Years ago, while lonely in high school and spending my free time browsing the depths of indie music discussion forums, someone asked the question, “what are the greatest opening lyrics to an album?” The top comment read: “no contest: ‘In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.’” Those entrancing words beckoned my 16 year-old self to dig further and to discover American Water. It’s an album that feels submerged in legend and immortality, yet to this day, I rarely hear it discussed as one of the greatest. Stephen Malkmus, who plays guitar and sings backup on the record, called it the best album he’s been involved with. And while Malkmus may have worked on it, American Water, like all Silver Jews records, and like everything David Berman ever touched, was entirely his.
David Berman wrote the familiar words of someone perpetually tortured and sung with the low voice and demeanor of the everyman.
For all of the pain demonstrated in these syllables, his endurance gave hope to his listeners; presenting the idea that if he’s pulling through, so can I. And for as often as he spoke tragedy like, “My friends, don’t you know that I never want this minute to end…then it ends” he was just as skilled a comedian, opening songs with lines such as, “back then I had a Buckingham rabbit, I’d been lonely since he found Christ.” He spoke the spirit of someone with a great deal of thoughts and care, trying to make sense and find joy in a world that is hard to do so in.
After learning of his passing in the worst of ways, it was comforting to see the response on Twitter and throughout the music world as people shared countless different lyrics that they connected with and pieces of David’s art that resonated. All of them are profoundly simple, such as his lovely cartoon “Oklahoma and the sky over Oklahoma”, but touch at this confused simplicity that the best of poets and artists all seem to capture. It seems everyone had a personal story of how the man had touched their lives.
While his music has been present in mine for years, it had never been more important to me than last year. While lonely, confused, and questioning pretty much every aspect of my life in my first year in Edinburgh, thousands of miles away from my home, I found myself listening to American Water every day.
At first, it was to wallow, but as I listened further I took comfort in the small bits of hope that David provided. Hearing him say, as if he too was just realizing it, “it’s sunny and 75, it feels so good to be alive, come on baby don’t stay inside, everybody’s coming out tonight” made me want to step out the door and try to give the day a chance when I just wanted to curl up and hide.
After losing his battle, his friends and family took to social media to remind people that it’s not how he would like to be remembered and that it should not detract from the hope and joy he’d provided to so many. His passing is a reminder to the many who felt a kinship to his music and words to check up on themselves and to never go through it alone.
The tragedy is, while David Berman felt like a companion in low moments to the many, he could not provide that same comfort to himself. His last record, Purple Mountains, while brilliant, is likely the most tragic of his works, reading like an entry into his mind during the lowest moments before the end. And as well-written as it is, and relatable to many, I don’t think it’s the best way to remember David.
I’d prefer to think of him when I drive through a long stretch of lonely highway, thinking of how big the world really is, or when a moment sings so loudly in my life that it’s a monument to me. His introspection and his bravery are what made David Berman such an important individual and one of the only true poets of our time.
I will always remember him for the hope he’s brought me and the quiet connection that so many troubled people making their way through life felt with him.
David’s words, music, and art have the potential to be read and understood for centuries and even if they aren’t, I know they will continue to be companions to me and many. He was able to touch on the undescribable aspects of humanity and he did it with poise. On that note, I leave you with one of my favorite lyrics of his, one that displayed his humanity and the struggle of anyone who writes or has ever wished to get at something bigger than themselves, as David so often did.
“I am trying to get at something so simple that I have to talk plainly so the words don’t disfigure it. And if it turns out that what I say is untrue, then at least let it be harmless, like a leaky boat in the reeds that is bothering no one.”
Rest easy, David Berman. May you shine on in the wild silence for the rest of eternity.
Illustration: Hannah Robinson