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The Untold Story Of Silver Jews’ The Natural Bridge: How David Berman Lost His Mind, Left Pavement Behind, And Made A Masterpiece

It starts with a line you might yell at an ex across an empty, half-lit parking lot around midnight: “I don’t really wanna die/ I only wanna die in your eyes.” But here it’s not hollered, it’s sung, almost politely so, by David Berman, the songwriter and lone member of Silver Jews who appears on all six of the band’s studio albums. This particular lyric appears in “How To Rent A Room,” the opening track from 1996’s The Natural Bridge. The Silver Jews’ sophomore LP was released 20 years ago last week by Chicago record label Drag City in the center of the popularity-storm surrounding the band Pavement, members of which had founded Silver Jews with Berman in the end of the ’80s. The Natural Bridge was not a runaway success — even positive reviews warned listeners about Berman’s voice — nor did it segue into a worldwide tour (or any live dates, for that matter), and upon reflection, it did not sit well with its creator, either.

“I thought I’d made a terrible mistake,” Berman would later declare. Judgments of quality momentarily aside, it did prove that labeling Silver Jews as a “Pavement side-project” was factually incorrect, though this misnomer would trail Berman like a persistent hellhound until 2009 when he ended the band. With two decades of hindsight, though, The Natural Bridge’s deeply insular world of brilliant one-liners, intense heartbreak, and revisionist history has slowly gained a strange kind of power, somehow detaching itself from the ’90s in which it was created, and floating off into space where albums go on trial to decide if they’re “timeless” or not. It is this writer’s opinion that this album is a timeless classic, and I’d like to welcome you to The Natural Bridge’s trial in space, where there is no center and we’re always off to the side. The charge is timelessness.

If you haven’t listened to The Natural Bridge lately, there are possibly some very good reasons for that: Drag City’s catalog is conspicuously absent from the roster of all music-streaming-service platforms in an age where streaming is the primary way listeners consume music. Additionally, Berman hasn’t released anything since the summer of 2009 and hasn’t even granted an interview since January 2009, an intentional silence he plans to break if he feels he has something to say again (luckily, for the purposes of this article, this writer has been badgering Berman about the Silver Jews’ output since first meeting him in 2003, and Berman has OK’d the use of these recollections for this piece). Without attention-generating press-cycles triggered by new releases, and the general unavailability of the discography on modern delivery systems, submerging oneself in a Silver Jews record now requires a specific act of intentional remembering and listening. But those who do are rewarded with collections of songs that contain some of the most vivid and unique lyrical writing in the rock medium since Bob Dylan signaled that guitars could propel a poet to something beyond a standard coffeehouse troubadour. David Berman knows this, but he finds no reason to be proud about it, citing that it only highlights the failures of the songwriters who have earned the ear of the world.

“There’s no competition,” Berman told an interviewer in 2002. “It’s the visual culture. A lot of rock critics are to blame for it. Like, I remember when Guns N’ Roses became popular and rock critics were embracing them. They love to have this paternalistic attitude towards the band, like they’re the dumb rockers with all the energy and we praise them and we tell them why their music’s important. When people say rock ‘n’ roll’s all used up, in one very important category it’s not even been taken out for a walk — very few exceptions, anyone’s even tried. You know people always go, ‘You have very good lyrics David, that’s your strong point’ — well I don’t even think there’s any competition — it looks good because there’s just no one else.”

The Natural Bridge’s lyrical concerns seem to have something to do with a desperate attempt at locating the narrator somewhere in time, somewhere in the United States. Like a good real estate agent, the album knows that it’s all about location, location, location. Cleveland, Dallas, Tahoe, Wall Street, a magic shop in Colonial Watts — this is Berman’s musical road trip across North America trying to find a home. These potential homes themselves have something to say about the matter, too. In “Pretty Eyes,” it’s casually mentioned that, “all houses dream in blueprints.” When the singer passes an abandoned drive-in movie theater with ivy growing over the screen he maintains that Hollywood has been “caught sleeping.” “An anchor lets you see the river move,” Berman sings elsewhere, latching onto a visual cue that offers some comfort and lets him know where one thing ends and another begins — whether that be a boat on a river or a human on a planet. But at the same time, none of this is enough to give these narrators the sense of place and history they’re seeking, so Berman digs in deeper, daring to re-write sacred creation-myths. From “Pet Politics”:

