Every year more ears come to hear David Berman, author of the Silver Jews songbook, as the most lyrical songwriter of his generation: unrivaled, unbridled, and undone.
In the spring of 2019, Berman returned after a decade-long musical hiatus with a new album from a previously rumored, much-anticipated project he called Purple Mountains, and what feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy: to share some more of himself before taking his own life later that summer at the age of 52.
I could hear Purple Mountains’ abrupt end echoing and reached out to Cyrus Gengras, the band’s guitarist—had they ever made it to the stage—for a better glimpse of the late, great Berman and his musical acolytes, who were alongside the singer-songwriter in his final days, documented here. What follows is based on phone interviews with Cyrus, in addition to other would-be bandmates Cassandra Jenkins and Katie Von Schleicher.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 3, 2019
Can a host make an entrance? David Cloud Berman does when he appears at the front door and welcomes Cyrus Gengras and Jarvis Taveniere to their Park Slope brownstone accommodations. The three-story Airbnb is grand from the street, but Berman looks wrecked. It’s fitting since his car broke down en route from Chicago to Brooklyn the night before. Sans sleep for at least 24 hours, the man of letters—written, drawn, and sung—is miraculously there to receive the pair as originally planned.
Somehow, Berman is upbeat despite his rocky trip, and recounts the circumstances of his journey. Starting with a crapped-out clutch, Berman scrambled on foot along the shoulder of the highway with nothing but a classic flip phone to guide him. Eventually he worked out towing to two consecutive repair shops, ditching his clunker for a rental car in the wee hours. Yes, he could definitely use some rest now before band practice.
A week from now, Purple Mountains are scheduled to play their first show another hundred-odd miles north in Kingston, N.Y.—also Berman’s first concert in more than a decade. Cyrus and Jarvis make up the L.A. contingent of Purple Mountains’ handpicked live-band incarnation; svelte with cool moptop hairdos, they could be mistaken for brothers. Were that the case, Jarvis would present as the older, more mature and polished-looking sibling in contrast to Cyrus’ rambunctious, boyish mien: thoroughly tattooed, with a gold-tooth grin. Cyrus is anxious—in the best way possible—for this first meeting, and Berman’s speaking voice comes as a surprise, somewhat high and nasal. “I walk up the stairs,” Cyrus remembers, “and he kind of looks at me and is like ‘Cyrus,’ with a big smile on his face, and shakes my hand. His hair is all crazy. He just looks insane.”
In the months leading up to Purple Mountains’ first tour rehearsals—and most of the band’s first time meeting Berman—Cyrus was ecstatic. He considered himself a “superfan” of Silver Jews. Less a band than Berman’s own burdensome moniker, Silver Jews’ popularity rose for nearly two decades despite—or in light of—Berman’s forming the band with college buds on the eve of their own success with their other band, Pavement. Further obstacles included: Berman pursuing a career in poetry, never touring, refusing to advertise, forgoing a manager or legal representation, surviving several drug overdoses and a suicide attempt, finding religion, touring (finally) for the first time on the cusp of turning 40, and ultimately breaking up the band during the most stable period in their six-album run. To call Berman an underdog is an understatement—his artistic successes were met against great odds, often self-imposed.
Cyrus first heard Silver Jews as a rapt preteen, receiving it like a rite of passage by way of burnt CD-Rs from his older brother Ged. He formed personal experiences in lockstep with the music growing up, quotidian as daily commutes. Berman’s sound evolved around his unmatched lyrics, blossoming from shambolic and noisy lo-fi to more traditional and direct sonic narratives. A trailblazer of, and outlier among, far-flung musical trends as nebulous yet pervasive as indie rock, neo-folk, and alt-country, Berman wielded a reach and influence that have crystallized in retrospect.
Years later, Cyrus became a working musician and found out about Berman’s new recording project Purple Mountains in the winter of 2019 before it was announced from friends and fellow Silver Jews admirers Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl of the band Woods. The pair had firsthand knowledge of the album since they were recruited by Berman to produce and perform on it. Cyrus also heard from them—biased or not—that in defying all odds of the ill-fated comeback record, the new material was legitimately good. Really, really good.
