Interactive Obituaries

So David Berman killed himself.

I saw his name trending on Twitter. A series of clicks later, I was entangled with disembodied, collective reactions to his death. Last week, for me, twitter became an interactive obituary for a minor celebrity who I had little or no relationship to.

Little or no relationship?

I downloaded Trains Across the Sea on Kazaa when I was twenty-one. It was 2001. Silver Jews came up as a suggested band. I’d just seen Ryan Adams at First Avenue and was downloading Whiskeytown songs. Things trended differently back then, kids.

Anyway, the Silver Jews captivated me. Berman’s music sounded like it came from a different universe. The lyrics were so strange. The music so simple. Slide guitars and clever, other worldly lyrics. Sad poetry. Alien prophecy. Perfect stuff for a lonely English major.

I lifted everything from Kazaa that I could. Burned complete albums on my old PC. Starlite Walker, The Natural Bridge, American Walker, Bright Flight. I still have those scratched CD’s buried somewhere in my office. They’ve traveled a long way with me.

Berman released an album right before he put a rope around his neck. Purple Mountains. It’s sad stuff. More sad given the context. But it’s also funny. And it’s pretty brilliant too. I’ve given it a few listens. As always, Berman’s dark phrases get stuck in my head. Take this one:

“The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind / when the here and the hearafter momentarily align / See the need to speed into the lead suddenly declined / The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.”

Poetry! Dark stuff from a guy found hanging from the ceiling a month after the album came out. Kind of brilliant too. The here and the hearafter momentarily align. What a phrase.

***

I’m confused by what happens on social media when major or minor celebrities die. There are these collective reactions that feel both real and fake to me. People post about how terrible it is that Prince died. Or David Bowie. Or Robin Williams. Or, God forbid, Lemmy. And it becomes trendy – it really does trend – to post about these people.

What are these posts doing? Am I trying to project a particular identity born out of my relationship with pop culture? Am I authentically grieving people who created stuff that was important to me? I’m not sure.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Phoebe Bridgers. Her music is insane. Really good stuff. She’s trendy these days too. She’s got a verse about David Bowie and Lemmy’s death in the opening track on her most recent album. The lines about Bowie and Lemmy feel sincere to me even as I wonder about the disembodied relationships we make with people through words and images and sound. We connect through text. How does linking to particular people – even writing blogs about them – serve my need to project a certain kind of identity, a version of myself, that I want others to see?

***

I spent a couple of days googling Berman’s death. I figured it was a suicide, but it took a few days for that information to be released. Eventually, I read a story about his ultimate act of self-destruction on Pitchfork. Pitchfork is trendy too.

I’ve been listening to Silver Jews albums. They’re still so good. Catchy. Funny. Sad. This official music video, if you can call it that, captures Berman perfectly. I laughed out loud while I watched, it made me sad, and it haunted me. The video is such an ironic take on a silly genre. Music videos were powerful texts in the 90’s. Those things certainly left their mark on me. I’ll never get Ice Cube’s “Good Day” or Nirvana’s “Heart Shape Boxed” videos out of my head. And this one by Berman is a tragically funny parody of a music video. What a strange, interesting guy.

You want to talk about blogs? Check this out. Berman had a blog he kept before his death. Mostly, it’s excerpts from other writers. Berman said, in one of the interviews I read last week, that he’d have rather been an English professor than a rockstar. That fits. He had an MFA in poetry from UMass.

Incidentally, I applied to a few MFA programs in poetry when I was in my early 20’s. This was the same time I was stealing Silver Jews songs from Kazaa. I didn’t get accepted into the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa. So I didn’t become a poet. A rockstar either. I became an English teacher instead. And then a teacher education professor. Took a different path than Berman, that’s for sure. And I will stay on that different path. I’m a huge anti-suicide guy. I’m not sure of much, but I’m sure suicide is not a good move. Here’s my attempt at art about that. It’s not nearly as cool as Berman’s songs. But it is pretty strange.

Anyway, it’s so odd to grieve for people you’ve never met. And yet I found myself doing just that last week. Here’s a strange, catchy piece of advice from Berman to end this blog. Remember, graduates, “on the last day of your life, don’t forget to die.”

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