Adam was not the first man ‘though the Bible tells us so
There was one created before him, whose name we do not know
He also lived in the garden
but he had no mouth or eyes
One day Adam came to kill him
and he died beneath these skies

Later, in his poetry book Actual Air, Berman would do this again, adding his own details to the landing of the Mayflower in which he wrote that five antisocial adults, whom everyone aboard called the Strangers, simply walked off the boat into the North American woods never to be seen again. If it’s not the descendants of the faceless man in the Garden Of Eden or the Mayflower’s Strangers narrating these songs, it’s at the very least, their alternate version of the world in which these songs take place. It’s all so similar to what we’re used to in everyday life, but something seems off. “The census figures come out wrong,” Berman sings in one song, “there’s an extra in our midst.”

When asked about where he got the audacity to remix the Bible’s origin story, Berman replied, “The rules changed for art around 1989. We were all loosed upon the canon to clip and paste and borrow and update. Only thing is, unless you were in New York or in a cultural studies program, that new paradigm probably wasn’t going to sink in until the internet arrived.” It’s true, some of these lyrics do read like prehistoric web memes or famous quotes flipped around and etched into a cave wall.

David Berman doesn’t listen to old Silver Jews records, and in this way many of my questions required some reminding of what he once laid down on tape. This is especially true of The Natural Bridge whose own creation myth stars David Berman experiencing a near-complete artistic and personal breakdown. The story goes that there were two failed attempts to record the album, one with the Scud Mountain Boys, and one with his previous collaborators from Pavement. “The Scud Mountain boys thing was an experiment,” Berman explained. “I had two songs, ‘Black And Brown Blues’ and ‘Pretty Eyes.’ I had done Starlite Walker. Pavement was so popular in 1995. I had no idea if or when I’d be able to wrangle Steve [Malkmus], and Bob [Nastonovich], and Steve [West] back in. I had bought a Seagull acoustic guitar and those two songs rolled out. Most all the songs on The Natural Bridge came out on that guitar. Anyway the [Scud Mountain Boys] experiment failed. It sounded like a confused leper cruising for hospital parking with the radio turned down low.” This failed experiment indicated to Berman that he had got it right on the first album, playing with his friends. Additionally, when asked, the guys did find time inside Pavement’s intensely busy touring schedule to record a second Silver Jews album. Berman, Malkmus, Nastanovich, and West booked two weeks at Easley McCain Studio in Memphis, TN.

Starlite Walker, the 1994 debut Silver Jews album, was fairly well received, but Berman was suspicious of the reasons. “The overlap between Pavement’s fan base and people who liked Silver Jews was total. In my mind, even a local band with 20 fans had more unqualified support. It made it so it was impossible to read the response. Because I didn’t play live, I only had feedback from friends, half of whom seemed uncomfortable even acknowledging I sent them a CD of me making music. Living in Amherst, MA for those two years, getting drunk and going to shows, I can’t recall knowing of a fan. And from that day forward, I made a rule of crediting any positive feedback to Pavement.”

Berman sent out a cassette of the songs to the Pavement crew, Steve West rehearsed with him in Virginia, and a few weeks later they all gathered in Memphis. They had done this before, there shouldn’t have been any surprises or second-guessing, but something was wrong. The first sign of trouble was when it became clear to the Pavements that Berman had no way to pay for the studio or lodging for any of them. Yes, Drag City was going to eventually foot the bill, but Berman had a stubborn insistence to only take money once he had “earned it.” Even worse, he didn’t own a credit card. Uncomfortably, it was decided that Bob Nastanovich would front the $5000 studio bill on his card.

“Ultimately I decided,” Berman recalled, “I could not possibly earn the $5000 here by making a great record with these great songs and these seven guys. Instead, I would earn it the life destroying way: losing $5000 to pay for the time, going back to work in restaurants, and knowing I’d be too ashamed to see anyone again. I’d also never record again.”

