August 7th, tragic news broke that David Berman, poet and leader of Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, had passed away. Here, Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth reflects on his singular stature and remembers the man.
The first time I met David Berman was at a backyard party at Grimey’s Records in Nashville. One of the fun ideas Grimey’s cooked up that day was to have a “Meet and Greet The Nashville Indie Rockers” table, and at this table was Berman, Kurt from Lambchop, and me. I found David funny, avuncular, and sweet. Not many people came up to talk to us—most of the people at the party already knew us, and we probably all felt a little silly and embarrassed sitting there. It felt a little like that scene in Spinal Tap when no one shows up for the autograph signing at the record store. Kurt killed time by drawing ‘blind caricatures’ of us by placing a blindfold on his face and drawing our portraits from memory. I still have mine. David had with him two old Silver Jews 7” singles he was trying to sell. A young woman eventually came up and asked about them.
“They’re $3 each,” David told her.
“I only have $5,” said the girl.
“That’s OK, take them,” said David, handing her the records. “I’m not here today to make money. I’m here to make friends.”
In 2008 I was at a very low point in my life. I was in the midst of what is often euphemistically known as a “messy divorce” and was about to be dropped from my label. I had also been informed, while on tour, that the record store I managed back home was to close, leaving me unemployed. I had been abandoned by both my band and my then-wife in the middle of a grueling five-week tour across the United States. The final two weeks of this tour were dates opening for Silver Jews. By this point on the tour I was traveling alone. I was already friends with guitarist William Tyler and bassist Cassie Berman, the latter of whom played bass in a short-lived band I was in at the time called HP Witchcraft, but I didn’t really know the rest of the band very well.
Word spreads quickly in our small circle of indie rockers, and by the time I met up with the Silver Jews crew in New Orleans, everyone had already heard about my recent run of hard luck. The entire band and crew made me feel very welcome at a time when I really needed it. It felt good to be among friends. They were sympathetic but not pitying or meddlesome, and each of them made an effort, despite their demanding schedules, to hang out with me and make sure I was OK. A few of them even offered to travel with me and keep me company on the road. David in particular was a good friend to me during this time despite people constantly seeking his attention and tugging on his sleeve.
On the last night of the tour, at the Echoplex in LA, I was asked to join the band onstage for the last song of their set, “Punks in the Beerlight.” Cassie and guitarist Peyton Pinkerton quickly ran through the chords of the song with me backstage, and Cassie told me she’d cue me when it was time to join the band onstage.
David was blind as a bat. He also didn’t like to wear his glasses onstage. When it came time for me to accompany the band on “Punks In The Beerlight,” David saw me approach, but didn’t recognize me at first, only seeing the shape and shadow of a big guy hopping up onstage and fiddling with an amplifier.
“Oh, well, I guess they’re pulling the plug on us,” he said into the mic. “Sorry.” The crowd booed.
In his blindness, David, having momentarily forgotten about the plan for me to sit in with the band, thought I was a bouncer or a security guard cutting the power and coming to tell him the show was past curfew and they had to stop.
“No, David, that’s James!” explained Cassie.
Everyone laughed. It was a memorable moment and I still smile when I think about it.
The last time I spoke to David he suggested I call my new band “Orangutan Menopause.” Then he apologized for not being more present during the tour years earlier when he knew I was going through so much gnarly shit. I told him truthfully that I never felt that he was anything but present, and that those last shows of the tour with Silver Jews might have saved my life. At the very least, if he and his band hadn’t been as generous, sweet, and hospitable to me as they were, I almost definitely would have bailed on the remainder of the tour and God only knows what else.
David is still there for me, as he is for so many of you, when I listen to his songs. Though it will be a while before I am able to listen to them again, I expect that they will remain just as beautiful as before, if a lot sadder. To the max.
Further Reading: David Berman :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview