Two tribute shows taking place tonight in Brooklyn will celebrate musician and poet David Berman in honor of his birthday.
The brilliant, idiosyncratic artist, who performed with Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, died at the age of 52 on Aug. 7, 2019. There have been annual celebrations of his work on Jan. 4 ever since, on what has become known as DCBDay.
A complete reading of “Actual Air,” Berman’s only published book of poetry, will happen at 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope. This event, organized by filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and Hayley Stahl, will include readings by filmmaker Charlie Kaufman; musician Cassandra Jenkins; writers Jamie Lauren Keiles, Sam Lipsyte and Amy Rose Spiegel; actor Kevin Corrigan; actress and podcaster Dasha Nekrasova; journalists Leon Neyfakh and Sarah Larson; and dozens more. (You can get ticket info here.)
Zahedi, who has previously tried to make a movie about Berman, said that although there have been various tributes held for Berman since his death, this was the first time there would be an organized reading of all 39 poems in the book. “No one’s done anything like it before,” he said, “and we’ve been really stunned by the response.”
The event was initially conceived to take place at a small 50-person venue. Then they booked the 300-seat Union Temple: “We thought that it would be empty, but better not to turn anyone away,” Zahedi said, “And then we had too many sales.” After moving over 700 tickets, planners changed the location to Congregation Beth Elohim, which has a capacity of around 1,800.
As for the surge in interest, Zahedi said, “I think there’s an amount of time it takes to process the death, and come back to it without the emotional baggage of that. His words get better and better over time.”
Amy Rose Spiegel, a writer who befriended Berman in the later years of his life, said she was thrilled to be able to take part in the event.
“It’s deeply important to me that so many people still feel a sense of stewardship over David’s beautiful work,” Spiegel said. “The best thing we can do is read [his work], and circulate it, and read it more.”
Spiegel, who’ll be reading “Self-Portrait at 28” tonight, was already a fan of Berman’s when he sent her a note out of the blue to introduce himself several years ago.
“He was an incredibly thoughtful, funny person in my life,” she said. “As we know from his work, he was a masterful observer, and no detail was too small for him to reach out about and turn it over and argue over it. I loved that about him, and that’s really what I miss: the way that David saw that a detail can be the whole world.”
There’s also a musical tribute happening at 7 p.m. at Union Pool in Williamsburg, organized by Berman’s college roommate and former collaborator, Gate Pratt. Musicians including Yonatan Gat, Peers in The Bunklight and The Blue Arrangements will play, and the group Majesties will perform the entire “Purple Mountains” album. You can get ticket info for that show here. (All proceeds will go to MusicCares and the NYC chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.)
Berman, who was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, worked in his 20s as a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art while living with future Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich in Hoboken. The three of them officially formed Silver Jews there.
Berman released six full-length albums (plus one compilation of early recordings) under the Silver Jews moniker, including the 1998 masterpiece, “American Water.” The much-celebrated “Purple Mountains,” which was released in 2019 shortly before Berman’s death, was his first new album in over a decade, after an extended hiatus from music.
Both of his bands incorporated country and indie rock into their sound, relying on relatively simple chord sequences in order to better showcase his dry baritone and his lyrics, which were a mix of observational humor and profound melancholy. His writing — which often involved clever, bleak and hilarious examinations of America — was always specific, carefully drawn and endlessly quotable. He wrote and rewrote to try to express himself in a language that was accessible, colloquial and thoughtfully stylized, even as he struggled internally.
Writer Christian Lorentzen, another reader at the “Actual Air” event, has been a fan since the 1990s. He compared Berman’s influence to contemporaries like Stephen Malkmus and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. “I think of the Wu-Tang when I think of Silver Jews, because to me they’re doing the same exact s–t: taking the culture detritus of the 20th century and putting it together into beautiful music,” he said.
Lorentzen added that he’s been asking people in recent weeks if they would be coming to the reading. “Either they don’t know who Silver Jews are, or they’re like, I have to come to that. And the people who don’t know Silver Jews are just 20-somethings who haven’t heard the gospel yet.”