The Berman conversion

A few years back, circumstances suggested that the Silver Jews’ David Berman take a deeper look at the second half of his band’s moniker, chosen in 1992 mostly out of a contrarian impulse. But delving into Judaism was no celebrity-gets-bored-explores-Kabalah whim for Berman.

A daily truce with his darkest inclinations: Silver Jews’ David Berman comes back from the brink. Here he’s with his wife, Cassie. Photo By Brent Stewart

Years of depression and its running mates, drug and alcohol addiction, eventually led Berman to a 2003 suicide attempt. Now, after a regimen of anti-depressants, along with sobriety and daily Torah readings, the 41-year-old Berman has attained what for him amounts to, if not exactly peace, then at least a day-to-day truce with his darkest inclinations.

“In my normally operating non-Jewish mind things get desperate as I handle the world all wrong,” Berman writes via e-mail in advance of the Silver Jews’ show Friday at The Grey Eagle. “On the most basic level [reading the Torah] helps you maintain consciousness of God’s presence.”

A strange sentiment, perhaps, coming from an artist sometimes cited as a founding father of early ‘90s indie rock, notable for its cynicism. (Early bandmates Stephen Malkmus and Rob Nastanovich formed smart-ass masters Pavement, with Berman’s help, after first emerging as Silver Jews.) But since returning in 2005 with the cathartic Tanglewood Numbers and this year’s mildly more optimistic Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Berman and the Silver Jews have undergone something of an emotional makeover.

“If optimism means moving forward with hope, I’m still a little shy of that,” writes Berman, suggesting instead, “I’ve got stomach acid determination. I’m reaching for relief through creativity.”

From the beginning, Berman’s been a word guy. That may not have been easy to discern during the Silver Jews’ aggressively lo-fi beginnings; parts of the first two EPs were recorded on Walkmans and into telephone answering machines, sonic kin to Daniel Johnston’s homemade cassettes. But over the course of six full-lengths, multiple EPs and singles, the Silver Jews’ ever-revolving (until recently) cast morphed into a more sonically sophisticated act, combining country-music accents with “anybody can do this” indie-rock aesthetics. (The new record’s liner notes include guitar tablature, and Drag City, Berman’s label, is holding a Best Cover Song video contest.)

Until Tanglewood, Berman avoided touring—simple enough, given he was the only official member—but that perceived reclusiveness would eventually feed the Silver Jews’ cult status. Instead, he earned a creative writing degree from the University of Massachusetts, and in 1999 published a best-selling debut collection of poetry, Actual Air, which won high marks from Billy Collins, who went on to become poet laureate of the United States. Though Berman sees songs and poems as two distinct animals, they both are vessels for his poetic tendencies, making him a big hit with the overeducated music geeks whom The Village Voice once described as the Silver Jews’ “disciples.”

On Lookout Mountain, Berman throws his “thoughts like tomahawks,” and the songs buzz with clever conceits: an Emily Dickinson poem, Theodore Roosevelt, Yiddish proverbs, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and songs from Merle Haggard and Roger Miller, among others, while surreal images—often anthropomorphic machines and animals—romp around the narratives.

Delivered in Berman’s deadpan baritone drawl, and soaked in depression and addiction, the music can make you laugh one moment and reel the next from a harrowing emotional punch. And unlike many musicians who force-feed literary references into their songs, Berman’s feel like they belong there.

“Like everything else, it has to work or it has to go,” he writes of the allusions in his songwriting. “I never consider recognizing them or their sources as a matter of any importance. Often they are more ornamental than meaningful.”

Lookout Mountain‘s most telling reference may be one of its first, from disc-opener “What Is Not But Could Be If.” Paraphrasing a Yiddish proverb, Berman sings, “The truth is not alive or dead/ The truth is struggling to be said,” which contrasts with his previous bleaker state of mind: “What was not but could have been/ Was my obsession way back when.”

That altered viewpoint traces back, in part, to the Silver Jews’ first visit to Israel in 2006. (On Sept. 23, Drag City will release the DVD Silver Jew, filmmaker Michael Tulley’s documentary of Berman and his wife/bandmate Cassie’s trip.) Berman calls his subsequent conversion significant, but downplays any purely religious reading of it; he’s drawn more to the ritual of contemplation in reading the Torah daily. A Silver Jew, he recently reminded Slant Magazine, is a “secondary Jew, like a minor Jew … I really am much closer to not believing than I want to be.”

That’s what makes Berman’s last two records as compelling as his earlier work. He’s not ramming answers down our throats but acknowledging there may be some out there, at least for him; in the past, he was dogmatic that there weren’t any, period. It also doesn’t hurt that his dark sense of humor and contrarian inclinations remain intact, even after being tested in “the furnace of affliction,” as he sings on Lookout Mountain‘s “Candy Jail.”

“People often ask, ‘Why do you talk so openly about drugs and mental illness?’ ” Berman writes. “Part of the reason is because it’s a very un-Drag City thing to do. Drag City is nothing if not cryptic and prankish. Identities are fluid and opaque.”

Drag City, of course, is home to occasional Silver Jews’ contributor Will Oldham and his many aliases.

“So it amuses me to do the opposite,” Berman writes. “Same with living in Nashville. It’s a friendly and un-cool place just made for a person like me.” 

[John Schacht is editor-in-chief of the regional music magazine Shuffle.]

who: The Silver Jews with Monotonix and the Spiritual Family Reunion
what: basement country rockers
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Sept. 12 (9 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show. 232-5800,


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