Subterranean Homesick Jews: An Appropriate Farewell to Berman & Co.

Silver Jews @ Hailey's (Denton, TX: 9/20/08)

What’s with all the handsome grandsons in these rock band magazines? And what have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goateed?”

Last week, David Berman and his merry band of literary luddites (known to the savvy as the peerless Silver Jews) treated a cavern full impossibly lucky devotees to what was — by Berman’s own admission — their last show, ever.

Taking place 300 feet below the earth’s surface, the band’s choice of McMinnville, Tennesee’s Cumburland Caverns seemed a strangely appropriate venue in which to send off one of indie rock’s most turbulent and celebrated acts of the last 20 years. For the purposes of this piece, and for the sake of humoring my obnoxiously gushy fandom, we’ll focus less on the turbulence — the crack addiction, the attempted suicide — and more on the celebration.

There is much to celebrate, after all. It’s been 15 years since the Jews’ classic American Water introduced, mastered, and gave breathtaking poetic license to the lo-fi saloon rock which would come to define their career. Nearly a quarter-centennial later, that record still maintains the raw lyrical power which it brought to the college-rock scene so many years ago. I still get chills every time Berman groans the album’s final, definitive sentiment: “I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness, and hold the world to its word.”

A few clips from the underground farewell:

“How to Rent a Room”

“Trains Across the Sea”

I was lucky enough to catch the Jews in Denton last year as they hit the road on what would be their final tour, in support of 2008’s criminally slept-on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (which just happened to be my favorite record of last year). It was rapturous. From set opener “Smith & Jones Forever” through the crooning “Pretty Eyes,” the dizzying manic burst of “K-Hole” and an obligatory but transcendent version of “Dallas,” the Silver Jews put on a show that was both a dewy trip through the nostalgic recesses of my coming-of-age as well as a bold declaration that this band is still painfully relevant.

“I always said we would stop before we got bad,” Berman told the blogosphere in the wake of his announcement that the Silver Jews were officially disbanding. “If I continue to record,” he continued, “I might accidentally write the answer song to ‘Shiny Happy People’.”  Whatever the reason, we in the business of words and sounds (of creating them, or simply marvelling) lost something big here.

But all is not lost. Anyone who hasn’t read any of David Berman’s written work (particularly the phenomenal Actual Air, a book of poems) would be well advised to do so immediately. All signs seem to indicate that Berman hasn’t abandoned this front, and maybe the death of one of the finest bands of the last 20 years will mean a higher output on the page. So that’s how this meandering piece will end, as a celebration, with a poem by David Berman, former ringleader of the late, great Silver Jews:

“The Charm of 5:30”

It’s too nice a day to read a novel set in England.

We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun,
the sky is blueberries and cream,
and the wind is as warm as air from a tire.
Even the headstones in the graveyard
Seem to stand up and say “Hello! My name is…”

It’s enough to be sitting here on my porch,
thinking about Kermit Roosevelt,
following the course of an ant,
or walking out into the yard with a cordless phone
to find out she is going to be there tonight

On a day like today, what looks like bad news in the distance
turns out to be something on my contact, carports and white
courtesy phones are spontaneously reappreciated
and random “okay”s ring through the backyards.

This morning I discovered the red tints in cola
when I held a glass of it up to the light
and found an expensive flashlight in the pocket of a winter coat
I was packing away for summer.

It all reminds me of that moment when you take off your sunglasses
after a long drive and realize it’s earlier
and lighter out than you had accounted for.

You know what I’m talking about,

and that’s the kind of fellowship that’s taking place in town, out in
the public spaces. You won’t overhear anyone using the words
“dramaturgy” or “state inspection today. We’re too busy getting along.

It occurs to me that the laws are in the regions and the regions are
in the laws, and it feels good to say this, something that I’m almost
sure is true, outside under the sun.

Then to say it again, around friends, in the resonant voice of a
nineteenth-century senator, just for a lark.

There’s a shy looking fellow on the courthouse steps, holding up a
placard that says “But, I kinda liked Reagan.” His head turns slowly
as a beautiful girl walks by, holding a refrigerated bottle up against
her flushed cheek.

She smiles at me and I allow myself to imagine her walking into
town to buy lotion at a brick pharmacy.
When she gets home she’ll apply it with great lingering care before
moving into her parlor to play 78 records and drink gin-and-tonics
beside her homemade altar to James Madison.

In a town of this size, it’s certainly possible that I’ll be invited over
one night.

In fact I’ll bet you something.

Somewhere in the future I am remembering today. I’ll bet you
I’m remembering how I walked into the park at five thirty,
my favorite time of day, and how I found two cold pitchers
of just poured beer, sitting there on the bench.

I am remembering how my friend Chip showed up
with a catcher’s mask hanging from his belt and how I said

great to see you, sit down, have a beer, how are you,
and how he turned to me with the sunset reflecting off his contacts
and said, wonderful, how are you.

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One response to “Subterranean Homesick Jews: An Appropriate Farewell to Berman & Co.

  1. silenceinarchitecture

    Now I REALLY regret not going to that show. I’m not always as smart as my flashing L.E.D. belt buckle would lead you to believe.

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