Some records become indelibly associated in our minds with a particular time or place or moment, even if we haven’t listened to them for years. For me Darren Hanlon’s Little Chills will always be the sound of moving to Melbourne, when I lived for a year in the middle of Fitzroy and spent every dollar I could spare in Polyester Records; similarly Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled album is the sound of moving out of that Fitzroy house and getting the hell away from its dodgy landlord: relief and freedom and joy. Some records, though, have no such concrete associations: they can’t be pinned to anything or anywhere specific in our lives. These records, I think, are often the ones that have ingrained themselves inexorably and essentially into the very fabric of our lives: they are nowhere specific, because they are everywhere; they are associated with no particular time, because they are timeless.
The Silver Jews’ American Water is one such album for me. I can remembe—I think—where I first saw the band’s name: it would’ve been on the racks of Landspeed Records, in my home town of Canberra. It may have been when I was in high school, in which case my first awareness of the band would have predated the release of American Water in 1998. I’m certain that I must have bought that album while I was at university, before I moved to Melbourne, which would’ve been an anomaly: for the bulk of my uni years I was going through my Young Man’s Jazz Phase. I didn’t return to rock and pop until after I’d graduated.
But it’s not important. The point is that functionally speaking, the record has always been with me, which means that the Joos have always been with me, which means that the music and in particular the words of head Silver Jew David Berman, who died last Wednesday US time, have always been with me.
It was those words that first attracted me, a fact which can be repeated for probably every single Silver Jews fan on the planet. Berman was a poet as well as a lyricist—his sole published book of poetry, Actual Air, is excellent—and he had a particular gift for describing something mundane in a way that made it glitter as if lit by starlight.
For someone like me who in his high-school years would spend entire summer holidays lying on his parents’ sofa, reading through their books like they were water; someone who by his twenties was starting to think about maybe trying to make some kind of a go of this writing thing; someone who, in short, would’ve lived on words alone if they were just a little bit more magical than they already are—hearing Berman’s words was like a pure shot of dopamine. Writers often envy musicians because it takes so many words and so much redrafting to replicate the direct emotional connection to the human heart that even the simplest music makes effortlessly. Berman’s way of twisting and untwisting phrases and imagery, sitting complicated wordplay side-by-side with joltingly straight declarations, nesting devastating heartbreak within laugh-out-loud jokes and vice-versa, tingles the listener’s mind in a deep pleasure centre that words don’t often reach. It’s the closest I’ve heard to words as music. Once you’re familiar with Berman’s songs you begin to anticipate specific lines the way you might anticipate with eagerness a signature riff in any other song.
I listened to American Water over and over again—it would be impossible for me to even guess at how many times I’ve listened to it. In our early years, before we begin forming connections and joining communities of similar people, writers always imagine that there’s nobody else like them in the world. So many rock and pop lyrics are tossed aside, or buried in the mix, so as a very young writer it was a thrill to come across a musician whose music seemingly acted mostly as a delivery system for the words. When I moved to Melbourne, trailing manuscripts, I discovered to my astonishment and delight that there were other Silver Jews fans in the world. Australia is a small place and fandoms here are tiny, and diffuse; being a Joos fan from the far side of the world, especially in the days before social media and being constantly online, felt like the most private thing in the world. When I first joined the world of Online I yelled Berman’s name from the digital rooftops at every opportunity. I had no idea about his personal life: unless somebody was a major star we didn’t read about their personal life back then, at least not when that life was so far away. We didn’t know the word ‘content’ unless the stress was on the second syllable.
But we’re not in that world any more. I’m not interested in saying whether that’s a good or a bad thing; it’s just a thing. If you’ve read anything else about Berman you’ll almost certainly have read the outlines of his adult life: depression; addiction; attempted suicide; marriage; estrangement from his father; separation from his wife; death. Berman was always self-deprecating, at least in his recordings. The opening track of American Water, ‘Random Rules’, famously contains the line ‘I know that a lot of what I write has been lifted off of men’s room walls’. Later in the album on the song ‘We Are Real’ Berman, an infamously limited singer, declares: ‘All my favourite singers couldn’t sing’. I don’t know anything at all about Berman other than what I’ve read, and I don’t want to pretend that I know anything about what was ever in his head. But I know that for so many men, self-deprecation masks deep despair. There are only really two emotions that are socially acceptable to men: anger and laughter. Everything else has to be twisted to somehow fit into either of those two categories. Berman never wrote an angry song in his life, but he wrote a hell of a lot of funny ones.
He wrote sad ones too, though. Sadness is desperately hard to witness: it demands a response and very few of us know exactly how, in the moment, to best respond to it. Male sadness is harder still because it’s so rarely allowed out into the open. Berman followed up American Water with the saddest Silver Jews album of all, Bright Flight. It’s short—just over half an hour—and so can be fit easily into the fragments of spare time that make up our daily lives, and for that reason it happens to be the Silver Jews album I’ve listened to more than any other, and so the one that I’m most familiar with. It’s often very hard to listen to: two years after it was released in 2001 Berman attempted suicide, and much of the record is clearly the work of a man on a downward spiral. ‘And you’ve got that one idea again,’ he sings on the album’s opening track, ‘the one about dying.’ The album’s fourth track, ‘I Remember Me’, might just be the most heartbreaking song ever recorded: it tells a story about a man and a woman, utterly in love with each-other and on the verge of marriage—’they slow-danced so the needle wouldn’t skip’—before the man is hit by a truck and put in a coma. The woman’s friends convince her that he’ll never wake up; when he does, he finds that she’s moved on with her life: ‘She’d married a banker and gone to Oklahoma.’ He doesn’t chase after her: instead he buys some land and settles down to live out his days alone, longing after her and the life that has been ripped away from him. Then the song ends and there’s a brief moment of silence before the next song begins with the lines ‘I’m drunk on a couch in Nashville/In a duplex near the reservoir’.
