IN MEMORIAM: Kill Your Sons


Houlon2BY JON HOULON When David Berman hung himself on the eve of his first tour in over ten years – with new moniker Purple Mountains replacing his former Silver Jew tag – the outpouring was incredible.  And as one might expect for this most literate of indie rockers – DCB had an MFA from U.Mass where he studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate as well a connection with the highly regarded Charles Wright during his undergrad years at UVA – the stuff written in the wake of his death was both moving and beautifully written. I was particularly taken by Sarah Larson’s piece in the New Yorker and Rob Sheffield’s in Rolling Stone. But the one thing that everyone who eulogized Berman seemed to miss was that with his reemergence with Purple Mountains and with his suicide he had finally slayed his father, the notoriously satanic Rick Berman.

In case you weren’t paying attention all along:  after finally taking the Joos on the road starting in the mid aughts, following years of refusing to tour, and achieving a modicum of success, David folded up his silver tent. He revealed that he was the son of a man sometimes called “Dr. Evil.” If you can avert your eyes from Rachel Maddow’s gazelle-like neck and actually listen, this clip will tell you everything you need to know about DCB’s dad. Rick Berman made his fortune building phony organizations – with their attendant phony websites – to fight organizations such as Mother’s Against Drunk Driving on behalf of, for instance, the alcohol industry. Yea, your parents may suck but not this bad.

Anyway, DCB decided that playing with the Joos was insufficient to the task of taking his father down or, at least, making right some of the wrongs perpetrated by a man he called a “demon.” He broke up the Jews and declared that he would spend the rest of his time fighting back against Dr. Evil, his very blood.

Well, in the event, how he was going to do this never became clear. There was a talk of an HBO special depicting Rick but David balked. He sensed that the Home Box wanted to turn his father into some sort of Don Draper anti-hero which would have had the exact opposite effect of what DCB was trying to achieve i.e. Rick would be celebrated rather than reviled.

DCB also apparently immersed himself in political theory and trolled the internet, getting into flameouts with right wingers on reddit and other unsavory sites. But in the end, none of this worked. Ironically, it was a return to music and lyrics – in the form of Purple Mountains — that allowed the boy to finally slay his poisonous father.

Now listen: save your energy and ink. I’m not interested in your letters explaining that I have no idea who David really was or that Rick Berman actually saved David’s life in 2003 after the latter OD’d on Xanax and crack in the Presidential Suite at the Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. David claimed, at the time, that he wanted to die where the Presidency itself had died in 2000: Gore himself conceded the election to Bush from the very same room.

Apparently, Rick paid for David’s rehab following this debacle. And I’m sure he paid for a whole lot of other stuff too. DCB was a fragile cat who needed a lot of support. But I’m not interested in the actual David or Rick Berman, per se. Rather, it’s what they stood for and the fight that David eventually won.

The elder Berman stood (well, I suppose, he still literally stands) for winning, accumulation, wealth at any cost.  David: losing, paring down to the essentials, and compassion above all else. In a posthumously published interview, David told Paula Crossland that he always found himself on the losing end of any game. In contrast, his college pal and Silver Jew band mate, Stephen Malkmus, always won. (In the same interview, DCB, much to my horror, cites REM as an influence. I guess no one is perfect!).

The easy read on this is to fault David for adopting some sort of faux slacker pose: the lonely loser, gazing at his shoes, at the party but not part of it. This was a typical ‘90s trope in case you missed it. But, for David Berman, losing, I think, was a true laconic tonic to winning. What is a win but another form of accumulation (a plus one) that was the father’s stock and trade: accumulate wealth at the expense of all else as any capitalist would do.

To be sure, the point here is not to privilege losing above winning. Like me, DCB did his time in the elite echelons of higher education in the 1980s when theory ruled the roost.  The point is not to reify losing but rather to destabilize the binary opposition that makes winning the be all and end all. When done properly, this destabilization results in what the French call “jouer,” a play, a game: in short, a Silver Jeu. (And you must pardon me, folks, if my methods are unsound; my Derrida’s a little rusty, I’m afraid.)

