David Berman, an indie-rock poet whose hoarse baritone, country-tinged melodies and poignant lyrics about lost love, “MGM endings” and men with duct-tape shoes earned his band Silver Jews a devoted following for two decades, died Aug. 7 at age 52.
Berman, born in Williamsburg, was a University of Virginia graduate.
The record label Drag City announced his death but did not provide additional information. Berman had been living in a small room above the label’s offices in Chicago and recently told the Ringer, a sports and pop culture website, he was experiencing “treatment-resistant depression.”
He had survived at least one suicide attempt, in 2003, but said he was trying to embrace a summer and fall tour with his new band, Purple Mountains, after refusing to perform live for most of his career. “It’s distressing to do this, but if I’m to grow, I have to do things that I didn’t do a long time ago,” he said. “I’m tired. I need to take a few risks. I can’t keep living like this.”
With a scraggly beard; long, stringy hair; and a penchant for large, square-framed sunglasses, Berman was something of an oracular figure in indie rock, known for obsessing over lyrics that featured elaborate similes and a cockeyed, world-weary outlook. “I wanna be like water if I can,” he sang in the chorus of “Horseleg Swastikas,” “ ‘cause water doesn’t give a damn.”
A celebrated poet in addition to a singer-songwriter, Berman released a 1999 collection, “Actual Air,” that drew praise from writers including Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States. His poems “are full of complex turns and tricks and conceptual high jinks, and yet there’s this surface clarity,” Collins told the New York Times. “You’re welcomed into the poem.”
Berman was the leader and only consistent member of Silver Jews, which he formed in the late 1980s with his college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, of the indie rock band Pavement. Initially playing out of their apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, the group developed a bright, lo-fi sound that mixed country, rock and the occasional horn arrangement, anchored by Berman’s half-spoken singing. “Like a brown bird nesting in a Texaco sign, I’ve got a point of view,” he declared in “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You.”
“There was a certain feeling of wisdom handed down constantly line after line,” singer-songwriter Dan Bejar of Destroyer told The Washington Post in June. “Real wisdom or wisdom that came from something, you know, damaged or damaging.” On Twitter Wednesday, another musician, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, wrote that Berman was the finest songwriter of his generation: “He had no competition. He was the competition.”
Among Berman’s most memorable lines was the opening couplet of “Random Rules,” from “American Water” (1998), a record that unspooled like a long, strange trip across the countryside: “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection; slowly [fornicating] my way across Europe, they had to make a correction.”
Ranking “American Water” No. 12 in an annual best-albums list for Pitchfork, music critic Mike Powell wrote that it was “the pinnacle of a certain strain of indie rock: smart but unpolished, grounded but opaque, the down-home sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the country side of the Rolling Stones executed by college boys raised on punk.”
“With its stylish, funny evocations of style-free concepts like dive bars and tract homes, of ‘suburban kids with biblical names,’ ‘American Water’ didn’t seem like it was trying to be art,” Powell wrote in a later review. “It just was.”
David Craig Berman was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, on Jan. 4, 1967. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. His mother became a teacher in Ohio, and David moved to the Dallas area with his father, Richard, a lawyer and lobbyist who was later dubbed “the booze and food industries’ weapon of mass destruction” by “60 Minutes.”
In a note published to Drag City’s online message board in 2009, soon after Berman disbanded Silver Jews, Berman described his father’s identity as “my gravest secret,” saying it was “worse than suicide” and “worse than crack addiction.”
He added: “This winter I decided that [Silver Jews] were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused.”
“Despite his difficulties, he always remained my special son,” Richard Berman said in a statement Wednesday. “I will miss him more than he was able to realize.”
Berman attended the University of Virginia, where he met Malkmus and Nastanovich, and, after graduating in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in English, studied poetry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. While there, he sent a book’s worth of poems to the American Poetry Review. Each one was rejected, so he shifted his focus from poetry to rock music, despite scarcely knowing how to sing or play guitar.
“Like they used to say about Joe Montana, he threw soft because he couldn’t throw hard,” Berman told the New York Times in 2005. “I couldn’t rock out harder than everybody, or overpower people with mastery like Jack White of the White Stripes, so why try? That’s why I’ve always worked harder on words.”
He said he was a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan when, looking out the window, he spotted a sign reading “Silver Jewelry,” with the last letters blocked from view. The phrase Silver Jews also evoked groups such as the Silver Apples and the Silver Beetles, an early name for the Fab Four.
The band’s full-length debut, “Starlite Walker” (1994), established Silver Jews as a darling of the indie rock scene, although some critics suggested they were little more than a footnote to Pavement, the influential rock band whose first album, “Slanted and Enchanted,” was reportedly named by Berman.
“Steve and Bob went off and made friends all over the world,” he told the Ringer, referring to his friends in Pavement. “I was so isolated, the way I came up. No gigs, no tours, no camaraderie. I stayed in . . . and made these poems and songs that were like dollhouse miniatures.”
Berman acknowledged struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and said he became so anxious during the recording of his second studio album, “The Natural Bridge” (1996), that he was hospitalized for sleep deprivation — an experience he likened to being “constantly on the line with God.”
His drummer at the time, Rian Murphy, later told the music website Stereogum that Berman looked like “a man who was being haunted by ghosts while he was singing.”
Silver Jews’ other albums included “Bright Flight” (2001), a more country-oriented record made in Nashville, and “Tanglewood Numbers” (2005), released after Berman converted to Judaism and nearly died of an overdose in the hotel suite where former vice president Al Gore awaited the results of the 2000 presidential election.
“I want to die where the presidency died,” Berman said at the time, according to an article in the Fader, a culture magazine.
In addition to his father, survivors include his wife, the former Cassie Marrett, who recorded with Silver Jews; and a sister.