I didn’t know much about Dallas when I started listening to David Berman. I was 16, adolescently bummed for no real reason despite my family and friends and stable Houston home, and his Silver Jews connected with that disconnect: songs with lyrics that could be abjectly sad, but sung with a deep-throated detachment on top of music that felt carefree. It softened the blow of his tragedies, made his jokes and thoughts about death and broken relationships seem distanced enough that you could appreciate the messaging right alongside the gallows humor. He was a poet with a guitar that he played mostly along its neck.
Berman died last night at the age of 52. He’d grown up in Plano and Richardson and attended Greenhill after his lobbyist father—whose take-no-prisoners style of lobbying on behalf of oil and gas companies, among others, triggered his son’s initial departure from music in 2009—was relocated to the city. All that informs my favorite song about this place: “Dallas.”
O Dallas you shine with an evil light
Don’t you know that God stays up all night?
And how’d you turn a billion steers
Into buildings made of mirrors
And why am I drawn to you tonight?
It’s somehow dense but direct, evocative yet opaque. Berman had a way with marrying those things. And he often did it with places. Tennessee. New Orleans. San Francisco. They shift between broad and personal, finding poignancy in transience. In “Dallas,” Berman wakes up receiving CPR on the fourteenth floor of some building and then zooms out to the point where he’s summarizing Dallas’ morph into a metropolitan city with a veneer of evil lurking beneath the surface, the steers unrecognizable. “Why am I drawn to you tonight?”
I still think of that line when I return to town and see Bank of America lit up. I thought of it when I was in college in Denton and would drive into Dallas for shows. I think of it when my friends move back from points east or west. I used it in the lead of a story I wrote about the city for American Way. I’ve carried it so long that it became easy to forget that Berman once sung it. Now, cruelly, that won’t be the case anymore.
I interviewed Berman once when I was a young college reporter at the North Texas Daily. (It’s page three in this PDF.) I never had nerves before interviewing the university president about the school’s budget or the college police department about a growing heroin problem. But I remember being really nervous with Berman. He’d just started touring for the first time after two decades of making music. He had a reputation for not giving interviews, which may have been a byproduct of never touring. But he was generous with me, despite the rough questions coming from a green writer. He gave thoughtful answers about the difference between writing poetry and writing song lyrics, about the anxiety of singing old songs in front of a crowd for the first time. In reading it again, he seemed to know that a lot of people carried him with them.
“Usually you don’t survive very long in jobs where you don’t tour, so I feel lucky that I was able to survive just on the interest of a small pocket of people around the world,” he said. Then he got a little reflective. “You know, a lot of these people have had some sort of relationship with me for 15 years.”
A lyric from his 2019 album as Purple Mountains goes, “all the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” And he’s right. But today, there’s comfort to be found in knowing that he was aware—and grateful for—the many people who brought his words wherever they went. Evil lights and all.