Smith and Jones Forever

August 8th, 2019 by Phil Leave a reply »

In 2006, I was somehow on the board of an organization called COFOE, Coalition for Free and Open Elections. COFOE was going to have its annual meeting in Manhattan, some time in March or April. I successfully lobbied to have the meeting held the weekend of March 18-19. This way, I could see the Silver Jews at Webster Hall, on their first-ever tour.

The whole excursion was a whirlwind. It was the first trip Michelle and I had taken. I scheduled a trip around a COFOE meeting and a Silver Jews show, and this was somehow perfectly acceptable to her. When we got back, it was walking back to her apartment that I thought to myself, yeah, I guess I could handle living in Chicago after all.

Twenty-four years ago, more or less, and I recall it surprisingly vividly, for something so mundane: I was sitting in my dorm room and I was listening to Starlite Walker. I associate the memory with… consequence. It feels foolish to write something like that. I’ve sat down and listened to an album countless thousands of times in my life and what the hell does it mean to associate any such occurrence with… consequence?

Well, I was 18 at the time and didn’t know shit. I mean, I shouldn’t say that. I had recently taken a class on the Russian Revolution, so I knew something.

What I mean is that I was still at the beginning of the process of figuring out who I was, and for whatever it’s worth, I associate a lot of that with music. I started buying CDs in meaningful numbers only when I got to be about 17, and even then I was mostly just starting with classic rock.

I had a friend a couple of years older, already in college, and he’d come back talking about stuff nobody had heard of in Winnebago. The details of all that aren’t especially interesting. Suffice to say that it so happened when I went off to college I had a copy of Slanted + Enchanted in hand. Pavement was a gateway.

For whatever reason I dove in deeper. I get into something, and I suppose I really get into it, or at least that’s how I used to be. I bought Wowee Zowee the day it came out. I was one of those college kids listening to college rock or whatever. But I took it a little bit farther. I got on all these listservs, old-school listservs dedicated to bands, and the Pavement list was one of those, and I’m sure it was through that I in turn went out and found a copy of Starlite Walker.

Holding it in my hands now, I can’t tell you exactly what I must have thought about any of it. The back cover is a picture of Stephen, David, and Bob in the woods. David’s the tallest of the three. He’s wearing a long-sleeved red shirt and red pants. The shirt and pants are different shades of red. I’ve never in my life seen anyone in person dressed in such a manner.

The album is named Starlite Walker but on the disc itself it says STARLIGHT WALKER and the band is identified as THE SILVER JOOS. Was this all ridiculous at the time? Were all of these things somehow important too? What?

This thing was somehow a way of staking a claim, to no one in particular, that I was going off looking for meaning somewhere else.

The Webster Hall show was one of the two most important shows of my life, by which I mean, it was somehow very important to have been there. It is worth contrasting this show against the other on this short list. I will do that. Right here:

In 2009, we saw Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theater. Leonard had been in a monastery or some such thing for who knew how many years; would the possibility to see him ever come up again?

Heading into 2006, David Berman had never toured. Who could have believed he ever would?

Why did these two men embark on these two tours? Because they both needed the money.

Leonard, of course, was… transcendent. His band was impeccable. I’ve never seen a performer so gracious, so charming, so sophisticated, so charismatic, so wonderful to be in the presence of.

David? At one point he took a cigarette out of his mouth, threw it on the floor, stared at it, and then jabbed at it with his foot, as though he expected it to crawl away.

Leonard commanded a broad and deep retrospective of work spanning decades.

David needed a music stand in front of him just to keep track of what he was doing with arguably his best-known songs.

Both nights were magical.

Pavement was an indie-rock band. The Silver Jews, though? They were indie-rock itself, a pseudo-band fronted by a guy who wouldn’t actually play live.

Or, at least, not in the way you might think. One day in 1997 I was interviewing Eric Allen, then bassist for the Apples in Stereo. He told how one night they were playing a show in Austin, and Berman showed up on stage with a trumpet.

So I guess the whole not playing live thing was… relative. Was everything relative?

It’s awfully tempting to quote David. There’s so much available to choose from. The thing is that I keep coming back to lines I don’t want to write out.

I think across all of the songs I ultimately have two favorites. The first one is from The Natural Bridge. It’s called “Black and Brown Blues”. I can’t sit here and attempt to describe this song, except to say, it’s achingly beautiful.

The second one is from Tanglewood Numbers. It’s called “Punks in the Beerlight”. It’s an honest-to-god rock song. Every so often I post the video for the song, which I won’t describe here, except to say it’s also my favorite video of all time, and when you see it, you’ll think I’m fucking insane.

But, see, I’m not.

Maybe, tonight, that’s the problem.

I’ve been here before. Chances are, you’ve been here before too. Maybe even at some of the same times as me.

Vic Chesnutt. Mark Linkous. Jason Molina.

