Was David Berman, the poet, songwriter and member of the band Silver Jews, who recently died by suicide at the age of 52, the most eloquent singer of songs about alcohol that ever lived? Yes, clearly. But that’s also because he was a singular chronicler of motels and infrastructure, darkness and duct tape, robots and radios. Obviously I’m a fan. Everyone I know that came across his music or his slim volume of poetry, Actual Air, was a fan. Berman’s wisdom-to-word ratio was 2:1. In a Virginia drawl, he spun out one-liners that were as lazy and electric as powerlines. So, yeah, I’m writing this about how he sang about alcohol, but if Woodworkers Journal—“America’s leading woodworking authority”—had asked me, I’d write about how he was the bard of lumber too.
The problem, I always thought, with most songs about booze is that they’re about booze. Oasis’ “Cigarettes and Champagne,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Dranks)” and every single number by George Thorogood—these are all good songs, but they simply peer at the world through a bottle, or simply contemplate the bottle itself. Berman, however, sang about alcohol peripherally. A drink was rarely the subject of a song. More often than not it was an object in the background that moved the story forward. The bottle becomes an increment of time for one’s aimless 20s. A tumbler of Scotch becomes a chit for the small potatoes of the patriarchy. Gin is a bathtub for bad ideas.
In most Silver Jews lyrics, Berman emulsified his angst with an arch wit. So, it’s no wonder that when he turned his pen toward the bar, he managed to turn a bottle of whiskey into something golden and melancholic, like a sunset in Manhattan. Even in his most conspicuous song about drinking, “Punks in the Beerlight,” on his (first) comeback album in 2005, Tanglewood Numbers, Berman doesn’t start with the liquor but what, and who, holds it. “Where’s the paper bag that holds the liquor? / Just in case I feel the need to puke.” Like everything he wrote, the song is like the punch you don’t see coming. It’s a knockout. In one couplet, it ties together desperation, excess and, you know, the indelible image of puking in a paper bag.
Elsewhere, earlier in his oeuvre, most notably on 1994’s Starlite Walker, his first studio album, Berman captured not just how one drinks, but how one drinks in one’s life, as in “Trains Across the Sea,” which colorfully limns the murky drinking of one’s 20s:
Half hours on earth.
What are they worth?
I don’t know.
In 27 years
I’ve drunk 50,000 beers
And they just wash against me
Like the sea into a pier…
Berman selected his spirits with care. Beer was the province of youth and friendship. Gin, on the other hand, was the spirit of domestic sadness. Take this Technicolor opener from his poem “Tulsa,” from Actual Air, a powerful bit about longing and worry and love:
A woman named Tina drinks gin at sunset
Before a pair of drawn curtains that frame
The dry grasslands and tangerine hilltops
Of her native country. An insurance bill
Is pinned to the desk top by a calculator.
The curtains are purple.
The details—of which a glass of gin is part but so too is the sunset filtering through the purple curtains—are so brilliantly embedded in the words and you can almost hear the clink of ice in the downtrodden tumbler full of gin and regret. Gin again earns a mention in his last album, Purple Mountains, released last month, in the jaunty-seeming “That’s Just The Way That I Feel”: “When I try to drown my thoughts in gin / I find my worst ideas know how to swim.”
It’s classic Berman in which he takes a cliché—drowning in alcohol—and bends it to something original. If gin is for domestic sadness, whiskey and Scotch are for full-blown Arthur Miller depression. In “Buckingham Rabbit,” from American Water, he sings, “So the rent became whiskey / and my life became risky / So the rent became whiskey, whiskey / Shattered dogs on the rocks.”
Also on that record, in a song called “People,” when he mentions Scotch it’s like a password to the disappointing backrooms of man. “People ask people to watch their Scotch / People send people up to the moon / When they return, well, there isn’t much / People be careful not to crest too soon.”
But the words I really keep going back to are from his poem “The Charm of 5:30,” because for all the sadness of his singing, for all his casting alcohol as a salient detail in the tragic tableaux of the commonplace, there was something he saw in the stuff as simply an excuse to pass some time with a friend:
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.
It’s tempting to draw on one of Berman’s own lyrics to say goodbye to the man. What with its irony and foresight, it would be downright Bermanian. But really, I just hope he’s somewhere in the future, remembering today, with a cold pitcher of beer and a friend to share it with.