The Briefcase Notes of David Berman

A reluctant rocker holds forth

david berman
David Berman (Wikimedia Commons)

David Berman arrived 20 minutes late for his talk at the Macaulay Honors College on Monday night. Which was fine and fashionable, but you half-expected him not to show up at all. Mr. Berman, the Nashville-based poet and musician, is very reclusive and rarely makes public appearances.

In 2009, he broke up his indie rock band, the Silver Jews, after a two-decade run, and abandoned music entirely. He said it had to do with his father, an infamous D.C. lobbyist who works for industries including alcohol and tobacco.

“This winter I decided that the [Silver Jews] were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused,” Mr. Berman wrote of his father when he announced the breakup.

So what has he been up to for the past few years? Not much or a whole lot, depending on how you look at it. There is a book, You Owe Me a Feeling, put together by the artist Friedrich Kunath, which uses stray lines from Mr. Berman’s old notebooks alongside wondrous photographs. On the whole, the lines aren’t as good as those from Mr. Berman’s excellent first book of poetry, Actual Air, though there is at least one repeat from that collection (“sadness is not co-terminous with hopelessness”) along with a sentence from his penultimate album (“There is a place past the blues I never want to see again”).

But Mr. Berman didn’t mention the new book on Monday night, probably because he wasn’t really involved with the making of it. Instead he spoke for two hours about … well, it wasn’t entirely clear. He had a briefcase of notes, to which he referred sporadically as he stood at the lectern, pausing for long stretches of time and running his hand exasperatedly through his greasy black hair.

Mr. Berman’s talk, the first in a new speaker series at Macaulay Honors College, was mostly inscrutable. He spoke of his disdain for Rush Limbaugh; he talked about neoliberalism; he discussed heavy metal, which he doesn’t like; and he name-dropped philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, Paolo Virno and Soren Kierkegaard without elaborating on their philosophies.

“Maybe we are at the end of the stage of nation states,” Mr. Berman mused, with no evidence to back that up.

Mr. Berman said so much in such a rapid-fire way that it’s nearly impossible to sum up his thoughts. Basically, though, it seemed like he was frustrated about political polarization in America.

“I just decided to live with it,” Mr. Berman said, “to live with the moronization of America.”

When he wasn’t complaining or taking himself very seriously, Mr. Berman’s monologue could get delightfully odd. And it felt kind of like his poetry—abstract, discursive, sardonic, with weird one-liners that jump out at you.

“I feel inside like Alan Alda sometimes,” Mr. Berman said, alluding, somehow, to his own sadness about the world.

At one point, Mr. Berman held forth for a few minutes on “counterintuitive truths,” as he called them, listing some off the top of his head: Reno is west of Los Angeles. Forest fires are good for the ecosystem. He paused for a long moment to examine his notes, and then he settled on another one and looked up excitedly.

“Maggot therapy!” he said. “Maggot therapy!” The Briefcase Notes of David Berman