The processing is different each time. I don’t know how to explain that, I just trust you know what I’m talking about.

It had come out in recent interviews that Berman was actually living in a little apartment adjoining the Drag City office space. For whatever reason it’d never occurred to me before reading those to see where that office space was. Turns out, I’ve driven past that very location a few times in the last couple of months.

That location isn’t too terribly far from where, in a little over two weeks, he was scheduled to play two nights. I would have been there night two.

The other instances all seemed very far away. This feels different. I know I’m not speaking for just myself when I say that this day does not come as a huge surprise. It was actually the new album that was a huge surprise. It was the new tour that was a huge surprise. It was like we were able to say ourselves: In his way, he’s okay, and we’ll be able to see as much for ourselves.


For the love of God, please send somebody over the ocean to keep an eye on Darren Hayman.

I had a couple people respond to a post of mine tonight… it’s like the electronic equivalent of seeing each other at a funeral after a long time apart. And fuck, maybe we shouldn’t have been apart for so long.

This story here has nothing to do with David Berman, but I share it anyway, because I think about it quite a bit, and yes, I’m going somewhere with it.

My dad saw John Stewart in concert dozens of times. John Stewart, way back in the day, was a member of the Kingston Trio. His greatest success as a solo artist was in the late ’70s when he somehow got hooked up with people from Fleetwood Mac. I was with my dad to see him at least twice – he played an acoustic guitar and his entourage consisted of one other musician, accompanying on guitar.

One night my dad was having a conversation with an old friend of his, explaining how as time had gone on, he’d see the same people at these John Stewart shows, to the point of knowing several of them by name. The ensuing debate was over whether these fellow concertgoers qualified as friends. These were people who clearly shared common interests, right? But when a show was done, wasn’t the connection done too?

For those of us who saw fit to spend actual time on listservs in 1995, well, we were clearly people sharing common interests, right? And while a concert might end, a listserv doesn’t exactly end, right? I mean, yes, eventually, that’s exactly what happens with such things.

But my point is that we do have more in common, and we do have more shared experiences, even if temporally separated. Maybe it sounds bizarre to some but I’m not ashamed to say that the shared experiences of silly listserv exchanges, those are things I look back especially fondly on. The Natural Bridge came out, and there were actually people out there to discuss it with.

I thought when I graduated college I’d go off to grad school and find a whole lot of people who shared a whole lot of interests with me. You know what? I never went to a single show with anyone I met in grad school. But I did go to shows, while in grad school and later, with people I’d met off of the Pavement listserv. At some point we lost most track of all that – Pavement had broken up, after all – and so maybe we eventually found a handful of each other on Facebook or whatever. But I drifted away from music being a true driving force in my life, and of course a great many other things changed too.

Well, it may be a virtual funeral, so on the one hand it’s a funeral and not exactly the right thing to say, and on the other hand it’s not a fucking funeral, I’m writing a fucking blog post for which I’ll share a link on fucking Facebook and fucking Twitter, so it’s all even more ridiculous to say, but here goes anyway: It’s nice to see you all. I wish we saw each other more, whatever the hell that means. I’m so sorry for our shared heartbreak tonight.

I don’t know who all would have read this far down. I’ve been trying to think my way, write my way through a tough night, and I suspect that most of this made precious little sense to most people.

I’m tired now, and I’m sad, and truth be told, I’ve been depressed lately as is. Tonight doesn’t help. Writing my way through it… I suppose that it helps a little. I miss writing so badly. But it just feels so pointless to write when there’s not really anybody to read it. And then striving to create… it really burns the idea of creating when the most important creative people in your realm take the ultimate act of destruction.

There are all these ways that Dave Berman proved to be formative to me, some of them ways which I could never have imagined. The different Silver Jews albums function like soundtracks to different times of my life, up until the point about 10 years ago when he wasn’t making them anymore. No other single musician performed that function for me so strongly and for so long and across so many transitions.

That weekend in New York was like a culmination, from that time sitting in my dorm room with a sense of consequence, to over a decade later when it was like I was showing this poor girl that this is what you actually have to put up with and she just rolled along with it.

I’d been afraid to listen to the Purple Mountains album. I can’t really explain it. I was actually kind of afraid of getting a ticket for the tour.

The thing is, I’m at my best when music is formative to my daily existence. And it’s been missing lately. Whatever exactly I mean by saying I was “afraid” of an album, it’s tied up in that. How I long to push past whatever this particular funk is. And maybe I thought Berman would be part of that. And maybe I was afraid he wouldn’t be after all. But, well, I guess I wasn’t afraid of this, where we sit tonight.

Dave Berman has enhanced my life in incalculable ways. I’m so gutted tonight that he’s gone, and that he’s gone like this. But I am thankful that I can wake up in the morning to a beautiful family, one which, though I’m not sure exactly how it all worked, he was somehow a part of making come to be.


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