No. 18: Things I Like Right Now

Half hours on earth, what are they worth? I don't know.

Moments can be monuments to you
If your life is interesting and true
It's just the same for a man or a girl
The meaning of the world lies outside the world

I think it was the summer of 2003. I have the story script saved on a disk somewhere, not that I’ll ever be able to access it again. I know I saved the tape of that entire interview, because it was so amazing, but the last time I looked for it, I couldn’t find it. But, once, David Berman came to Athens to teach a week-long poetry workshop and I talked the public radio station into letting me do a story about it, and he sat in a classroom and talked to me and then insisted I mail him a tape of the story. Which I did. And I saved his address in my Palm Pilot and felt guilty for doing so, because he was such a private person, but also David Berman had given me his address! Like, was I just supposed to throw that knowledge out with the trash?

People love people and they understand
If you want to renovate your background mind
A federal woman needs a municipal man
People gotta synchronize to animal time

I deleted his address a long time ago, probably when I switched out the Palm Pilot for an iPhone in 2007. And I never sent him anything besides that one cassette tape — this is when public radio was still using razor blades and tape and reel-to-reel to edit — and I honestly have no clue where Berman even lived in Nashville. I never saw him during all the time I spent there, even back when I was still living in Athens and dating someone in Nashville and there were like three bars people ever went to.

You can't change the feeling but you can change your feeling about the feelings in a second or two
People always come around

I never saw Berman perform with Silver Jews or in his rare pop-in performances with Pavement, because he rarely performed. But this weekend I was going to go see him, finally, 20 years after Silver Jews entered my life. Except now David Berman is dead.

I'm studying the ceiling on a little afternoon and when I paint my dining room
People gonna come around

I know that this is a newsletter about Tennessee politics, but Berman both lived in Nashville long before it was cool and is the son of Rick Berman, the D.C. lobbyist who has been paid handsomely to fight union organization efforts at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant. Some of my former Nashville Scene colleagues were/are friends with David Berman and his ex-wife Cassie and have posted lovely tributes on social media, as have some of my friends from Athens days. In some ways, I wish I had kept that address and sent Berman a follow-up letter, because he sent so many sweet letters and emails to so many people I know. I can’t share my friends’ private remembrances, but Rob Sheffield’s tribute will give you a hint.

I love to see a rainbow from a garden hose
Lit up like the blood of a centerfold
I love the city and the city rain
Suburban kids with Biblical names

I don’t think that “People” — off Berman’s 1998 Silver Jews album American Water — is his best song. It might not even be my favorite song, depending on the day and season and mood. But say it’s year 2000. The turn of a new century. Which you rang in with your best friend (who’s dead now too) and a magnum of Veuve, because this won’t ever happen again, and a sequined tube top from your mom’s disco days (well, country club-pretend disco days) and a moss-green silk taffeta ballgown skirt from Ann Taylor (because for a year or three that was briefly a glorious thing you could buy) and you fell in love that night with a guy who looked kind of like David Berman, although he didn’t kiss you until two months later, sitting in your car parked on the street outside Lamar’s, which was still open then and run by Lamar, and you had closed it down, playing all the best songs, and then you sat in the car listening to Yo La Tengo and Big Star and he kissed you. But he never called you back.

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

And then you went off to visit grad schools and you met a hot British grad student at the best bar in Athens and after a whiskey sour he also kissed you and then he mailed you a mix tape that had two Silver Jews songs on it. One of which was “People.” And it was an unseasonably warm February that year and it was sunny and 75 on that day you visited Athens and met him and how could you not go to grad school there when you were in Ann Arbor weeks later on your late March birthday and the daffodils had only just then bloomed, a fact which several people proudly pointed out during your visit? (Also, there was the whole thing that the professor who you wanted to be your dissertation adviser wouldn’t pronounce your name correctly, even after you very politely corrected her three times. Michigan. I swear.)

The drums march along at the clip of an IV drip
Like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip
I really hope you'll come around

And if you hadn’t moved to Athens because it was so exactly the opposite of where you went to college — it was warm in February! People were friendly! You would have never started working in college radio and then public radio and probably never sat in a room with David Berman telling you about his addiction to crack and his poetry and how he hated to be on stage. You might have never become a journalist and moved back to Chattanooga in 2005 and have fallen in love all over again with the guy who looked like Berman, not that it worked out that time either. If it weren’t for a mixtape with this one particular song, who knows where you’d be today.

It's sunny and 75, it feels so good to be alive,
Come on, baby, don't stay inside
Everybody's coming out tonight

David Berman killed himself last week, and it is devastatingly sad. I know my sadness does not compare to that of anyone who was actually close to him. But his songs and words have meant so much to me over the years during my dark places because in his lyrics, like in “People,” Berman was able to flip his dark sarcasm and rage into eventual joy, giving me hope that maybe I could do the same. (Sarah Larson says it better than I can in the New Yorker; this Atlantic piece is also good.)

In one of his most famous poems, “Self-Portrait at 28,” Berman writes about about depression and aging and society, and it’s so dark but it’s also so funny. “If you laugh out loud at Shakespeare's jokes/I hope you won't be insulted/if I say you're trying too hard,” he writes, which does makes me laugh out loud ever time. And this past week, that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on — not the fact of Berman’s death, not the worries that maybe he did crest too soon, but that he made it to 52 and released a final, if heartbreaking, album earlier this year. That laughing in the face of utter agony is sometimes the only thing you can do.

So my recommendation for you this week is to read David Berman, listen to David Berman, and then go out and with your friends who are still alive and tell them you love them (even if it might be closer to 95 degrees than 75). Because you might not get to do that tomorrow.

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