“David freaked out and said he couldn’t do it,” Steve West said. Pavement salvaged the studio time by recording some new songs, eventually released as the Pacific Trim EP, but the band still felt confused and hurt by Berman’s decision to quit. “We were very angry with him,” Nastanovich told Pavement biographer Rob Jovanovic. “Essentially the Silver Jews had been formed by the three of us and somewhere along the line he…declared himself as the star of the show.”

Berman: “Asking Bob for his credit card this had to be part of the problem as far as stress I was feeling. I was responsible for lodging and feeding four people and I didn’t have a credit card? It was late in the day; I was tired. It would be a 13-hour drive. All that would ruin me. To do all that to oneself could only be something like a sacrifice — but to what and for who? It was pure animal fear. Stronger than anything I’d ever felt as an adult. Even now I don’t understand it.”

In the months after the Memphis disaster, Berman couldn’t figure a way to make the situation with his friends or the album right. In hindsight, looking back at this subterraneanly low moment, Berman sometimes wonders: why did I keep going? He can answer now with some clarity: “The poetry was something I received pretty uniformly positive feedback for. That must have been fortifying to my ego. In fact I see now that I led this double existence that interacted in a way to make them both possible.” In time, after Berman’s ego was properly fortified again, he examined two of his closest friends’ strategy for making albums and developed the Zig-Zag Method which illuminated a clear path forward for Silver Jews. Berman wrote of the realization:

not like steve [malkmus] —– same band everytime
not like will [oldham] ——– different band everytime
what can be said about the zig zag method
of selecting band personnel.?
once you zag, you suddenly you see
how choosing to zig could
legitimize the whole rig.
its little things like that
that form crossbeams
across a small discography.

Berman decided he would record every other album with the Pavement guys, if they’d ever forgive him, and rotating lineups of musicians on the albums in between. Once decided, it struck him as obvious: “40 years of data in patterns in rock unit evolution were easy to see.”

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There’s a natural bridge in Massachusetts and Virginia, two states where David Berman lived while writing songs for the album. Both are part of rock formations that are estimated to have been in existence for approximately 500 millions years, while the bridges themselves formed during the last ice age, 13,000 years ago, the negative-image remnants of underground river tunnels. There are over a dozen natural bridges in the United States, but at the time of writing the record, Berman was only aware of these two.

“I was living in Charlottesville at the time and spending a lot of time in Lexington with Steve West’s family. I was in the [Natural Bridge Park] gift shop and realized if I called the album Natural Bridge, everything in the store would be instantly be converted into promotional merchandise. Sort of like my idea for the band Trad. Arr. that would infuriate record collectors and rock critics who would normally never deign to acknowledge ‘my work’ by covering their most treasured objects into advertisements for my band.”

For Berman, this would be another turn of revisionist history, like the third citizen he added to Garden Of Eden, that could help reverse a helpless situation and reclaim even geological history as part of his own distinct, creative world. As for the band, Berman needed “people who understood the Silver Jews, but didn’t feel like they had to be in the band.” He recruited musicians Matt Hunter and Peyton Pinkerton from New Radiant Storm King and Rian Murphy and Michael Demming to round out the lineup. Berman booked studio time at an old gun factory in Hartford, Connecticut in the summer of 1996. Murphy was not only going to be drumming on the songs, he’d also produce. He recalls the new band’s brief rehearsal time in Northampton, MA. “I remember walking through a cemetery up there on Memorial Day with little flags planted on the graves of revolutionary war soldiers, in harmony with the songs we were being presented with. David had made a tape of solo demos that we’d been given in advance of the session, and during the rehearsals, we spent almost as much time listening to David talk about the songs as we did playing them.”

This would surely be his last chance to get the album right, and it would not be easy. “It was bad the whole way through,” Berman said. “That Memphis feeling was there, carrying an amp down a little narrow stairway to the basement for the first day practice in Northampton, MA. It swooped in and never released its grip over the next two weeks. I was a mental patient. I couldn’t sleep. Darkening and darkening…Hartford…ugh…the colt .45 factory.” Note to songwriters: if you’re depressed, never book studio time in an old gun factory. Berman remembers the band as compassionate friends who were doing their best to make his songs a reality, but no one could understand exactly what was wrong with Berman.

