“David Berman, Slacker God” by Erin Somers
(Originally published in the Paris Review In Memoriam, August 8, 2019)
Pour another gallon into the bucket of our national grief, David Berman is gone. The poet and front man of the Silver Jews was fifty-two. The phrase national grief is Berman-esque, though municipal grief or federal grief would be even better. I was in awe of him, and like so many people today, I am crushed.
I knew Berman’s poetry, specifically his 1999 collection Actual Air, before I knew his music, but both became deeply important to me. I think of his lines weekly, maybe daily.
You can’t change the feeling, but you can change the feeling about the feeling.
I love your amethyst eyes and your Protestant thighs.
And of course: All water is classic water.
Berman’s great topic was the impossibility of being alive. I was glad to have him on the job. Being alive is fucking impossible! Berman knew this but still saw beauty and strangeness and humor, too. His work seemed to be saying that the world is impossible, yes, but you didn’t have to take it too seriously.
When Hunter S. Thompson died, my dad, who loved him, said, “It’s especially hard because you thought that someday you’d meet up with him and all the people who got it.” With Berman, I did sort of think that. I don’t know what I imagined. A pool party? All the fragile souls, the people who got it, in bikinis and trunks, with Berman at the grill.
But anyway. I never met him and that’s probably for the best. I wouldn’t want to have to tangle with my admiration up close. I wouldn’t want to stand there waiting for an anointing that didn’t come. Stammering out something foolish and leaving disappointed.
Actual Air is canonical if you’re cool. I first read it at twenty in 2005 in New York City. I had a job at an unprosperous cafe on Great Jones Street. I worked from five o’clock to midnight four or five days a week. No one ever came in unless I knew them, and then I would give them whatever food they wanted for free. No wonder the place made no money. It snowed and snowed that winter. It was cold and I was broke. I felt, not for the last winter of my life, like a real loser. Some shifts I’d make zero dollars in tips.
On those long slow nights I sat on the counter and read Actual Air. I recall reading the first poem, “Snow.” When it’s snowing, the outdoors feels like a room.
Remember those postadolescent days when a work of art could make your heart thump? Remember the physical symptoms of infatuation? Before your tastes ossified?
The book had been given to me by my sister, given to her by her friend Shannon, given to Shannon by who knows who. Back then, before the internet became the recommendation engine it is today, media were passed from hand to hand like samizdat. Your friend would show up at your apartment and give you a book. And then you’d read whatever it was without knowing anything else about it. It was like in movies when the characters take drugs together and one joker says, See you on the other side. You didn’t know what was going to happen, but it was going to be an adventure. You would feel things and you would be changed.
Berman was a loser-god, or maybe he was a slacker-god. The people in his poems and songs are forever being left. They are ambiguously divorced, overlooked or abandoned by someone they loved. Usually it’s their own fault. In “Smith and Jones Forever,” one of the best tracks on American Water, an album on which every track could be the best, the eponymous guys don’t even own belts. They hold up their pants with extension cords. David Berman made it okay to be a loser. He made it soulful. He even made it fun.
In the mid-aughts, I used to tear out pages of Actual Air and give them to people. What an act of innocence. To everyone who received one, I apologize for my embarrassing behavior, but I’d like my poems back.
I saw him perform only once, with the Silver Jews at Bowery Ballroom in 2008. He was slim and intense and did not banter. He was like a downed power line; he writhed around giving off sparks. I felt, watching him, very close to doom. He carried that into the room with him.
His last album, Purple Mountains, which came out earlier this year, is as good as anything he ever made. It grapples with despair (from the first track: Way deep down at some substratum / Feels like something really wrong has happened / And I confess I’m barely hanging on). But it also makes my heart pound in that twenty-year-old way, which is only the most I could hope for in this world.
Berman could predict the future, too. In “Self-Portrait at 28,” from Actual Air, he wrote:
and if the apocalypse turns out
to be a world-wide nervous breakdown
if our five billion minds collapse at once
well I’d call that a surprise ending
A worldwide nervous breakdown is a good description of these past few years. And now the person who was perhaps most able to make sense of it is dead. I hope I have the fortitude not to take even this too seriously.
(Erin Somers is the author of the novel Stay Up with Hugo Best.)