In tribute, two songs, that could be any number from the pen of the tragically and suddenly departed David Berman, singer of Silver Jews and more recently Purple Mountains, one of the greatest lyricists of the past 30 years. Berman was a troubled soul of course, as many great writers are. He dissolved Silver Jews a decade ago, had a marriage split, lived like a hermit for a period, had mental health and drug issues, and quite profoundly had problems with his father who was lobbyist Richard Berman, known in Washington political circles as “Dr Evil” for his advocacy work on behalf of tobacco and fossil fuel industries. This was a source of enormous pain and difficulty to David, who sought escape in his songs and poems, but then developed a TV drama series based on his father’s career, aiming to create it with HBO, but it was never filmed.
And yet his talent for songwriting remained, and was considerable. In his early days he shared an apartment and collaborated with Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. As well as the five Silver Jews albums, and the recent Purple Mountains release, he also published a book of poems, Actual Air (1999), and a book cartoons, The Portable February (2009). It is his lyrics, and droll delivery we will remember him for most, a talent to say multiple things at once with an apparently throwaway delivery, an ability to conjure profound beauty in the banal, a sense of irony and humour as dry as the desert, a searing intelligence, and sensitivity so acute that it hurts. Let’s just let the lyrics speak for themselves. To begin, here’s the opener from 1998’s American Water:
In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection
Slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction
Broken and smokin' where the infrared deer plunge in the digital snake
I tell you, they make it so you can't shake hands when they make your hands shake
I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men's room walls
Maybe I've crossed the wrong rivers and walked down all the wrong halls
But nothing can change the fact that we used to share a bed
And that's why it scared me so when you turned to me and said:
I asked the painter why the roads are colored black
He said, "Steve, it's because people leave
And no highway will bring them back."
So if you don't want me I promise not to linger
But before I go I gotta ask you dear about the tan line on your ring finger
This is the final song from 1996’s The Natural Bridge, on dedicated to Berman’s dog, though of course it is about far more than that:
Everybody wants perspective from a hill
But everybody's wants can't make it past a window sill
I can see you in your room at night
Pictures on your walls
Little forest scenes and high school Halloweens
But they don't come to you
They don't come to you at all
All houses dream in blueprints
Our houses dream so hard
Outside you can see my shoeprints
I've been dreaming in your yard
One of these days these days will end
Thru the kitchen window the light will bend
You'll be carving a pumpkin with a knife
When someone at the table says
"That's not what I call a life!"
The elephants are so ashamed of their size
Hosing 'em down I tell them "you got pretty eyes"
Out in the backyard I used to make like I was a cowboy
I'd set my dog before a hoop and say "now boy, now boy!"
When the governor's heart fails
The state bird falls from its branch
Icicles on hell's higher hills
Meanwhile back home at the ranch
I still get up early in the morning
And I never knew a better place
I believe the stars are the headlights of angels
Driving from heaven to save us
To save us
Look in the sky
They're driving from heaven into our eyes
And though final words are so hard to devise
I promise that I'll always remember your pretty eyes
Your pretty eyes
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