The ghost of David Berman

David Berman, the singer from Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, and one of my favourite songwriters, died this week.

I learned this within minutes of waking up on Thursday morning – from a music website, which I have been trying to read first thing as a replacement for the news, ironically to avoid negativity – and it absolutely floored me.

Nevertheless I got up, went to work, then went home early after realising I just could not keep my shit together. Instead I got on the emptiest carriage of the train, put “The Wild Kindness” on my headphones, and had a good cry.

I am nowhere near qualifying as the world’s biggest David Berman fan. I’ve neglected several Silver Jews albums, pouring most of my attention on American Water instead. I don’t own his much-loved book of poetry, Actual Air, and I never saw him play live (although not many did). But Berman’s writing was so raw and so personal that it was easy to feel like I knew him.

His new band’s new album, the eponymous Purple Mountains, came out last month, and I’d been listening to it obsessively. I wrote a gushing review on this blog (which I’ve impulsively unpublished because its tone now feels extremely wrong – I don’t know how to gush and grieve at the same time). The album made me feel sad and good at the same time. There was the pain, and the relief of speaking about it.

I wanted everyone to agree how great Purple Mountains was and how its songwriter was a complete genius. I bugged my friends and family about it, I read reviews, I listened to the songs on YouTube just so I could read the comments from fellow obsessed Bermanites. The Internet could not provide me with enough Berman content.

Now there is no shortage of it. There are infinite articles and tweets for me to read about how great Berman is, or was. We are all united in our adoration, and in the worst possible circumstances.

All Berman fans seem to have responded in the same way – by quoting their favourite lyrics, scraps of odd poetry that have lodged pleasantly in their brains over the years, always available to play with like a spare penny in the pocket.

I keep thinking about one of the verses from “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan”, a track off Purple Mountains:

Songs build little rooms in time
And housed within the song's design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines

I thought this was lovely when I first heard it, but it hits so much harder now. The host has left, but the ghost remains.

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