Perfect Sound Forever

AColt Pauley Shore window swimming with
David Berman and the Titans

Photo © Matt Robison: courtesy of Drag City

A Silver Jews dissertation by Domenic Maltempi
(March 2003)

I am a 'fan' of the music and the over-all art of David's for a long time, the music came to me. IM sure more than a few readers are in the same submarine, enough said then. No 'all the news that's fit to print,' quasi-objectivity or something here.

I like the way cooking outdoors smells more in October. That's when the idea to ask David for an interview hit me. Since then DB has been in the thick of fantasy league football, doing readings of his poetry, and staying very busy in total. This also happens to be the first interview with DB since his recent marriage, which happily occurred this past November.

October wafts in reminders of some very special things and it sticks in your craw. For a dedicated few, one such aroma is certainly the music of the Silver Jews, and the man who has been behind it and in front of it, David Berman of Nashville, Tennessee.

Pumpkins commit suicide in late November if left on the porches too long. Anyone can tell you that, but not quite like David Berman. This writing will omit the perfunctory talk of Berman being a, "confidante of indie-rock royalty, a Nashville rebel, a man too eccentric for touring life," and so forth. We all know this image grafting to be rubbish even if meant to be flattering.

Obviously these are silly caricatures as an overall presentation or in general, when thinking about a man serious enough to punch the world in its black hole with a comic ambling through many painted over landscapes.

The 'Halloween' season has always had a special place in the Silver Jew fan's heart. I presume that Berman's strong emphasis, or attention on the elements in his songs and poetry: the air, water, if not the low brown-green of the super terrestrial, is best understood when heard in the fall season.

It's as if autumn gets the minds talking car to park where it wants. One feels the Kit and Kat. New presses roll out new senses to re-experience the elemental because there is more variation and palpable traces of these elements in combination. Of course it is a different story if you don't really get an autumn where you live. But autumn is more than just a season, just as wars are more than a way to sell Operation 'kick ass' sets at J.C Penny's for kids, or even more than comics bombing at Hawaiian U.S.O. shows.

As Silver Jews fans from thin figured Austrian villages to the accidental Ohio towns known to only a few, the fall season is a time to anticipate something from the Silver Jews' David Berman.

This is the season the Silver Jews five full length releases have been offered up to those music fans craving more than trick or treats, teen witch-batons, donkey hybrid masks, eggs, shaving gel, and the hankering to embarrass the bleacher sluts and bonfire toughs in the perfumed hiding spots.

There is one exception to the release pattern, which is the first Silver Jews full-length album The Arizona Record. There has never been an investigation into this anomaly. There will probably never be one upon thinking out the newest haircuts in charge.

All of these records are out and can be sought, or bought at, with the exception of The Arizona Record (out of print, but you might find it in select yard sales if your feeling more accidental than the next woman or man).

The following is a list of release dates in no particular order. They may also serve as substitute holidays, as they do for me in my own marimba in the black course kind of way.

Natural Bridge October 1, 1996
American Water October 20, 1998
Starlite Walker October 24, 1994
Bright Flight November 20, 2001
The Arizona Record July 7, 1993

Bust out the astral charts buddy.

I was going to get mystical with the dates for fun, but thought better against it. Instead, I asked David a question related to it...

Q: I am somewhat familiar with your preference for the October, mid-fall release date. One of the early images your songs helped craft in my mind is that of valium-addled kids in some suburb of Vicksburg, never making it to any house during Halloween, but having a grand old time... Are there any particular lines of resonance that you can trace to this distinct time period which have inspired these chosen release dates? The only deviation is The Arizona Record, and it makes perfect sense to me in that it is seven days before Bastille Day.

DB: You could say I'm a Capricorn, i always feel like its autumn in world history, i have deep eeyore tendencies. but don't get me wrong, i have fun on sundays in football season. I've got tix for the colts/titans game Tomorrow. if we win we take the division with three games left. nast comes down from louisville and we go downtown to the stadium. when we win there is a great feeling of joy and uplift to be shared among 67,000 people.