But when Jarvis visited Cyrus at work behind the bar of a pizza parlor, and told him that there would be a tour to promote the album once he could piece together a band, Cyrus shied away. Distracted perhaps by his sheer excitement for Berman’s return, or an already busy upcoming tour schedule with Kevin Morby, or maybe just pouring drinks, it wasn’t until a few days later that Cyrus sent Jarvis a text about joining up. In short order, Cyrus was brought into the fold and tasked with fleshing out the rest of the lineup with Jarvis, as if devising the perfect fantasy football team consisting of their friends, and friends of friends. Brooklyn-based recording artists Katie Von Schleicher and Cassandra Jenkins rounded out the rest of the lineup, along with drummer Josh Jaeger. “Oh shit, this is happening,” is how Cyrus puts it, looking back on the confluence of happy coincidences.
Berman emailed the band from the “Coconut Hotel” in Chicago—a narrow room within the offices of his longtime record label Drag City, where he’d most recently been living rent-free after his marriage ended and he decamped from his Nashville home. He had decorated the tight corridor in strings of triangular rainbow-colored pennants and dollar-store ephemera—a stuffed parrot, plastic lobster, and hatchet; a cardboard-cutout movie camera, clapper board, and film canister—all reinterpreted and constructed as collaged signage and sculpture. A fun house or grade-school classroom comes to mind. All can be glimpsed on the back jacket and press photos for Purple Mountains’ album, and give the impression he’d spent much of the year holed up there.
I just wanted to write and thank you
for signing up for this tour
and answer any questions or address any personal concerns you might have. my door is open, i am a normal person, and there are no stupid
Cyrus and Jarvis drop off their luggage and leave for Battalion, their practice-space rental a mile away in Gowanus. Meanwhile, Berman tries to sleep. In the windowless room, Cyrus feels as prepared as one can for fulfilling what can only be characterized as a dream, or more squarely: a dream within the dream he’s already living as a touring musician with Kevin Morby. “I’ve played in many different bands, toured, sorta sideman gigs. My vibe is I want to be a hundred percent ready before we rehearse.” Berman’s absence presents an opportunity for the band to ease into a potential set list and get comfortable. They play for a few hours. It sounds better and better, with one notable exception: no Berman. Instrumental Silver Jews and Purple Mountains music primarily hints at what’s missing, like a pie pan without the crust or filling. After taking a lunch break, the band returns to find Berman waiting outside with no way in, notebooks full of transcribed lyrics and a music stand—the lectern for his words—in tow. He would later reveal that he didn’t bring a cable or strap for his guitar.
They ask what song Berman wants to play first—Silver Jews material as well as a bulk of Purple Mountains’ album are in the running, less two tracks (“Nights That Won’t Happen” and “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” concerning the deaths of loved ones and Berman’s mom, respectively). Berman settles on the opening track from the new record, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” which kicks off with just his basso profundo vocal and strummed open chords. But instead, he starts playing “Random Rules” (true to form and as the title suggests). Fortunately, it’s one the band went over earlier, and they’re able to join in on cue. The songs come together despite initial jitters and the limitations of their cramped space. Berman seems shaky and by all accounts profusely sweaty.
Berman’s reemergence is tantamount to a real-life version of David and Goliath with added heartbreak, adapted for the stage in late-capitalist USA. Combine a recent adjustment to his depression meds with the task of relearning emotionally wrought, hitherto unrehearsed material decades later—all while battling exhaustion and in the company of near strangers—in order to earn enough money from tour to start settling debts in the midst of a divorce, and the challenges are staggering. When Berman drops out of “The Wild Kindness” abruptly, it’s at first unclear if the nature of his difficulty is musical or otherwise. As Cyrus recalls, “He stopped singing and he had his head down.” The band finishes the song and someone asks Berman if he’s okay. “He had tears in his eyes,” adds Cyrus, “and he said, ‘That song is really emotional for me.’”
