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The Delphic oracle of indie rock: a Nashville poet

March 24, 2004|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

If the indie rock movement has created a David Byrne figure -- an oddball intellectual with a creative afterlife that grows out of his music career -- it's the wry troubadour David Berman. The only permanent member of the puckish, twangy Silver Jews, as well as an acclaimed poet, the Nashville-based Berman writes inventive, oddly homespun songs and verse about sudden bouts of high-fiving, about a "community college in the rain," about "mounds of dead Ataris" clogging the hillsides.

But while Byrne is a media-obsessed New Yorker concerned with performance and celebrity, Berman is a Southern recluse who resists strong statements and has no interest in world domination. "I force myself to travel periodically like other people force themselves to go to the gym," he says by e-mail, the only way he'll do interviews. "I get bored in other cities. Usually the postcards in the airport satisfy my curiosity."

The closest he'll come to a credo is when he sings that "a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men's room walls."

With sentiments like this, don't expect to see him on VH-1 anytime soon: The first Silver Jews gigs involved playing songs into friends' answering machines, and the band has barely played live since. Berman's poetry appears mostly in hipster journals like the Baffler, Open City and the Believer, and he rarely appears in public.

But despite his obscurity, word has seeped out. The Silver Jews' records sell briskly enough to underwrite his literary career. Heidi Julavits, a Believer editor originally hooked by songs so wordy as to be "like books on tape," calls Berman "a practitioner of the magical mundane."

Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, included Berman in a recent anthology of American verse and credits him with "the most engrossing new poetic voice I have heard in many years of hard listening."

After what he calls 10 years of spurning offers to read, perform and leave his living room, Berman has three appearances this spring. The first is a reading Thursday in Chicago (alongside filmmaker Harmony Korine and Bill Callahan of the band Smog) that he calls "my effort to rejoin the world a little bit." In April, he appears in Charleston, S.C., and Little Rock, Ark.

"You don't turn to him for lyric enrichment," Collins says from New York. "You turn to him because he has a really interesting, really kooky mind."

Berman, 37, who grew up mostly outside Dallas, started writing poetry as "high-toned appeals to high school girls ... love letters informed by the Norton Anthology." After college at the University of Virginia, he and a classmate moved to Brooklyn, where they played music and worked as guards at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The classmate was Stephen Malkmus, whose band Pavement would become indie-rock standard bearers.

"It was mostly drinking beer and seeing grunge bands," Malkmus, a sometime Silver Jew, recalls of those years in the early '90s. "I don't remember a lot of literature going on."

Berman headed to Massachusetts to study poetry and began publishing his work. In 1994, his band put out its first album; three have followed, one of which, 1998's "American Water," is arguably among the decade's great records. In 1999, Open City Books issued the volume "Actual Air," which Spin magazine deemed "actual poetry."

"He comes on like a prankster," the New Yorker wrote of the book, "restocking the imperial orations of Wallace Stevens and the byzantine monologues of John Ashbery with the pop cultural bric-a-brac of a new generation." "Air" was issued in hardback last summer by his book and record label, Drag City.

A typical Berman poem starts with an image almost iconic in its ordinariness, delivered in a flat tone. "New York, New York" begins:

A second New York is being built

a little west of the old one.

Why another, no one asks,

Just build it, and they do.

By halfway through, the workmen prefer the site to the original city and stop returning home to their wives at night.

"He starts with something really familiar and then turns it on its head very quickly," Julavits says. "You don't entirely know what he's up to. You experience him anew each time, a great feat for a writer I think."

Other poems are striking for their imagery, as in "Snow," a comic poem about a querulous little brother, with lines like "The ice looked like a photograph of water" and "When it's snowing, the outdoors seem like a room."

"He subverts the lyrical line that would steady the reader by being predominantly in one color or tone or one meter," Collins says. "He's more of a poet of leaping around who doesn't offer those formal comforts, but would rather ambush you along the road."

Berman, who is friendly but dizzyingly ambiguous when discussing his life and work, isn't sure whether he's principally a writer or a musician. He's come close to figuring it out, but "I buy myself more time to decide." He's also demonstrably a Jew and a Southerner but is largely uninterested in group identity.

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