The late mastermind behind lo-fi indie band Silver Jews, who spent some of his formative years in Plano and Richardson, was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn on Aug. 7, 2019. Two days later, New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled his death a suicide by hanging, a detail that is as harrowing as it is sadly unsurprising to those who knew him or of him.
Berman was notoriously forlorn. By his own admission, he suffered from treatment-resistant depression and self-medicated with drugs such as crack and heroin.
In 2001, he attempted suicide by drug overdose by taking Xanax in increments of 10 at a time. As he did this, he put on his wedding suit, wrote a suicide note to his then-wife, Cassie, and went to a crack house to continue his aimless bender.
“Cassie I’m sorry. I can’t take it anymore. I love you,” the note said.
An understandably alarmed Cassie showed up to the crack house and brought her belligerent husband to the hospital for emergency treatment.
“Cassie couldn't make the hospital guards take him unwillingly, so she asked him what exactly he wanted to do,” a 2005 Berman profile from FADER said. “He told her to take him to the Loews Vanderbilt; the same hotel Al Gore holed himself up in November of 2000.”
Following this, he woke up in a psychiatric ward.
"Staying sober is impossible without separating from the friends you party with,” Berman wrote in a 2019 Reddit AMA, while noting that he had not used cocaine or heroin since October 2003, two years after the overdose and subsequent stint in rehab. “Geographical cures really work. if you have a method of getting high that will not exist in another town, go there. if you're shy you will likely not run into another [connection].”
Berman was something of a nomad, having lived in Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois and New York over the span of just 10 years.
His prolific travels were a topic Berman expounded on in one of his final songs, Purple Mountains’ “That’s Just The Way That I Feel,” in which he croons in the second verse, “I met failure in Australia, I felt ill in Illinois / I nearly lost my genitalia to an anthill in Des Moines / I was so far gone in Fargo, South Dakota, got annoyed.”
An uninitiated listener might hear this lyric and think, “But wait, Fargo is in North Dakota,” but Berman had a sense of humor and biographical candor strong enough to suggest the "mistake" was intentional, his way of conveying just how “far gone” he really was.
So did he touch any drugs besides cocaine and heroin since his post-rehab sobriety? We will probably never know, but the fact remains that he was a tortured man.
The way Berman channeled this suffering into his writing set him apart from other Tortured Geniuses™ in that he made it a point to be just like the rest of us.
The way Berman channeled this suffering into his writing set him apart from other Tortured Geniuses™ in that he made it a point to be just like the rest of us. He had the enviable ability to write in a way that was as unpretentious and modest as it was eloquent and gripping.
Berman's tortured genius was distinct from that of others, such as Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson. Nothing about Berman’s expression of despondence was aspirational.
Seeing him suffer in such a hideous way was like getting a VIP table to a viewing of someone’s spleen rupturing. A big chunk of Berman’s audience shared his pain and was too powerless to do anything more than just commiserate.
Everyone felt understood and less alone for the show Berman put on, and its encore came to a bitter, tragic end two years ago. It was a devastating event that made the void in his fans' souls even deeper. The comfort his work provided us will forever be in the rearview mirror as a result, and no trip to Fargo, South Dakota, will ever make his loss sting any less.