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David Berman of Silver Jews, in the documentary Silver Jew
David Berman of Silver Jews on tour in IsraelCourtesy of Michael Tully

The history of the film that documented Silver Jews’ earliest live shows

Silver Jew is a little-known documentary, available in full on YouTube, that captures the charisma of the late David Berman as the cult band tour Israel

“Songs build little rooms in time,” David Berman crooned on what would be the first and final Purple Mountains album. “And housed within the song’s design / Is the ghost the host has left behind.” The indie band’s self-titled record, which came out last month, houses other haunting lines within its design. On “All My Happiness Is Gone”: “I keep stressing, pressing on / Way down deep at some substratum / Feels like something really wrong has happened / And I confess, I’m barely hanging on.”

Those gloomy verses are even gloomier now. In August 2019, Berman died by suicide aged 52, a few days before he was scheduled for his first live show since 2009. The loss to the world is insurmountable. Berman was a singer-songwriter whose gift for gallows humour was a superpower. His lyrics were cryptic, but honest, as if bearing his soul with the wittiest rhyming couplets possible. From 1989 to 2009, he fronted Silver Jews, the band he formed with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. (Pavement were, at least theoretically, a Silver Jews side-project.) The musicianship, I feel, gets unfairly overlooked. With each album, Berman explored new possibilities: the ramshackle spontaneity of Starlite Walker progressed to the depressed blues of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, via the bounciness of American Water and the decibel-heavy swagger of Tanglewood Numbers.

In May, after a ten-year hiatus, Berman returned with Purple Mountains, a new outfit whose polished pop production was countered with anti-pop lyrics: “Go contemplate the evidence and I guarantee you’ll find / The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” What remained consistent was Berman’s knack for pairing purposeful poetry with the 4/4 time signature of his guitar strums. And, of course, his baritone voice, a gravely drawl somewhere between Steven Wright and Leonard Cohen. On “We Are Real”, the closing refrain goes: “All my favourite singers couldn’t sing.”

Over the last few days, I’ve stayed up way too late listening to Berman’s music while reading along with the lyrics, like how I imagine one learns a foreign language. But I’ve also dug out my copy of his poetry book Actual Air, trawled through his public and anonymous Reddit profiles, discovered his blogspot, read as many interviews as I could find (including one which took place the day before he died), and watched a little-known film from 2007 called Silver Jew.

Directed by Michael Tully, Silver Jew was a tour documentary that spent two days with Berman and his band during July in 2006. (The film is out of stock in Drag City’s store, but is available in its entirety on YouTube.) This wasn’t any old tour, either. Silver Jews played their first ever concert in March that year – before then, five albums of material had only been heard on CDs and MP3s. As Berman tended to avoid interviews, too, the willingness to perform on stage was a momentous occasion for fans dying to glimpse their reclusive hero in the flesh.

In Silver Jew, Berman is charming and charismatic, offering anecdotes and sage advice to the camera. Tully named Dave Chappelle’s Block Party as an inspiration, and Berman is the film’s Chappelle. As the centre of attention, Berman relishes acknowledging the unlikely circumstances that led to this scenario. The singer explains: “I made sure, by accident, that I would make it as difficult as possible for the music to live – by never touring, never collaborating, never being on compilations, never having ads, and then having a name that scared people.”

“It’s still so strange that (the film) happened, because as we all know, David was fearless when it came to shutting down a project at any phase if it didn’t sit right with him” – Matthew Robison, producer of Silver Jew

The section of the tour captured by Silver Jew is the band’s two dates in Israel. The gig in Tel Aviv is raucous and electrifying. The audience burst into applause when Berman utters the opening line of “Random Rules” (“In 1984, I was hospitalised for approaching perfection”) and they whoop after a chorus, as if supporting a close friend with stage fright. For “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed”, Berman appears charged by the room’s energy: he stands proud at the microphone, like a natural showman, and makes gestures with his arms that accentuate the punchiness and the hard consonants of the sing-a-long verses: “Where does an animal sleep / When the ground is wet? / Cows in the ballroom / Chickens in the farmer’s corvette.”

“It’s still so strange that it happened, because as we all know, David was fearless when it came to shutting down a project at any phase if it didn’t sit right with him,” says the film’s producer, Matthew Robison, speaking over email. “I think David was bailing me out of a tailspin as we’d had some problems in the months prior – there is often quibbling among friends as they leap on and off of wagons at differing intervals.”