I'm generally known as a hibernator, especially when winter's coming on. Maybe my body emits the records as a temporary farewell. i STILL GO OUT TO BARS TWO OR THREE TIMES A WEEK BUT MY COMMUNICATIONS WITH PEOPLE BECOME ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY LOCAL IN THE WINTER. I don't make as many phone calls, hardly ever travel, and as you yourself Domenic have seen, have difficulty even returning emails.

I have a feeling that these Billy the Kid quotes should also be in this piece, because they have been looking for a home since year 2000 when I stumbled on them in my friend's library kitchen, and they have a peculiar germaneness. Call the interview cops if you want. Yes, if only Billy made music instead of people dead. I mean, what does a shotgun look at, all pretty in some collapsing fortress? These are the turning questions that Berman has etched in my mind. This is something like the overall effect of this art in a microcosmic kind of way. I'm not sure...

Without blinking, and certainly dancing slowly, David strives for a truth. This might seem to some something quixotically lofty, so much so as to be capsized before embarking on the expedition, but not as I understand David's way.

In the insert territory of a Scud Mountain Boy CD (Pine Box), Berman writes early on that: "I'm renewing my vow to bear down on the truth even if there is none for the hundredth time." I'll be flogged if this sentiment isn't something like the quintessence of the movement of David's art, from the music of the Silver Jews to his various prose and poetic works. It just walks like that.

The approach in Berman's music is kind of like some Pre-Socratic 'way'. A world before unspecialized individuals got really disconnected from thinking upon this or that without being so far removed from the elemental, from their world. A world where poetry and 'science' were not Platonically broken up as some anti-thetical pair. A time when there was this poetic space flow, a thick braid to pull on when plumbing for ways to understand the inextricable nature of all phenomenon, wasn't yanked out of the skull of possibility. Listening to these songs, the voice, the unity of it, one does not feel like such a buckled in passenger, but the one holding the back road maps, and working the A/C.

For over ten years, Silver Jews have coupled David Berman's lyrics of thought-provoking observation and powerful 'incidental' acumen with an assortment of players that have helped bring all of the reconnaissance into fruition.

The music is as deliberate and without ostentation as the lyrics, whether ballads or hard-toned songs, even a genre that I think peculiarly Jewish and Silver, which I call, 'get you're ass in here.' There is an obvious comic sweep through all of it, somehow this hilarity feels like walking beside the thing, the thing is the movement of the song, the trickle, flood, machine songs over water, the robots cry in David's songs, I repeat, the robots cry.

Hello, we are invited in from the beginning of David's track one on Starlite Walker. When we hear Berman talking to his dogs in the music as in the perfectly grilled Pretty Eyes from the Natural Bridge album, the climax of the song has the perfect tension of close comic strangeness and plain open just fell on my assness, in fact, becoming the same thing perfectly. The line is: "I'd set my dog before a hoop and say 'now boy, now boy!' Of course it is one of several climaxes in the song. The song is not riddled with points so much as directions of various lines and types, off-ramps, and storms just circling wrecked kiosks."

This Natural Bridge line perfectly marbles the gravity and the lightness of many Silver Jew tunes, one feels like the happiest jump-roper in the world that just fell asleep in their favorite place. When the rope is away, there is the sharp image of a German shepherd before a door of light reels backwards into your mind, the image is a piece of the album cover for the Tennessee EP, a recent release issued with the latest full length album Bright Flight. Both of these records will do more for your immune system than flax seed oil or even a lot of sleep.

These and other related strings always scrabble around in my thoughts as soon as I am reminded of one of David's lines, or a cartoon drawing, a question found in one of his prose/poetic works, etc... This is what I love most of all about Berman's art. It is of course something hard to explain, as it is moving so fast under a tiny flashlight, connecting the dots.

Particularly in the latest album, Bright Flight, the songs take on what is typically called an 'alt-country' flare. No need to wrestle with the total inadequacy of retail genres and their solidifying partners in crime, nor the wild difference of Berman and others who get slip-slapped into this small rabbit hole.

