Editor's note: David Berman could take an image, a turn of phrase or a wry couplet and make it ripple outward. When his record label Drag City announced that the frontman for Silver Jews and Purple Mountains died Wednesday at 52, fans and musicians grieved through Berman's own words, sharing lyrics or excerpts from Actual Air, his book of poetry. We asked a couple folks to choose a favorite set of lyrics and what they meant to them or how they illustrated Berman's talent — often they were one in the same.
No, I don't really want to die
I only want to die in your eyes
Everyone always cites "Random Rules" as the home run opening lyric of any Silver Jews album, but this one, from "How to Rent a Room" from The Natural Bridge, was always the one for me. David's greatest gift was his ability to summarize tremendous and seemingly inexpressible human feelings in just a few well-chosen words. It's easy and perhaps tempting to retrospectively apply lyrics like these to David's personal life, but to do so misses the point, because David's lyrics — even the autobiographical ones — were for and about all of us. Like the writing of Nicholson Baker, David's best songs have the effect of permanently altering the way we view the world. No writer could ask for a greater legacy than that.
David Berman knew how to rhyme.
This week, I imagine you will read and hear many paeans to Berman's ability to transmute and transmit real human pathos and pain. And it's true, he had a gift for that.
But that is not the trait I would like to highlight here. I choose instead to highlight his craft as a writer.
Like Elliott Smith and Mark Eitzel, people often reduce Berman's work to a "sad troubadour" stereotype. This is unfortunate. Each of these artists exhibits a fantastic, mordant sense of humor in their work. They don't just traffic in simple sorrow or eerie existential dread. Yes, David Berman put genuinely bleak content into his songs, but he was playful. He had fun with words.
The dude knew how to rhyme.
Maybe you think rhyming is facile, but think of your favorite song right now. By anyone. I can almost guarantee that it rhymes. Probably in a fluid way you've never noted before. Rhyming is everywhere. But rhyming is ridiculous. It's an absurd, almost undignified songwriting constraint. How you negotiate that constraint... is an art unto itself.
We associate it with children's songs. But the truth is rhyming is so ubiquitous in popular music that it is pretty much mandatory. Berman knew this and he often highlighted it in his work. As his songs parsed the deepest of despair, he tacitly maintained a witty, sing-song sense of rhyme.
David Berman did not rhyme in his poetry. He did rhyme in his songs. Almost all of them.
And it is this sing-song quality that ferries you through the darkness.
This is "Margaritas At the Mall," from his new album:
Drawn up all my findings, and I warn you they are candid
My every day begins with reminders I've been stranded
on the planet where I've landed
'neath this gray as granite sky
A place I wake up blushing like I'm ashamed to be alive...
Desolate imagery, yes. But also exquisite writing. First of all, "drawn up all my findings" is a fantastic way to begin a song. You have to keep listening. And he leads you down a path where candid is conspicuously rhymed with stranded and planet and landed. If you think about it, it's almost like Dr. Seuss... if Dr. Seuss had become seriously depressed.
And yes, that's the thing: Berman obviously warred with serious depression. But in his work, he dryly transformed this into playful mischief.
I feel strongly it is a mistake to forget that element. Forgetting that would flatten the legacy of his work.
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