The junkie rock star who was saved by the Torah
Depression and drugs made David Berman suicidal. That’s all over.
David Berman, published poet and singer-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 years I 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