The wry, sardonic brilliance of David Berman shone brightly until his tragic suicide in 2019, aged only 52. Rob Hughes takes a look at the idiosyncratic life and work of a tragic genius as American Water – the first great masterpiece by his band Silver Jews – turns 25.
The Whitney Museum of American Art has moved around several times since it was founded in 1930. By the turn of the ’90s, it was housed on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, on Madison Avenue, where three aspiring musicians – David Berman, Stephen Malkmus and Steve West – were employed as security guards.
“All these weird older characters worked with us at the Whitney, really interesting people from New York,” recalls Malkmus. “It was more intellectually stimulating than just working in a bar. Mixed with the art, the whole thing was kind of a trip.”
Hosting works by multifaceted artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruce Nauman and Sherrie Levine, the museum proved inspirational. Malkmus was by then involved with his own band, Pavement. Berman, meanwhile, was primarily a poet. But the Whitney widened his ambition.
“David was constantly writing poetry at the museum,” says Pavement percussionist Bob Nastanovich. “Then suddenly he started spending a lot of time conjuring up lyrics. It spurred him on to using music as a vehicle for his poetry.” Berman christened his conceptual project Silver Jews.
Over the next couple of decades, he presided over a lineup forever in flux, creating some of the most compelling music of the times: a highly literate assemblage of the tragi-comic that operated on multiple levels. More often that not though, his work felt like a series of discharges from his deepest self.
“David was arguably the best English-language lyricist of his generation,” says songwriter-guitarist William Tyler, who appeared on three Silver Jews albums and played in Berman’s touring band. “For someone who didn’t have much formal musical education or intuition, he had an uncanny ability to write melodic pop hooks. To me, he was so far out on his own. In terms of the last 20 or 30 years, I don’t really know who else is even in that conversation.”
“He kind of lived in poetry,” says Silver Jews producer Mark Nevers. “David was very observant. Everything was a potential song or a poem. He was just on a different plane.”