Jonny Potts leaves a message for one of the musicians that mattered to him most: David Berman of the Silver Jews, who died this week.
I know that’s a bit familiar. Sorry, I guess.
So, I’d just got out from seeing the shrink when I checked my phone and saw the Pitchfork tweet. The words didn’t fit together, they were sort of floating around each other: ‘52’, ‘Dead’, ‘Berman’, ‘Has Died’… I stared at the ‘Silver Jews’ and ‘Purple Mountains’ words to try to make sense of it. By ‘make sense’ I mean something quite literal.
I was in the food court I used to go to over a decade ago now to listen to Tanglewood Numbers at lunch. The food court is the same as it was, but like everything else that’s still here ten years later, it’s different too. In fact I was just talking with the shrink about that Mark Fisher book you linked to a couple of weeks back, Ghosts of my Life. Shrink had never heard of ‘hauntology’. I used the not entirely accurate but convenient definition that it’s a type of nostalgia for a future you felt you were gonna get that never came to pass. I’ve found it in everything recently. Maybe I’ve even been deliberately looking for it in empty, smashed-up Wellington. I’ve been leaning in to the eerie and the disappointing, the way you did – shit, past tense! Gonna have to get used to that. Especially now, when you’ve been so present again.
I heard the interview you did with Vish Khanna. I couldn’t believe what he said about that backing vocal in ‘Darkness and Cold’: that it sounds like a “cowboy on the range”? No, Vish! You said “I don’t know what it is” which was very diplomatic.
But I know that sound: not really a flinch, not quite a wail. It’s a slowed down, melancholy reading of that involuntary hiccup thing people do when they know everything is lost. That’s how I could tell it wasn’t you singing it. Heartbreak was something you used to stand apart from. You felt it, but it flowed through you or swept over you. It’s that line from ‘Trains Across the Sea’: “In 27 years I’ve drunk 50,000 beers / And they just wash against me like the sea into a pier”.
And now I’m doing it – I’m doing that thing: quoting the memorable lines. Everyone’s doing it. I wonder if I set up one Google alert for “David Berman” and another for “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”, they’d get the same amount of results? You’re in good company though: you’re rubbing shoulders with Toni Morrison! Ha.
You know the one song I will generally do if there’s wine and a guitar around? ‘Sleeping is the Only Love’. Piss easy chords. And I know it better than maybe any of your other songs cos my first iPod had one music video on it and it was that one. The one with the eyes and the bike. I still watch it on my phone sometimes when I go to bed drunk. I was surprised to read that you were learning it again ahead of going out on the road. How could you forget a song even I know how to play? You said you’d just made new discoveries about the lyrics of that song.
You’re right, though. Those words can surprise you.
I wonder if anyone has ever had ‘Tennessee’ as the first dance at their wedding? Stranger things have happened. I’m 100% sure I’ve never heard your stuff at a wedding. But man I wanted to hear some Silver Jews when we were driving up to my dad’s funeral.
There were three of us crammed into the cab of a Hi-Lux and we were taking turns picking full albums to play. Paul put on Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and Nick chose Bowie’s Black Star. Both are weird as hell to hear in Horowhenua on the way to your father’s funeral. Drag City hadn’t put your stuff on Spotify yet, so I couldn’t play The Natural Bridge. (A couple of years later it showed up there so I got a six pack and tweeted about it.)
I know you never got to make peace with your dad. But from what you’ve said, you wouldn’t have wanted it. From what I can tell, he’s an evil motherfucker who can rot in hell.
You resonate most, in my experience, with people devoted to opening something up in themselves. The three people I know who would have been most affected by your (stupid, inevitable) death have all had books published. Go figure. In fact, you read one of those books. I know this because you took the time to write to the author, and the author told me. And that’s as close as we ever got.
You got on Twitter recently, but I never thought of saying anything to you. You let your listeners in so much, it wasn’t necessary. But thinking about it now, the way you were talking near the end, it sounded so lonely. Your mother’s death. A decade reading books. Separation from the woman who remained your only family. Holing up in your label’s headquarters with the boss checking up on you. The tour they’d planned for you looming like a wolf.
I never saw you perform. Few did. That’s a future that was taken from us. And now, man, Purple Mountains – such a clear and deliberate break from Silver Jews, a statement that there were Things To Come. And now those have been taken from us too.
And when the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides, all the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind. You wrote that. You only just wrote that.
You know how that song begins “I heard they were taming the shrew”? Well one time I started singing it in front of some theatre girls and they just booed the song down right away – which sucked cos they were so close to hearing, “You might as well say ‘Fuck me’ cos I’m gonna keep on, keep on lovin’ you”.
Maybe I don’t understand women, but I can’t imagine anyone turning you down after hearing a line like that. But no, that’s not why I ever did it. I did it once on a deck at a party and this girl asked me if I wrote it and I suppose one specific part of me wanted to say yes but come on there’s no way I can back that up.
What am I going to say? “Oh yeah and here’s another one I wrote” and go into fucking ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ or some shit? Ha. I don’t have plausible competency. I always make sure it gets back to you.
And thank you. Thank you for getting round to getting back to us.
Love The Spinoff? The best way to support us is to join The Spinoff Members. For just $2 a week you can help us hire more journalists – and receive a FREE copy of our first book.