The musician David Berman, who has died suddenly aged 52, was the leader and sole constant member of Silver Jews, a band whose poetic, experimental recordings during the 1990s and 2000s embodied American indie rock at its most literate, and of Purple Mountains, his recent Americana project. Berman, fragile and intellectual, served as a reluctant star of sorts to a generation who rejected mainstream rock’s macho posturing and found comfort in his wry musical musings.
Feted particularly for his lyrics, Berman also published a book of poetry, Actual Air (1999), and said that he always “worked harder on words” because he “couldn’t rock out harder than everybody, or overcome people with mastery like Jack White of the White Stripes”. Purple Mountains’ eponymous album, released last month, contained “what will likely be the best lyric sheet of the year”, according to the Guardian.
Silver Jews, formed in 1989, were part of a scene that sprang from Chicago’s Drag City label, home to like-minded alternative bands such as Royal Trux, Bill Callahan, Palace Brothers and Pavement – whose Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich were also members of the “Joos”, as the band was known to their fans.
It irked Berman to see his band sometimes described as a “Pavement side-project”, but it was the connection with the more critically and commercially successful Pavement that helped win Silver Jews their recording contract. Their first EPs, Dime Map of the Reef (1992) and The Arizona Record (1993), introducred their extremely lo-fi tracks – apparently recorded on a Walkman – that ensured a degree of cult status, if few possibilities for radio play.
Starlite Walker (1994), their debut album, was a more polished effort that saw country rock leanings meshing with experimental sounds. Following its release, Malkmus and Nastanovich, while committed to Silver Jews, were busy touring and recording with Pavement, and so Berman was able to use the band as a vehicle for his own songs.
The resulting album, The Natural Bridge (1996), proved Berman was more than the sum of his band parts. It contained “some of the most vivid and unique lyrical writing in the rock medium since Bob Dylan signalled that guitars could propel a poet to something beyond a standard coffee house troubadour”, according to one critic. A rave review in Melody Maker ensured European audiences, but there was no tour because of Berman’s fear of performing.
The critically acclaimed American Water (1998), included in the Guardian’s 1,000 Albums to Hear Before You Die series, and the country-tinged Bright Flight (2001) followed. Now living in Nashville, Tennessee, and married to Cassie (nee Marrett), Berman was engaged in a struggle with depression and substance abuse. It grew worse and, in 2003, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on crack cocaine, alcohol and tranquillisers. His rehabilitation saw him embracing Judaism, releasing the album Tanglewood Numbers (2005) and embarking on the first Silver Jews tour (with Cassie now playing bass in the constantly changing lineup).
In 2008 Silver Jews released Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, touring the UK and Ireland prior to its release. The following January Berman announced on the Drag City messageboard that he was “retiring” Silver Jews with a final concert at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee. He also revealed what he called his “gravest secret”: that he was Richard Berman’s son. Berman Sr is a lawyer and notorious lobbyist, whose efforts on behalf of gun, alcohol and big food companies have seen him described as “the booze and food industries’ weapon of mass destruction”, or, more succinctly, “Dr Evil”.
Berman wrote: “This winter I decided that [Silver Jews] were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused … Previously I thought through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world, but there is the matter of Justice … There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.” He began writing a book and developing a TV show based on his father, but neither came to fruition. A book of his cartoons, The Portable February, was published in June 2009.
David was born in Williamsburg, Virginia. His parents divorced when he was seven: his mother moved to Ohio and became a teacher, while he moved with his father to Dallas, Texas. David attended Greenhill school in Addison before going to the University of Virginia, where he met fellow students Malkmus, Nastanovich and James McNew (later to join Yo La Tengo). Together they formed a band, Ectoslavia, making dissonant, experimental music.
After college the four relocated to Hoboken, New Jersey, where Berman and Malkmus got jobs as security guards at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and continued to make music, along with Nastanovich, now under the name Silver Jews. (Berman gave many explanations for the band’s name, one being that it was a nickname for blond Jews and another a reference to the 60s experimental rock band Silver Apples.)
Until he embarked this year on Purple Mountains, backed by the indie-folk band Woods, Berman had lived much of the last decade as a recluse, working on his blog, Menthol Mountains, and occasional collaborations, such as with the Australian electronic band the Avalanches. He and Cassie separated last year and he relocated to Chicago, living in a room above Drag City’s offices.
Following the release of the Purple Mountains album in July, a US tour had been due to start this weekend.
He is survived by Cassie.
• David Cloud Berman, musician, born 4 January 1967; died 7 August 2019
• This article was amended on 12 August 2019. David Berman changed his middle name from Craig to Cloud after the death in 2015 of his friend the Nashville musician Dave Cloud. It was further amended on 14 July 2020 to correct details of the Silver Jews’ first EP.