Not that the album is all misery: ‘Let’s Not and Say We Did’ rollicks along, only two verses but full of life; ‘Tennessee’ marries sweetness, cheesiness, and hope for a better future with some breathtakingly beautiful imagery: ‘I saw the river playing in the valley/Rushing round a bend and skipping stones…’ But the album’s last song, ‘Death of an Heir of Sorrows’, contains what might be the biggest gut-punch in the whole Silver Jews discography: ‘When I was summoned to the phone/I knew in my bones you’d died alone.’
Nonetheless that same song also includes the lines ‘I have not avoided certainty/It has always just eluded me’. Berman’s fans tend to carry lines around in their hearts, like talismans or the little knick-knacks and trinkets that people collect over the course of a lifetime. Those lines in particular always makes me feel less alone, more understood—which is the very definition of being comforted, really. There’s not a single person on the planet who hasn’t, at some point in their life, come up hard against depression—whether its through personal, direct experience or through the experience of a person or people who we care about. Sometimes we try our best to help, those of us who’ve seen it only from a remove; sometimes we run away; sometimes we fear for the safety of the other person and so in panic overstep our bounds; sometimes we misunderstand what we’re seeing, and make it about ourselves, and so make things worse. Usually it’s some combination of all of these, I suspect. Not a single person who’s ever lived has been an expert in life. Certainty eludes us all.
It took me a long time to move beyond American Water into the rest of the Silver Jews back-catalogue. The opening line of American Water is the single best-known lyric Berman ever wrote: ‘In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection’; I’ve never got even remotely close to perfection but about a decade after that supposed hospitalisation—just a year or two before Berman released those words into the world—I started feeling the effects of a thankfully mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. A short course of medication when I was seventeen or eighteen shoved my derailed brain mostly back onto the tracks, but all the same I’ve had to learn how to manage my illness, such as it is: paying attention when I close or lock doors so that I can later visualise the click of the latch and don’t have to go back, and back, and back, to check and re-check; washing my hands with fragrant soap so that they’ll smell clean. One of the more ridiculous ways my OCD manifested was that for a long time I wouldn’t allow myself to buy more than one album from any given musician. I had to pick the one I wanted, and that was it. I was the opposite of a completist: a particularist, if you will.
I’ve long since shaken off that particular habit, thankfully. When I did so the Silver Jews were one of the first bands whose entire back-catalogue I bought, and devoured. I hate naming favourites but for a long time now I’ve declared—on dating site profiles, in conversation, on social media, all those rooftops again—that the Silver Jews are my favourite band. When Berman abruptly dissolved the band in 2009—after the release of two final, post-suicide-attempt albums which only get better with each listen—I was genuinely heartbroken. But I comforted myself with the thought that he’d at least got out of there alive. ‘There is a place past the blues I never want to see again’, he sang at the end of Tanglewood Numbers, the first of those two comeback albums. He closed the last Silver Jews album by dueting joyfully, hopefully with his wife ‘We could be looking for the same thing/If you’re looking for someone/We could belong to each-other/If you’re not seeing anyone’. Then, silence. That’s as close to a ride into the sunset as you’ll get on record.
But life doesn’t work that way. Certainty is ever-elusive. After retiring the Silver Jews Berman returned just a month ago with his first new recorded music in a decade under the new name Purple Mountains. Being a child of the nineties I waited eagerly for the album to be released in Australia on CD—when the disc finally hit the shelves here in Melbourne it was on the same day that Berman was found dead by what has since been determined suicide. Much of the press around the release of the album focused on Berman’s recent separation from his wife, and the Purple Mountains album contains some of his best lyrics, but also some of his most personal. He was always a story-teller rather than a strictly confessional songwriter but these songs seem unambiguously about himself and his life: ‘And when I see her in the park/It barely merits a remark:/How we stand the standard distance/Distant strangers stand apart.’ Or: ‘Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old/And keeping them is harder than you might suppose/Lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go/Some of them were once people I was happy to know.’
Berman was one of the world’s great songwriters. But greatness is over-rated. More important by far is to be loved, and to be meaningful. When I was young and the world was wide open I listened to Berman’s songs and laughed in delight at the wit and confidence in them. Now that I’m older and life’s possibilities are narrowing down to a point, one by one, I still take joy in the songs but I hear the sorrow, too. Joy and sorrow are difficult emotions to balance, at any time, in any circumstances; Berman did it in his music again, and again, and again. Tragically it seems that outside of music that same balance—that certainty—eluded him in the end. It’s too much to expect any artist—any person at all, really—to shine a path through the frequent darkness of life, but for myself and for many people all over the world Berman’s art created innumerable points of gentle light to at least illuminate that dark and make it all a lot more beautiful. Depression tells lies but I hope that at some point in his life, at least—perhaps while reading a fan’s email, or taking an interview, or performing one of his too-rare gigs to an enraptured audience—the certainty of knowing what his songs meant to so many people zapped like a laser right into the centre of his being.