Words by Dan Levy
Image by Dana Margolin
The days drain away, scouring eBay – Richard Dawson, Jogging
On August 3rd 2019 at 7:43pm (1:43 local time, assuming he was posting from his temporary new home in Chicago), David Berman tweeted a link to Richard Dawson’s 'Jogging’ - the new single from his upcoming album 2020, released just a few days prior. Four days later, Berman would be found dead upstairs in that same temporary home, the spare room of his record label’s head office. He wouldn’t live to hear nor see 2020.
I was commissioned to write a eulogy for David, to be published exactly a year after his passing. Nine months later, Dawson’s above lyrics are still the first and last words I’ve typed on the subject. Besides adding to my watchlist, my only progress has been reading through the countless other contributions that his death has inspired; friends, colleagues and admirers of his generous enough to share what he meant to them in print.
The eulogies cast across the internet have all refracted new light on the poet and songwriter. Multiple Bermans have spored online, promulgated by way of previously undisclosed insights on Berman-as-friend, confidante, mentor.
Each fresh account somehow manages to communicate shock that Berman saw himself as an artist of few followers, and to do so in prose unmistakably fashioned by his own singular mode of observation. Shrinking a worldly concept into a pithy comment, complete with internal rhyme and punch-line – Berman seemed to rally against the injustices of the universe with a blow-up sword, oblivious to the hordes of people following behind, already heeding his call.
It’s in reading these tributes that I’ve become unconvinced of my own ability to ‘speak Berman’ – to absorb his words and return them with him at their centre, to forge a self-portrait at 53. In trying to speak about Berman, an ugly metamorphosis has taken place; contorting myself to only speak about Berman how Berman would speak about Berman.
It’s been a slow education realising just how frighteningly arrogant such an endeavour is. Like most, I lack what his friend Thomas Beller called his gift for “free association...the ability to be free of sense in a way that makes sense”.
Everywhere poking out of his work are the generous leftovers of a brain masticating on everyday observations turned extraordinary, from mistakenly taking a thermostat to be “a dial with which to focus the windows” to a corduroy suit being “made of a thousand gutters that the rain can run right through”.
His great trick was to make thoughts distant cousins from one another appear as long separated twins, exceptional only in his deciding to reunite them. They form a constellation drawn from ever-shifting patterns, from new, seemingly imperceptible glimmers in the Great Berman.
I cannot hope to superimpose myself onto this picture; to plot new points on the map of an inimitable cartographer. But his work left traces, breadcrumbs scattered on paths in time. It’s just a case of following them, of hoping the old directions still direct. That’s the only way I know to speak about Berman - to find the instances where his voice guided mine.
Approaching the Torah at thirteen for my bar mitzvah. A few days earlier, at the final recital, Michael warns me that my voice isn’t strong enough to sing in front of the congregation. Reading aloud will do. Michael is a kind man, the kind of man who freely offers to help young members of the synagogue become adults in the community. No bad reviews thus far.
I can’t just read Hebrew. I can’t sound it out, tumble the dotted vowels into my brain and out of my mouth. I need to make use of each word’s particular phrasing, the ta'amim by which the Torah is sung. Declining Michael’s advice, I spend the next twenty minutes aurally traumatising a room full of religiously progressive, melodically conservative North London Jews.
Where was David Berman and his insistence that all his “favourite singers couldn’t sing”? Where was his “baritone monotone”?
Fifteen and looking at busts of Martin Luther King, John and Robert Kennedy in a neon-lit bar.
They’re tucked behind a display case, stacked on top of a truck’s snow-glazed windscreen, a blurred figure in profile, a bulb hanging from a red ceiling. I flick between the spines, fascinated, careful not to damage the CDs that sit neatly in my friend’s bedroom. Tanglewood Numbers, Nebraska, Blood on the Tracks, Radio City – there’s something unnerving in how easily these images sit together, how they work to uncover an America I’d heard about, but never experienced.
Berman had said that using the photograph of King and the Kennedy brothers was “a deliberate, self-conscious identification with rock tradition...shedding outsiderhood, coming inside where it's warm”. I had no idea that Wiliiam Egglestone, the photographer behind Tanglewood Numbers, was also responsible for Radio City decades earlier, nor anything about whatever “rock tradition” it was that David was alluding to.
I thumb the Star of David around my neck and I ask if I can borrow the CD, the one with ‘Silver Jews’ written on the top left corner. It’s his dad’s, he doesn’t think he’ll be comfortable with it. I put the name in my phone and make a note to listen to it later.
23 and scouring eBay. A routine search returns a rare listing: an original poster for the first Silver Jews record. I know how allergic Berman was to any kind of self- promotion, how rare these things have therefore become. But there he is, at the other end of international shipping charges, laughing on Kodak film with Malkmus and Nastanovich. Then he’s gone. Sold. Off to another fan of the Joos.
The following Christmas, a strange gift from my partner arrives. Something slight, wrapped in plastic, folded down to A5. ‘drag Citie’ visible in one corner. Berman. Kodak. Starlight Walker. The same poster, rerouted back to me.