“He had a lot of anxiety about recording and was unsure of himself,” guitarist Peyton Pinkerton recalls. “He actually had to go to the emergency room due to sleep deprivation and was finally prescribed some sedatives. He was staying with me and I’d hear him up at all hours of the night.” Without sleep, Berman was now experiencing waking hallucinations, a traumatic event he once described as being “constantly on the line with God.” It did not help the situation when the giant Guaranteed Overnight Delivery (G.O.D.) truck parked near the studio. There were too many references to good ol’ G.O.D. in his news songs for any of this to be a coincidence. “It seemed like what was bothering David more was in the content of the album,” Rian Murphy said. “There was something about saying goodbye in the songs, a lot of very personal stuff, and perhaps it didn’t seem right making the record in the cavalier party-style of the [original lineup of the] Jews.”

Berman knew he was steering the album in the direction of a cliff again. He needed a moment that signaled to himself and the band that he could achieve course correction. On the third day of tracking in the studio, Berman’s war against himself came to a head. “There was a moment that saved me,” he said. “I hadn’t expressed an opinion since I’d been up there. I’d never ‘led’ the band. Any band really. I was lying on the cement floor behind the drums writhing in what I can only describe as psychic agony. I knew we were supposed to do ‘Pretty Eyes’ next and it going to be a full band deal like all the songs. A couple people went to fetch lunch and the place was suddenly pretty empty. I guess it was my Iwo Jima moment. Understand that the idea of me doing an acoustic solo version of any of the songs would have been absurd for anyone to suggest! Elaborate musical camouflage was what this was all about. Of all people, me with my no self-esteem about my shitty guitar playing and singing — there was no precedent. I’d probably never played a song on my guitar all the way through, all by myself, for anyone, ever, at that point. Plus I’d have to get through it without a mistake!”

Berman stood alone in the studio clutching the acoustic Seagull guitar. Engineer Michael Deming came into the live room and set up microphones on his guitar and voice. “The strings bit into my fingers. There was something about that song that seemed dignified, and maybe even noble. It’s in the form of a soliloquy. The song is long and the odds of me getting through it without a mistake in playing or singing were very very low. And how many tries was I realistically going to give it? The strings bit into my fingers. If I made it to the first chorus, certainly not the second. And that weird little ending I’d attached there — that would be the real tightrope. I’d flub up along the way. Try it once or twice and give up. Easier to get Apollo 13 back to Earth. It happened on the second or third try.” It is a rare and funny thing to encounter in the countless stories of bands making an album: that is, for the heroic turning-point moment to be comprised of the band-leader finally making it through one of his own songs, but this is the kind of small, strange victory that make the Silver Jews so inherently different from most rock bands. “My nervousness at having got to the end of the song without making a mistake brought extra urgency to the end!” Berman remembers. “Watching him make the performance of ‘Pretty Eyes’ was like watching a man who was being haunted by ghosts while he was singing,” Rian Murphy recalled, still in awe of the moment.

“David would read us something or give us a little synopsis of his vision of the song before we’d record it,” guitarist Peyton Pinkerton remembers. “During one of these huddles he urged me to play like my feet were sopping wet. I recall that more than half of the songs are first takes. We kept the arrangements pretty sparse for the most part with very few overdubs.” Pinkerton performs the album’s lone guitar solo, found in “Black And Brown Blues.”

When the session wrapped, 10 songs had been captured. The finished product feels like a collection of characters wandering through a forest at night that a photographer in the bushes just happened to get a good passing shot of — imagine Berman there with a Nikon, crouching in the brush as a man in a corduroy suit passes by. The album creates its own reality with a specific set of rules, where unlikely bedfellows like nature and politics are biologically entwined. “When the governor’s heart fails/ The state bird falls from its branch,” Berman casually reports in the closing song (and, in a nod to this uncanny interconnectedness, just as The Natural Bridge album turns 20, Virginia has declared that the Natural Bridge will become the state’s 37th official State Park). These nine monologues (track 5 is an instrumental) commingle the smallest ideas with the biggest. We learn that God stays up all night in the same song it’s mentioned that B.B. King appeared on an episode of General Hospital. Beautifully expressed romantic heartbreak (“I wish they didn’t set mirrors behind the bar/ ‘Cause I can’t stand to look at my face/ When I don’t know where you are”) shares stanzas with philosophical guesses at the structure of reality (“What if life is just some hard equation/ On a chalkboard in a science class for ghosts”). From location to location, Berman moves his characters over a series of natural bridges, trying to land them in a position where they’ll know where to go next. In the lyrical centerpiece of the record, he zooms way out delivering the ultimate contradictory declaration about location: “In space there is no center/ We’re always off to the side.”