There were father-son skirmishes pre-Purple Mountains. How about this one from “Blue Arrangements”? “My father came in from wherever he’d been and kicked my shit all over the room.” Whew. Who hasn’t been there? Remember what I said about compassion above all else?

Or this line from “Random Rules” (arguably DCB’s song of songs): “They make it so you can’t shake hands when they make your hands shake.”  Forget about Tweedy’s handshake drugs, this is the real item: the alpha male’s bone crushing embrace that precludes any true exchange, the opposite of empathy if you will.

In “We Are Real,” he sings “children wander off into the ultra economic.” And, yea, most of us did in pursuit of happiness, winning, or whatever privileged term you choose in this world of false oppositions. I could go on, but it’s time for the final fight, the main event.  The one that David “won.” These Purple Mountains majesty that he achieved on behalf of we sons and daughters throughout this wicked land.

Check out this flurry of punches:

Right hook from “That’s Just the Way That I Feel”: “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting.” The ultimate blow to daddy’s aesthetic of accumulation, desire made manifest in objects. Zizek points out that in late capitalism it is not enough to Drink Coke © — rather one must Enjoy Coke ©.  Get it? Our wants, our desires themselves become commodities. Another example from Slovenia’s Philosopher King Slavoj: the father in early capitalism asks his son “Do you want to visit your grandmother?” In the late version, the question is reformulated: “Shouldn’t you want to visit your grandmother.” DCB lays down the law here with a resounding “no” – the end to all wanting is all I’ve been wanting, sweet granny or not. Don’t dictate my desires, almighty dollar you.

Jab from “Darkness and Cold”: “The light of my life is going out tonight without a flicker of regret.” The biographical read on this – which again I am trying very hard to avoid – is that DCB is referring to his beloved wife Cassie who he had split with around the time of Purple Mountains. But that’s not the power of the line. The power, rather, is in its celebration of subtraction. The light – which is a privileged presence over the absence of darkness – goes out without a flicker of regret. Take that, Rick!

Left cross from “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”: “I loved her so because she was so good and kind to me, she was, she was, she was.” DCB said that strumming a guitar helped him cope with his mother’s death, led him to this song, and eventually the whole of Purple Mountains. Another takedown of the father, the lobbyist and lawyer, in favor of DCB’s social worker mother, Mimi. Again, not to put her on pedestal and replicate the very binary that makes a son hate his father and love his mom. Is this too heavy for Phawker? Only one more I promise. I know these title bouts can be hard hitting and bloody.

Uppercut from “Nights that Won’t Happen”:

The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind

when the here and the hereafter momentarily align

see the need to speed into the lead rapidly decline

the dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind

Must I really explain?  No more winning, no more of the pulverizing soul-sucking need to speed into the lead. Minus one, DCB. You took yourself out. One less. But you won nevertheless or because of it. Now get up off that mat, Dr. Evil! And listen: “It’s not the purple hills, it’s not the silver lakes.” I recognize that I’ve privileged the lyrics above the music here. And Purple Mountains is hands down the best music David Berman ever made. In Woods, he found the kind of sympathetic collaborators that – with all due respect to every Jew – brought out a final masterwork that resulted in this most strange victory and strange defeat.

On Saturday night at the World Café, on what would have been David’s 53rd B’day, a group of what I believe to be local Philly artists will convene to celebrate the great man’s work. I can’t vouch for these kids as I’ve never heard of any of them which means that either they are more obscure than I am or I am even more out of it than I think I am. Hop Along? I do it every day. Never heard of ‘em. Speedy Ortiz? Mighta bought a car from someone underneath the El by that name but otherwise he doesn’t ring a bell. Mewithoutyou? Damn straight! TKO! But, again, I can’t vouch for these kids. I doubt DCB could either – like me, he was more of DAC or TVZ guy. But I’m sure he’d appreciate the gesture and if they dig Dave (he hated being called that) they can’t be all bad. Besides, these songs have a punch of their own. Who knows? You may even knock out a father or two which ain’t bad considering.

PREVIOUSLY: David Berman’s Dad Is Shockingly Evil