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The Bermans of America

David Berman used language as an instrument and as a tool, abhorring his father's use of it as a weapon

August 9, 2019

3:30 PM

9 August 2019

3:30 PM

Unsurprisingly, David Berman hated his dad. When he broke up his band, the Silver Jews, in 2009 he released a statement which announced:

‘My father is a despicable man. My father is a sort of human molestor [sic]. 

‘An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historical motherfucking son of a bitch. (sorry grandma)’

Obviously, Berman felt as if the sins of the father had tainted the son. ‘This winter,’ he wrote, ‘I decided that the [Silver Jews] were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused.’ He swore to seek justice by other means. Apparently, this involved writing a book but it never materialized and Berman all but disappeared for about a decade.

Berman reappeared in 2019, with a gorgeous album, Purple Mountains, and plans to tour. The new promise of his life was tragically extinguished by his death, this week, at the age of 52. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, his friend and collaborator, wrote on social media:

‘His death is fucking dark ..depression is crippling.. he was a one of a kinder the songs he wrote were his main passion esp at the end. Hope death equals peace cuz he could sure use is’

You might think David had nothing in common with his lobbyist father. Yet the Bermans represented different archetypes of the American individual. Richard, with his endless pro-business non-profits, embodies an exaggerated form of the American consumer. David, with his wry, anxious, eccentric songs and poems, embodied an exaggerated form of the American seeker. Richard waves the flag for the American who wants to eat and drink and drive as he much as he damn well likes without the nanny state or namby-pamby eco-nuts meddling with his life. David took his stand with people who wanted to read, and write, and smoke a joint, and walk a hundred miles in search of deep, transcendent truths about the world and themselves. Richard seems Randian. David seemed Whitmanesque. Richard is the skyscraper. David was the squat.

Both Richard and David knew the power of language. In his attack on his father, David wrote:

The worst part for me as a writer is what he does with the english language.

‘Though vicious he is a doltish thinker

‘and his spurious editorials rely on doublethink and always with the Lashon Hara.’

Lashon hara is a Hebrew term which refers to derogatory speech used for a malicious purpose. To be sure, there is nothing necessarily wrong about taking the side of corporations against activists. (Corporations produce vaccines to the outrage of cranks.) But Richard Berman always takes the side of corporations, always for financial gain, and as the corporate cousin of Lee Atwater and Roger Stone he always does so through aggressive means, establishing astroturf organizations and deploying smears and slurs. This reveals an essential deceit of consumerism, which presents a sunny image of Americans exercising their individual choice to purchase pleasant things but which relies on dark money suffocating criticism.

You can empathize with David Berman, who used language as an instrument and as a tool, abhorring his father’s use of it as a weapon. In David’s songs and poems, for example, humor is an essential means of insight and consolation. (When I was young and mentally ill, his album American Water, among other things, helped me to realize that you don’t have to take serious things that seriously.) In Richard’s work, however, humor is explicitly a way to ‘minimize and marginalize the people on the other side.’

Yet David Berman knew of the deceits of the idealism that surrounds the archetypal American seeker, of the transcendentalists, and the beat poets and the hippies. ‘In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection,’ goes the famous opening line of the song ‘Random Rules’ on American Water. The arch tone undercuts the starry-eyed potential. Berman was not prancing through Utopia, he tells us, but ‘screwing his way across Europe’ with an arsenal of lines ‘lifted off men’s room walls.’

The arch tone undercuts the starry-eyed potential. Berman was not prancing through Utopia, he tells us, but ‘screwing his way across Europe’ with an arsenal of lines ‘lifted off men’s room walls.’

‘We’re gonna live in Nashville and I’ll make a career,’ Berman sang on ‘Tennessee’, ‘Out of writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear.’ He wrote sad songs as well, but he resisted being wedged into the mould of the Townes van Zantesque troubadour. Anything but become a cliché.

Some of Berman’s saddest songs are on Purple Mountain. ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ is a touching ode to his mother, but the repetition of ‘she was’ after ‘she was so good and kind to me’ emphasizes the past tense. In the last song of the album, ‘Maybe I’m the Only One For Me’, Berman sang, ‘I’ll put my dreams high on a shelf, I’ll have to learn to like myself.’ He was honest and uncompromising to the end but it was not enough. The trail ran dry.

Richard Berman has said in a statement:

‘Despite his difficulties, he always remained my special son. I will miss him more than he was able to realize.’

You have to feel for a grieving father. As incredibly different as they were, Richard and David reflected so much about America: its ambitions, its delusions, its triumphs and its tragedies; its big, glassy smile and its scarred but beating heart.

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