This week David Berman – poet, musician, primary member of Silver Jews – passed away. And while I typically go out of my way to not make an event about how any celebrity tragedy impacts my life (because, obviously, it isn’t about me), his writing and music has had an enormous impact on me, and his thoughtfulness towards his art has been a source of great inspiration for me.
I’ve been at odds with myself for a long time, creatively. I put a lot of weight on the pursuit of craft – probably more than it should bear – but I’m self conscious about the fact that the more I hone and polish something, the more of its character and its honesty gets chipped away. David Berman’s work always attracted me for that reason. It felt like his creative process was similarly an act of distillation, but the end result was always this concise, precisely hewn piece of humanity. He was always so effective at finding ways to build a scene or a character out of one or two out-of-no-where turns of phrase, surgically selected. There’s an interview in Pitchfork where he talked about his methodology that always stuck with me:
Things like “San Francisco B.C.”, there’s this line like, “He came at me with some fist cuisine,” and it had previously been, “He came at me with all he had.” I took that out because I realized “all he had” was a cliché. I thought really quickly “fist cuisine.” It was one of the last things I was changing, but now I look at it and I realize if I had one more day, I probably would have changed it to “he served me up some fist cuisine.”
[Thinks] Maybe that second correction wouldn’t have been such a good idea because the first verb, serve– you’re not expecting some guy standing there putting out a cigarette butt to start serving. “He came at me” at least gives you a moment to prepare for fist cuisine so you can unwrap that, and say, “OK, fist in your face, in your mouth, whatever, chewing.” So you’re always on this line like, “He served it up, or he came at me. What am I going to do? Choice A will lead to a completely different [place] than Choice B in every way. A lot of that.
In retrospect, it was kind of fun. It’s how I imagined a poet like [Louis] Zukofsky working, having examined each word and putting each word on trial and made it pass. So I kind of felt it was very old-fashioned. Growing up and making art sort of slapdash is sort of an artistic position that also seemed somehow virtuous in 1980 or 1990 with postmodernism. You’re thinking, “Well, I really like this not only because it’s really interesting and its critique is unbelievably enjoyable, but it takes the privileging of craft away.” When art is about craftsmanship, then guys like me don’t make it as artists.
I didn’t remember that last line until I went to find it for this post, but it’s maybe the best part! I wish I had held onto that line when I first read it. Even though they may not mean as much out of context, I wanted to collect some of my favourite of these lyrics. The ones that feel small, but knock my socks off every time I hear them.
I’ve been working at the airport barI’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You – Tanglewood Numbers
It’s like Christmas in a submarine
It’s a dark and snowy secretMy Pillow is the Theshold – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
And it has to do with heaven
And what looks like sleep is really hot pursuit
Living in a candy jailCandy Jail – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
With peppermint bars
Peanut brittle bunk beds
And marshmallow walls
Where the guards are gracious
And the grounds are grand
And the warden really listens
And he understands