Provincializm #13: Silver Jew, David Berman, Part Two


Leave it to William Bowers to follow a column about Black Kids with two about Silver Jews. Go sit on Grampa Polydenim’s lap at Puritan Blister.

Berman gone wild: the collarbone years

Provincializm #13: Hero, Worship (Part Two)

by William Bowers

Capsule summary of last week’s episode: Michael Tully made a documentary about The Silver Jews’ trip to Israel. Its chronicle of Silver honcho David Berman’s sincerity and religiosity might be traumatizing for some of his fan-children unhealthily committed to aping their projections/internalizations of Berman’s previous ever-buzzed, linguistic-trickster persona.

“When I was younger I was a cobra: In every case I wanted to be cool.
Now that I’m older and subspace is colder, I just want to say something true.”
—from the Silver Jews’ “The Frontier Index”

Okay Mr. Berman, but what are your slavish fans supposed to do as we age, especially if we lack the luxury of having been born into a faith we can take semi-seriously? Plus many of us have been educated and acculturated to find “truth” problematic. An apparent immunity to what my fellow South Carolinians considered satisfyingly “meaningful” enabled my absurd substitution of a fervor for 90s lo-fi recordings onto the altar where some other folks positioned spirituality or money or both or whatever in the first place. And Mr. Berman, many of your slavish fans, like you, are unblossoming into grownup-ness. We lately agree with you that cool detachment is a prophylactic against the immediacy of being an earthling. Our thrift-drag became our skin, too: we see what is totally out-of-place and yet kinda fitting about your wearing a trucker hat and a Western shirt to read and weep at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in Michael Tully’s film. (Take it from Grampa Polydenim, any nubile and impressionable column-skimmers out there, adulthood happens like this: For a deceptively extended interval you’re young and brilliant, young and drunk, young and sexy, young and high, and then—SHABAM—one afternoon you wake from a nap looking like Paul Westerberg.) In Wendy Fonarow’s attempt at indie-rock-anthropology Empire Of Dirt, she calls reaching the thirties a music-slut’s “sell by” date. Criminy. I’m at risk of ending up like that terrifying Onion headline: “Family Unsure What To Do With Dead Hipster’s Possessions.” Please, God in whom I do not believe, permittest not a Tokyo Police Club promo to be playing when my heart attacks.

All self-absorption aside: Good for David Berman. The film captures an artist who has beat his addictions, and who found a complementary life (and creative) partner. Fans will relish his band-origin stories, his explanation of his strategies for dealing with the press, and his lofty opining about religio-states. Non-fans can even enjoy the film’s bits touching on messianic delusion, women’s need to cover their tainted flesh at officially magical—I mean sacred—places, and the hassle of bargaining with local merchants. Most powerful is getting to watch Berman’s protective cynicism erode, as he curses his reluctance to feel in the 90s and is flooded by his audiences’ positivity. When he seems blown away by their being some of the “nicest people,” he rebaptizes that word—“nice” ceases to be descriptive styrofoam and is beautiful again, its benevolence radiant and legitimate. As Berman dives from the stage to hug crowdmembers, the viewer can’t resist imagining that he’s thanking them for saving this version of his life.

Yet: watching someone with such a sharp mind talk so hippie-ly about receiving universal answers can be hard, especially if the viewer doubts that a near-suicide would rejigger their own theology-lobe. But religion was a major presence in Berman’s work all along: every album contains (retroactively portentous) references to Jewishness and Judeo-Christian mythology. Even his book of poetry begins with angels, hypothetically restages Christ’s deathplace, and ends with a Lord/God/Bible trifecta. Jesus is so prominent in Berman’s lyrics that I figured the songwriter to be due for a 1970’s-Dylan-style fundie trip. Ah well: I remember a review of Pavement in, like, Spin, which claimed that “Fight This Generation” was proof of how (original Silver Jew) Stephen Malkmus had gazed into the abyss so much that it was gazing back into him. Maybe Berman’s early work jokily looked too long at the light, and that’s why he now claims to have seen “God’s shadow on this world.” Hey, here’s a pitch: For the sequel 2 Silver 2 Jew: Return To Irony’s Bosom, Tully could catch Berman eating a Goliathburger at Orlando’s Jews-for-Jesus attraction The Holy Land Experience.

Silver Jew has screened in Austin, Sarasota, Nashville, Boston, Glasgow, and London. It plays in Detroit November 3, and in Leeds on November 9 and 13. A DVD release is forthcoming via Drag City after the new Joos LP drops in February 2008.