled brown suit and heavily bandaged hand presented as every bit the antithesis of your conventional rock star.
David Berman had founded the Silver Jews in 1989, together with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who would later go on to form Pavement, but it wasn’t until 2005 and five albums later that the band announced what would be their first-ever tour.
Four years after those initial live outings, David Berman took the undoubtedly noble (though perhaps misplaced) decision to break up the band because his father – Richard Berman, a notorious Washington lawyer and former lobbyist who had orchestrated campaigns against animal rights, trade unions, and even opposed anti-drink-driving groups – “was too much of a motherfucking son of a bitch”. David Berman felt that the Silver Jews were comparatively powerless “to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm [my father] has caused”.
David Berman then disappeared off the musical grid for almost a decade before returning last year from what would appear to have been a self-imposed exile to co-produce avant-garde musician Yonatan Gat’s album Universalists. Berman then released ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’ in May, the first single as part of his new project Purple Mountains. An eponymous full-length album followed in July and Berman’s North American tour in support of Purple Mountains was scheduled to begin this weekend.
David Berman was an inspirational songwriter and sublime, insightful lyricist. If in any doubt about this please take a listen to the Silver Jews’ third album, American Water. It is nigh on musical perfection.
Photo: Simon Godley
Main image of David Berman performing with Silver Jews at the ATP Festival at Butlin’s Holiday Resort, Minehead, on 18th May 2008