Despite their deadline for being stage-ready, Cyrus isn’t worried by Berman’s performance, and instead respects his intense relationship to the material. Likewise, Berman is impressed that the band came prepared and already knew how to play the songs. “The legend is correct. This guy is really intense, but also funny and nice and super sweet,” Cyrus remembers thinking. What could have been an endlessly nerve-racking and anxiety-inducing experience to impress a hero figure evaporates for Cyrus. Whatever confidence Berman lacks in himself he places, not without good reason, on the band and its members, assembled that day at a practice space in Gowanus.
As a joke, Berman suggests that Purple Mountains’ name should be changed to David Berman and His Handsome Grandkids. Hyperbole aside, the band’s perceived youth is only in relation to how the years have treated Berman. Katie remembers, “He was extremely sweet and gentle. Very deferential and complimentary, and he was self-deprecating about music.” Always a critic of the music industry, and his unconventional success within it, at 52 years old Berman is savvy but skeptical and quixotic. He refers to Spotify as Snapple and questions members about how many Snapple followers they have during lulls in practice.
Counting on the weeks ahead, Cyrus maintains sangfroid. It’s counter to Berman’s openness, which comes fast around the band and is both forthcoming and self-effacing. No subject matter seems too sensitive or private, be it past exploits like smoking crack in Nashville poker houses or his current foray into online dating. Cyrus feels like he could ask Berman anything. Instead, he bides his time and imagines all the shared hours and miles that lie ahead.
Certain traits of Berman’s are less subtle and reveal themselves unprompted. After the first rehearsal, Cyrus finds himself with Berman shopping for groceries at Whole Foods. In contrast to the California-centric diets Cyrus and Jarvis keep, Berman’s dietary focus is set on dessert. “We got healthy food to fuel our bodies—our rapidly aging bodies—and he just grabs a pint of ice cream,” Cyrus says, describing their shopping cart. In line for the checkout, Berman shares that he’s been celibate for two years.
Back at the Airbnb, standing around the kitchen with Cyrus and Jarvis, Berman is candid about his difficulty getting through certain songs. He singles out a specific line in “New Orleans’” from Silver Jews’ 1994 album Starlite Walker, saying there’s no way he’ll ever be able to get through its chorus. Of course Cyrus and Jarvis know the refrain:
Please don’t say that my soul has died away.
They reiterate it’s okay to drop any song from their set, they’ll play whatever he’s up for. But never one to spare himself from his own idealistic high standards, Berman won’t let himself off the hook.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2019
At Battalion, the band grows more confident and in command of the material. Still, moments of trepidation persist, like how best to re-create unique parts from the record. A memorable background-vocal caterwaul Jeremy Earl improvised on “Darkness and Cold” is an obstacle in his absence. After some discussion about whether to leave it out or not, Cassandra and Katie nail it, making it at once their own while preserving the spirit of the original voice. Berman is there for the entire practice. “The Wild Kindness” and “New Orleans” drag, and the emotional weight in the room is palpable. Again, they move on and play to their strengths from a catalog with songs to spare.
Wardrobe is a recurring theme in their preparation. The band settles on matching blue tailored suits, but Berman is skeptical of joining them for fear he’ll sweat through such an ensemble. He makes the case for wearing a T-shirt, and considers if it could work with a suit jacket. He has brought a pair of leather cowboy boots for the occasion, but favors broken-in blue-and-maroon New Balance knockoffs for rehearsals. He vows to buy everyone matching purple satin suits for an imagined future tour, once there’s money coming in.
Everyone has their own plans and scatters after practice, seizing on one of their last opportunities to spend time with loved ones before hitting the road. Cyrus is going to meet up with an old friend, but not before walking the mile from Battalion back to the Airbnb with Berman. It’s the first time they’ve been together one-on-one, and Cyrus would be nervous if it weren’t for how unassuming and affable Berman is along the way. They talk shop about current music, and Berman slips into the role of raconteur during their stroll. For someone who has done everything in his power to distance himself from the music industry, Berman remains as informed about its current landscape as he is opinionated. In interviews he takes aim at aging rock icons and their inability to write on par with their earliest work. Now he takes pleasure in trash-talking a new album by the Royal Trux—Drag City alums and Silver Jews contemporaries, who also returned in 2019 with their first album in over a decade, and whom Berman previously immortalized with a mention in his own song “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.”
