RIP David Berman: Personal reflections on Purple Mountains

Written by

David Berman, Drag City

David Berman (Silver Jews, Purple Mountains) meant a lot to those who listened to his music and pored over his lyrics and poetry. His couplets were incisive and clever. His sadness was dark and relatable. He had sparks of joy and infectious humor. His loss of life was sudden, shocking, not shocking, and so sorrowful all at once. But I want to focus on his rebirth as Purple Mountains. 

As word spread that David Berman was creating music again - and no less with my earthy psych rock favorites Woods - my obsession was written. He spoke openly with publications about his hardships, loss of faith, and excitement to get on the road and perform. A man determined to share his damn good music with adoring audiences.

Berman’s comeback story was profound and inspiring. Crippled by depression and solitude, he shook the dust off and rose up to gift us 10 profound and insightful songs about loss, despair, and longing for human connection. 

Friends are warmer than gold when you're old
And keeping them is harder than you might suppose
Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go
Some of them were once people I was happy to know
”All My Happiness Is Gone”

July 12, 2019 is when the album was released. I drove my surf van to work that day and left early to cruise in the California sunshine, windows down (even my driver side window that often gets stuck), Purple Mountains was on. It was an immediate and kinetic sonic bond. It was a perfect day in that van.

Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere (Woods) dabble in a small sonic space where psychedelic textures intersect with heartland alt-Americana rock. I’d heard about their disbelief upon the request from Berman to produce his comeback album; and my heart goes out to them, as they must be in an evolved state of disbelief once again. They were all set to tour sold-out theatres across that same heartland and along those organic coastlines that influence their sound. I was counting down the days to see David Berman (and Woods) perform Purple Mountains tracks in Los Angeles.

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 suddenly declined
The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind
“Nights That Won’t Happen”

It was there for all to hear and see, but painted and packaged in confrontation and deliberation; a wink and a laugh at the things that really fuck him up. 

You see, the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day, I'm neck and neck with giving in
I’m the same old wreck I've always been
“That’s Just the Way That I Feel”

I didn’t know David Berman, I have a few loose connections who did. They have remembered his smile, his wry wit, his kindness, and his longing for peace. His influence is wide and varied, spanning age groups, genres, and pursuits. If you’re lucky, brilliance begets success and admiration; but for Berman his brilliance felt more in line with an unshakeable weight of expectations and preconceived notions. 

When you're seller and commodity
You gotta sell yourself immodestly
Turn your pedestal into a carving board
If that's what the audience is starving for
You got storyline fever, storyline flu
You're filtering how everything looks to you
Don’t you reckon it’s affecting your attitude?
Storyline fever got its hooks in you
“Storyline Fever”

For me, Purple Mountains will always be a summer album. Those sunny vibrant melodies have a way of warming up his words, even though they really suck the air out of my gut (certainly more so today as well as tomorrow). It floats in the air effortlessly.

Darkness and cold, darkness and cold
Rolled in through the holes in the stories I told
Conditions I'm wishing weren't taking control
Darkness and cold, darkness and cold
“Darkness and Cold”

I’ll always remember that perfect day in the van.

T-Hale