The junkie rock star whowas saved by the To­rah

De­pres­sio­n­and­drugs­made DavidBer­man sui­ci­dal. That’s all over, he tells PaulLester

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS 41 -

DAVID BER­MAN, pub­lished poet a n d s i n g e r - song­writer with Amer­i­can band Sil­ver Jews, has just been read­ing the To­rah. He does this ev­ery day for sev­eral hours, in be­tween com­ing up with the coun­try-in­flected rock mu­sic and wry, con­fes­sional lyrics for his group, most re­cently for their sixth album, Lookout Moun­tain, Lookout Sea.

He has not al­ways been a keen ob­server of Jewish doc­trine. In fact, for many years, he would have done any­thing but im­merse him­self in the Five Books. For a long pe­riod, he would have more likely been found get­ting drunk or high as a way of staving off the de­pres­sion from which he has suf­fered for most of his adult life.

It was in the ear­lier part of this decade, how­ever, that things got re­ally out of con­trol and Ber­man re­alised he needed a way out, be­cause the al­co­hol and drugs were not work­ing. Fol­low­ing the re­lease of Sil­ver Jews’ 2001 EP, Ten­nessee, he at­tempted sui­cide by us­ing crack co­caine and the pre­scrip­tion drug Xanax, all washed down with lash­ings of booze. Ber­man would later de­scribe this time as “a mitz­vah”, be­cause it led him to be­come a stu­dent of Ju­daism. “I tried art and drugs and plea­sure, and got to the end and found that there was noth­ing there,” he says. “There was noth­ing at the end of rock mu­sic, and noth­ing at the end of drugs for sure. So I re­jected life.” He pauses, over­come with emo­tion. “Ju­daism is about mak­ing peace with life, so I felt as though I had given my­self an an­swer.”

Like fel­low Jewish en­ter­tain­ers (and ad­dicts) Lenny Bruce and Lou Reed be­fore him, Ber­man’s foray into the nether­world of nar­cotics, be­gin­ning in the mid-’90s, was a se­ri­ous en­deav­our, a way of get­ting to the truth be­neath the sur­face. “For a decade, I vig­or­ously sought ex­treme ex­pe­ri­ences of ev­ery sort, but then you be­come like any­one else when your body takes over and I was re­luc­tant to come back to so­ci­ety.” He does not see it now as an el­e­vated in­tel­lec­tual pur­suit; he was just a weak, em­bat­tled man try­ing to sate his ap­petite for self-de­struc­tion. “There was no meta­physics to smok­ing crack. In the be­gin­ning, maybe I was look­ing for an­swers, but af­ter that I was just wait­ing to die.”

More than drugs or al­co­hol, is the de­pres­sion it­self the real ad­dic­tion? And if so, how does he fight that to­day? “You need to treat them as though they’re re­lated,” he says. “I don’t know if the de­pressed per­spec­tive is ad­dic­tive, but peo­ple are un­will­ing to let go of it; it’s safe be­cause it’s hard to re­place with any­thing else — much like al­co­hol and drugs, it may leave an empty spot if you let it go. For me, de­pres­sion be­came in­ter­twined with my iden­tity.

“I wish I had nor­mal brain chem­istry,” he ad­mits, “but I don’t, so I take an­tide­pres­sants. Even when I was on drugs I took mas­sive an­tide­pres­sants but they weren’t work­ing. Now they work bet­ter and I don’t know if I’ll al­ways have to be on them, but I don’t have long pe­ri­ods of time when I’m su­per-de­pressed th­ese days — 24 hours at the most.”

Ber­man, now 41, was born in Wil­liams­burg, Vir­ginia, and went to high school in Ad­di­son, Texas, be­fore at­tend­ing the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia. His fa­ther was Jewish and his mother con­verted, which trou­bles him. “As far as Ortho­dox Jewry, I wouldn’t be con­sid­ered a ‘real Jew’ be­cause my mother was con­verted by a non-Ortho­dox Rabbi. So al­though ev­ery sin­gle day I spend hours read­ing Jewish wis­dom, I un­der­stand that the source is up­stream and there’s a wall be­tween me and it. Some­times I get an­gry at Ju­daism be­cause of that.” In the mainly gen­tile world in which he grew up, he says he felt “very Jewish”. At high school there were some “sec­u­lar Jews”; nev­er­the­less, he felt es­tranged, wish­ing he was some­one else. He wished he was called some­thing “nor­mal” like Char­lie Smith. “I wasn’t a part of any group, and I re­tained that as a strat­egy as I got older.”

He ad­mits he has a lot of resid­ual anger from his child­hood. “I fight in my dreams,” he says. “Ev­ery night my wife wakes up and tells me I’m fight­ing some­body. I be­came a con­trar­ian: I was born out­side of ev­ery­thing and found a way to make it a per­sonal phi­los­o­phy.” And yet when he moved to New York in the early-’90s, he felt “in­vig­o­rated” sud­denly to be sur­rounded by Jewish cul­ture. It was there that he came up with the name for his band, it­self some­thing of a mixed bless­ing.

“If any­thing, I’m good with words and I recog­nise the power of words,” he says, “and for many yearsI was con­fused as to why I chose that name be­cause it’s been a mill­stone. It makes Jews es­pe­cially sort of quizzi­cal, and when peo­ple al­ways ask what my band is called I usu­ally pull out my Star of David oth­er­wise they don’t un­der­stand. Even the word ‘Jew’, if said in the wrong tone, is a slur; it’s a very loaded word.” It was go­ing to Is­rael for the first time in 2005 that Ber­man fi­nally felt com­fort­able be­ing a Sil­ver Jew. “I ex­pe­ri­enced real ac­cep­tance. Ev­ery­body was so kind and opened their hearts to me.”

Ber­man no longer fears death, hav­ing come close sev­eral times: “I even closed my eyes and said, ‘Okay, take me’.” Now he feels a com­pul­sion to spread the word. “Even though my record la­bel would pre­fer it if I didn’t talk about death and sui­cide and drugs, I find I have to go in there and talk about it mean­ing­fully. That’s what read­ing the To­rah helps me do — it helps me pre­pare for ev­ery­thing.”

De­spite his lugubri­ous singing voice and the mourn­ful na­ture of Sil­ver Jews’ songs, Ber­man in­sists he is no pro­fes­sional ni­hilist like Ra­dio­head or Nick Cave, or a com­i­cal mis­er­abilist like Mor­ris­sey. Th­ese acts, he says, “write about suf­fer­ing but stay on the sur­face to keep it a ‘pop’ thing. What I do is not as con­sumer-friendly, but for the heavy reader there’s more there. I have no use for com­mu­ni­cat­ing de­spair with­out hope — that’s as stupid and lazy as hip­pie-isms were in the ’60s. The knee-jerk ni­hilism of your av­er­age cyn­i­cal con­sumer in the West is gross to me.” Far more re­ward­ing, ac­cord­ing to Ber­man, is the “im­per­ish­able wealth” of the To­rah. “Its wis­dom is im­mor­tal. That’s the great­est gift that awaits a Jew who doesn’t know his or her own tra­di­tion, the re­al­i­sa­tion of how non-judg­men­tal and just plain beau­ti­ful the To­rah is.” Lookout Moun­tain, Lookout Sea is re­leased by Drag City on June 9

David Ber­man says he is on a mis­sion to sing mean­ing­fully about death, even if his record la­bel ob­jects

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