“And I was just thinking about this today: one can’t underrate the light that his friend Harmony (Korine) brought to his life around that time. I would say that they had a lot of common ground on the extremes of being and deadly accurate radar for comedy in the dark corners. I’m picturing a bat with a clown nose sweeping up the spotlight.”

In the same email chain, the film’s director Michael Tully responded: “I guess the only thing I’m thinking is how you initially proposed this as documenting the journey in words, Matthew, and when David didn’t balk you suggested actually shooting it, and when he didn’t balk at that either, then you called me and we decided to take the plunge!”

Throughout Silver Jew, Berman cracks jokes (“It’s like Footloose – I come into town and liberate the feet of the teens”) and seems genuinely thrilled to meet new people. When jittery fans pluck up the courage to request an autograph, both sides are visibly moved by the interaction. It’s comforting, then, that Berman wasn’t always the pessimistic introvert he claimed to be in interviews. After all, Berman’s songs weren’t just catchy, they were often laugh-out-loud funny. Take this verse, from “The Frontier Index”, which is a comic short story on its own:

“Boy wants a car from his dad,
Dad says, ‘First you got to cut that hair.’
Boy says, ‘Hey dad, Jesus had long hair.’
And dad says, ‘That’s right, son, Jesus walked everywhere.’”

Later on in Silver Jew, Berman explores the Old City of Jerusalem on a guided tour. According to an introductory subtitle, Berman’s decision to perform live was spurred by a “newfound devotion to Judaism” in 2005. When he reaches the Wailing Wall, he reads a prayer and openly weeps for two minutes. But then he laughs, wiping tears from his eye, as if he’s found some sort of cosmic clarity. Berman had just released an album that concluded with him bellowing, “I saw God’s shadow on this world.”

Robison adds that “I don’t think David ever left God behind (if that’s a thing). When we talked, if he detected a hint of faith or ‘presence’ or something, he’d get right into its construction or possibility.”

In 2009, Berman announced Silver Jews would be no more. On Drag City’s message board, he revealed his father was Richard Berman, the union-busting lobbyist nicknamed “Dr Evil” by 60 Minutes. “I decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused,” the singer wrote at the time, adding, “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. And I’ll tell you it's not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns. It hurts. There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.”

Aside from contextualising the vitriol behind “How to Rent a Room”, Berman’s open letter emphasised the value he placed in his art as a force for good. Even if listeners couldn’t identify with his exact existential struggles, they could empathise with the desire to comprehend an unjust world where “random rules”. In one of his final interviews, Berman lamented, “I’m not convinced I have fans. In my whole life, I’ve had maybe ten people who have told me how much my music means to them.” But in Silver Jew, audience members queue up after a gig to express heartfelt gratitude. It was one of many stops on a worldwide tour.

After Berman’s death, journalist Paula Crossfield uploaded five hours of phone calls she’d had with Berman for a proposed 33⅓ book on American Water. “My ultimate aim is to heal, to be therapeutic,” Berman explains around three-and-a-half hours in. “But I don’t want to start there. I don’t feel comfortable being a self-help artist, but in the end, I’m really interested in self-help, and I’m really interested in helping people. If I could do it all over again, I would probably become a psychotherapist.”

“I don’t think David ever left God behind (if that’s a thing). When we talked, if he detected a hint of faith or ‘presence’ or something, he’d get right into its construction or possibility” – Matthew Robison, producer of Silver Jew

That human connection is all over Silver Jew, particularly in the band’s rousing rendition of “Smith & Jones Forever”. On record, the song sounds as if the rhythm section are afraid of waking up the neighbours. In concert, it’s an unlikely crowdpleaser, with a roomful of stomping strangers jumping up and down and yelling along to idiosyncratic lyrics like “Are you honest when no one’s looking?” and “California overboard / Holding up their trousers with extension cords”.

So even if Berman has departed us, there will always be his music, his poetry, his wisdom, and a film like Silver Jew to ensure his art keeps stressing, pressing on. And as Berman put it in “Inside the Golden Days of Missing You”: “What if life is just some hard equation / On a chalkboard in a science class for ghosts / You can live again / But you’ll have to die twice in the end / In the end we’ll meet again.”