David Berman, the poet, cartoonist, and singer-songwriter behind Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, has died. Berman’s record label, Drag City, confirmed the news in a tweet: “We couldn’t be more sorry to tell you this. David Berman passed away earlier today. A great friend and one of the most inspiring individuals we’ve ever known is gone. Rest easy, David.” Berman was 52 years old. His cause of death is currently unknown.
Berman’s father, the Washington, DC lobbyist Richard Berman — with whom he maintained an estranged, adversarial relationship — has given a statement to the New York Times: “Despite his difficulties, he always remained my special son. I will miss him more than he was able to realize.”
Berman was born in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1967. His parents divorced when he was six, at which point he began splitting time between his mother’s home in Reston, Virginia and his father’s apartment in Washington, DC. After attending high school at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he began writing songs and formed the band Ectoslavia with future Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. Upon graduation the three of them relocated to a shared apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, at which point Berman took a job as a security guard at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In Hoboken they renamed the band Silver Jews.
Malkmus formed Pavement back home in Sacramento with his childhood friend Scott Kannberg shortly before the move to Hoboken. In the early ’90s, as Pavement became a big deal in the indie rock world, Silver Jews developed a reputation as a Pavement side project, but that was never the case. Berman’s laconic, whimsical, sidelong approach to songwriting naturally shared some common DNA with Malkmus’ work, but his vision was always distinct from Pavement’s — less poppy, more literary, a bit rootsier, and more understated in its humor. Berman’s writing was wry and clever, but there was always a deep sadness hovering over it.
In 1992 Drag City began releasing releasing Silver Jews’ fuzzy home recordings, leading up to their more polished but still lo-fi full-length debut Starlite Walker in 1994. Malkmus and Nastanovich sat out sophomore LP The Natural Bridge, with Berman opting to record with members of the band New Radiant Storm King and Drag City’s Rian Murphy. Malkmus returned for 1998’s American Water, generally considered Berman’s masterpiece. The following year Drag City released his acclaimed poetry collection Actual Air.
Things took a dark turn after 2001’s Bright Flight and the Tennessee EP, the first Silver Jews release to feature contributions from Berman’s wife Cassie. A period of intense depression and crack cocaine addiction led to a suicide attempt in 2003. He survived, rededicated himself to Judaism, and relaunched Silver Jews, taking the band on tour for the first time in support of 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers. One more Silver Jews album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea followed in 2008. But in early 2009, Berman abruptly ended Silver Jews and posted an exposé about his dad, lobbyist Richard Berman, in the form of a blog post titled “My Father, My Attack Dog.” In the post, Berman critiqued his dad’s work on behalf of big business interests, writing, “My father is a despicable man. My father is a sort of human molestor. An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historical motherfucking son of a bitch.”
Berman largely disappeared from public life for the next decade. Last year, rumblings from Nastanovich and others suggested Berman was plotting his return to music, and sure enough, he emerged this year with his self-titled debut as Purple Mountains, his first album in 11 years. The project’s bracingly vulnerable songs told the story of “a decade playing chicken with oblivion,” during which Berman’s marriage fell apart and he found himself increasingly alienated from his fellow humans while living in Nashville.
In candid interviews surrounding the release, Berman elaborated on what he had been up to since ending Silver Jews — pitching and then scrapping an HBO drama about his father, befriending and then drifting apart from the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, attempting and aborting new album projects with Jeff Tweedy and Black Mountain. Ultimately his mother’s death inspired him to begin writing songs again, a long and painstaking process that culminated with quick recording sessions in Chicago backed by members of Woods.
Purple Mountains was widely acclaimed as one of Berman’s best. The album grappled with despair in profound and sometimes unsettling ways. Its lead single is an anthem called “All My Happiness Is Gone,” and on one song Berman professed, “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” Yet it ultimately seemed to be a portrait of a broken man figuring out how to put himself back together again. He told interviewers he was excited for Purple Mountains’ first tour, which was set to begin this Saturday. He leaves behind an incredible body of work that marks him as one of indie rock’s all-time great singer-songwriters and an iconoclast until the end.
We couldn’t be more sorry to tell you this. David Berman passed away earlier today. A great friend and one of the most inspiring individuals we’ve ever known is gone. Rest easy, David. pic.twitter.com/5n5bctcu4j
— (@dragcityrecords) August 7, 2019