He would likely have hated for his work to be commodified in this way; to be gifted, unwrapped and hung on a bedroom wall. There’s that typically aphoristic line from ‘Governors On Sominex’, “souvenirs only reminded you of buying them” - as if an object’s value is only ever bound up in its moment of exchange: the account debited, the sum paid. Berman’s struggles with living well under capitalist society are well-documented, focussing on his deeply antagonistic relationship with his lobbyist father, Richard Berman.
But it’s here I always think of this, from Adorno: “real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver”. He acknowledges that whilst we may have forgotten how to give well, real giving nevertheless remains possible. It’s possible so long as it means “choosing, expending time, going out of one's way, thinking of the other as a subject”. Berman’s work inspired this in people. Laced throughout the tributes following news of his death were anecdotes of tattered copies of his poetry anthology Actual Air, passed between astonished friends over bookshelves, coffee tables and shop counters. Each copy seemed to bear its own inscription, directed solely at its owner-to-be.
Silver Jews enthusiasts have long described Berman’s ability to articulate a shared way of seeing. For his fans, a cityscape will forever be experienced as a “jagged skyline of car keys”, stars as “the headlights of angels driving from heaven to save us”. Perhaps it’s naïve to think there can be reprieve from the system of exchange. Perhaps it’s misguided to think David’s words in 'Governors...' betray him. But in his poetry, his lyrics, his rare essay in The Believer, “the joy of the receiver” never seems to have been far from his mind - preempting the pleasure of an audience engaging in a distinctly personal, strangely universal language. His blog confirms the feeling that he found that same joy in the work of those he admired – Thomas Bernhard, Attila József, Otto Rank, Robert Walser.
"I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable position, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free." Dated 1914.
"Just writing to express my admiration for all the work you do with your (more than slightly intimidating) roster, and to somehow barrage my way into working with you guys as an intern...I think I have some skills that might mean I won't be a completely useless intern, but please can we find out." Dated 2019.
The former, Robert Walser’s The Job Application - far more eloquent, but not entirely dissimilar to the latter, an email I sent to Drag City. Subject line: Internship Application, aka Another One for the Landfill.
First day interning at Drag City and immediately searching for Actual Air along the office shelves. Nothing. But then, a familiar voice on the PA. The “baritone monotone”, alive (if not quite well). An opening salvo dripping with that unmistakably playful, self-lacerating humour (Well, I don't like talkin' to myself / But someone's gotta say it, hell / I mean, things have not been going well / This time I think I finally fucked myself). Berman. It had to be.
Purple Mountains had not yet been announced, so I couldn’t be sure. Gone was the ramshackle, lolloping charm of previous Silver Jews records. This band played it straighter, steadying the ship for their captain. But the voice...I had to ask. Is this new David Berman? My boss didn’t conceal his smile. Berman had returned, vindicated, though hardly in an unexpected context. Not quite what Mark Fisher would call a hauntological event, but a moment nonetheless laced with that same exhilaration of hearing the past dredged up, this time in its own music: lost futures, unsuccessful marriages, cosmological disappointment.
A week after his death and the newly-released Purple Mountains album is playing before a commemorative screening of Silver Jew, a 2007 documentary following David and his band on their Israel tour. I’m introducing the film with a reading from Actual Air, and it strikes me that this will be the first time I’ve read in public since the mortally wounding event of my bar mitzvah. I start reading, shaky as I reel from the memory. But then I remember this book, these words, my favourite singer who couldn’t sing. My hands regain their hold, my speech its flow. I read from ‘Now II’, ‘Democractic Vistas’, ‘Self- Portrait at 28’, soaking in their rhythm, their humour, their perfectly sensical nonsense. I return to my seat, the book getting passed around like a sacred tome. People are interested: it’s still limited, still hard to find. I wait, more anxious than I’d care to admit about my copy circling back in the same state it left me in. It’s fine. I’m fine. The film’s about to start.
There’s a short story by the Serbian writer Danilo Kiš called The Encyclopaedia of the Dead (A Whole Life). It concerns, unsurprisingly, an encyclopaedia; one that painstakingly records “the multitude of details that make up a human life”. The names of a person’s childhood friends, the colour of their wedding dress, the authors of their old textbooks; nothing escapes the attention of the encyclopaedia’s compilers. It is noteworthy for this, and for one another reason: in its pages lie no mention of famous people. Nowhere in the encyclopaedia is there a reference to anyone who might appear, or has appeared, in any other encyclopaedia. It exists simply to document “the sum total of everyday occurrences of ordinary folk”.
David probably imagined a place for himself in such an encyclopaedia; that he had too few fans, too few followers to merit inclusion anywhere else. Fortunately, he’d be mistaken. What he has is something better: a living encyclopaedia, his life infinitely documented through those many, many, devoted fans eager to share how much he meant to them. This is my entry.
Dan Levy is a writer and film curator from London.
Dana Margolin is an artist, and fronts the band Porridge Radio.