For Berman, music is a competitive sport, where victory is only ever matched by defeat. He asks if Cyrus thought Jarvis and Jeremy were jealous of Kevin Morby’s success as a solo performer, since leaving his support role in Woods. It’s not long before Berman directs his critique inward. He brings up a discussion he had about how to get through “The Wild Kindness” with his therapist—or maybe it was Drag City’s cofounder Dan Koretzky, increasingly his armchair therapist, carrying out wellness checks during Berman’s stay at the Coconut Hotel and now regularly over the phone. “I don’t wanna start crying in the middle of the set,” Berman tells Cyrus. “Silver Jews never really toured, so these songs are frozen in time to me.”
They commiserate about their past experiences with AA, which Cyrus is actively involved with, a decade-long nondrinker himself. Even then, it occurs to Cyrus how he never imagined meeting Berman in this capacity, let alone ambling down the street together, talking shit and reminiscing about life’s hurdles. And to the same extent, he never would have imagined under any circumstances cutting their time together short to tear off elsewhere. But Berman also has plans of his own, and Cyrus counts on this being their first of many jaunts together as bandmates. Still, he takes it all in, with an appreciation for little details, like how Berman periodically stumbles on the sidewalk. “His body was a little bigger than he could control. He was a little too tall, his legs were a little too long,” Cyrus says. He can’t help feeling excited, confident their tour will succeed despite all odds and any trip-ups along the way.
MONDAY, AUGUST 5, 2019
Walking to rehearsal, shoulder to shoulder with the Gowanus Canal, Jarvis is worried and voices his concern to Cyrus for the first time since their arrival in New York. “David’s in a rough space,” he tells Cyrus. Earlier that morning, Berman broke down and told Jarvis his doubts about going through with the tour due to his unrelenting depression. “I don’t know if I can do this,” Cyrus remembers Berman telling Jarvis. As per Cyrus’ well-honed auxiliary skill set for remaining even-keeled, he takes the news in. Cyrus is the sounding board for Jarvis’ concerns about Berman’s concerns. Going into the third day of rehearsals, the stakes are set and Cyrus sees that their purpose isn’t just to get Berman through the performance of his songs soundly but, more important, emotionally intact.
For Berman, the darkness tends to arrive in the morning and dissipate throughout the day, and his time at their Airbnb nerve center proves no exception. Lyrics like “My every day begins with reminders I’ve been stranded/ On this planet where I’ve landed/ Beneath this gray as granite sky/ A place I wake up blushing like I’m ashamed to be alive,” from the Purple Mountains song “Margaritas at the Mall,” are as candid as they come.
Depression makes myriad appearances throughout Berman’s catalog, often in the company of death, booze, animals, geography, and God—to name a few. It seems to suffuse Berman’s subjects, levied only by his exacting humor. Berman even addressed mental illness directly in the press cycle for the album:
For a long time, I’ve struggled very, very much with what people call treatment resistant depression. It never goes away from me and I’m surprised I’ve made it this far, really, in life. There were probably 100 nights over the last 10 years where I was sure I wouldn’t make it to the morning. Yeah, I’m a very depressed person. I felt even worse about myself as time went on and I wasn’t doing anything. I do feel better now, having completed this project.
Everyone involved agrees that the tour isn’t worth the emotional tax on Berman for financial stability alone, but they hope the performances may offer something more valuable in combating his depression: that an opportunity to witness and connect with his accretion of fans offers a catharsis, or at least something to feel good about. Whatever pressure existed for the hired band members to prove themselves at the first practice morphs into a collective strength they possess in their supporting role as a rock-solid base to Purple Mountains’ crag.
Berman joins the group a few hours into the rehearsal with the writer Patrick deWitt. Enlisted foremost as Berman’s trusted friend, with the added bonus of being an embedded reporter in the fold for the remaining week, the Oregon- based author seems to be just the balm needed for Berman’s frayed state of mind. As deWitt sits in on the practice, sharing his enthusiasm and offering encouragement, the band gets to experience its first audience.
