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Meet David Berman: poet, musician, truth-teller

The Silver Jews' headmaster, David Berman, is a poet of the highest order. But let's face it: Pretty much the only people who read modern poetry these days are enrolled in writing programs at universities.

But Berman, not unlike former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, is the rare poet who writes poetry for people who don't think they like poetry (as well as for those creative-writing students). His writing--and his songs--are accessible. They hold great truth for anyone who cares to pay attention.

Via a relatively successful book of poetry, Actual Air, which was published in 1999 and has sold around 15,000 copies, and a string of six albums fronting the Silver Jews, Berman has established himself as a voice worth paying attention to.

Berman's life is rich with fodder: Born in Virginia; graduated high school in Texas; moved back to Virginia to attend the University of Virginia, where he met Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, future members of both the Silver Jews and Pavement; graduated; moved back to Texas, then to Hoboken, N.J., to reunite with Malkmus and Nastanovich; worked as a security guard at the Whitney Museum along with Malkmus; wrote songs and recorded them with Malkmus and Nastanovich as the Silver Jews; watched as Malkmus and Nastanovich went off to focus on Pavement, who were immediately crowned indie-rock heroes.

Break for comment from Berman via e-mail: "I had watched Steve write two albums, and so I tried to write one, too. We both looked at it as conceptual art. Influenced by our day jobs as security guards at the Whitney Museum."

Berman went back to school at the University of Massachusetts, where he studied under poet James Tate while acquiring his master's in creative writing, of which he writes: "It basically gave me 2 1/2 years in the early/mid '90s to just explore my imagination. My closest friends were always on the road in Pavement and so it was a good solitary time. I got a chance to teach. I was too wandery to be any good. The most important thing was the presence of James Tate. I valued every minute of his attention."

His Pavement bandmates' absence also forced him to resort to a rotating cast of musicians who recorded his songs under the Silver Jews name. He released some albums, moved to Nashville, developed a mean drug habit, tried to kill himself, cleaned up, rediscovered his Judaism, got married to his current bassist/vocalist, Cassie ("my companion in life"), remembered why life is interesting, took the Silver Jews on their first tours--in the U.S., Europe, and Israel (a documentary about the tour of Israel, Silver Jew, will be released on DVD Sept. 23), corrected a longtime sight issue (he could see colors, but not shapes) by way of a cornea transplant, and wrote/recorded/released the sixth Silver Jews LP, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea.

The Silver Jews' second tour in 18 years will bring them to Tucson on Monday, Sept. 22. The band that recorded Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is the same one he's taken on tour before, and the one that will appear here: Berman on guitar, voice and lyrics; Cassie Berman on bass and vocals; Tony Crow on keys; Brian Kotzur on drums; and Peyton Pinkerton and William Tyler on guitar. The basic "Silver Jews sound" is an indie take on country-rock.

But let's get back to the important stuff: Berman can write the fuck out of a song lyric or poem. He is, as Jerry Seinfeld is to comedy (and Berman's lyrics are full of humor), an observational writer in the truest sense. Veering from lowbrow to high, often within a single line or two, he is able to draw out truths about life, and how to live it, that you didn't even know were there.

He's full of heart and, in that way, almost childlike in the joys of the discoveries of everyday life. But his discoveries are unique; he doesn't necessarily see the world differently than the rest of us, but has a keen eye for the absurd details around all of us and is adept at pointing them out.

If this article is going to make you a Silver Jews fan, it's through Berman's words, so here are a few samples:

"Because the pillow that I dream on / is the threshold of a kingdom / is the threshold of a world / where I'm with you ... And what looks like sleep / is really hot pursuit" ("My Pillow Is a Threshold" from Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea); "In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection / Slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction" ("Random Rules" from American Water); "What's with all the handsome grandsons in these rock-band magazines? / What have they done with the fat one, the bald and the goateed?" ("Strange Victory, Strange Defeat" from Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea); "I been workin' at the airport bar / It's like Christmas in a submarine" ("I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You" from Tanglewood Numbers); "Send me your coordinates and I'll send a Saint Bernard" ("Party Barge" from Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea); "On the last day of your life, don't forget to die" ("Advice to the Graduate" from Starlite Walker).

When I tell Berman that I think he's got a lot in common with the aforementioned former poet laureate, Billy Collins (who supplies a glowing blurb for Berman's book, Actual Air), in that they both write poetry that even people who claim not to like poetry will like, he responds, "Billy Collins is a great mainstream artist like the Bee Gees or Stephen King. He is a punching bag for the 'post-avant' poetic intelligentsia, so I prefer to admire and praise him."

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