Silver Jews’ founder David Berman dead at 52

Berman’s mental health issues, reluctance to tour and quirky material impacted on his ability to break out beyond indie circles, a situation he expressed ambivalent feelings about.

August 8, 2019 16:07
3 minute read.
David Berman

David Berman. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

American singer/songwriter David Berman, the mainstay of the 1990s indie rock group Silver Jews, died this week at age 52, according to his music label Drag City. The cause of death has not been disclosed.

The Silver Jews, with their offbeat, sometimes beautiful and sometimes raucous songs called “wry” and “pithy” by The New York Times, rarely performed live, but recorded six studio albums between 1994 and 2008.

Berman formed the band in Hoboken, New Jersey, with college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who went on to form indie giants Pavement.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in 2006 ahead of shows in Tel Aviv, Berman explained that his band’s name did not have a special meaning.

“When I started the band, the name ‘Silver Jews’ had no literal meaning – it was just an abstraction,” he said. “I considered myself ethnically Jewish. The irony is that over the last two years, I’ve gone through a transformation and I’ve decided to be a Jew. So the name has become something of a blessing. For many years, it was a stone around my neck. People expected it to mean something but weren’t sure what it meant. It’s just a noun and a modifier. There’s not the same literalism there as, for instance, The Rolling Stones.”

After the group, of which Berman was the only constant member, disbanded, Berman took a break from music and wrote two books of poetry and created cartoons.

He was due to start his first tour in years with his new band Purple Mountains on Saturday in New York, after releasing an album last month that included songs titled“All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me.”

Berman had dealt with drug addiction for years and had survived several overdoses and at least one suicide attempt.

Berman credited a renewed interest in Judaism and willingness to perform live in the 2000s to a voluntary stint at a rehab clinic in Minnesota. Berman discovered a way to “break out.

“One of the only reasons you could get permission to leave the facility was to go to church on Sundays – or to synagogue on Saturday,” he told the Post. “I wanted to get away from the hospital, so when Saturday came around, I signed up to go to shul, and I started to enjoy it. I started going every week. It woke up something inside me, and when I came home to Nashville, I joined a Reform congregation. It’s really become a focus.”

Berman told the Post that his attempt at touring in the mid-2000s had an unexpected benefit – seeing the people who like his music, an experience he said softened his naturally gruff exterior. “I really had become an anti-social person,” he explained. “That’s been one of my biggest problems with Judaism – learning to accept the minyan, the dimension of community – but it’s so important. As a person raised in the late 20th century, I’m very cynical and jaded about groups. I think that groups have become so disappointing to everybody. But playing before a live audience gave me an example of a roomful of people I can love back. It was very instructive.”

Berman’s mental health issues, reluctance to tour and quirky material impacted on his ability to break out beyond indie circles, a situation he expressed ambivalent feelings about.

“I didn’t feel like a performer, I felt like a songwriter,” he said. “Even though it’s the custom of writers to perform, I decided to go against the flow... From a business standpoint, though, it’s hard to increase your sales without playing live. [The Jews] have always sold more or less the same amount. It’s always been my dream not to have to work for anyone else, and to the degree that I can survive by making records, I haven’t had to work for anyone. But I haven’t been able to save. Now, as I’m approaching 40, I’d like to sell some more records.”

After his death, Berman’s former bandmate Bob Nastanovich wrote that he “was amazed by David as a person, a humorist and a writer. It was enlightening to have such a talented friend at a young age and realize that the talent wasn’t always a blessing. David battled mental illness for nearly all of his life. He had professional help and the unyielding support of hundreds of good friends. He had many loving and devoted fans.”

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