This poet, songwriter wrote outside the lines


You may not know David Berman. That is alright. Berman was a one-of-a-kind poet who became a brilliant songwriter.

Unlike most writers, Berman wrote outside the lines. His songs are filled with wild non-sequiturs that spill out of him with the perfection of haiku ("It's raining Triple Sec in Tchula and the radio is playing "Crazy Train").

Beneath the surface, Berman either wanted to give us the rare first-person view of history ("John Parker III steps over a bird on a Wall Street window ledge"), which leads to some of the most beautiful intimate detail you may ever hear ("Darling you look so beautiful/When your hair's all hung with jewels").

His imagery was meant to dazzle. Cigarette smoke does not merely hang and disappear, it "waltzes and dissolves just for you." Beer is everywhere. However not in that sloshing, woozy manner.

"In 27 years, I've drunk 50,000 beers/And they just wash against me, like the sea into a pier."

The minutiae of the world around him reflected and revealed its mysteries. Nothing was ever mechanical, even if he did like to talk about machines. No matter how down you thought he was, nor to what depths that laconic voice could be leading you, Berman was always holding out for hope above all.

As the Silver Jews progressed musically, Berman moved from the statesman of indie rock to even being appreciated in Americana. His droll wit made room for everyone – poets who descended from Leonard Cohen;  indie rockers drawn to him through his association with Pavement. The rolling tales of disenchantment of modern writers like Courtney Barnett. However, Berman was never writing to be clever. Clearly he saw that as a dead end. In his world, "water looked like jewelry, line dancing was "democratic and cool" and a straight cover of George Strait was out of honor and admiration.

In the end, Berman's final statement to the world is his blistering "Purple Mountains" album. After a 10-year absence, he returned this year with a set of songs that were somehow more honest ("She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger") and bitter about the world ("Margaritas At The Mall").  As of "Purple Mountains," Berman is a survivor, but one who does not let on – only working to ensure that it does not happen again ("Maybe I'm The One For Me").

Honestly, listening to this music can be painful. While it is not tied in with personal memories, it feels like a memory of aspiration. So much of songwriting depends on the illusion of effortlessness. Making words and phrases appear as if they were dropped from the sky by some elusive bird. ("Fake ID's and honey bees/The jagged skyline of car keys/I never knew a bird could fly so low").

All the reviews speak in their own lexicon. "Off-the-cuff" should be "in the moment." How could the climactic couplet, "So if you don't want me, I promise not to linger/But before I go, I gotta ask you dear about that tan line on your ring finger," be shambolic. Shifting a storyline like your song was a Robert Altman film may not seem meticulous, but it is. It takes a lot of living, seeing, writing and thinking to truly see that Random Rules.

We lost David Berman on August 7. I wanted to wax poetic about his legacy. Fortunately, Berman left a wealth of music with us that speaks far better than I could about him.