“O Dallas, you shine with an evil light / Don’t you know that God stays up all night / How’d you turn a billion steers / Into buildings made of mirrors / Why am I drawn to you tonight.”
David Berman penned those words more than 20 years ago. They appeared on the Silver Jews' second studio album, 1995’s The Natural Bridge, also known as “Berman’s musical road trip across North America to find his home,” as Stereogum pointed out a few years ago in “The Untold Story of Silver Jews’ The Natural Bridge: How David Berman Lost His Mind, Left Pavement Behind, And Made A Masterpiece.”
A Virginia native, Berman spent time in Dallas as a high school student with the gift of rhyme. In the mid '80s, he could be found catching Zeitgeist at the Theater Gallery or The Cure at the Arcadia Theatre. “The whiff of a clove cigarette can put me back there in an instant,” he told the Dallas Observer in September 2008.
In the late '80s, he left Dallas for the University of Virginia, formed the critically acclaimed Silver Jews and became a staple of the indie rock scene in the '90s. He was known as the J.D. Salinger of the music world. He channeled heartbreak and spoke poetry in seven studio albums and a couple of books. Rolling Stone dubbed him “a wandering honky-tonk bard.”
On Wednesday, he died of unspecified causes. He was only 52.
“We couldn’t be more sorry to tell you this,” Drag City records posted on Twitter. “David Berman passed away earlier today. A great friend and one of the most inspiring individuals we’ve ever known is gone. Rest easy, David.”
Born in the late '60s, Berman was 7 years old when his parents divorced. His mother became a teacher, and his father became a lobbyist in Dallas and a pioneer in using shell-company nonprofits and think tanks to discredit people (usually human and animal rights organizations) who opposed his clients, The Ringer reported in July.
Berman told The Ringer that he “came online” in Dallas. It was a place where he said new wave music fit perfectly. He was also surrounded by country music but said he didn’t recognize the tropes he could use until Silver Jews.
In the late '80s, Berman formed Silver Jews with college roommates Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. Over the next decade, the band released six studio albums, but Berman was the only constant member. He rarely gave interviews and didn’t go on his first tour until Silver Jews’ fifth studio album, Tanglewood Numbers, was released in 2005.
Berman battled drug addiction for years. He survived overdoses and a suicide attempt. He gave up music in 2009 and wrote on his label’s message board, “I’ve got to move on. Can’t be like all the careerists doncha know. I’m forty two and I know what to do. I’m a writer, see?”
“I draw the line between being subject and object,” Berman told Monsterfresh, an online publication, in a May 11, 2009, article. “I crossed over the line for a couple of years and didn’t really like it. I think too many people want to be the object of interest as an end in itself. It’s kind of the disease of the age.”
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Nearly a decade would pass before Berman reappeared on the music scene under the band moniker Purple Mountains. He started giving interviews and promoting his new self-titled album. He opened up to author John Lingan for The Ringer profile and pointed out that he still experienced “treatment-resistant depression.” He told a story about calling a friend the night before his interview and begging him for heroin.
“I wanted an exit,” Berman said. “He didn’t; he’s a good friend.”
Purple Mountains' first six-week tour was to begin this weekend.
Shortly after Berman’s death was announced on Wednesday, Silver Jews guitarist Stephen Malkmus posted on Twitter, “He was a one of a kinder, the songs he wrote were his main passion especially at the end. Hope death equals peace cuz he could sure use it.”