David Berman, the reluctant songwriter and poet whose dry baritone and wry, wordy compositions anchored Silver Jews, a critically lauded staple of the 1990s indie-rock scene, died Wednesday at age 52, his record label announced.
Drag City, which released music by Silver Jews and Berman’s latest band, Purple Mountains, confirmed the death in a statement on Twitter, calling the musician “one of the most inspiring individuals we’ve ever known.”
A spokeswoman for Drag City declined to provide any further details about Berman’s death.
As the sole constant member of Silver Jews, which sometimes included musicians like Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Berman released six albums using the band name, beginning with “Starlite Walker” in 1994 and continuing through “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea” in 2008, before disbanding the group the next year.
Berman’s association with Pavement — he had founded Silver Jews in 1989 with Malkmus, a fellow student at the University of Virginia — brought him a certain level of underground fame in the early 1990s. He also earned the respect of critics, who saw Berman as a rare poetic voice in the snarky, noisy world of ’90s rock. Rolling Stone once called him “a wandering honky-tonk bard murmuring feverish, fractured one-liners in his handsome country-rock drawl.”
In time, Berman came to be nearly as well known as a poet. His 1999 book “Actual Air,” published by Drag City, became a minor hit.
“I couldn’t rock out harder than everybody, or overpower people with mastery like Jack White of the White Stripes, so why try?” Berman told The New York Times in 2005. “That’s why I’ve always worked harder on words.” (He also explained the genesis of his band’s name: a sign he spied from a window that said “Silver Jewelry,” “but from my angle you couldn’t see the end.”)
Music website Pitchfork ranked Silver Jews’ “American Water,” from 1998, the 12th best album of that year, calling it “the pinnacle of a certain strain of indie rock: smart but unpolished, grounded but opaque, the down-home sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the country side of the Rolling Stones executed by college boys raised on punk.”
David Craig Berman was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, on Jan. 4, 1967. His mother, a housewife, became a schoolteacher after his parents divorced when he was 7. His father, Richard Berman, was a labor lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who went on to become a lobbyist for the restaurant industry and would later serve as a foil in Berman’s songwriting and other creative pursuits.
“My father is a despicable man,” David Berman wrote in 2009, while announcing that he was disbanding Silver Jews. Citing his father’s attacks on environmentalists and unions, Berman described their estrangement and how it led to his search for meaning in Judaism and away from music. “There needs to be something more,” he wrote. “I’ll see what that might be.”
Berman, who was open about his struggles with drugs, alcohol and depression, was often referred to as reclusive — he had all but resisted touring until 2005, long after the band’s creative peak — but he had recently resurfaced publicly. Purple Mountains released a self-titled debut album last month and was scheduled to begin touring Saturday, with Drag City calling the shows “a (potentially) once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Speaking to The Ringer last month, Berman was typically self-effacing about his return to music: “I’m not convinced I have fans,” he said. “In my whole life, I’ve had maybe 10 people who have told me how much my music means to them.” But, referring to his own elusiveness, he had come to “take pride in the fact that I can walk away from things,” he added.
“My willingness to walk away has protected me, I realize that now,” Berman said. “I found the power in not composing. I found a shadow side that I can be in dialogue with. ‘No’ is always on the table. There’s some magic in working with the negative.”
Information on survivors was not immediately available.