Having sung for their supper, Cyrus prepares dinner with Berman and deWitt back at the Airbnb. He enjoys hearing the candid tête-à-tête between two esteemed writers and musters the courage to chime in with his favorite novel, A Fan’s Notes, which he mailed to his father the same week he died. Fredrick Exley’s fictional memoir from 1969 is especially relevant to Berman’s most recent work with Purple Mountains: thinly veiled biographic confessions as polemic against the American dream, rendered in equal parts torture and humor. It’s for this reason that Cyrus greatly admires both Exley’s work and Purple Mountains. After mentioning the novel, Berman slams his hand down on the table, exclaiming, “Exley, that’s a fucking brilliant book.”
Cyrus shares his personal relationship with the book and the fateful kinship he feels with it and Berman’s music. There’s his experience of arriving to clean out his late father’s apartment and finding the package he’d sent unopened by the front door. Then there’s his rediscovery of Silver Jews’ seminal The Natural Bridge and American Water as if lying in wait for him there in the glove box of his car after returning home from treatment, sober and renewed. Sharing all of this could have elicited any number of reactions from Berman, particularly in light of Exley being famously known for never matching the pinnacle of A Fan’s Notes despite subsequent derided and since- forgotten efforts. Instead, Cyrus remembers Berman’s considerate reaction: “He looked at me really sincerely and said, ‘Thank you. That’s a really nice compliment.’ So that was an all-time moment for me.”
After dinner Berman and deWitt break out a Scrabble board, but Cyrus hesitates at deWitt’s invitation to join. “I’m sure that you’re intimidated by playing Scrabble with two literary titans,” Berman eggs him on, “but I can assure you we both suck at it.” True to his word, neither demonstrates much skill for the board game, and Cyrus trounces them. He dominates the game until both his opponents have forfeited, but not before stopping to pose for a picture with Berman playing LUCK for a triple word score.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 6, 2019
Like the days before, Berman joins the band mid-rehearsal. Unlike those other days, Berman arrives with an ice cream pizza to share with everyone. In the intervening hours he has responded to interviews via email (admitting to the City Pages that “I’m having trouble playing a lot of the songs without weeping and it is very embarrassing as the band are diligent thirty-somethings I just met,”) and posts several old pictures—of toy sculptures as installation art from the Coconut Hotel; of himself modeling plastic-bird-as-eyewear fashion; of a portrait from his college days; and of him smiling for the camera with his friends Will Oldham and Harmony Korine—on Drag City’s Instagram account, kicking off his daylong “takeover” promoted by the label. Nobody turns down his offer for a slice of Polar Pizza. Even Cyrus, who as a rule avoids sugar, partakes in the midday desert.
Similarly, Berman’s exact mood is a new one the group hasn’t yet encountered. “He is being so fucking funny,” Cyrus says, remembering Berman’s plan for making an entrance at their shows. Berman deems the sweet and dreamy Silver Jews ballad “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You” to lyrically be a natural opener for the occasion. It will also allow him to make his way across the stage high-fiving the crowd up front while the band rides out an instrumental section in the song. Berman demonstrates with high-fives for everyone in the room. His excitement is infectious. There is no trace of jitters or self-doubt, and Berman is exhibiting something like confidence for the first time.
“I’m sure that you’re intimidated by playing scrabble with two literary titans,” Berman says, “But I can assure you we both suck at it.”
They play through “The Wild Kindness” while the bespectacled Berman’s eyes remain as dry as the walls. Riding on this momentum, Cyrus asks if he wants to try “New Orleans”—“Yeah, let’s try it,” Berman agrees, seated atop an amp, his knees bent, pointing upward toward the ceiling. At just over four minutes, the song plods along for passages with meandering guitar lines and sparse verses, sometimes in a croon, and then by turns nearly spoken in Berman’s unmistakable drawl, before the steamroller of a chorus. Rising to the occasion, Berman stands to deliver these lines, and faces the band in triumph: No, you can’t say that my soul has died away. Practice wraps and Cyrus is thrilled, feeling like their set is finally show-worthy. The intense rehearsals paid off, and they still have two more spare days for dry runs; but they’re capable, and this proves it.