People who hear the Silver Jews for the first time just light up like car lighter holes left by their lighter wives. I have seen this so many times on porches, and back yard parties, even in front of the tougher, teeming with leather jackets- Haagen-Dazs establishments (no joke). I will slip on a tape and rum for cigarettes.

You get the pulse of the listener, as The Silver Jews lead them at their own pace into sometimes cold and puzzling song apartments with no mirrors, or too many, songs on the hill hamlets where moon and sun wrestle for contracts above. The songs invite people in as friends, as people.

What sits ahead in this bit of writing are David's replies to a few other questions I tossed out to him by e-mail and by special headset accidents in late fall, early winter of 2002.

Q: Should ice-cream establishments continue to serve soft ice-cream in foot-ball helmets, or is America passed that? And are you pissed off about there being too many football teams in the NFL, even if you don't watch professional football much anymore?

DB: Funny you ask because a friend called yesterday and said he put a quarter in the little football helmet machine at Krogers and got a Colt's helmet. He regarded this as an omenn of a Colts' victory. I saw it more as the machine emitting the bland toxin from its body.The NFL's in good shape. I like the new divisions. Though I genuinely believe the Ravens pray to Satan, in the locker room before the game, holding hands.

"When I listen to music, I want to hear a person and a person that I trust. I don't want to hear the sound of a culture..."
Q: I love this quote from an older interview you did. This was in the context of lesbian folk music, and all its typical awful expressions and predictability. People imagine that the 'sound of a culture' only refers to pop music, or market driven 'culture industry' products in general, but you understand it to be just as symptomatic as the passive and pulse-less music coming from the so called underground or less aggressively 'different' pop music. Do you think this 'gaunt nonchalance' that prides itself on no-confrontation with a listener is more of a recent phenomenon in music, say the 90's up to today?

DB: Well they're just the stunted and lame offspring of the larger obstetric action. Bands are like politicians. You love the ones with charisma even if they go over the line like James Traficant or the Royal Trux. For the most part, the lifeless ones rise but occasionally, you get Teddy Roosevelt or Lou Reed.

Q: Have people's names, or retail shop signs 'out of the blue,' acted as creative trigger guns more so than 'lofty' stories or the like, in the creation or the glue of your songs sort-of-narrative compositions?

DB: In "Trains Across the Sea," I mention a woman named Shady Sides. She lived next door to a friend in Charlottelsville. It was on the corner of Wine and Dice Streets in a rundown neighborhood. She had a senile mother who would come out in the middle of the night and stand in front of the gate with her purse hanging on the fence like she was waiting for a carraige.

Q: Why does the humor of Bobcat Goldthwaite seem unthinkable in the year 2002 as something to even remotely enjoy? Was it Sam Kinison's passing away, or is it that we as a nation have woken up to this 'all-over groggy-hyper ruse?' You've made note of the fact in intelligent ways, that certain comic motifs of yesteryear seem so na´ve to contemporaries trying to get some laughs. Are there any recent comics in your community, or beyond, whose comedy transcends the dick-in-the-shoe obsolescence of it all?

DB: I was in L.A. last month for the first time. There was a map of the stars homes taped to the window of a convenience store. I jotted a few addresses down. Later on the sun was setting and I knew I only had time to see one. I fiddled with the city map and my list and after many twists and reverses found myself in front of Pauly Shore's place.

It was fairly big, dark brown and fronted by a high brown wooden fence with an arch exposing the front door and about a third of the front of the house. It was a rather gloomy complex compared to its neighbors. It was almost dark and the only light was a small window, like something out of a German fairy tale, about two by three, six feet of the ground, with an dark orange light coming through old glass.

It seemed like it stood for the fading of his career. It also seemed like it stood for the fading of my career.

My very special thanks to Jason for his assistance in setting up the interview, and Lisa at Drag City Records, and of course to David Berman (thanks David).

Also see our 2019 interview with David Berman about his band Purple Moutains

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER