‘The Wandering Jew and You’ David Berman Interview. June 16th, 2011.

image001  I once had this dream in which I was the Broomfield/Theroux figure in a Documentary of the aforementioned title, accompanying David Berman as he walked into intimidating wilderness, a terrain which while barren, still – as he made pains to point out to me,“…has the odd barn casting a shadow the color of dried-up blood”.

A squashed can of compressed veal. A soggy copy of Playboy, singed around the centerfold’s midriff.

Why would anyone want to set fire to the image of a naked cowgirl?” I asked rhetorically.

Chasing him through parking lots,

Into parallels,

Poem after poem.

When he’s had enough in the Marrakech-esque South Western United States, with all its (incoming dream detailing, please don’t try to make sense of it) puffed-out Australian rattlesnakes that inhabited Terry & Paula’s Kitsch Home of the Future, from the 60s, he removes a new denim-blue shirt vacuum packed into a waterproof transparent bag and hires us a car. We listen to a Peter Gabriel song which feels universally permissible in situations just like this.

We wonder how we managed to get the final footage of the feral underpass’s C.H.U.D. tunnel freaks. They tear the arms and scalp off a rival who seems at ease, almost relieved, to be beaten. After the throng has scattered, he uses his remaining nerves to deliver a final piece to camera, something about someone’s cuteness, but it’s hard to make out. His twitching, lensless eyes contort, the pupils have leaked out into the Iris somewhat. I momentarily contemplate the ethics and legality of this situation and the likelihood of the finished documentary going out.

To his admirers, David is, was, effortlessly erudite, brimming with wit and worldly wisdom. Beneath it, one senses a more brittle self-perception, easily given to insidious internal criticism.  An ultimately delicate soul. I think you have to be that sensitive to have the world impress upon you so viscerally as to be able to conjure entire panoramas peppered with mundane human illuminations with such economical sentences.

When one of his emails would land in your inbox, his voice was measured, zen, gentle but direct –   benevolently burrowing into and echoing around your soul like the Black Rabbit of Inle from ‘Watership Down’.

“After sleeping on it, I decided maybe it’s best if I just stay mum.

daavid.”

That was the pre-emptive end of my David Berman interview. I had asked him on May 13th 2012 if he would answer some questions for me to weave into a review of ‘Early Times’, a reissue of ‘The Arizona Record and Dime Map of the Reef EP’, to which he’d finally replied on June 7th:

“I’ve not done any interviews for this re-release and don’t plan any (I think the last interview I did of any kind was in late 2008).

But I’ll make an exception for you.

For what it’s worth, you’ll have the worldwide exclusive.

I’ll try to get the answers back to you as quick as I can.”

…which obviously knocked my tallywacker clear across the planet.

After some to-ing and fro-ing, during which he’d repeatedly reassure me and reaffirm his intent to furnish me with answers to questions about ‘Early Times’, he said:

“Sorry I haven’t completed this yet. 

Been in a deep dark trough and since this is the only comment I’ll be making I want to make sure I make myself clear. It’s first on my list when I get out of this hole.”

…this culminated in the above curt, clouded apology for backing out. I’d felt somewhat disappointed and a little bruised, but had repeatedly assured him throughout the process that he should abandon it at any the first sign of irritation.

And anyway, I’d already been given an interview that had surpassed all expectations when the previous year I’d approached him on behalf of a music site I was writing for at the time. On that occasion he’d also politely declined, before proceeding to answer all my questions anyway, in depth and with great candor.

I lived with this compliment for 8 years. In the intervening years, David and I would share articles and items of interest, when he didn’t have his auto-reply engaged.

“Dear Correspondent.

There may be some delay in my response.

But I will write you back before too long.

Cordially,

David.”

On the day I found out he died, I sent him an email, in the hopes of at least get this humorously formal response I so often got.

But there was nothing.

In the last couple of months I’ve shared my ‘interview’ with a couple of interested friends, and, if you’ve stuck with me through this self-indulgence I have decided to share it with friends and readers here at joup, who I would like to thank for their community and friendship over the last 7 years. David is my favourite lyricist, or writer of any kind. I’ve disapprovingly seen material appear online within 24 hours of the announcement of his passing, which I discovered bleary eyed and angrily via a notification on my phone on the dawning of the 8th of August, and I submit this now for the edification of his admirers, and in the knowledge that it cannot harm him. I was infuriated that we would never witness the application of his intellect pointed squarely at the negative forces that plagued his conscience and our society during his lifetime. I believe his generosity and trust speak volumes about him as a person, and hope that some good can still one day come of his passing. I loved him very much.

June 16th, 2011.

Chester Whelks: I read in the infamous Fader article that you suspected you hadn’t survived your (2003) suicide attempt. Did you have any such suspicions that you may have derailed from reality prior to that event? When I suffered depression, I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror – or rather, I recognised my face, but couldn’t reconcile it with the internal narrative and personality I was tending at that time.

Is reality a constant that we are extricated from by death?  If so do you believe that multiple realities exist within everyone’s present/reality? Or is what we perceive to be reality a stage for events to play-themselves-out in order for the individual to grow?

David Cloud Berman: …from 2004-08 I was plagued by this idea that I think every kid plays with, ‘what if I’m the only real person and everyone and everything else are just figments’. It was just that my life was going along so very nicely. Of course this suspicion I had was a storyline my brain came up with to invalidate my successes: ‘If this is all a set-up then my victories are completely hollow and no achievement of my own’. I think I mentioned in the article that I grounded myself by checking in the mirror to see if I still had bad teeth, reasoning if this was Heaven then my teeth would be corrected along with all the other improvements I was enjoying. 

Eventually this is what cured me. Not the teeth but just the fact that my life started to become very difficult again, once I retired the Silver Jews and had to begin life over again without the advantages of the limited tenure I’d achieved in that field. 

For a long time after that article came out I was terribly paranoid that a swindler might take advantage of me, using Psy-Ops to confirm that: indeed I was living in a dream and that they were agents of the cosmic ventriloquist who had replotted my life and who was now requesting that I publicly acknowledge the agent as my new guru and accountant.

In fact I bet anyone could do this to a lottery winner or sudden superstar fairly easily: “You don’t think what’s happening to you is happening to you by chance, do you? etc. etc.”

So anyway, once my fortunes returned to their crooked and stained baseline I was cured of solipsism.

CW: Most religions seem to hint toward a sort of Universal Commonality, shedding or transcendence of the ego along the journey through life as a form of attaining enlightenment. Given that we are all the bright and shiny centre of our respective Universe, what do you think becomes of individuality post mortem?

DCB: Privately I tend to think dead is dead, but since I, we, know so very little, claiming uncertainty is the only respectable answer.

CW: Sorry to invoke Silver Jews, but as a father that has a deep adoration for your version (or any version) of ‘Open Field’ – The stipulation of “no child” initially sat a little uncomfortably with me, but seemed like a point the song was making that was integral in your decision to cover it, seeing as it seems such a peculiar point to make. When we were trying for a baby but faced with the possibility it might not happen, I was walking to work listening to that song everyday in the June sun with nature ejaculating all over the place and facing up to the fact that though it was something I wanted – it might just be that I too might have been jizzing in the wind. But the tone of that song was therapeutic. It seemed to be saying to me, or on my behalf – ‘There is this life with another set out before you, and it’s beautiful. There’s no kid, but so what? That’s just fine’.

DCB: It’s funny what you say about Open Field. That was precisely my worry when the album was done, that it would alienate people with children but no one ever brought it up. I’m not even sure if that is what he’s (Maher Shalal Hash Baz) really saying, “No child”. I’m 44 and still haven’t had a kid. I do want to and Cassie does (she’s 35) but we can never seem to get out of debt. There’s talk of trying that this fall.  I’ve never been able to make out a message from nature telling me to reproduce. I just don’t hear it. Years of suicidal ideation probably cut those wires as any message like that would have interfered with the signal I was always trying to tune into. 

CW: Sometimes an intellect and a tongue is the only weaponry a poor man has, and certainly the most peaceful form of combat. My righteous indignation is easily invoked. Despite trying to live an ultimately virtuous existence, I find myself using anger-fuelled rhetoric to wound those with diametrically opposed ethics as my own. I invoke horrific imagery to this end. Is there a time, place and purpose for attempting to change other people’s minds, or is it wholly pointless? 

DCB: I’ve also been thinking about the issue of invective and whether it’s worth it to spew for several years now. Learning to accept that most minds can’t/won’t be changed by evidence or ridicule is important.

Certain obstacles:

http://motherjones.com/kevin-

http://youarenotsosmart.com/(Dead Link, apologies. Contained article about the Dunning-Krueger Effect)

  …make it nearly impossible in political matters. 

Yet I do cheer your efforts in the field of music criticism for a couple reasons. 

There are many more undecideds than there are in politics. Reading your take on Sleigh Bells helped me understand the bands in ways that got me close, real close to the vicinity of where I would have wound up if I’d been following all along. Skepticism is definitely in order. Especially nowadays when every band is marketing and monetizing every bleep and bloop they’ve ever made. Are bands in the business of fleecing their fans? Seems like it. 

They’ve got leverage in their fans’ lives that no human being that they actually know could ever achieve. What are they doing with that loyalty, that access, that hypnotic power?

I’d like to know. So carry on. Yes perhaps it would be best to use your rhetoric against those with power. Perhaps destroying a local band with no fans is gratuitous, but this, something like this:

http://stereogum.com/7208/of_

..this is bar none the worst thing I’ve ever read written anywhere by anyone and it kills me to realize that this is for the most part an accepted and applauded point of view circa now.

This is white-collar Satanism on a level Heavy Metal bands never dreamed of.

And re-reading that just now drained all the serotonin from my brain. 

 CW: I do see a sort of  ‘God’ in everything around me, but approach spirituality suspicious of organised religions, and have always thought that any spiritual person should embark upon their quest for enlightenment from an arbitrary point, with nothing much to guide them other than their own internal moral compass. Given how blind adherence to ancient tribes and Dogmas cause such friction, what is your perception on free-will in finding one’s way-to/scrutinising religious texts? Is it something you yourself do, or is it something you have to submit-to if giving yourself to any faith?

DCB: As for religion, I’m the same skeptic I’ve always been. Can’t go in for the triumphalism in any respect. I love judaism for the ethics, the humanism and the literature, but I can’t be a part of a closed group in any sense. I can’t stand orthodoxy, crappity crap crap crap. Christianity is child abuse. The New Testament is a magic show. Mary Magdalene is Christ’s beautiful assistant…

CW: I hate to be ‘THAT guy’ but I have to tell you that ‘American Water’ saved my life.

In 2003 I had Demon-Cum pumping through my temples.

I was transformed from fairly enthused about the Universe, to physically experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fear.

It lasted for about five months, and I’m amazed I lasted that long, because I couldn’t find solace in anything. I could no longer enjoy music, or films. Locking myself away from the world, only left me alone with the pure undistllled reality of the grey-green Demon Seed, impregnating my brain-ovulations.

I had tried listening to my favourite aural art, and could find nothing that I could stand, let alone something that had the power to raise me out of the swampy quagmire of hellish ejaculate…

So I decided to try and seek out something new.

Which is how I found American Water.

And from the moment the record sighs-in with it’s world-weary admission:

“In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection…”

…I was hooked for months.

Anyway, I lost myself in that record. It was the first thing I could listen to and enjoy (everything else was like some huckster’s facsimile of what music should be, and I wasn’t falling for it).

I bought everything you ever did and went on a Silver Pilgrimage to see you in London in 2006.

It means an awful lot for me to have simply got word to you of how you made a Herculean difference in my life.

DCB: Don’t apologize for “being that guy”. I’ve never once thought anything but,” Thank G–, I did something for someone, sometime in my life” . After hearing a story like that, it really makes me happy to think it might be true. 

…so anyway, I’m working on this non-fiction book, have been for awhile. When it’s finished we can do an interview together for Treble or anywhere you like. Okay for now.

CW: [Allow me] to just very briefly express my gratitude, despite my overriding desire to fully address and expand upon everything you spoke about.

I am wholly at peace with respecting your reluctance to raise your head above the parapet just yet, and thrilled beyond my ability to correctly express myself at your candid and insightful reply.

It is truly, truly humbling that you found in my initial approach, and your subsequent research of my writing, that I was trustworthy enough to impart such personal things.

It’s an honour and inspiration I doubt I’ll ever be able to adequately illustrate.

As for the interview, it can wait. Perhaps I’ll approach Kevin Barnes?

DCB: I totally understand and respect your caution, but I don’t consider my email box sacrosanct in any way (as long my correspondent doesn’t mind that it sometimes takes me several weeks to respond.) Feel free to write me anytime, about whatever at whatever length.

Y.O.S.

DCB

Chester Whelks

Chester Whelks

Chester Whelks is a peripheral figure on the fringes of existence. Predominantly bothering the local music scene of his native Manchester, England, he has a very finely attuned Justice-button, and knows how to call a spade a ‘Multi-Purpose Murder/Concealment Device’.

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