Gen X lost one of its great poets this week, and almost nobody noticed, but the manner of his passing is something that should give us pause.
David Berman’s death on Wednesday has affected me more than the death of any other person I didn’t actually know, except maybe David Bowie in 2016. But Bowie was 76, having lived a full and exalted life of creativity and connection, surrounded by a loving family.
Berman was 52. His output has been patchy (but brilliant), his schism with his family well documented, his mental illness fully disclosed, if through layers of irony. Hospitalisations and self-medication over the years (“When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/I find my worst ideas know how to swim.”) At least one suicide attempt, in 2003. He quit music in 2009, incomprehensibly citing differences with his tobacco lobbyist father.
Then, miraculously, a new Berman album, released as Purple Mountains, appeared in July. Possibly one of his best. And a month or so later, he’s dead.
I’ve been listening to Berman’s records as the Silver Jews for 25 years. Listening back this week I can still be floored by his ability to find and express, in few words, the beauty in the ordinary and the pathos in life’s daily details. Drinking margaritas at the mall is a metaphor for existential crisis. Snow in Manhattan brings out the unnoticed heroism of regular folks.
But what also strikes me is how small he makes himself. It’s a rare song that doesn’t include a self-putdown.
In the 90s, self-deprecating nihilism was the default mode for middle class white kids in the Anglosphere. When Kurt Cobain announced he was calling his last album “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die,” barely a pierced eyebrow was raised. (He changed it to In Utero, fearing people “wouldn’t get the joke.”) Pearl Jam were hated by the cool kids for their overbearing earnestness. As the Shins sang ironically/unirconically, on the cusp of the millennium, caring is creepy.
In many ways, Berman fit that bill: he played in a genre, country music, to which he didn’t seem particularly committed. He sang songs about Jesus, which might have been sincere, or maybe not. He sang in a flat, weary baritone barely capable of carrying his beautiful melodies.
But Berman’s emotional directness, even dressed up in indie country bonhomie, was well off the slacker script.
He tried out modes of talking about depression that were whimsical (Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed), slathered in country cliche (Honk If You’re Lonely) and, most recently, devastatingly direct (All My Happiness is Gone).
At the time, as someone with experience of depression, it struck me as heroic. What makes me sad now is how small he made himself.
In her show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby talked about the pitfalls of self-deprecation for people who are already othered through their sexual or cognitive non-conformity. I won’t paraphrase her, because it’s a subtle, multi-layered piece and she is a genius and I am not, but I will say that making yourself smaller, whether to deal with anticipated rejection or abandonment, or just to ingratiate yourself with others, is not helpful. It is not, as the millennials say, self care.
It’s a strange time to be Gen X. Our heroes have started dying, but we haven’t achieved the cultural ascendancy that is the due of every generation, however brief.
We’re an in-between generation. The boomers’ long, self-perpetuating cultural shadow dominates mainstream media, but we’re interlopers in the millennial-owned digital sphere.
I admire and envy millennials. They are resourceful and articulate. They’ve figured out that loyalty to a full time job is a scam perpetuated by corporations who will outsource you in a heartbeat. And they have access to their inner worlds and the emotional vocabulary to express it.
It’s a vocabulary I’m learning, which involves letting go of some Gen X hang ups. If I’m honest, the phrase self-care makes me cringe. Caring is creepy. But as I said in a previous post, it’s time we soften the fuck up.
Kurt was a pretty good front person. He liked the same bands I liked. He wrote some good songs and he nailed that quiet-loud-quiet-loud thing he learned from the Pixies. But he wasn’t a prophet, and romanticising mental illness, or self-destructive nihilism, or any combination thereof, is not much of a cultural legacy to leave. (Pearl Jam, on the other hand, just donated $11M to homeless services in Seattle.)
It’s often quoted that men are more likely to suicide than women. In fact, women experience mental illness as commonly as men, and attempt suicide just as often. But men, on average, use more violent means that are more likely to lead to death. If you still think toxic masculinity is not a thing, I don’t know what to say to you.
Listening back to his incredible output, it’s clear that David Berman, at some deep level, couldn’t appreciate the beauty he was able to reveal to all of us.
There’s nothing romantic about that. It’s just desperately sad.
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