That night Katie bails on a Tinder date in favor of dinner back at the Airbnb. A mutual friend of Cyrus and Katie’s—a die-hard Silver Jews fan named Brian Betancourt—agrees to join them only after being assured it’s cool to do so, along with Berman and deWitt. Meanwhile, the other Purple Mountains venture out separately to spend the evening with significant others. Cyrus remembers Brian’s arrival and how warm and engaging Berman is with him, holding court at the eat-in kitchen table. Berman defies insecurities about his age, commiserating about the woes of online dating and championing his favorite subreddits: Culture War Roundup; Which two and two did you just recently put together?; PuppyPeepers; Seeing Like a Communist; Peculiar love triangle with a blind lover crying after being ejected from a married couple’s house; Recommend a random book that you enjoyed but which isn’t very well known. It’s the first time Katie has spent with Berman outside of rehearsals. They cover a lot of ground, and fast, such as sharing the same Myers-Briggs (INFJ) and that Berman is wearing nipple guards.
“He was looking at an article about himself on his computer, but he’s right next to me,” Katie remembers, ribbing him, “‘Oh, you’re checking yourself out?’ And he’s like, ‘I have boobs, I have boobs in this picture.’ And then he was like, ‘I wear nipple protectors,’ and lifts up his shirt and shows us his nipples. And he’s got these plastic round discs on his nipples, and I’m like, ‘What the hell, where did you get that?’ And he said, ‘I liked the product.’ He was in a sporting goods store, and quote, ‘I liked the product.’”
Berman picks Germany as he starts constructing the board for a game of Axis & Allies. Meanwhile deWitt prepares soup and Cyrus tends to salmon on the stovetop. Katie goes with Russia, but after a fairly involved setup they abandon the game in favor of a retooled version of Trivial Pursuit played for money. Answer all six questions on a card, win a dollar; miss all six questions, lose a dollar. “He got five out of six. I still have the card, I stole it,” Katie admits.
Dinner is served. Leaning into his role as caregiver, deWitt urges Berman—who for all his enthusiasm also seems frail and doesn’t demonstrate much of an appetite—to eat up and finish his dinner. (He doesn’t.) Distracted by his com- puter, Berman shares a YouTube video about a heartbroken dolphin and a song he listens to every year on his birthday, the schmaltzy “Cool Change” by Little River Band. He is candid about the challenge of writing as he’s gotten older, and says he forces himself to write every day, even if it yields only a single worthy line. In Cyrus’ assessment, this blend of critical self-involvement set Berman apart: “What makes him so brilliant is he is intensely self-critical but also, like, ‘I’m the best.’ I think in his mind he was very critical of himself, but also thought nobody was as good.”
“I think in his mind he was very critical of himself, but also thought nobody was as good.”
Cyrus is committed to speak at a late-night AA meeting that his friend chairs elsewhere in Brooklyn, but is thoroughly enjoying himself, and puts off leaving their group hang until the last possible moment. As he goes, he remembers, “Berman just looks at me and pumps his fist and says, ‘Carry the message.’ And that’s the last thing he ever said to me.”
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2019
Cyrus maintained a cardio routine in the midst of Purple Mountains rehearsals. After an early-morning run he ascends the spiral staircase toward the third floor where he is staying in what is certainly a child’s room. He passes Berman’s second-floor master bedroom on his way and spots a sliver of Berman through the cracked-open door; he’s up and puttering around the room. Cyrus showers upstairs, then joins Jarvis and deWitt in the kitchen for coffee. Everyone agrees Berman seems to have rebounded from his bout of self-doubt earlier in the week. The band’s outfits are ready, so Cyrus and Jarvis take the train to retrieve them in Williamsburg before practice.
