Baby steps

David Berman

“Formless fear”: David Berman overcomes his stage fright. Photo by Cassie Berman

Silver Jews front man David Berman is shaking away his safety net. For the first time in his 15 years of music, the cultish poet/musician will move from the comforts of pen and paper and onto (drum roll, please) … the stage. It’s a move he’s shunned in the past in favor of driving ice-cream trucks and moving bodies in the morgue. A while back, Indie Workshop asked if he would ever perform.

“Are you f**king kidding me?” he responded.

However, with the release of his new Silver Jews album, Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City), Berman finally relented to the road. Every show on his 15-date tour is selling out, and fans who’ve collectively shared blue balls for more than a decade can now disrobe the teaser.

What’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to see a performer who’s been openly cynical about playing live?

It’s due in part to Berman’s connection with the band Pavement. Two members of the beloved outfit – Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich – hung around with Berman at the University of Virginia. The trio moved to New York, where Berman and Malkmus took jobs as security guards at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. Berman penned many inspirations while standing sentry.

“The older I get, the more I see how being a security guard at the Whitney museum in the early ‘90s shaped what I eventually came to write,” said Berman in an e-mail interview from his home in Nashville.

These writings turned into early Silver Jews tapes, the circulation of which instigated the budding enigma. Sadly, Berman left for the University of Massachusetts for a Master’s in creative writing, while Malkmus and Nastanovich went on to Pavement fame.

The trio reunited for the Silver Jews’ 1994 debut, Starlite Walker. The album had more twang than a barroom of cowboys, and Berman’s words breathed a life of their own. Nineteen-ninety-six’s Natural Bridge followed (minus the Pavement guys), and Berman’s writing had only grown in strength. “When I go downtown/ I always wear a corduroy suit/ Cause it’s made of a hundred gutters/ That the rain can run right though,” he ruminates on “Black and Brown Blues.”

Calls for a tour went unheeded, and Berman’s mysterious status gained momentum. The release of his masterpiece, American Water, moved guest guitarist Malkmus to opine: “It was such a better record than Terror Twilight [Pavement’s album]. Much more inspired. After American Water, I could no longer make a record the way [Pavement] made records.”

In the meantime, Berman released a book of poetry titled Actual Air (Open City Press). Critically lauded, Berman’s book was reinterpreted for theater in 2003 by director Troy Schulze and Houston-based Infernal Bridegroom Productions.

“It was an amazing production,” says Berman. “I was really surprised. There was one scene where the female leader of a band of smokers opens her bathrobe for the narrator to bend over and take a suck on her left breast. It was amazing to watch the act unfold on stage, and think, ‘I caused that live tit-sucking.’”

Although his own live shows were still non-existent, Berman felt quite at home reading his poetry in front of audiences.

“Working with a band, you have to cede control and concentrate on your own performance,” he explains. “I don’t even use the word ‘performance’ in regard to reading. It’s closer to being an everyday action than whatever people are doing on stage, emoting or losing themselves. Some part of me resists losing myself in the music.”

Berman also cites influences in the prose world ahead of the music world. Names such as Raymond Carver and British novelist Nicholas Moseley crop up before influential musicians like Royal Trux or Moby Grape.

An interview with Berman conducted by Addicted to Noise a few years back seemed to indicate that the live shows would never materialize.

“‘I haven’t found a way to present myself that I can be satisfied with,’” he said – “‘a way to do a concert that would be useful and truthful. It’s not in me to be a rock musician … I wasn’t raised that way; it’s not in my genes. I’m supposed to be off to the side watching.’”

Then came Tanglewood Numbers, and a tour finally became concrete. But why now? Why not continue to dangle the carrot and remain an enigma?

“I am going to hit 40 next year, and I’m over $40,000 in debt. Maybe I should crack down and promote my work. Maybe I should head on down to the marketplace to bet on these dogfights with my middle-aged brethren,” he responds with the dark humor that sticks to his work like shiny duct tape.

He continues: “For me, giving in to business is somewhat like a gangster’s son grudgingly accepting a life of crime for himself.”

David’s wife, Cassie, will help his comfort zone on tour by taking bass and vocal duties.

“I was wondering if having your wife in the band isn’t somewhat like doing your laundry at your parents’ house after you’ve gone to college,” he observes. “But she’s beautiful, and can play the bass like a great big fat man.”

Tanglewood Numbers will be observed as the album that finally pushed David onto the stage. It’s a confident piece of art, and it’s full of the Nashville trademark – pedal steel, fiddle, and a slew of “ringers” including Malkmus, Will Oldham, and former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison. Appropriately, the songs indicate a will to confront apprehensions in life, including the epic “Farmer’s Hotel,” which dwells on what Berman calls “formless fear.” Several tunes even take on God.

“In making the record, I really took ownership of every detail – so I overcame a lot of my misgivings about the collaborative nature of the art,” says Berman.

And although he’s not exactly strolling across a trapeze wire, his next step is as death-defying, in its own way. The musician’s stage, like the “Farmer’s Hotel,” can be an intangible fear until it takes actual form. Hopefully, he’ll manage to find himself in the balance.

[Hunter Pope writes Xpress’ weekly local-music column “Earful.”]

The Silver Jews play the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Sunday, March 12. 9:30 p.m. $12/$15. 232-5800.


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