Berman turned in the album to Drag City. He passed along a postcard of a fox, a picture of his friend on graduation day, and some other photographs for the CD booklet. He requested a passage from the Gospel Of Thomas be placed in backwards text on the label for Side B of the vinyl pressing. “You had to look at it in a mirror to read it,” Berman said. “I thought that would set up the experience of reading the quote for maximum epiphanic effect.”

The flipped message reads:

If you bring forth what is within you,
what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

“In that sense,” Berman said, thinking about listeners holding the album in front of a mirror, “I wanted the record to do something like life-coaching? I was trying to talk myself forward into a future for which I could find no precedent.” Although Berman’s personal troubles were far from over, at least he was able to finally fall asleep again, and the album was well received when it arrived in early October of 1996. “The Melody Maker review blew my mind,” he said. “It was the first unambiguously positive review I’d received.” It landed at #16 on their year-end best-of list, laying down the small foundation of confidence that would be on display on American Water, Berman’s reunion record with Malkmus and the third Silver Jews album. American Water, easily the band’s most revered record by critics and fans, rekindles the party atmosphere of their origins (Rian Murphy calls it “classic Jews mode”), which only highlights The Natural Bridge’s loner status, an isolated classic left out in the rain.

I first met David Berman in 2003 at a poetry reading in Amherst, MA. I handed him a CD-R containing a song-for-song cover of The Natural Bridge that my friends and I had recorded over a couple of days. I was so moved and impressed by the record, I wanted to know what it would be like to try and remake it. Berman was shocked. “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe it,” he wrote in my copy of Actual Air. As I was leaving, he told me how he might enjoy our version of the album because he certainly hated the one he had turned in. I was surprised how down he was on a record that I found to be near-perfect in its own ramshackle way. A few months later I received a postcard praising our weird interpretation of The Natural Bridge. (Note: For the first time, for the purposes of this article, I have uploaded The Unnatural Bridge to the web. Please beware: It is only to be taken as an experimental curiosity, good for one passing listen).

In the ensuing years, Berman patiently answered many of my questions and kindly sent encouragement for my own songwriting efforts via postcards and emails. Through a pure coincidence, his wife and final Silver Jews bass player Cassie Berman has a brother named Joseph Marrett, and he and I ended up starting a band together. We opened for the Silver Jews on a leg of their final tour. On the drive between Toronto and Montreal, we spotted the Silver Jews parked on the side of the highway, sprinting out of their van toward a couple that was fighting on top of a hill. We only saw it for a second as we drove by, but we knew what we had seen. Later, when I asked Berman what happened he coyly replied, “It was a job for the headliners, Ryan.”

I’m not sure what kind of future legacy is in store for bands like the Silver Jews. Guitar-based rock music, by multiple measures, has never been less influential than it is in 2016. But perhaps influence and cultural relevancy are the last things anyone — musicians and critics alike — should be worried about right now. As Berman sings on “The Frontier Index,” “When I was younger I was a cobra/ In every case I wanted to be cool/ Now that I’m older and sub-space is colder/ I just want to say something true.” It’s a bold move to place a mission statement for an album inside the lyrics for the same album, but here on The Natural Bridge, Berman sings the promise while making good on it at the same time. In its quiet, humble way, The Natural Bridge offers listeners a path toward something true.

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The Natural Bridge gift shop in Rockbridge County, Virginia is open seven days a week, 9AM – 4PM.

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Ryan H. Walsh is a member of the indie rock band Hallelujah The Hills. Check out their music here.