On the train their sense of relief is upended by giddy possibilities even further off in the future. A European tour is already in the works for after this run of dates in the States. Then who knows what will follow? Maybe they can tour the international festival circuit. Or curate an installment of All Tomorrow’s Parties, the prestigious rock fest where artists are tasked with assembling the lineup. “This is so fun. We have the greatest lives,” Cyrus remembers thinking en route to fetching their monkey suits, still reeling from the night before, enriched and enlivened by Berman’s caring company and peculiar charm.
At the tailor, Jarvis receives a call from an unknown number with an Oregon area code. “Jarvis’ phone rings and he’s looking at it weirdly: ‘Oh, it’s an Oregon number.’ And Patrick deWitt is from Oregon, so we’re both kinda like, ‘Is it Patrick?’” Cyrus recalls. Jarvis answers, and the only thing Cyrus can hear is deWitt crying on the other end of the line.
“David hanged himself, Patrick found him,” Jarvis tells Cyrus on the sidewalk out front.
They sit on a street bench for some time without talking. Every few minutes they volley the same rhetorical question back and forth: What do we do? After half an hour or so at this impasse, the urgency of the present moment interrupts their private thought spirals and they realize deWitt is alone at the Airbnb with his dead friend. “We gotta go back. Patrick is fucking alone there. We gotta go back, and we gotta call the band,” Cyrus recalls, reconstructing his first concrete thoughts.
As planned, the group still meets at Battalion early that afternoon, but now it’s to break down their gear. There is no rush to do anything. They sit around together on the floor of the practice space for a while.
After loading out their equipment, including Berman’s music stand, the band reassembles at the Airbnb. They read aloud from Berman’s poetry book Actual Air and pass around The Portable February, his book of illustrations. They eat the leftover dinner from the night before, and they give each other stick-and-poke tattoos: three purple summits.
When Cyrus notices a day-to-day calendar of inspirational quotes on the kitchen counter, he flips through it to the present day, August 7: The only failure is to stop trying. No matter how likely it is that the other 364 quotes on the spindle would similarly appear to forewarn Berman’s death on the last day of his life, it does nothing to lessen the blunt-force impact the words have on him. The same goes for when Cyrus discovers the plaque for Purple Playground Park directly across the street, or that it will rain for the rest of the day. Everything, however coincidental, is a trace of Berman’s new ghost.
Tomorrow, band members will join a memorial reading outside of the Met Breuer—formerly the Whitney Museum, where Berman worked as a security guard after college. Storm clouds will hang over the proceedings before more rain follows, but the crowd will linger, reluctant to leave.
A particular grieving process occurs for Cyrus once he returns home to L.A. and his fallback job, bartending at the pizza parlor. Every day he imagines all that could have been if the Purple Mountains tour had happened as planned. He only has to look at the calendar to know exactly where they would be: Pine Plains, N.Y., one day, or Walla Walla, Wash., another, and ultimately down the road from where he works, at the Lodge Room in Highland Park, for their would-be homecoming-show finale on Sept. 22, 2019.
Along the way there would have been shows played and miles racked up. Cyrus & Co. could have counted on an untold number of hours killed and jokes cracked, stories made and shared among a constellation of road-worn billboards and bumper stickers along their journey. Instead, the few days they spent together in preparation were the extent of their adventure.
Months before the Purple Mountains record was released, Berman wrote in an interview, “I understand that listening to [these songs] for the first time, they might read as suicide notes. Yet search the song and you’ll find nobody on the premises. They really are inhabitable. You can move in right away.”
Berman’s death on the cusp of his decade-in-the-making return to the stage was a singular opportunity gone wholly wrong. Five days into rehearsals Cyrus felt their success was certain. Berman’s sudden departure left all those privy to the proceedings at a unique loss—a loss shared far and wide by Berman’s family, friends, and fans, all made to face their respective brand of mourning. Tributes to the late artist will be as varied as his own work, in song, poetry, and cartoon. They will run the gamut from the foremost literary corners to the jumbotron at a Tennessee Titans football game, and a deluge of covers from his songbook played to this day. Meanwhile, David Cloud Berman’s work is, as he said, inhabitable—and welcome to all. You can move in right away.