That One Idea, Again

We all have become experts at responding to celebrity deaths.  In fact, it seems like everything is suffused with death these days; every time a famous person’s name trends on Twitter, millions of people feel their hearts skip a beat.  If it’s trending, it must be bad news. (Thankfully, it often isn’t.  Sean Astin is still with us and still a national treasure.) 

Perhaps it’s the way we experience the drama of fame and tragedy so publicly now, thanks largely to social media, that makes it all feel more intense.  A generation or two ago, almost every American could recall where they were when JFK was shot, but it was an individual experience.  (I was ironing clothes.  I was driving home from the hardware store.) 

Now grief is a massive multiplayer online game.  Everyone eulogizes everyone, not just the AP or Time magazine.  Everyone goes online to share what [favorite artist, actor, activist, kardashian] meant to them.  There’s nothing wrong with this in itself.  It’s good to share!  And it makes us feel less alone in our grief, to know it’s not unique to us.  But the yawp of mourning also becomes a cacophony, a kind of Two Minutes Sad experienced on a global scale.

We’ve learned to respond to different deaths in different ways.  Some don’t affect us much.  I was surprised to see how unmoved I was by the passing of David Bowie, for whatever reason.  Yet Robin Williams’s suicide hit me like a torpedo to the gut, even though he wasn’t someone I especially idolized or thought about.  (Perhaps it was the extremely depressing circumstances around his health and personal life; then again, suicidal circumstances are generally not good. Maybe it’s because a cool, funny uncle — Mork from my childhood and Sean from Good Will Hunting — was gone.)  To me, it was just palpably and inexplicably sad.

All this is by way of memorializing David Berman.  I could not possibly compete with this meditation by Arielle Angel and David Goldman in Jewish Currents, so I won’t try.  But Berman’s music, primarily as Silver Jews, meant a great deal to me nonetheless.  He was an elegant and mordant lyricist, of course—the rare rock star who is correct to think they can write and publish poetry.  (Who could, or can, forget Jewel’s A Night without Armor? Shudder.) 

Berman could capture black humor and even darker sadness in one pithy turn of phrase. “I’ve got two tickets to a midnight execution, we’ll hitchhike our way from Odessa to Houston.” Or this line from “Tennessee,” a meta-country song: “Punk rock died when the first kid said, ‘Punk’s not dead, punk’s not dead.’” A sentiment so simple and true that you feel like you’ve always known it, but never quite verbalized it. 

He could be gnomic.  His lyrics often had the compact, crystalline nature of microfiction.  Take the scene in one of my favorite songs, “Like Like the the the Death,” when everyone’s coming home to Christmas for Texas: “Folks who’ve watched their mother kill an animal know that their home is surrounded by places to go.”  And it’s hard to think of a better encapsulation of the bittersweet symmetry of a long-term, codependent relationship than this, from the same song: “Every morning you forgive me, every evening you relive me, and the thing itself is what you give me.”

Berman could spin surrealistic mini-narratives in much the way of Dylan, but without the sneaking suspicion that it’s all important-sounding nonsense.  (Sorry, Bob.) 

I dyed my hair in a motel void
Met the coroner at the Dreamgate Frontier
He took my hand, said “I’ll help you, boy
If you really want to disappear”

It evokes “Like a Rolling Stone” (“do you want to make a deal?”), but it’s more vivid, more sinister, more evocative of the leering dark of a dangerous world.

It is not a case of selective attention to see death bobbing and weaving throughout Berman’s entire body of work.  Rather, it’s impossible to miss.  Exhibit A: “Like like the the the death.”  Exhibits B through E:

Louisville is death

You’ve got to up and move

Because the dead do not improve 

(“Tennessee”)

And you’ve got that one idea again

The one about dying

(“Slow Education”)

When they turn on the chair

Something’s added to the air, forever

(“Smith and Jones Forever”)

When failure’s got you in its grasp
And you’re reaching for your very last
It’s just beginning

(“What Is Not But Could Be If”)

Perhaps Berman’s music feels so intimate because of my own difficulties with mental health.  His momentary wins over the abyss felt like mine; I felt I shared in his setbacks, lapses, and failures too.  He always seemed three feet away from the edge, carrying it with him like an asymptote.  Most people who have struggled with major depression will recognize, even if dimly, what this means: There’s that one idea again.

Indeed, Berman often sounded like a man who knew he would lose eventually, but he kept on shadowboxing anyway.  There is a yearning for hope—if not a belief in hope—here and there in the Silver Jews catalog.  “Repair is the dream of the broken thing,” he said in “We Are Real.”  It might be a dream, but he insisted nonetheless, “We are real, I know we are real.”  We’re still here, breathing and taking up space, a fact in the world.

One of my favorite Berman songs, “Slow Education,” has this memorable line: “There’s a screen door banging in the wind. Remember you wanted to be like George Washington back then?” The memory seems innocent and a bit silly.  But it holds out the possibility of something better, something good in a recoverable past.

We can shine out in the wild kindness.  We can live where the indoors and the outdoors meet.  The hope that these places might exist can get you through a lot, and Berman seemed to understand that.

You can’t be against forever, as he astutely noted.  But let forever be delayed.

ToM’s Mike Burr interviewed David Berman in 2008 for Prefix Magazine. You can read their dialogue here.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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